LA PAZ – Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca, another government minister and a police commander were freed Saturday after being forced to walk for more than an hour with some 1,500 Indians, who are marching from the Amazon region to La Paz to protest the building of a highway that will cross through a natural reserve.
According to local media, the Indians freed Choquehuanca along with the deputy minister of social movements coordination, Cesar Navarro, and a police general whose last name is Foronda, chief of operations in the area, after the government slated what they were doing as “kidnapping.”
After being set free, Choquehuanca went to nearby Yucumo village, where peasants loyal to President Evo Morales were blocking the Indians’ march, and said he would continue discussions to resolve the conflict.
Choquehuanca, who never spoke of “kidnapping” or “hostages,” told the media that the Indians were angry with him because he tried to convince them to establish a dialogue with the settlers in Yucumo, and for that reason they made him and the others march with them so they could break through the police barrier.
“I was getting ready (for the dialogue) when the women surrounded me and then there were problems. There were some threats and they forced me to walk,” the foreign minister said.
“The fact that they decided to free me is proof that conflicts can be resolved through dialogue,” he said.
Some 40 days ago the Indians began their march from the Amazon region to La Paz to protest the construction of a Brazilian-funded highway more than 300 kilometers (185 miles) long that will split in two the Isiboro Secure National Park and Indigenous Territory, or Tipnis.
Interior Minister Sacha Llorenti and the deputy minister of government coordination, Wilfredo Chavez, called it a “kidnapping” and the officials “hostages,” and said the ex-officials and former allies of Morales who joined the march on Friday were promoting violence.
But the leader of the Guarani ethnicities in southeastern Bolivia, Celso Padilla, did not agree, and told reporters that what happened “is not about people being taken hostage,” though he admitted that “it angered the marchers that the foreign minister was on the side of the settlers.”
A new police barrier of some 200 agents plus more than 100 settlers and coca growers who support Morales were waiting outside Yucumo for the Indians, who insist on continuing the march to La Paz, more than 300 kilometers (185 miles) away.
The Amazon ethnicities oppose putting a highway through the Tipnis because they’re afraid it will do irreparable damage to a natural reserve rich in flora and fauna.
They also believe it will invite an invasion of settlers and growers of coca leaf, the source of cocaine, from the neighboring Chapare area, Morales’ political bastion.
The United Nations office in La Paz and human rights organizations again asked the government of Morales, an Aymara Indian who is Bolivia’s first indigenous president, and the natives of the Amazon lowlands to avoid violence.
The conflict over the Tipnis is undermining the indigenist and ecological image that Morales has cultivated and is beginning to cause divisions in his ruling Movement Toward Socialism, or MAS, party.
Several Indian deputies threatened to end their support for MAS and even to bring charges against Llorenti and other ministers if police persist in blocking the march.