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Working Class Revolt in Bolivia

Dual power has come to Bolivia most suddenly: not, as expected, in the form of a coordinated uprising of coca growers, highland Aymara peasants, and Quechua-speaking peasants from the valleys under the direction of Evo Morales, Felipe Quispe, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the People; instead, high school students and the working class of La Paz and its satellite city, El Alto, rose up spontaneously in the largest urban insurrection since the National Revolution of 1952.

On the afternoon of Wednesday, February 12, students from Ayacucho high school attacked the Presidential Palace in the Plaza de Murillo with stones, and after the Military Police shot and killed members of the police’s Special Group, crowds burned the headquarters of the major neoliberal political parties (MNR, MIR, ADN) as well as a privately-owned television station, the vice-president’s office, the Ministry of Labor, and the Ministry of Sustainable Development, the last of which was created under the first Sanchez de Lozada administration (1993-97). They looted supermarkets, stores, ATMs, the Central Bank, destroyed a cafe frequented by many of Bolivia’s notables, and burned a car that was carrying the son of the leader of MIR. In El Alto, rioters burned and looted the water company, the power company, Banco Sol, the customs office, and the mayor’s office, and on the morning of February 13, they took over the Coca Cola and Pepsi bottling plants.

The second Sanchez de Lozada administration, teetering on the brink, has responded once again with a display of violence, though it does not yet control the proletarian areas of La Paz and El Alto that voted for Evo Morales and MAS. Armed with clubs, residents there have organized neighborhood watch groups to guard against looting and have blocked off main roads as well as selected side arteries to keep the military out.

As in the National Revolution of 1952, the police are part of the popular revolt, though it is anyone’s guess as to how long the unity will last. What detonated the uprising–which has since spread to Cochabamba, Santa Cruz, and could easily reach Sucre–was the violence that the Military Police unleashed against the police’s Special Group, which had marched peacefully on the Presidential Palace to protest proposed tax measures that threaten to further reduce their meager $105/month salaries. By the end of the Wednesday, February 12, there were more than 100 injured, and the death toll was 18, with 13 in La Paz and 5 in El Alto, including a young girl. To put this figure in regional perspective, since Bolivia has just over 8 million inhabitants, a proportionate number of dead in Colombia would be roughly 95 and in Venezuela, 60. To situate it in national historical context, the most violent contemporary administration was that of former IBM executive Jorge Quiroga (2000-2001), which killed roughly forty people in less than a year. In six months the Sanchez de Lozada administration is already responsible for 44 civilian deaths.

Since the major TV stations ceased broadcasting at 7 PM, the first night of the uprising was not televised, but it was atmospheric: close to midnight, with a dense fog covering El Alto (the Aymara city of 500,000 above La Paz), people met in groups of several hundred to discuss strategy, decide on appropriate tactics, and come up with a division of labor as rumors of an imminent coup circulated. Human concentrations were strongest on the bridges in La Ceja and at the toll that separates El Alto from La Paz. Old women, children over 12, young couples—nearly everyone participated. The streets, empty of traffic and smoking from the bonfires that rebels had set, were full of broken glass and large metal objects like desks, road construction signs and iron rods. In the hillside neighborhoods of northwestern La Paz below El Alto, the scene was much the same, except that certain secondary routes were deliberately kept open to traffic and people concentrated in smaller groups, with larger groups battling the military behind barricades in the city center immediately below. In La Paz as well as El Alto, the army fired live ammunition and tear gas into the crowds through the day and night.

Because it faced the military’s tanks, bullets and tear gas in the Plaza San Francisco, on Thursday, February 13, a march of more than 10,000 people was dispersed within hours. By early afternoon eight were dead and more than ten injured with bullet wounds from shots fired by army snipers posted on the rooftops of buildings and in the streets around the Presidential Palace. One of the dead was a nurse from the Red Cross who entered a building to help someone who had been shot.

The lower and middle ranks of the police who led yesterday’s revolt do not recognize the agreement signed by the government and the leadership of the police in the early morning of February 13, and have called for Sanchez de Lozada’s renunciation–a demand first voiced by Evo Morales in January. They did not participate in the repression of the march or the assault on El Alto’s barricades (though the Judicial Police rounded up looters).

Morales, absent from the march that he and MAS had called, plans to marshal his forces in Joint Chiefs of Staff of the People, and though Felipe Quispe is in Mexico, he returns on Friday, February 14. He and Morales have agreed that the highland Aymara will join the coca growers in a solidarity blockade. Though it is impossible to predict anything more specific than a broad spectrum of possibilities, unless the government manages to bring the lower ranks of the police into line, and quickly, the extension of dual power in time and space is one of the possibilities. More likely, the requisite co-ordination across regional, ethnic, and class barriers will not materialize in time to overthrow the government. Whatever the short-term outcome, however, the question of dual power has arisen again in Bolivia, and this time not only in the countryside. It will not likely disappear anytime soon.

FORREST HYLTON is conducting doctoral research in history in Bolivia and can be reached at forresthylton@hotmail.com.

 

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