Worker and peasant
revolt sweeps Bolivia
Having forced out president,
indigenous majority demands relief from crisis
Bolivian workers and peasants march October 14 in El Alto, an industrial suburb of La Paz, against government of President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, who resigned three days later. "Goni, murderer," says sign, using hated president's nickname.
BY PATRICK ONEILL
We are really happy with what weve done so far. But we must keep fighting. Its not over, Jorge Khana, a peasant, told reporters October 20 at a rally of tens of thousands of working people in La Paz, Bolivias capital. Three days earlier, massive popular mobilizations had forced the resignation of President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada.
Having forced out one president, workers and peasants across Boliviathe large majority of whom are Aymara or Quechua Indiansremain poised to take further action to defend their interests. Well give the new government time to do things, said Gertrudes Abarado, a teacher who had helped organize street blockades in El Alto, an industrial suburb of La Paz. He was referring to vice-president Carlos Mesa, who assumed the presidency after Sánchez de Lozada fled to the United States. If it doesnt, well, well explode again.
The protests by working people are driven by the intolerable conditions of life faced by the majority, and the widening gap between them and a handful of privileged families who are accumulating wealth through brutal class exploitation. The catalyst for the popular revolt was the governments plan to begin exporting natural gas to the United States. It was widely seen among workers and peasants as a project to further plunder Bolivias natural wealth, fatten Wall Street coffers, and deepen the impoverishment of the majority.
The peasant unions and workers no longer want to watch Bolivia from the mountains, wrote columnist and former government minister Manfredo Kempff in La Razón, a Bolivian newspaper, on October 19. They want to watch it from the balcony of the government palace.
Germán Jiménez, a teacher of Quechua origin, expressed similar sentiments to reporters during the final La Paz protest before Sánchez de Lozada resigned. He had hitched, walked, and bicycled hundreds of miles to get to the capital from his home city of Potosí. Before, we let other people speak for us, he said. Now, we say the original nations are ready to rule our own affairs. We are ready to impose our own democracy.
Celebrating the presidents downfall, demonstrators marched into the center of La Paz from El Alto, a center of the earlier protests, on October 20. There they were addressed by Mesa, who had been sworn in as the new president the previous day. Mesa pleaded with the crowd to give me time, give me space.
There are strong indications, however, that the Bolivian toilers have run out of patience and that the new administration is taking only cosmetic measures that are likely to inflame their wrath once again.
Mesa has promised to organize a referendum on the governments earlier plan to begin exporting natural gas to the United States, which has now been suspended. Sánchez de Lozada had made a similar promise in his final days, seeking to head off the movement for his resignation.
The new president is an historian and journalist who was part of the government the rebellion has been directed against. Mesas new cabinet includes a number of academics and economists who, like him, style themselves independents, in an attempt to fool the working masses into believing that they are not tied to the hated capitalist parties that have ruled the country for decades.
Like its predecessors, Mesas cabinet is made up overwhelmingly of whites, in a country where about 60 percent of the population is indigenous, speaking mostly Aymara or Quechua as their first language. Of the two exceptions, one is the cosmetic addition of an Ethnic Affairs Ministry, headed by Justo Seoane, an Indian from eastern Bolivia. The ruling parties and big business have been monopolized by wealthy white and mestizo (mixed) families.
The October 20 rally was also addressed by Felipe Quispe, leader of the United Confederation of Workers and Peasants of Bolivia (CSUTCB)the union of Aymara peasants and farm workers. Quispe and Evo Morales, the leader of the coca farmers federation, are the two most prominent figures in the opposition. They are both members of Congress.
If Mesa fulfills his promises, Quispe told the rally, He will be our friend. If he doesnt, he is a friend of the gringos and will be our enemy.
Quispe has said that the CSUTCB, which spearheaded many of the mobilizations over the past month, will take down roadblocks its members have set up around Lake Titicaca on the border with Peru but will reconsider the move in 90 days if its demands are not met. Quispe has called for the cancellation of the gas projects, and an end to the eradication of coca cropsa campaign that has devastated peasants livelihoods.
Barricades in El Alto that had choked traffic on roads into the city and to the airport during the earlier mobilizations have been lifted. At the same time, reporters have noted that flags of protest are still flying from workers homes.
Movement to force resignation
In the last few weeks leading up to Sánchez de Lozadas October 17 resignation and flight to the United States, La Paza city of 2 millionhad been virtually shut down by the largest mobilizations of working people in decades. Strikes and demonstrations had spread to Potosí, Oruro, Cochabamba and other major cities.
The protests were called by the main peasant groups and the Bolivian Workers Central Organization (COB). By mid-October, protests were widespread in this South American country of 8.7 million people, bringing growing numbers into the streets of other major cities. Strikes involved industrial miners and other industrial workers, as well as teachers and even doctors. In Cochabamba, 48,000 transport workers went on strike. Nothing opened in the city, reported Clarín of Argentina.
In Cochabamba miners defended themselves against police attack using dynamite, rocks, and slingshots. Workers from the countrys tin mines, who have a long tradition of militant unionism and political rebellion, put their stamp on the mobilizations in La Paz.
In the final week before the presidents resignation, troops fatally shot at least 80 protesters. The killings only steeled the determination of working people to get rid of Sánchez de Lozada.
Demonstrators carried the bodies of the dead through El Alto, chanting, murderers, murderers, and Goni must go. Only one soldier was among the dead, reported the local media. He was executed by his commanding officer after refusing to open fire on demonstrators.
