Bolivian Government Falling Apart

After a more than a month of intense protests against the exportation of Bolivia’s gas to the US through a Chilean port, many protesting sectors are focusing their demands solely on the resignation of their president, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada. Bolivia’s president is currently left with support from only one coalition party, MIR, the armed forces and the US government.

Meanwhile, an increasing number of citizens are taking to the streets, stating that as long as Sánchez de Lozada remains in power, the protests, strikes and road blockades rocking the country will continue. Bolivian and international press report that Sánchez de Lozada will resign today. The president has yet to confirm these reports.

On October 13, US government spokesman, Richard Boucher, stated that the US government supports the presidency of Sánchez de Lozada, The statement was made even as the administration continues a campaign of excessive use of force which has left over one hundred dead as a result of confrontations between security forces and protesters in the last fourteen months. This is a greater number of killings in any presidency, including the years of military dictatorship.

Major Party Leader Demands President’s Resignation

Major parties and political leaders have pulled out their support of Sanchez de Lozada, demanding the resignation of the president as well.

At 10:30 a.m. October 17, Manfred Reyes Villa, the leader of the New Republican Force (NFR) pulled out of the coalition and demanded that the president resign. ( 10/17/03)
This is the most recent case where a major political leader in the government has demanded the president’s resignation.

On October 13, Vice President, Carlos Mesa, pulled out his support and demanded that the president resign.

Mesa commented on October 16, “You have asked me if I am capable of killing, and my answer is no. Nor will I be tomorrow.” (Opinion, 10/17/03) He has further separated himself from Sanchez de Lozada, as well as from radical protesting sectors, presenting himself as viable middle of the road option for a democratic transition to president.
Now that Reyes Villa has resigned, only one major coalition party remains, MIR, led by Jaime Paz Zamora, who at this time is meeting with members of his party to determine their next move. If MIR were to withdraw from the coalition, it would increase the possibility of Sánchez de Lozada’s resignation.
Rumors have begun to circulate that the president may resign soon. He is scheduled to give an address at 4pm today. Meanwhile protests continue across the country.

“This cannot go on,” Reyes Villa said after demanding the president’s resignation. “The people of Bolivia do not believe in this government, we cannot continue fighting in the streets like this. Now the three ministers of the NFR have resigned.” Reyes Villa said the transition to a new president should follow the stipulations of the Bolivian constitution.

The spokesman for the government, Mauricio Antezana also resigned last night, although the new government spokesman refuses to confirm that.

Congress members have been helicoptered into La Paz. If sufficient quorum exists, Vice President Carlos Mesa will initiate the first congressional session in over a week. It is unclear what action, if any the legislature will take.

Crackdown on Media and Protesters

On October 15 a confrontation between protesters and security forces produced three more deaths and fifteen injuries in the town of Patacamaya, when the military refused to allow miners to continue their march to La Paz. The military received orders from the government to block the passage of the miners and opened fire. (La Razón, 10/16/03)

The same day, there were reports of multiple denunciations of security forces illegally entering people’s homes, supposedly looking for opposition leaders or proof of subversive activities. In the city of El Alto, security forces carried out a crackdown on protesters by reportedly arresting people arbitrarily without any legal justification. (El Diario, 10/16/03)

At around 6 p.m. the same day, a group of hooded men blew up the transmitter of Radio Pio XII, a progressive radio station in Oruro, cutting off news reports regarding the conflicts. That same day, numerous editions of Pulso, a progressive weekly publication, and El Diario, a newspaper from the capital, were stolen by unidentified groups of people in La Paz. Both publications contained article critiquing the U.S. role in the present conflict. Agents themselves also briefly detained journalist, Alex Contreras, at the Santa Cruz Airports. They claimed to be antinarcotics agents, but refused to show identification. They searched and filmed all his belongings, including documents.

Sánchez de Lozada’s Story

Many Bolivians refer to Sánchez de Lozada as “El Gringo.” He studied at the University of Chicago and speaks with a heavy American accent. Throughout his recent year as president he has enacted neo-liberal reforms encouraged by the US and the IMF, to boost the Bolivian economy. These reforms have been largely unpopular with the Bolivian public. His continued activities in the US-funded war on drugs have resulted in enormous human rights violations and violence paired with a lack of alternative development for coca farmers. In February of 2003, Sánchez de Lozada’s proposed income tax increase, which was supported by the IMF, led to riots, which resulted in 33 deaths and numerous injuries. Most recently, the president’s plan to export the nation’s gas to the US through a Chilean port has generated widespread discontent.
Bolivia’s Gas War is the most recent case where the people of a Latin American country have rejected neo liberal economic plans. Larry Birns, Director of the Counsel of Hemispheric Affairs, commented on the situation in Bolivia. “The promoters of the privatization and the neoliberal model have said that everyone will benefit, but what has happened is that there are winners and losers, and that the losers are always the same; the poor.” (El Diario, 10/15/03)

President Says International Terrorists Fund Opposition Movement

In a public address on October 13, Sánchez de Lozada maintained that he was not going to step down as president, and that he was going to preserve the democracy of the country and not succumb to “a huge subversive project from outside the nation, which is attempting to destroy Bolivian democracy.” Shortly thereafter, in an interview on CNN in Spanish, the president was asked to specify about what international groups were against him. He responded by saying that the Peruvian Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) and the Bolivian coca growers were plotting against him and that Colombian terrorist groups are training the coca growers in terrorist activities. He also noted that well-meaning NGO’s in Bolivia were funding these terrorist activities and that Libya was also possibly against him because Evo Morales had traveled there and had received a human rights prize from the country. On October 16, the president further sustained that protestors are “nacre-unionists, t hat wish to carry out a coup in the nation. In essence, he has portrayed a significant portion of the Bolivian population as criminals, refusing to recognize their right to advocate their interests. He has also repeatedly characterized himself as “the little Dutch Boy holding his finger in the hole in the dike of democracy.”

