Bolivia calls census in 2024 as protests reach three-week mark

LA PAZ (Reuters) -Bolivia will hold its first census in more than a decade in 2024, President Luis Arce said in a midnight speech on Saturday, scheduling it a year later than demanded by the opposition, as protests crippling part of the nation hit the three-week mark.

The largest city of Santa Cruz, a relatively wealthy farming hub and opposition bastion, has ground to a halt in recent days amid a general strike demanding that the census be held next year, before elections due in 2025.

In an apparent bid to calm the waters, Arce said the census would be held on March 23, 2024, or three months before a previous government deadline.

"We have a responsibility to carry out a quality census in which everyone participates," Arce said. "We call for the return of calm, peace and normality in the department of Santa Cruz."

On Friday, protesters had clashed with government-aligned groups, with television showing images of altercations featuring Molotov cocktails, motorcycles, firecrackers, stones and sticks.

The three weeks of protests have killed four and injured more than 170, the government said. It has blamed the surge of violence on Santa Cruz Governor Luis Fernando Camacho, who began the strike on Oct. 22, along with other opposition groups.

The strike has worsened food shortages and sent already high prices soaring, costing about $700 million, Economy Minister Marcelo Montenegro said on Friday.

Arce said distribution of benefits based on census results would come in September 2024, a month prior to the original date proposed.

Regional and opposition groups say the socialist government in La Paz delayed the census as it would have given them more seats in Congress and more state resources.

Recent years of migration from rural areas to Santa Cruz could disadvantage the governing Movement to Socialism party in Congress, former Economy Minister Oscar Ortiz said in an opinion column.

"Demographic trends don't favor them," Ortiz added. "It is going to be increasingly difficult for them to guarantee the legislative majorities they have enjoyed in the past."

(Reporting by Daniel Ramos; Writing by Kylie Madry; Editing by Bill Berkrot and Clarence Fernandez)