Six months ago, Miguel Nunez Saenz thought he would be sitting on November 16 at home in Santa Cruz in eastern Bolivia, patiently waiting for the census workers to knock on his door to collect his information.
Instead, the 47-year-old coach spent the day on a stone-and-tile barricade, flying the green and white Santa Cruz flag. He and his neighbors are taking part in a long-running strike to oppose the government’s decision to delay the national census until 2024.
“It’s very important because it means resources for our department and our communities,” Nunez Saenz told Al Jazeera via WhatsApp when he was detained. “We need schools, hospitals and many things so that people can live a good life [here].”
The left-wing government of President Luis Arce decided to push back the date of the census after local officials complained about COVID-19, the problem of integrating Bolivian languages, and that many rural workers go to harvest sugar cane in November.
But the Pro Santa Cruz Civic Committee, a powerful right-wing group leading the demonstration, believes the delay is politically motivated. Its members predict that the census will show an increase in population in cities like Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s most populous city and an agricultural center.
Voters in Santa Cruz can challenge the current government. In the 2020 general elections, the ruling party, Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), won 55% nationwide but only 36% in Santa Cruz.
Meanwhile, Creemos, a Christian coalition led by former Civic Committee President Luis Fernando Camacho, won 45 percent of the vote there.
In Bolivia, census figures are used to determine the distribution of public funds. The number of legislative seats allocated to each of Bolivia’s nine departments in the lower house also depends on population. The last census was conducted in 2012.
The strike has turned violent in some areas as the protests have blocked roads and clashed with the police and other groups who want to clear the roads. For many in Bolivia, the dispute is similar to the one that forced former left-wing President Evo Morales from office amid corruption charges in 2019.
The minister of leadership of this country, Maria Nela Prada, said that on November 10, four people were killed during the strike, which started on October 22. The building of the rural labor union was burned down on November 11, and the state ombudsman’s office said it had registered 42 cases of human rights violations, murder, harassment and abuse of journalists.
On Saturday, President Arce approved the order for the census to be conducted by the National Institute of Statistics in the country on March 23, 2024.
The previous law said the census would take place in May or June of that year at the latest, but the commission set up in response to the strike decided it could hold the survey in March or April 2024 instead. The new law also states that the government will redistribute public funds in September 2024 based on the results of the first census.
Arce he wrote that this law “fulfills the request of more than 300 elected officials in the country and the opinion of the technical association”.
But lawmakers have already drafted bills against the law, and proposed other measures that they hope will be passed by the Bolivian Congress.
At the Santa Cruz Memorial meeting of Christ the Redeemer following the law, the leaders of the Civic Committee said that the strike would continue, and asked other Bolivian cities to join their demands.
“We have already found the most important things. Today, we must continue to fight, “President of the Civic Committee Romulo Calvo said, speaking through a recorded video. He is currently under house arrest for charges related to his work at the health insurance fund.
Ana Paola Garcia Villagomez, director of the Casa de la Mujer women’s shelter in Santa Cruz, told Al Jazeera that nearby protesters are trying to prevent domestic violence survivors from crossing the streets and are harassing the shelter’s workers for not following the strike.
“Women who come to seek guidance or help or to report [violence], how will they know we are open if all sides are closed? he said.
When Casa de la Mujer workers cut the cord that blocked the last entrance to the women’s shelter, a large group of men came and shouted at them, threatening to take over the building, Garcia Villagomez said.
Since then, protesters outside have set off fireworks and rockets every 15 minutes to disrupt the camp’s operations. “It is a demonstration of the far-reaching freedom that exists in Bolivia, and the ideas that are legitimate,” he said.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights sent a reprimanding tweet the harassment of Casa de la Mujer workers and clients, and condemnation of other violence arising from the protests.
Demonstrators have been holding “handout days” from time to time, allowing people to move past the barricades to get food, gasoline and other essentials. But many of the city’s poorest people, who rely on day-to-day labor for income, are struggling to survive, Garcia Villagomez said.
Nunez Saenz said he feels the strike is justified even if it affects the poor and the most vulnerable. He complains that, elsewhere in the region, “zurdos” – loosely translated as “Commies” or “leftovers” – are “ruining” countries like Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua. The citizens there “don’t have jobs or good food,” he said.
“It is better to have a desire for a few days than to live a miserable life for the rest of your life,” added Nunez Saenz.
According to Carlos Cordero, a political scientist at the Catholic University of Bolivia, the strike is not only about the national census but also about political and economic control.
Data from city governments, universities and others show that Santa Cruz’s population is indeed growing, he said. This would give the government the politically unpleasant task of cutting budgets and contracting seats in some areas and allocating more money and delegates to Santa Cruz as the 2025 presidential election approaches.
“In order to give Santa Cruz the seats that are needed because of the population, they have to remove them from a department or several departments,” Cordero said. “It’s a zero-sum game. The winner gets them at the cost of the loser.”
The Civic Committee wants a formal commitment on the date of the census, allocation of funds and congressional seats, which suggests that it is possible to resolve the conflict. Meanwhile, almost a month has passed, and Santa Cruz is still disabled.