The president’s comments linking popular Bolivian protests to foreign terrorist groups prove either that he is out of touch with the harsh reality facing Bolivia or that he is simply misrepresenting the situation in order to justify his excessive use of force to quell the unrest the country.

US Government Support

Sánchez de Lozada, who won the presidential election a little over a year ago with less than 23 percent of the vote, now has next to no backing from the citizens of Bolivia. However, the US government has pledged their support of his presidency.

In a press statement on October 13, Richard Boucher, US government spokesman, , said that, “The American people and their government support Bolivia’s democratically elected president, Gonzalo Sanchez De Lozada, in his efforts to build a more prosperous and just future for all Bolivians. All of Bolivia’s political leaders should publicly express their support for democratic and constitutional order. The international community and the United States will not tolerate any interruption of constitutional order and will not support any regime that results from undemocratic means.”

On October 17, the U.S. announced that it would evacuate its employees out of the country.

US Citizens Reject US Government’s Endorsement of Sanchez de Lozada

Though many nations around the world have pledged their support of Sánchez de Lozada’s presidency, numerous individuals, besides those in the majority of the Bolivian population, have demanded his resignation.

A petition recently went out to the US ambassador in Bolivia where nearly two hundred American citizens demanded the cessation of the US government’s support of the Bolivian President:

Unconditional support for the incumbent president blocks the possibility of the president’s resignation, advocated by a significant portion of the population, and permitted by the Bolivian constitution. Once again, the U.S. Government is impeding peaceful conflict resolution through dialogue in Bolivia, as it has done in the past in regard to U.S.-funded forced coca eradication policy. As American citizens we call on the U.S. government to cease intervention in the present conflict. Bolivians must be allowed to determine their own political future, free from U.S. pressure or sanctions, within the framework of their own laws and constitution.

The Washington Office on Latin America stated that the institution deplores “the Bolivian government’s decision to respond to popular protest by deploying the armed forcesas Bolivians continue to exercise their democratic right to peaceful protest, WOLA urges the Bolivian government to refrain from responding with further use of violence.” and “Urges the Bush administration to offer its clear and firm support for dialogue between the government and opposition forces that can allow for a resolution of the crisis that is both peaceful and constitutional.”

Larry Birns, the Director of the Counsel of Hemispheric Affairs, stated, “When the president has only nine percent of the popularity, as is the case with Sánchez de Lozada, he is a clear candidate for the people to demand his renunciation. This was what the republicans demanded of their ex governor in California, and they were successful.” (El Diario, 10/15/03)

If The President Resigns, Vice President to Take Power

According to the Bolivian constitution, if the president resigns, the vice president will become the president.

Vice President Carlos Mesa, who on October 13 stopped supporting President Sánchez de Lozada and demanded his resignation, said, “We cannot refuse to listen to the voice of the people. We need to create a constitutional succession en order to end the confrontations and violence that the Bolivian people are living in now.” (El Diario, 10/14/03) However, opposition leaders, including Felipe Quispe and Evo Morales, reject the idea of Mesa becoming the next president.

Morales stated, “I prefer that country determines constitutional succession through consensus with the social movements that are currently fighting (in the country). Nevertheless, it would be an error in these moments to decide who should be the next president.” (La Razón, 10/14/03)

Many demand new presidential elections, but congress has not passed a law that would allow a recall vote, as they have been caught in a gridlock for months, arguing senselessly over political appointments and, in the recent week, have not even held session at all.

Armed Forces Continue to Support “Government”

In order to remain in power, President Sánchez de Lozada had relied to a great degree on the Armed Forces to help defend his position.

However, one retired military colonel recently demanded that all soldiers return to their barracks and stop supporting the president. Mothers of military conscripts demanded that their sons be sent back to the military bases because, they did not send their children to carry out mandatory military service so that they could shoot their fellow citizens.

When asked if the Armed Forces supported the president specifically, the Commander of the Armed Forces responded, in very nervous and vague terms, that the Armed Forces will continue to defend the constitution and the government.

Protests Continue Across Bolivia

Prominent political and social figures including Ana Maria Romero de Campero, Ex-Human Rights Ombudsperson, Sanchez Llorenti, Vice President of The Human Rights Assembly, and Silvia Rivera, Bolivian anthropologist, have started a hunger strike demanding the resignation of the president and the end of excessive use of force against protesters by military and police. There are now almost 50 groups across the nation.

Although Sánchez de Lozada told the press that “only one percent of the population has protested,” strikes, blockades and protests are raging across the country, intensifying each minute. Groups throughout Bolivia are declaring indefinite strikes until the president resigns. The current situation indicates that the resignation of the president is the only immediate solution to the violence wracking the country.

BENJAMIN DANGL works for the Andean Information Network in Cochabamba, Bolivia. He can be reached at:

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Benjamin Dangl teaches journalism as a Lecturer of Public Communication in the Department of Community Development and Applied Economics at the University of Vermont. He has worked as a journalist across Latin America and written three books on Bolivia, including The Five Hundred Year Rebellion: Indigenous Movements and the Decolonization of History in Bolivia (AK Press, 2019).