Business as Usual in Bolivia?

“This is a worker-boss conflict.”

-Representative of the Bolivian Police

As suddenly as it had materialized on the afternoon of February 12 in La Paz and El Alto*, dual power vanished on the afternoon of February 13. On television, President Gonzalo S?nchez de Lozada announced that “constitutional order and public security” had been restored, as police rounded up some 180 alleged looters, 60 of them minors, only three of them with priors.

The Special Security Group of the police, which triggered the uprising on February 12, constituted the lone armed wing of a movement from below that destroyed, in less than 24 hours, the symbols of capitalist authority: the vice-president’s office, the headquarters of the four major political parties (MNR, MIR, ADN, UCS), the National Brewery, Bancosol, Coca Cola and Pepsi (El Alto), the mayor’s office (El Alto), the water and electric companies (El Alto), and the Ministries of Labor and Sustainable Development. However, as soon as the lower and middle ranks of the police agreed to accept the deal their superiors brokered in the early morning hours of February 13, which included a repeal of the proposed 12.5% tax on income (the IMF-imposed impuestazo) and a pay raise, the repressive organs of the state began to function once again as a relatively coherent whole. “Order” was restored.

In less than 36 hours, government gunmen from the Military Police of Miraflores and the Colorado Regiment killed 33 people and injured 205. Some of the snipers stood posted on the tops of buildings, having been lowered onto rooftops in Air Force helicopters on the morning of February 13 so as to fire on the unarmed civilians who concentrated in the Plaza San Francisco in the early afternoon. Among those killed were Ana Colque (23), an intern nurse, and Wilmer Collanqui (23), a maintenance assistant in the “San Francisco” building. Carla Espinoza (29), a doctor, took a bullet to the jaw.

Thus army gunfire, coupled with the absence of organized political response to it from Evo Morales and MAS (Movement Toward Socialism), brought the rebellion in La Paz and El Alto to a quick standstill on the afternoon of February 13, even as crowds massed in Santa Cruz and Oruro and repeated the pattern of destruction set the day before. By the time Felipe Quispe, leader of the highland Aymara peasantry and its political party, MIP, had returned from Mexico on February 14, it was apparent that no coordinated collective action would issue from the call made by the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the People, led by Quispe, Morales and Oscar Olivera (the factory worker who led the fight against the privatization of water in Cochabamba in April 2000), as well as delegates of social movements with fewer possibilities for mass mobilization. At present, cooperation between the two most powerful movements from below in Bolivia-the lowland coca growers and the highland Aymara peasantry-exists only at the level of rhetoric, and the third piece of the puzzle-the movement that grew out of the privatization of water in Cochabamba, now in deep crisis-is missing. Opposition unity in practice, then, is only dimly visible on the horizon.

Portraying the largest proletarian uprising in La Paz since the national revolution of 1952 as the work of roving bands of juvenile delinquents-as a coup attempt by the opposition parties, NFR (New Republican Force) and MAS-the media has outdone itself to restore a tottering regime. Images of young men, high school students and people under 21, were circulated endlessly, their brown bodies pressed tight into stores with smashed windows, or they were featured running from the scene of direct appropriation with commodities cradled in their arms. In the official version, the revolt was a clear-cut case of “looting and vandalism,” which demonstrated the need to take strong police measures with the brown young men from the working class neighborhoods that climb the jagged hillsides surrounding La Paz.

The legitimate fear of petty merchants and shopkeepers was stoked into hysteria by the tape-looped scenes of destruction, throwing the fractures that define the human topography of the city into high relief-ruling race/class nightmare visions of dark hordes descending from the hills, swarming down into the city center, destroying and looting property with the kind of impunity normally reserved for members of the police and armed forces and militants of the political parties whose headquarters were set alight. In El Alto, however, the friction between rioters and the merchants who make up a significant sector of the Bolivian working class and petit bourgeoisie was much less marked; a fact that went unreported in the media.

In a country in which 65% of the population is under 25, young people with dismal prospects in the labor market and precarious access to higher education (which, for many of them, is the only buffer against racial discrimination) took charge of the rebellion. Students from the University of El Alto, created in 2000, played a directing role in a revolt that was more radical and thoroughgoing than the one in La Paz. The authorities have viewed the University of El Alto as a nest of guerrillas since its creation. Because of their Aymara working class and peasant roots, many of the students sympathize with the parliamentary opposition, MAS and MIP (Revolutionary Indian Movement), but neither MAS nor MIP led the uprising. Likewise, the high school students from Colegio Ayacucho who attacked the Presidential Palace with stones at noon on February 12 organized themselves in conjunction with the wives of insurgent policemen and the moribund COB (Bolivian Workers’ Central), not with MAS or MIP. Colegio Ayacucho students, it is worth remembering, were active in the national revolution of 1952 and valiantly resisted military dictatorships in the 1970s and 80s. As it turns out, the Bolivian Army was deeply divided throughout the crisis, with a conspiratorial rightwing national populist sector opposed to the sale of Bolivian natural gas to Chile unwilling to repress the revolt. Military intelligence knew that a police riot was coming, but did nothing to stop it. In conjunction with a sector of the police and the S?nchez de Lozada’s MNR, this faction could conceivably mount a civic-military autogolpe on the model that Fujimori established in Per?.