The demonstrations and strikes were fueled by anger at the increasingly intolerable social conditions, the devastation of peasants livelihoods by the U.S.-backed destruction of coca crops, and the drive to sell off the countrys nationalized enterprises and natural resources to the highest bidderto the benefit of imperialist and Bolivian capitalists.
Washingtons crude intervention in Bolivian politics on the side of the hated president further inflamed the protests. U.S. State Department spokesperson Richard Boucher said October 14 that the U.S. government will not tolerate any interruption of constitutional order. The U.S. embassy had issued a statement the previous day saying, We express our full support for this government
[which] must not be replaced by one brought in by force or violent delinquency. It said, Sticks and stones are not a form of peaceful protestas army troops were shooting down demonstrators in the street.
By October 15 up to 100,000 people were in the streets of La Paz demanding the presidents ouster. Columns of students, Indians and miners brandishing sticks of dynamite threaded past street barricades, shouting, We will not stop until hes gone! reported Associated Press writer Kevin Gray.
Bolivia is rich in minerals and other natural resources. It is a leading producer of tin and, as a result of intense exploration in the mid-1990s, has the second-largest known reserves of natural gas in South America, after Venezuela.
It is also one of the most exploited nations in Latin America. While imperialist investors and a handful of domestic capitalists have profited from the plunder of the countrys natural wealth and superexploitation of its labor, more than 60 percent of the population gets by on less than $2 a day. Per capita income is the lowest in Latin America, at $950 a year. In rural areas, according to official statistics, less than one out of four Bolivians have access to running water, 15 percent have electricity, and less than 1 percent have a sewage system. Bolivia is being squeezed by never-ending payments on a foreign debt of $4.6 billion, more than half its gross domestic product.
Over the past decade, successive Bolivian regimes have complied with imperialist demands to accelerate free market reforms. They have cut social welfare programs, opened the door to greater private and foreign investment in state-owned companies, and removed price subsidies on essential goods. Sánchez de Lozadas attempts to further this course met with increasing resistance. In February the regime set off mass protests when it tried to impose a new direct tax on wages.
Wealth has enriched foreigners
The proposed plan to allow three foreign companiesBritish Gas, Repsol-YPF of Spain, and Pan American Energy, which is jointly owned by British Petroleum and Bridas Corp. of Argentinato export natural gas to the United States became a lightning rod for the anger at the regime. Popular opposition was magnified by a $5 billion plan to build a pipeline in order to ship the gas through a region in Chile that historically has been claimed by Bolivia as an outlet to the sea.
While the owners of these companies are raking in huge profits, the overwhelming majority of working people have seen no improvement in their living standards. To the contrary, Bolivias economic growth has been stalled for the past half-decade and unemployment has soared.
The Indian organizations launched the latest protests against the regime with demands opposing the gas pipeline deal.
Why should we sell the gas? We Bolivians could use it to heat our homes, one protester told a reporter.
The wealth has always left the country and enriched foreigners, rather than staying here to improve our lives, said Pascuala Velázquez, an egg seller in La Paz. We cannot allow that to happen this time with the gas.
War on drugs ruins farmers
Sánchez de Lozada also earned the hatred of many peasants through his cooperation with Washington in its so-called war on drugs, under which agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) using specially trained units of Bolivian police have destroyed thousands of hectares of coca plantsthe raw material for cocaine. The program, which serves as a Trojan horse for deeper U.S. military intervention throughout the Andean region, threatens many peasants with ruin.
These U.S.-trained police units have earned a reputation for brutally assaulting working people in the coca-producing regions. A 1995 Human Rights Watch report titled Bolivia, Human Rights Violations and the War on Drugs states: The antinarcotics police run roughshod over the population, barging into homes in the middle of the night, searching people and possessions at will, manhandling and even beating residents, stealing their goods and money. Arbitrary arrests and detentions are routine.
Washington already has a military presence in Bolivia, stationed partly under cover of the war on drugs. DEA agents operate near the countrys mountainous borders with Brazil and Argentina. The DEA has offices in La Paz, Cochabamba, Santa Cruz, and Trinidadmore cities than in any other Latin American country. U.S. forces also function in Bolivia under the Andean Initiative, the Pentagons program of military funding, training, and intervention in the region that also includes Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, and Panama.
Small coca farmers have spearheaded protests against the regimes policies. Evo Morales, their most prominent leader, came a close second to Sánchez de Lozada in last years presidential elections, running as the candidate of the Movement toward Socialism. As indigenous people, we see ourselves as absolute owners of this noble land and the territory, Morales said during the election campaign. And when we talk of territory, we talk about gas, petroleum, mineral resources. All those should be in Bolivian hands.
Just days before the elections, the U.S. ambassador in La Paz at the time, Manuel Rocha, warned Bolivians that U.S. aid would be jeopardized if they dared to elect those who want Bolivia to become a major cocaine exporter again, referring to Morales.
Morales, who said the U.S. ambassadors attacks on him gained him more popularity, won 21 percent of the popular vote to Sánchez de Lozadas 22 percent. The election was decided by Congress.
It was this accumulation of explosive conditions that led to the upsurge in September. The social and economic demands rapidly became a political revolt demanding the presidents resignation.
The protests against the government expressed the class and national divide between the bourgeoisie and its largely white political establishment, on one hand, and the vast majority of the Bolivian population. Sánchez de Lozada, a multimillionaire coal mining executive who grew up in the United States, epitomized this elite.
Referring to Sánchez de Lozadas exclusive education at U.S. universities, which has left him with a U.S. accent in Spanish, one 31-year-old waiter who was marching with thousands of other demonstrators in La Paz told a reporter, with contempt, How can we have a president that sounds like that?