Bolivia in Turmoil

La Paz.

I arrived in La Paz on Saturday October 11, just in time to witness the showdown between the campesinos and the government. These days have been, as Dickens famously wrote of the French Revolution, the best of times and the worst of times. I am writing this on Wednesday the 15th, the third day of a total shutdown in La Paz. Schools, banks, shops, and restaurants remain closed, and transport is shut down, but the kids are playing soccer and volleyball in the streets. In the tension of uncertainty, there is now peace and calm after the confrontations of Sunday and Monday, confrontations that left 54 people dead, raising the total since the confrontation started in August to about 70. This is the second major set of confrontations of the year, the other having occurred in February when 32 people died. So the total for the year is over 100, almost all campesinos.

Since Bolivia is little more than a name for most of us, it will be useful to provide some background and then discuss the issues that divide the country at the present time.


Like most of Latin America Bolivia can be divided, with a little simplification, into city (ciudad) and country (campo), and the campesinos are the part of the population who identify with the country rather than the city. They may have moved to the city but still have roots in the country. There are also, of course, younger people, children of campesinos, who were born in the city and even have advanced degrees and who do not fall easily into either group; they are no longer real campesinos but identify more with them than with the government.

The division between city and country is accompanied by an ethnic difference, the difference between the indigenous peoples and the people with substantial European (mostly Spanish) heritage. The campesinos are wholly indigenous, and it has always been the people of European descent who have ruled the cities and held the reins of political power. During the Spanish period the indigenous peoples were mostly slaves on estates _bought and sold as part of the estates–and it was not until the revolution of 1952 that they could legally be educated.

For decades Bolivia has been the poorest country in South America, with the possible exception of Guyana. The poverty is of course not equally distributed, falling most oppressively on the campesinos. The economic disparities are enormous. The downturn in the world economy, and especially the economic troubles in Brazil and Argentina, have wreaked havoc with the Bolivian economy, and especially with the campesinos.

The current president, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, is of course of European descent, as are all the members of his cabinet who appeared on television last night. He is not prejudiced, and during his previous term (1993-97) both the Minister and the Under-minister of Education had indigenous rather than European roots. But Sanchez de Lozada is further distanced from the population here by having spent his formative years in the USA, graduating from a Quaker boarding school in Iowa and then studying at the University of Chicago. He speaks Spanish with an American accent.


The campesinos are people with roots in the country rather than the city, wherever they may live. El Alto is city of some 800,000, all of whom should be considered campesinos. The campesinos are all lower-class indigenous people, and their mother tongue is generally one of the 23 indigenous languages rather than Spanish. Some indigenous people are no longer campesinos, those who were born in the city, have Spanish as their mother tongue, and have become doctors or lawyers or other middle-class professionals.

Even though Bolivia has the largest proportion of indigenous people in the hemisphere–about 70%, followed by Guatemala–the campesinos have never had any significant political power. They mostly eke out a living on small farms, bringing goods to market in the city. They are the oppressed of the oppressed, with an average annual income under $600, and with houses lacking running water and electricity. A huge proportion are malnourished, and education and health services are primitive. But they are lively and industrious and not generally sullen.

There have been campesino protests or uprisings each year for the past eight or ten years, over different issues. The campesino tactic has been to block highways, generally highways on the Altiplano that are used to supply La Paz. The blockades are primitive, made of local rocks, but they have become increasingly effective politically.

Over the past half-dozen years the two most effective campesino leaders (both now members of Congress) have been Evo Morales, president of the cocaleros (farmers in Chapare who grew coca leaves for export to Colombia), and Felipe Quispe (also known as “el Mallku,” which means boss condor in Aymara), whose power base is among the Aymara campesinos in the Altiplano (around Lake Titicaca). They are the spokesmen to whom the media turn. But in fact they are able to speak for only a small fraction of the campesinos. One Bolivian friend put it this way: “Evo and Mallku were calling the shots last week, but they lost control on Sunday night; the mass movement we are witnessing today has many, many leaders, but no coordinated leadership overall.”

The Issues

There are two issues in the current showdown. One is how to use the enormous reserves of natural gas that have been discovered in Bolivia. This is the issue around which the showdown began in August. The other issue is the president himself, and it is this issue that has moved into the foreground in recent days.


The first gas was discovered in 1924. There were further discoveries over the years in the southern part of the country and the full extent of the reserves gradually has gradually become known. A dozen years ago plans were begun by the multinational Repsol-YPF to pipe the gas to the coast, liquify it, and sell it to California. Much pipeline has now been built, but it does not reach the coast. In the intervening years, especially in the past half dozen years, it has been determined that the reserves are some fifty times larger than originally estimated, and there has been increasing discussion about selling off the national riches.

