A Vacation in Tear Gas


LA PAZ, Bolivia.

Explosions through the night, tear gas and protecting two young student teachers from riot police were not exactly what we expected for our holiday in Bolivia. Still, my partner and I will remember the first ten hours of Wednesday long after we have forgotten every other vacation.

University students in La Paz have been demonstrating since Monday, calling for the government to increase education funding. About 25,000 of them, along with professors and support workers marched through downtown and then gathered in the rain at Plaza San Francisco. With my limited Spanish I listened to a half dozen speakers call for the government to use Bolivia1s massive natural gas resources to fund education instead of allowing foreign corporations to capture most of the benefits. The biggest difference between this demonstration and those I have attended in Canada was the use of fireworks, which seemed to be launched every few minutes during the march and to punctuate agreement or disagreement with rally speakers.

On Tuesday students at a campus of the Universidad Major San Andreas a few blocks from out hotel sat in the normally busy street causing huge traffic jams throughout downtown La Paz. Lines of riot police stood by watching. Then Tuesday night and early Wednesday morning there were huge explosions every few hours, plus a constant roar of chanting from in front of the government building next door to our hotel.

Just before seven as we went downstairs for breakfast heard the cracks of gun fire so rushed onto the street to see riot cops attacking dozens of students, including one who was being carried, naked, into a police vehicle. Tear gas hung in the air as we watched groups of black-clad cops arresting students one by one. As I was standing on the sidewalk watching what was going one, my partner called me over to where she was standing about ten feet away. Two young women were hiding behind her, huddled against the wall in front of the hotel.

3They1ve been hit by rubber bullets and are scared of being arrested,2 my partner said.

So, we stood in front of them for about 15 minutes, until the cops had arrested everyone in sight who looked remotely like a student. One came to us and asked us to leave, but we refused. Then a couple of minutes later, the head cop came and again asked us to leave. This time he told my partner that they would leave the girls alone, if we left and took them with us. So, in the front door of one of the fanciest hotels in La Paz we went, much to the chagrin of certain officious staff, and up to our 11th floor room with a stunning view of Mount Illimani.

The two young women stayed with us for about an hour. My partner talked to them and tried to calm them down as well as get a sense of their politics. One was 25 and the other 20 years old. They were from a small town on the altiplano, about two hours from La Paz and were student teachers whose education faculty had been shut down part way through their term because of a lack of funds. We learned that the loud noises during the night were students from mining areas setting off small dynamite charges. Seems a Bolivian tradition, along with fireworks at a demo. The younger one cried pretty much the whole time she was in our room. The older one, who had been hit in the face by a plastic bullet, was more calm and more political. But neither had heard of the anti-globalization movement or the World Social Forum. They had been in the streets since Monday and were very tired but said the demonstrations would continue until the government promises the money necessary to restart programs in all public universities across Bolivia. We fed them and helped them clean up. I went down to the hotel lobby to see if the cops had left, which they had, then we walked the young women back towards the university so that they could meet up with their comrades. We gave them a little money for food and said good-bye.

Funny how an experience like this changes your vacation priorities. A few hours spent on the Internet brought me up to speed on recent events in the poorest South American country.

Bolivia, despite a tradition of popular protest and strong unions since the country1s 1952 revolution, has suffered through decades of military coups, International Monetary Fund mandated 3structural adjustments2 and since the mid-1980s a neo-liberal economic strategy. This has resulted in the creation of millions of 3independent businesspersons2 who wander the streets selling chewing gum, a few minutes on cellular telephones, candy apples and almost anything else that can be made at home or costs less than a few dollars. They can1t make a living but at least they demonstrate the right 3entrepreneurial spirit2 and don1t have 3wasteful2 government jobs.

The only booming industry was coca cultivation, more than half of which was being ground into paste for making cocaine. This, and unexploited petroleum resources, got the attention of certain U.S. interests. The result has been increased U.S. military presence, supposedly to 3advise2 on coca eradication, an unpopular activity in a country where the plant has been grown for millennia.

Last October the right-wing president resigned after massive protests and blockades by workers, campesinos and students. At the core of those protests in this landlocked country where 70 per cent of the population of 8.5 million are indigenous, was a plan by the government to allow natural gas exports to Chile and the United States. Protestors were incensed that Chile, Bolivia1s historic enemy would benefit from the exports and demanded that the entire petroleum industry be re-nationalized so that profits could be used to build new industries and pay for badly needed infrastructure.

Protestors announced they would give the new president (the former vice-president) six months to meet their demands for a nationalized petroleum industry and for progress towards a constituent assembly to write a new constitution that truly reflects the multi-cultural reality of Bolivia and that gives real political and economic power for the first time in the country1s history to the indigenous majority.

The six months are up and, other than replacing a few ministers blamed for dozens of deaths during last year1s protests, little has changed. This week the government announced natural gas would be sold to Argentina (if they promised not to resell any of it to Chile) and that a pipeline would be built through Peru to ship gas to the USA.

As a result, last week the largest union federation (COB) said strikes would begin May 1. Two weeks ago coca growers and their supporters in the Yungas region near La Paz blockaded roads to successfully stop the building of an U.S. military base. Three weeks ago a jobless tin miner, Eustaquio Picachuri, who spent years fruitlessly seeking a pension blew himself up in the halls of Bolivia’s congress, killing himself and two police officers and wounding 10. Police said the 47-year-old man was demanding early retirement benefits. (Thousands of poor miners in Bolivia lost their jobs in recent years when the government privatized mines.) This week student protests began and as I write this continue just down the street.

Most ominously, rumors of planned coups are circulating. One report had Chilean troops massed on the border to support a coup by elements of the Bolivian military, aided by U.S. intelligence and other interests. While that coup attempt supposedly failed, opposition sources claim U.S. and Chilean interests are intent on blocking or manipulating the constituent assembly, or if that fails, supporting another coup. Right wing papers have begun to circulate rumors of a union federation-led coup, likely as a way of justifying military intervention.

What will happen next? Almost certainly more strikes and protests. After that who knows. Unfortunately we will be heading home soon, our interesting vacation over.

GARY ENGLER is a journalist, novelist and playwright who currently works for Canada1s largest media union.

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