If he is to stay in power, S?nchez de Lozada knows he must command the undivided loyalty of the armed forces, and if that means that he has to defy the U.S. embassy, which supports the export of Bolivian gas through Chilean ports, then most likely he will do it, on this if no other issue. Whether he can contain police discontent is another, thornier issue, and the leaders of the recent police riot have taken prominent places alongside their commanding officers and S?nchez de Lozada. They appear to be the chief beneficiaries of the conflicts of February 12 and 13, and have attained a degree of power unthinkable prior to the uprising. The most prominent among them, Major David Vargas, led the police riot against low salaries in 2000, and has openly declared that if the export of Bolivian gas-to be decided in the next two months-passes through Chile, there will be another police riot.

For the first time, S?nchez de Lozada has made concessions: he suspended the impuestazo and dismissed his entire cabinet, including the Rasputin-like figure of Carlos S?nchez Berza?n, ex-Minister of the President, who, as Minister of the Interior in the first S?nchez de Lozada administration (1993-97), bore ultimate responsibility for the massacre of miners and peasants in Amayapampa y Capasirca in 1996. The new Minister of Government, Yerko Kukoc, was Prefect of Potos? at the time, so he, too, has the blood of massacred miners and peasants on his hands. And he is part of S?nchez Berza?n’s inner circle.

The Minister of Defense, Freddy Teodovic, who bears direct responsibility for the murders of twenty-six unarmed civilians and six armed policemen on February 12 and 13, has not been removed. Teodovic is the U.S. Embassy’s man in Bolivia, and on November 18, 2002, he attended a meeting in Santiago convened by the Pentagon in order to define a hemispheric “defense” strategy that would deepen the involvement of the military in the formulation of domestic policy. Thus Teodovic stands for the deepening militarization of Latin American democracy in the long imperial shadow cast by September 11, 2001, the most extreme example of which is ?lvaro Uribe’s “communitarian state” in Colombia.

There is to be no change in the direction of economic policy, either: Finance Minister Javier Comboni is still in charge of dealing with the IMF. Pressure to reduce the budget deficit from 8.5% to 5.5% in order to meet “the terms of conditionality” of IMF loans is not going to let up significantly-now the target is 6.8%. In one form or another, the impuestazo will be back. Since no one has suggested taxing crece?o agro-buisness or the multinationals, who else will pay the piper except those who can least afford it? The man behind the impuestazo, former Minister of Economic Development Jos? “Chacho” Justiniano, has been promoted to Minister of the President, and George Grey continues as head of the government think-tank for economic policy, UDAPE.

Former Colombian President and General Secretary of the OAS, C?sar Gaviria, arrived in La Paz on March 6, though not to investigate the state terrorism on display February 12 and 13. Rather, he is to investigate “terrorism” in general-an ominous sign. Earlier in the week, a Peruvian minister made the far-fetched claim that Evo Morales was lined to the Peruvian coca growers’ movement and the Colombian FARC, which, in the wake of September 11, 2001, the U.S. State Department has named as the principal “international terrorist” threat in the Western Hemisphere. Although a Bolivian minister was quick to deny the allegation, it is clear that the S?nchez de Lozada administration is bent on criminalizing social protest in the name of the “fight against terrorism.” In a recent interview with the Brazilian daily O Globo, S?nchez de Lozada went so far as to affirm that the events of February 12 and 13 in Bolivia are analogous to those of September 11. Gaviria, then, is providing cover to those within government and media circles insisting that NFR and MAS were behind the uprising.

There are rumors that a hard right turn is percolating in the military and police, though it is not yet clear whether S?nchez de Lozada and the MNR will be overthrown or, more likely, allowed to remain in the capacity of puppets. There can be little doubt that the S?nchez de Lozada administration has come through its second major crisis in worse shape than it emerged from the first in January, and its only remaining pillars of support are the U.S. Embassy, sections of the Bolivian military and the media. Yet the opposition, tenacious as it is, is a long way from developing a concrete, coordinated political alternative that would lead to social transformation. Nevertheless, the neoliberal model is in its final death agonies, and it is anyone’s guess what will replace it.

*An Aymara city of 700,000 on the upper rim of La Paz.

FORREST HYLTON is conducting doctoral research in history in Bolivia and can be reached at


Forrest Hylton is visiting professor of history at the graduate school at the Universidade Federal da Bahia. He taught for four years at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia in Medellín as well as three years at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá. He is the author of Evil Hour in Colombia (Verso, 2006), and has written about Colombia for New Left Review, Nueva Sociedad (Buenos Aires), London Review of Books, Historical Materialism, Against the Current, Nacla Report on the Americas – and, last but certainly not least, CounterPunch.