Upheaval in Bolivia

Describing the rising tide of mobilization against his government, Bolivian President Gonzalo Sánchez Lozada-known in a previous incarnation as “the most intelligent neoliberal” in Latin America-put it succinctly: “They want to govern from the streets, not from parliament and within our institutions.” That being the case, Sánchez de Lozada has militarized the highways and city streets nationwide; a potential prelude to an officially declared “State of Siege.” Following a year in which “parliamentary cretinism” and an absence of competent leadership have debilitated the anti-neoliberal forces unleashed in April 2000 in Cochabamba and the Aymara highlands, opposition movements have returned to their roots on the highways, mountaintops and in the streets. Las bases (the rank-and-file) have taken the initiative from their leaders.

After the road blockades in January and the urban working-class uprisings in February, Sánchez de Lozada’s administration teetered briefly on the brink of extinction, but the opposition movements were incapable of uniting and organizing around a set of common demands, and the leading opposition force, Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), switched tactics in favor of a conservative, social democratic approach that prioritized the 2004 municipal elections (as opposed to direct action and participatory democracy). Backed by the U.S. Embassy, Sánchez de Lozada, naming the armed forces as the “pillar of democracy,” held on to the reins of power, fumbling his way through the spring and summer. There has been no justice for the fifty-seven civilians murdered by his government since he took office a year ago.

The future of Sánchez de Lozada’s presidency is once again uncertain, however, for opposition to the export of Bolivian gas to the U.S. via Chile, combined with characteristically brutal government repression, has led to a rapid polarization of social conflict whose epicenter lies north of La Paz, near Lake Titicaca, in the Aymara region of Huarina, Warisata, Achacachi and Sorata; and El Alto, an Aymara city of 700,000 on the upper edge of La Paz. Though personalism and sectarianism still divide the Aymara movement internally, as well as in relation to the coca-growers’ movement, unlike the previous conflicts in the cycle of revolt that began in April 2000-centered on coca production, water privatization, land tenure law, and tax hikes-the latest round of conflict may lead to greater programmatic unity among opposition forces.

Rural and urban schoolteachers; students studying to be schoolteachers; parents of conscripts; retired miners; Aymara peasant leaders; inter-provincial truckers; university students from El Alto; the Bolivian Workers’ Central (COB); all are on strike, some on hunger strikes. In addition to sectoral demands, each organization clamors for popular sovereignty over Bolivian gas and rejects the FTAA; most demand the resignation of Sánchez de Lozada and his draconian ministers, Yerko Kukoc, Minister of Government, and Carlos Sánchez de Berzaín, Minister of Defense, who are responsible for the massacre in Warisata on September 20, in which six Aymara community members-including eight year-old Marlene Nancy Rojas Ramos-were murdered after government forces moved in to evacuate several hundred tourists stranded for five days in Sorata by road blockades. The massacre, let us note, took place the day after the National Coordination for the Defense of Gas mobilized 30,000 people in Cochabamba and 50,000 in La Paz. In response to state terror, which made use of planes and helicopters, poorly armed but strategically placed Aymara community militias drove the army and police out of Warisata, Sorata and Achacachi.

On October 2, Aymara community militias continued to control the area around Huarina, Warisata, Achacachi and Sorata, while the roads in the provinces of Manco Capac, Los Andes, Omasuyus, Larecaja, Muñecas, Camacho, Villarroel-and, partially, Murillo and Aroma-remained blocked with stones. Eugenio Rojas, leader of the regional strike committee, declared that if the government refuses to negotiate in Warisata, then the insurgent Aymara communities will surround La Paz and cut it off from the rest of the country-a tactic pioneered in the Túpaj Katari rising of 1781. Led by the Regional Workers’ Central (COR), El Alto was paralyzed by a civic strike: no stores opened, no vehicles circulated, and market vendors, people from neighborhood committees, and university students battled riot police throughout the afternoon.

At least five people were detained under the new “Citizen Security Law,” and the day before, on October 1, six Indian community peasants were detained in the province of Aroma. In Cochabamba, a group of leading writers and intellectuals issued a pronouncement calling for the formation of a new government that would defend national sovereignty and revise the laws concerning multinational oil companies, while the 2,500 landless peasants who staged an occupation on September 24 in San Cayetano, Santa Cruz, blocked the bridge at Chané-the only route into the region.

Potosí, once the center of the colonial silver economy, was the site of a large Indian peasant march, and the roads connecting it to the rest of the country were also blocked. By evening, Aymara peasant colonizers from the Yungas-a sub-tropical, coca-producing region northeast of La Paz and adjacent to Omasuyos, the heartland of Aymara rebellion-had begun to blockade, meaning that the two principal tourist regions near La Paz are now off limits to tourists.

On Monday October 6, road blockades are set to begin in the Chapare, the principal coca-growing region in the eastern lowlands, and Oruro, which connects La Paz with Cochabamba. If they succeed, thinly stretched government troops are likely to overreact with more violence and murder, and if they do it’s anyone’s guess what will happen next.

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

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.