There are two main issues about the envisaged sale. One is that the exploitation of the mineral wealth of the country would mostly enrich Chileans and international corporations rather than Bolivians. The other is that the proposed route of the pipeline would benefit Chile, an historic enemy since Chile took away Bolivia’s outlet to the sea in the Charko War 125 years ago.

Quispe galvanized the campesinos around this issue in August, arguing it was time to put an end to the wealth of Bolivia being used to enrich the rest of the world, time for it to be used to enrich Bolivians. So the campesinos demanded that the sale of gas to, or through, Chile be canceled, and that the gas be used instead for industrialization within Bolivia. To enforce the demands they blockaded the roads north of La Paz, through the Aymara strongholds of Warisata and Achicachi to the tourist center of Sorata.

The first serious confrontation took place later in the month when the army forcibly evacuated some hundred foreign tourists from Sorata, leaving six dead in Warisata.

Facts about the gas.

The facts are not easy to come by, and I rely largely on a manifesto from the “consejo universitario” of the Universidad Mayor de San Andres, the main public university of Bolivia, which is dated yesterday and was published in today’s edition of La Razon. The proven reserves are now 60 trillion cubic feet (TCF) and likely to reach 150 TCF, a quantity sufficient to supply an industrialized Bolivia for 600 years. When the reserves were contracted to Repsol-YPF some years ago, the sale was on a lump sum basis rather than on the amount of gas extracted, and the lump sum was based on only 2 TCF, the proven reserve at the time but a very small fraction of the true reserve as it is now known. Furthermore Bolivia was to receive only 18% of the proceeds.

The terms of the sale were not based on legislation but on a presidential decree, DS 24806, issued by President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada just two days before he left office at the end of his first term in 1997. The manifesto calls this decree unconstitutional and says that its revocation is essential to a solution of the problem about gas.

The dispute about gas becomes clearer when we see that there four distinct issues that affect the national pride and national well-being:

* that the gas is being exported rather than used locally,

* that the exportation takes place through Chile,

* that the contract price was based on only 2 TCF of gas,

* that Bolivia receives 18% rather than 50% of proceeds.

This are powerful issues that are being articulated with increasing clarity and cogency.

The President

“Goni”, as he is called, is not a cruel or evil man, but he is not politically astute and seems to have got himself into an impossible position. He is a wealthy man, he believes in free enterprise and free markets, and he takes the US as a model for what he would like Bolivia to become. His most powerful support seems to come from abroad; and though he won about 23% of the vote in the election last year, he lacks a natural political base in the country.

His first problem is that he is seen as the father of the nefarious gas deal. It is a rather typical sort of free enterprise deal; it will, if implemented, bring money to Bolivia, and he probably has trouble seeing that there is anything wrong with it. I doubt that George Bush or Dick Cheney would see anything wrong with it either. Perhaps his belief in free enterprise amounts to what Paul Krugman has called “free enterprise fundamentalism.” At any rate, it is what left the opening for Quispe to begin the confrontation in August.

The president then used force to break through the blockade. Most US officials would have done the same, and the casualties were considerably fewer than when Janet Reno decided to use force to end the stalemate at Waco. But Reno’s victims were an insignificant sect with no political power, whereas Goni’s victims were Aymara campesinos whose death inflamed Quispe’s power base. Furthermore the evacuation of the tourists worsened the main problem: it made dialogue more difficult, so that the road remains closed to traffic to this day.

Again last Sunday the president decided to use force to replenish gasoline supplies in the capital, and this time there were 34 deaths. Mallku and others were already calling for his renunciation of power, and now the calls increased. His vice-president publicly withdrew his support, and the mayor of La Paz has called for him to step down. Whereas at first it seemed as though it was the campesinos against the establishment, now the establishment is divided with a substantial part calling for his resignation.

On Tuesday the president made a firm statement, praised by La Razon, calling for dialogue, urging national unity and support of democratic institutions, insisting that all the terms for the sale of gas were open for discussion, and refusing to resign. But the opposition had hardened, dialogue was just what he had spurned when he broke through the blockades in Warisata and El Alto, and the massive popular movement calling for resignation considers itself the voice of democracy. The president was scheduled to make a statement at 9 this morning, but he canceled it, and this afternoon there are again massive demonstrations in the center of the city, this time with huge explosions, since the Bolivian miners use dynamite for firecrackers.

The Events

Sunday was tense, with rumors that something was going to happen. I went to the Quaker church in the morning, but the Friends insisted that I go right home. In the evening there was the confrontation in El Alto, with 34 deaths. There were immediate calls for the president’s resignation and for marches on the capital the next day. Monday the marches began in mid-morning, converging on the center from several directions, and there were another 20 people killed. By Monday evening things were more calm, but there were bonfires at many intersections. There seemed to be a stand-off: the armed forces remained loyal to the president and had turned back the militants, but the city remained paralyzed.

