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335747

Bolivian civic group threatens national strike as census protests escalate

By Daniel Ramos

LA PAZ, Nov 3 (Reuters) - A leading civic group in Bolivia threatened to hold a national strike to pressure the government to carry out a census next year, a potential escalation of protests that have already brought the farm hub of Santa Cruz to a near standstill.

In recent weeks, protesters have set up road blockades in the city of Santa Cruz, the country's wealthiest, while another regional town this week saw clashes break out on the street, with fireworks thrown and police using tear gas.

The tension is over the timing of a population and housing census, which regional and opposition groups say would result in them being allotted more seats in Congress and more state resources. They say the government is stalling on doing it and are demanding it take place in 2023.

Protests have centered in the lowland region of Santa Cruz, the bastion of the Bolivian economy and its main livestock and agricultural region, known for production of soybeans, sunflowers, sugar cane, corn, rice and wheat.

On Thursday, a group of civic committees from cities around the country threatened a national strike from Nov. 7 unless the government of leftist President Luis Arce promised to do the census in 2023 and end what it called a "siege" of Santa Cruz.

"If there is no solution to this problem, the civic movement will start a national strike on Monday," said Roxana Graz, a member of the so-called Bolivian Civic Movement.

Arce's government said the date for the census - last held in 2012 - will be determined by a national technical committee, which will include experts from international organizations. It has blamed the protesters for violence and a refusal to engage in dialogue.

"Today Bolivia is once again threatened by those who, incapable of contributing to democracy, bet on confrontation and violence, endangering democratic coexistence among Bolivians," Arce said this week.

The clashes in Santa Cruz have left one person dead, highways blocked, empty streets and markets, and businesses closed. (Reporting by Daniel Ramos; Writing by Anthony Esposito; Editing by Rosalba O'Brien)

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