Bolivian masses on the march

FRFI 176 December 2003 / January 2004

On 17 October the Bolivian masses finally forced their president to resign after a huge uprising in which nearly 80 protesters were murdered by the Bolivian armed forces. Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada presided over the bloodiest 14 months in contemporary Bolivian history. This recent month-long rebellion was the third massive revolt of the Bolivian population this year, the manifestation of the Bolivian people’s opposition to imperialist inspired policies. Fiona Donovan, Juanjo Rivas and Louis Brehony report.

Sánchez de Lozada was chosen by congress to be president in August 2002 following the election in June in which his coalition did not gain a sufficient majority of votes over Evo Morales and the Movement towards Socialism (MAS) (22% to 20.9% respectively) to take office, despite forming a last minute alliance with the opportunist Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR). Sánchez de Lozada is a millionaire businessman who spent much of his life in the US and studied at the University of Chicago. He speaks Spanish with an American accent earning him the popular nickname ‘El Gringo’. He directed the neoliberal policies established in Bolivia in 1985 (devised by the Harvard Professor Jeffrey Sachs), which marked Bolivia’s increasing subjection to the dictates of the World Bank, IMF and the US. This opened the way for the US to impose the eradication of Bolivia’s traditional coca crop, in the ‘War on Drugs’, a blatant excuse for direct military intervention in the Andean countries since the fall of the dictators at the end of the 1980s.

During Sánchez de Lozada’s first presidency from 1993-1997 he brought in the capitalizaciones – a series of privatisations including the state airline, railways, electricity, telephone and oil companies and set up institutional structures designed by the IMF, which enabled politicians to be bribed and benefit from privatisations. In 1997 the World Bank offered to forgive $600 million of debt in exchange for targeted privatisations of the water system. In 1999 a private consortium including Bechtel (who built the Jubilee Line extension in London) took over the water service in Cochabamba, allegedly for free. Huge price increases and constraints followed, compelling the population to revolt and retake the water under local administration in April 2000. Gas, the only resource left, is to be extracted by Pacific LNG (Panamerica, Spanish Repsol-YPF, BP and British Gas), while coca has been almost totally destroyed, in the most part by physical force. Undoubtedly this creates the basis for social outrage of the mainly impoverished and dispossessed indigenous people.

The first major uprising in Bolivia this year started on 13 January after the government failed to meet 15 different demands including the suspension of coca leaf eradication, the re-nationalisation of oil and other privatised companies, the rejection of the Free Trade Area of the Americas and the sale of natural gas to the US via Chile. National road blockades started and the east of the country rapidly became paralysed as the main route into Santa Cruz, the third largest city, was cut off. Over 14 days the blockades, marches and demonstrations escalated, supported by the Central Workers Union (COB), the Coordinadora (formed to defend water in 2000), the MAS, miners, peasants, coca growers, teachers, truckers, factory workers, irrigators, university students, the unemployed and senior citizens. On 19 January these groups joined together to form the Peoples’ General Staff (EMP). Felipe Quispé, leader of the peasant federation CSUTCB and the Pachakuti Indigenous Movement (MIP) joined the EMP on 23 January marking the unification of the different social movements, even though the MIP call for an independent Aymara state based on pre-Colombian rules and traditions. The revolt was suspended three days later when the government agreed to negotiate with the EMP but talks were held up by government insistence on addressing only the issue of coca eradication, thereby trying to split the movement. After 14 continuous days of road blockades 18 people were killed by the army who used tanks and planes, over 200 were wounded and almost a thousand arrested.

New uprisings happened just two weeks later when the government introduced new tax hikes and a cut in social spending. The police joined the demonstrators to demand an increase in pay and fought with weapons against the army. However, the army was deeply divided throughout the crisis concerning the gas issue, creating a powerful contradiction, which manifested again in October. Witnesses reported seeing seven soldiers executed by superiors for refusing to shoot at protesters. This contradiction is the reason for the government not declaring a state of siege in recent events as a section of its repressive forces could turn against the state itself.

In two days in February, 33 people were killed, 26 of them unarmed civilians, and 205 were injured. In many cities the MAS worked with relative success to unify interests and give them an anti-imperialist content. The aim of the EMP was to hold popular debates on the key national issues in order to build a leadership tied to a whole network of grassroots and peasant organisations. However, the dimension of the uprising surpassed the development of such a newly-formed movement and the EMP proved in February not yet ripe to take power.