On Sunday night the opposition had called for an indefinite shutdown of the whole country as well as of La Paz, and the transport workers called for a 72-hour shutdown of transport. Even though Goni won the show of force on Monday, he has not been able to end the shutdown. According to the paper, Sucre, Cochabamba, Oruru, and Potosi are all paralyzed, as well as La Paz and El Alto. That leaves Santa Cruz and Tarija as the only major cities leading a more or less normal life.

This morning there was activity in the market three blocks away, cut flowers and camomile being especially plentiful. Tonight I heard that the airport will be closed tomorrow for the fourth day.

The Outcome

There is such uncertainty about what will happen next that many embassies have urged that all tourists leave La Paz. I wonder how that could possibly be done. It now seems that the only thing that would restore calm, at least for a moment, is the president’s resignation, but most international organizations continue supporting him as the legitimate democratic leader. The past two days have relatively calm, but there is an underlying tension caused by the uncertainty.

The opposition, especially the campesinos, refer to the president as an “assassin” and speak of the killings; they call for an end to killing and also for the “assassin” to acknowledge his wrongs ad step down. The president and his cabinet regard the blockades as a form of violence, and call for an end to violence. There is truth to both sides. Neither such killings nor such blockades can be part of civilized society. Nor can this eerie shutdown. So far there seems blame enough to be shared around, and not much in creative innovation.

Tonight the president made a joint declaration with two of his opposition candidates in the 2002 election, Jaime Paz Zamora (a former president) and Fernando Villa Reyes (head of a right-wing party). More than anything else it represents a last-ditch coalition to hold on to the old order. It may succeed for now, with its international backing and its claim to legitimacy. But it was immediately rejected by campesino leaders, and the massiveness of the marches and protests shows that change is exactly what cannot be avoided for long.

The issue about gas has now been demoted to second rank, though it is of first importance in the long run. There are bound to be legal complications about it, including the status of DS 24806 and of the contract with Repsol-YPF, and the WTO could end up penalizing Bolivia for any revocation or substantial revision. But these events have dramatically heightened a sense of national treasure and national heritage, as well as of opportunity, and the issue is not likely to disappear. The best chance for the current plans to proceed would be for Gonzalo Sanchez to overcome his opposition, and that may partly explain his international support.

It is difficult to see how the city can return to normal without the president resigning. His resignation would end the shutdown and begin the return to normal. The president has called for dialogue, which is not likely to occur, but has given no indication of what steps he could or might take to end the shutdown. He has the police and the military, but they failed to end the shutdown on Monday, and it difficult to see how they could do so now. The president lacks the political power necessary to use his military power, and the new coalition announced tonight seems insufficient to the tasks.

However the current issues are resolved, one inescapable result of the events of 2003 is the enormously increased political power of the indigenous people. For that alone this year will go down as a banner year in Bolivian history. No indigenous politician will assume the highest office just now, but the establishment has much to fear. Redistribution of wealth is only one of the threats. Evo believes in free market policies for coca and cocaine, and would rescind the eradication of coca for export that has been achieved over the past ten years. And Mallku has fomented an Aymara nationalism that not only calls for an independent Aymara nation but also insists that all “gringos” leave Bolivia. (Vague threats connected with this last point were a factor prompting the evacuation of the tourists from Sorata.) Fortunately events seem to have overtaken these now somewhat stale campesino leaders, but we have little idea what will come next.

It is well to recognize that change is not always for the best. But it is for the best to recognize change when it is at hand and to adjust policies to accommodate it.

NEWTON GARVER is a philosopher, in La Paz on a Quaker educational project. He is distinguished service professor emeritus at University at Buffalo. This dispatach originally appeared on The Buffalo Report, edited by CounterPuncher Bruce Jackson.


Two points. (1) Reports abroad that the necessities of life are unavailable in La Paz need qualification. The neighborhood where I am staying is one where no foreigners or middle-class Bolivians live. Here there are no supermarkets, but the large market down the street has everything one might need, other than bread, albeit at vastly elevated prices: meat has doubled and eggs tripled in price. (The higher prices go directly into the pockets of campesinos.) There are no long lines, as there are at supermarkets. Supermarkets, on the other hand, have limited supplies (no transport to resupply them), limited hours, and long lines. So the middle class and expatriates may be suffering more than the lower class.

(2) Thousands more campesinos marched into the capital today in an amazing demonstration of their determination that the president resign. Among other there were 4,000 who arrived in the morning from the Yungas and 8,000 who arrived mid-day from El Alto. I watched the second march, which took some 20 minutes to pass. It was entirely peaceful, with no shots or explosions or vandalism, and it was composed of campesinos of both sexes and all ages; later I encountered a small part of them resting in front of my hostal, and sensed no reason at all for fear. Seeing these people heightened my sense that Goni cannot outlast the shutdowns that he cannot end.