Health workers protests in Bolivia

10 May 2012

Dario Kenner, La Paz

Updates on Bolivia:


Sometimes it seems like there is a protest or blockade every day somewhere in Bolivia. But at the moment there are quite a few happening at the same time over various issues (see updated calendar of protests).

As Andean Information Network summarises

Various unions and organizations reject legislation or measures implemented by the Morales administration.  Most notably, since March 28, public health workers, doctors, and medical students have protested a supreme decree, increasing their workday from 6 to 8 hours. Although the Bolivian government promised on May 6 to suspend the measure until it meets with workers and medical students at the end of July, protests continue.  Bolivia’s central labor union, the COB has joined these protests, asking for their own agenda including increasing the minimum wage

Today marked 42 days of protests by health workers who reject an increase in their working hours without extra pay (Decree 1126) and who also want improvements in the public health sector. The Morales government has tried to dialogue and has suspended Decree 1126 but health workers say they will only start dialogue once it is repealed (more background).

Medical students clashed with Bolivian police (credit: Mike Murray)

Medical students clashed with Bolivian police (credit: Mike Murray)

Since 28 March health workers have only been attending to emergency cases which have caused huge disruption. An indication of how long this has been going on for was on tonight´s evening news. One newsreader said she hoped there could be a dialogue to overcome the stalemate, in response her colleague just sighed heavily.

Today there were more clashes between medical students and the police in Cochabamba and also in central La Paz, particularly near to the Health Ministry. I decided to go and see what was happening and spoke to one of the student leaders Miguel Angel Urquieta Maldonado, Medicine Faculty, UMSA.

“The government thinks that increasing 2 hours of work will improve the service. But as health workers we will never say no to a patient. Sometimes we work 48 hours at a time. Working 2 extra hours for free is unacceptable. We need new equipment to replace the old stuff that is 50 years old. We need more hospitals”

“Everyone, like street vendors, pay for our education because we are part of the public health system. We want concrete policies to improve the health service for our future patients”

“Our marches are peaceful but all of them have been repressed by the police (the police claim the students in Cochabamba have used molotov cocktails. Today a Vice Interior Minister was hit in the head with a rock in La Paz). Meanwhile the police did nothing about the transport workers who were blockading the streets on Monday and Tuesday. The government says we are manipulated but we just want a decent education because we are the future professionals. The 6 hour day was down to the struggle under neo-liberal governments. The 6 hour day is the basis of the entire health system”

“The Bolivian Constitution (approved in 2009) says there will be free universal health care that is equal for all. But in two mandates the Evo Morales government has not managed to fulfil what it says in the Constitution. The health insurance is only for those who have money”

Bolivian police defend the Health Ministry in central La Paz (credit: Dario Kenner)

Bolivian police defend the Health Ministry in central La Paz (credit: Dario Kenner)

I wanted to know why the protests were still happening if Decree 1126 has been suspended by President Morales. Miguel explained: “Decree 1126 affects our education. Increasing from 6 to 8 hours means doctors´ can´t teach us. At the moment they work for 6 hours in the hospital and then the other 2 can give us practical lessons. Suspending a decree does not exist as legal term. You either repeal it or implement it”

“The government says it will hold a summit with civil society in July. The problem is the University will only have one space to represent them. There will be government allies like the cocaleros (coca growers union which President Morales still leads) and the Bartolinas (National Confederation of Native Indigenous Peasant Women “Bartolina Sisa”) there which is fine because it is a public arena. But when we get into more technical issues that is when health workers have to be present”.

I asked Miguel what they will do in the future. “We don´t want what happened with the TIPNIS issue to happen to us. The march (first anti-road march) got to La Paz with overwhelming public support against the road. The government passed a law banning the road and then a few months later it passed another law (to start a consultation process) and definitely wants to build the road. We are not going to let them mess us around like they have done on the TIPNIS issue”

“We started peaceful protests and they have all been repressed. Now we are holding massive marches. If the government does not listen we will surround the cities”. It is unlikely this would happen but it shows how determined the health workers and students are to continue pressing for their demands to be met.

While limited resources makes improving health care a challenge for the Morales government it is difficult to see health workers and students giving in any time soon. The pressure of the other protests happening at the moment like trade unions demanding salary increases and the second march by indigenous movements against a road through the TIPNIS might just force the government to back down on this issue.

Medical students march in central La Paz (credit: Dario Kenner)

Medical students march in central La Paz (credit: Dario Kenner)

One Response to “Health workers protests in Bolivia”
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  1. […] Not surprisingly, Dario Kenner has some excellent coverage of the protests on Bolivia Diary. Rate this: Share […]

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