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Bolivia: Disabled Protesters Demand More Welfare Support

For nearly 100 days, a group of physically disabled people held a march from the eastern lower lands of Bolivia to the seat of government in capital La Paz, located 3,600 metres above sea level, demanding a yearly subsidy of at least 3,000 Bolivianos (434 US dollars approximately).

The government of President Evo Morales responded by offering a one-time subsidy equivalent to 145 US dollars, which went into effect the day before the caravan arrived in La Paz. This offer was rejected by leaders of the movement of persons with disabilities, while the Plurinational Assembly (Bolivia's Parliament) is debating a Preferential Treatment for Disabled People Law.

On the afternoon of Thursday, February 23, the march of disabled people attempted to enter Murillo square, the political centre of the country where both the Presidential Palace and the Parliament building are located.

"Evo: We want to live well." Photo by Wayrachaki (CC BY-NC 2.0)

"Evo: We want to live well." Photo by Wayrachaki (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Twitter user @wayrachaki [es], based in La Paz, followed the march and reported live using his mobile phone camera. He also uploaded a set of images on Flickr.

Police did not allow marchers into the square and clashed with protesters, allegedly using tear gas and pepper spray, as well as electro-shock devices.

Karen Gil wrote on her blog [es] a close account of the events:

Cerca de las dos de la tarde de ayer, la marcha llegó a inmediaciones de la plaza Murillo con el objetivo de hacer una vigilia en el lugar y comenzar el diálogo con el Gobierno, sin embargo, a desde dos cuadras del lugar cercos policiales le impedía el paso.

Debido a ello, las personas con discapacidad decidieron romper el primer cerco policial, ubicado en la calle Ingavi esquina Jenaro Sanjinés.

Este hecho duró alrededor de una hora, tiempo en el que se evidenció un forcejeo entre la policía y los protestantes, quienes se defendían con sus muletas y sus sillas de ruedas.

Cuando los marchista comenzaron a ganar terreno, los policías les echaron gas pimienta y comenzaron a golpearlos con sus escudos, incluso, de acuerdo a los testimonios de los discapacitados, se les aplicó descargas eléctricas.

At about 2 o'clock yesterday afternoon, the march reached surrounding streets of Murillo Square in order to set a vigil at the place and begin negotiations with the government, however, police barriers two streets away prevented them from walking through.

As a result, disabled people decided to break through the first police barrier, located at the corner of Ingavi and Jenaro Sanjinés streets.

All of this lasted for about one hour, during which a clash broke out between police and protesters, who defended themselves using crutches and wheelchairs.

When the marchers began to gain ground, the police threw pepper spray at them and began beating them with their shields, according to testimonies of disabled protesters, police even used electroshocks.

"March of the disabled" Photo by Wayrachaki (CC BY-NC 2.0)

"March of the disabled" Photo by Wayrachaki (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Blogger Dario Kenner, also based in La Paz, commented on his blog:

Yesterday afternoon the marchers tried to force their way into the main square in La Paz, location of the government palace. A government spokesperson condemned the violence and claimed there were groups present who provoked the clashes leaving 20 police injured. Bolivian media reports the police used tear gas and pepper spray. At least 10 people with disabilities were injured. The Ombudsman office said the marcher's rights were abused and there was evidence they had been injured.

Divided positions can be found on social media platforms after the clash.

On the one hand, many Twitter comments condemned the use of violence by police forces using the hashtag #Discapacitados (Disabled) [es]. There is also a Facebook group [es] called Solidaridad con los discapacitados de Bolivia (Solidarity with Disabled in Bolivia).

On the other hand, there are Twitter users like Juan Carlos Quiroga (@jcrquiroga) [es] who argue that the protesters excessively provoked the police and even destroyed public property. For instance, he Tweeted [es]:

Otro discapacitado rompió el parabrisas de una camioneta de la Policía, con piedras y causó otros daños

Another disabled person broke the windscreen of a police van, with stones and caused other damages

According to mainstream media in Bolivia [es], after the clash a group of 300 disabled people started a vigil, and some of them undressed and laid half naked on the streets near Murrillo square as an act of protest. Protesters also threaten to begin a hunger strike.

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