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A Standoff Between Bolivian Forces And Protesters Turns Deadly


Bolivia is in a state of political chaos. President Evo Morales was pushed out last week. He went to Mexico, which offered him asylum. Meanwhile, there's been an ongoing standoff between security forces and protesters at a major gas plant outside of the capital. The protesters support Evo Morales, and they're blocking the gas plant in order to sow chaos, to cause fuel shortages. It turned ugly. Reports say at least five people are dead and 30 are injured. NPR's Philip Reeves is following the story from Brazil. Good morning, Phil.


KING: So can you explain what has been going on at this gas plant that led to deaths?

REEVES: Yeah. This plant is in El Alto. That's a city right next-door to the capital, La Paz. Actually, it's on top of the hills above La Paz, more than 13,500 feet. Now, the plant's been under blockade for days by supporters of Evo Morales. The police and army wanted to break that blockade to allow fuel tankers to get out and deliver because in recent days there have been shortages of fuel, and also food, because deliveries have become very difficult because of the unrest and especially the blocked roads.

Now, we don't know the detail of the shooting that happened yesterday, but witnesses are reportedly saying that army soldiers opened fire. The army is saying that it didn't shoot, but that the plant came under attack from vandals and looters. One thing that we - it's important to remember, though, that this follows the killing of nine people on Friday near Cochabamba in central Bolivia. And in that incident, security forces opened fire on a crowd of protesting coca farmers. That happened in the heartland of Morales. He's himself a former coca farmer. And it's really cranked up the political temperature in a nation that is deeply polarized and, according to some, in danger of sliding into civil war.

KING: Oh, man. I mean, Phil, Morales resigned because of protests. And yet, protests keep going. What exactly do people want here? They - didn't they get what they want?

REEVES: Well, Morales still has significant support in Bolivia despite evidence of election rigging. That was the evidence that really triggered his fall. A lot of people revere him for raising the poor out of poverty, especially Indigenous Bolivians, with social programs and for championing Indigenous culture and rights. And some of those people want him back, and they're taking to the streets to say so.

They reject the interim government that stepped in and came into power about a week ago led by Jeanine Anez, who's a senator. They see it as right-wing, hostile to Indigenous people. And they think the way it took over power was illegitimate. And they also think that it's not acting like a caretaker government tasked with taking the country to elections. It's exceeding its remit, in their view, especially in the area of foreign policy. So all that is adding to the cauldron.

KING: And all of that brings up a very important question, which is who is controlling Bolivia? Who's in charge here?

REEVES: Well, you know, theoretically, the interim government of Jeanine Anez, but control is weak. She does have the backing of the military and police. She's been holding talks with some elements of the Socialist Party of Evo Morales, who control Congress, over how to cooperate over holding elections within the next three months. But these latest deaths, you know, are going to make the task of finding some sort of consensus, some kind of cooperation even more difficult. So the situation is very complicated.

KING: NPR's Philip Reeves. Phil, thanks so much.

REEVES: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.