Taking one more step in the Bolivian government’s slide away from socialism, the Defensor del Pueblo (Human Rights Ombudsman) has successfully petitioned a court to limit the right of Bolivian workers to go on strike. The workers in question are doctors affiliated with the Colegio Médico, who carried out a two-day work stoppage in protest of a government decree turning medicine into “free affiliation” profession, analogous to anti-union right-to-work laws in the United States.
Defensor David Tezanos Pinto filed the suit in the name of the right of the public to health, but the move cuts against the grain of strong pro-labor elements of Bolivian political culture, some of which date back to 1936. The right to strike was reaffirmed in the 2009 Constitution, and the court ruling that resulted is equivocal on the appropriate balance between that right and the public interest in access to medical services. The ruling stipulates “the Colegio Médico’s obligation to guarantee the right to health in normal conditions for all uses of the public health service when they exercise their ight to strike | El deber garantizar el derecho a la salud en condiciones de normalidad en todos los usuarios del servicio de salud público por parte del colegio médico a tiempo de ejercitar su derecho a la huelga.”
After the ruling, Tezanos threatened further lawsuits against future protests on May 30, suggesting that transit drivers on strike and protesters using road blockades could be targeted. Blockade of highways are a central form of protest in the Andes, and many other places across Latin America. The current government owes its existence to extensive social unrest using blockades from the 1980s onward in the Chapare and from 2000 to 2005 across Bolivia. More recently, Tezanos has stepped back from his earlier threats, stating on Twitter that “The Constitution protects health services, limiting medical strikes, guaranteeing the right to strike in other sectors.”
Tezanos is the first Defensor appointed from within the Movement Towards Socialism party, which has governed since 2006. Under Bolivia’s previous political turbulence, the long term of the Defensor and the fractiousness of the National Congress has kept this important role somewhat independent of the ruling party. This lawsuit is the latest action leading some Bolivian’s to question whether that independence will continue under Tezanos’ leadership. For Inter-Union Pact leader José Luis Álvarez, the latest action “criminalizes the strike and social protest.”
This week, the Departmental Workers Center has stepped up a campaign to demand Tezanos renounce his action and back the right to strike. An alliance of workers, doctors, neighborhood councils, rural irrigation users, and others is preparing a march on the matter for June 26.
Image: Bolivian medical workers on strike in Cochabamba, April 2011.