Lloyd Aereo Boliviano (LAB), the capitalized national airline, currently sits in the midst of a severe economic crisis, which may signal the end of the second longest running airline in the world. Since 1925, the Bolivian carrier, named after the British insurance market, Lloyd's of London and conjures up images of stability and security, was a symbol of national pride. In the mid 1990s, under the policy of capitalization, shares were sold to a private company and later sold to Bolivian Ernesto Asbún, who now is the target of suspicion for the poor administration of this company.
Since the sale of these shares, LAB began accumulating approximately 140 million dollars of debt. Employees claimed that they were owed months of back pay and promised payments to pension funds were never made. As a result of these complaints, the government of President Evo Morales proceeded to declare an administrative intervention, which was later ruled illegal by the courts. Jaime Humerez Seleme of Boliviscopio (ES) drew attention to Morales’ accusations that the embattled president of LAB bribed the courts for this favorable ruling. However, no proof has yet to be presented.
Frustrated by this failure of the government intervention, the striking workers, which included pilots and other support personnel began a series of protests and hunger strikes. Soon, the measures became increasingly radicalized as groups of individuals took control of the runway at Jorge Wilstermann International Airport in the city of Cochabamba, which is also LAB headquarters. Soon, other groups joined the cause, such as labor movements and other civil society organizations. The Democracy Center was on-site interviewing Water Coordinator, Oscar Olivera. The authorities soon converged onto the runway and dispersed the crowd using tear gas, which puzzled Olivera when he stated, “Evo is tear gassing his brothers.”
Shortly after being gassed, Olivera received a call on his cell phone from Bolivia's Vice-President, Alvaro Garcia Linera, who told Olivera, “We can’t block the country, can’t block airports.” Said Olivera, “These are the same people, Evo and Alvaro, who before [they became the government] supported the force of the people expressing themselves.”
Paralyzing the operations of an international airport for 24 hours could result in grave consequences, points out Sebastian Molina. As he writes in Plan B (ES), such a halt in service could result in an automatic loss of international category for the Bolivian airport, in which it would have to prove that it could continue without similar stoppages before it could regain that classification.
While some are placing blame directly on the shoulders of Asbún for the poor administration of the airline, others are blaming the neoliberal system that forced such a sale of shares with such questionable results. Sergio Asturizaga believes that the case of LAB could be another of the many capitalized companies that could share the same fate. In his blog Así como me ves me tienes (ES), he provided the example of the state railroad company, which was sold to a Chilean investor and subsequently ceased to operate.
Humérez Seleme sums up the current state of the airline, “If a miracle does not happen soon, then the final ending is in a matter of days or weeks.”