Revolt over gas privatisation
On 15 September Andean Aymara communities near Lake Titicaca, northwest of Bolivia’s capital La Paz, began intense road blockades to express their disgust at the government’s agreement with the IMF to push ahead with the sale of gas to the US.

Many different sectors of the Bolivian population are opposed, including sections of the military and police and many groups have been demanding a referendum on the issue, which forced the IMF to fund a $9 million campaign to change public opinion. Some opposition stems from Bolivia’s historical relationship with Chile dating back to the War of the Pacific (1879-1883) when Chile gained territory that had given Bolivia access to the sea. However, for the majority of Bolivia’s population, at least 60% of whom live in poverty (90% in rural areas), the gas represents a vital and last resource of the country, since the wealth of silver, oil, tin and wood has been drained abroad and lined the pockets of a handful of individuals.

On 19 September the National Co-ordination for the Defence of Gas organised demonstrations that mobilised 50,000 in La Paz and 30,000 in Cochabamba. On 20 September the government sent the military and armed police to rescue several hundred tourists stranded for five days in the road blockades of the northwest. Six Aymara community members were killed, including an eight-year-old girl. This sparked more protests in Aymara communities across the Altiplano.

By 2 October the rebellion had spread across the country. The zone near Lake Titicaca had come under the control of Aymara militias who threatened to surround La Paz. In El Alto, an Aymara city of 750,000 on the edge of La Paz, a civic strike was initiated by the Regional Worker’s Union which rapidly paralysed the city and prevented supplies from passing through to La Paz. Market vendors, neighbourhood committees and university students joined the strike and battled the police. Leading writers and intellectuals of Cochabamba joined calls for a new government to defend national sovereignty and revise the laws concerning multinational oil companies.

On 6 October roadblocks began in Chapare, the heavily militarised coca-growing region between Cochabamba and La Paz. As 500 miners joined the demonstrations in El Alto on 9 October a 22-year-old Aymara bricklayer was shot dead by police. This murder prompted the neighbourhood committees to give the police 24 hours to leave their houses and join the uprising or become victims of popular justice. The next day mourners shouted ‘Now for sure! Civil war!’ and six police officers were arrested on charges of plotting rebellion.

By 11 October, La Paz was experiencing a severe shortage of petrol, food and other supplies. The army moved in to rescue petrol tankers stranded in the blockades and El Alto came under machine gun fire from soldiers, tanks and planes directed by the Minister of Defence Carlos Berzain, who was seen shooting at the crowds from a helicopter. In two days 30 people were killed and over 100 wounded by bullets. More repression followed and the revolt spread to La Paz. All sectors of the rebellion called for Sánchez de Lozada’s resignation. The Vice President, Carlos Mesa, publicly announced his disapproval of the government’s actions while the US officials stated their support for the democratically elected president, and involved its intelligence in rescuing the former president Jaime Paz Zamora from the angry masses. Miners managed to cross army lines, breaking into the capital and together with thousands marched to the presidential palace, forcing Sánchez de Lozada and several of his ministers to flee the country on 17 October. Mesa, another millionaire, assumed the presidency and called for a truce.

Towards revolution
Two of the most popular left-wing leaders – Evo Morales (MAS) and Felipe Quispé (United Confederation of Workers and Peasants) are somewhat split in their current approaches. Morales’ position is to stop the offensive in order to give the new president a break to see if he is capable of fulfilling the needs of the masses. Quispé, however, has more militancy to his approach, giving the new president 90 days to answer the demands of the indigenous people who make up well over 70% of the population – to renationalise energy sources, to reject the FTAA and to implement other popular demands – or else face a general uprising aimed at taking state power.

The Bolivian people have defeated the plans of the former president but the fight to control their own resources has just begun. The increase in mass popular mobilisation and social conflict is a response to future plans of repression as much as to past and present situations. The response of the US ruling class to the crises of neoliberalism will be re-colonising projects with the immediate goal of privatising lucrative areas of national ownership with continued subsidies to US exporters and further monopolisation of trade.

The Bolivian people’s methods of struggle are having a profound response among the masses in Latin America – increasingly disenchanted with seemingly progressive leaders who take the other side once in power. In Bolivia, the fight goes on. 


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