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Bolivia Imposes State of Siege; March Halted : Union Leaders Jailed as Strikers Protest Plan to Shut State-Run Mines

August 29, 1986|From Times Wire Services

LA PAZ, Bolivia — President Victor Paz Estenssoro declared a 90-day state of siege Thursday and used tanks to block a march on the capital by tin miners protesting austerity policies adopted to cure a sick economy.

Witnesses said that army tanks halted a column of 5,000 miners 50 miles from this capital, where they had planned to arrive today to launch a hunger strike in churches and schools.

A government statement said the state of siege is necessary to put down a violent plan of insurrection by striking miners. The nation's 21,000 state tin miners started an indefinite strike 10 days ago to protest Paz's plan to shut down half of Bolivia's state-run mines because of falling prices on the world market.

Meetings Banned

The 5,000 marchers began their trek last week in the tin mining center of Oruro, about 150 miles from La Paz. Restrictions imposed under the state of siege ban all meetings and marches, suspend freedom of travel and impose a midnight to dawn curfew on movement of groups of more than two people.

The leftist leadership of the Bolivian Workers Central, the nation's only trade union confederation, went into hiding to avoid arrest, the organization's press spokesman said.

Police rounded up dozens of labor leaders in La Paz and five provincial cities, radio reports said. Air force planes flew low over the capital, apparently on observation flights.

Information Minister Herman Antelo confirmed that the government has detained some labor leaders, including Andres Solis, head of the Bolivian journalists' union and a correspondent for the French news agency, Agence France-Presse.

Union Quarters Seized

Police in combat gear seized the head office here of the Workers Central, which had called a 48-hour general strike last week to protest government policies, including the presence in the country of 170 U.S. servicemen, here to help the government's drive against clandestine cocaine laboratories. Bolivia is one of South America's two main growers of coca leaf, the raw material of cocaine.

Miners fear they will be fired under the government's austerity plan for the mining industry, announced two days ago. Workers say the plan would lead to the loss of nearly a quarter of the jobs at Comibol, the state-owned mining company.

Mine workers union leaders, most of them members of the Communist Party, demand a workers' takeover of Comibol, the country's second-biggest industrial concern.

Comibol lost $246 million last year because of the plunge in tin prices.

Economy Harmed

The price drop had a severe impact on the economy of this poor nation of 6 million people. Total legal exports last year amounted to only about $550 million, while the cocaine industry brought in an estimated $600 million.

Helmeted police in combat gear occupied the grounds of the state university in La Paz, where Trotskyite student leaders are sympathetic to the demands of the miners.

Paz decreed a state of siege a year ago to put down a 16-day general strike called by the Workers Central to protest a tough wage freeze aimed at curbing inflation, then running at an annual rate of 24,000%. His government, which is centrist in the Bolivian context, jailed nearly 1,000 unionists and sent about 200 labor leaders to internal exile in remote jungle provinces.

Paz, 78, took office for the fourth time Aug. 6, 1985, with a populist reputation owing to his having seized the principal mines from Bolivia's traditional "tin barons" and nationalized them in 1952.

Politicians Surprised

He surprised some politicians last year by introducing his austerity program, aimed at concluding a standby loan from the International Monetary Fund, and by forging an alliance with a rightist political party, that of Gen. Hugo Banzer, a former military ruler of this country.

The austerity program brought inflation down to a projected 92% for this year.

Juan Lechin, who has headed the Workers Central since it was first organized in the wake of a landmark revolution led by Paz in 1952, was in Brussels when the state of siege was decreed Thursday. He told reporters there that he did not expect to be allowed to reenter this country while the emergency measure remains in effect.

An ally of Paz during most of the president's long political career, Lechin said that resistance to the state of siege would have to be organized at grass-roots level because union leaders would be forced to stay in hiding.

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