At around 8:00am on Monday morning, massive crowds of mostly poor indigenous Bolivians gathered on the cusp of a mountainside that descends into the capital city of La Paz. They are residents of the massive shantytown of El Alto, located on the high plateau (the altiplano) that overlooks the valley which encompasses La Paz.
Workers in the massive informal sector, ex-miners “relocated” to the shantytown after privatization of the mines in 1985, the unemployed, recent migrants from the countryside pushed from their former livelihoods through the devastation of the agricultural economy in the high plateau, women in traditional indigenous dress with their unique bowler hats, shoe-shine boys, Trotskyist teachers, communists, socialists, indigenists, neighbourhood activists, populists, and others milling around in a jovial mood eating breakfast on the street, provided by women venders who have erected their food-stands along the opening path of the planned march for the nationalization of the country’s natural gas. Organizations participating in the day’s actions include the Federation of United Neighbours of El Alto (FEJUVE-El Alto), the Regional Workers Central of El Alto (COR-El Alto), the Public University of El Alto, the Departmental Workers Central, the Confederation of Original Peoples, the Federation of Peasants of La Paz “Tupaj Katari,” the Bolivian Workers Central (COB), the teachers unions of El Alto and La Paz, among many, many others.
The theme is the nationalization of gas, but it doesn’t stop there. They want to close the Parliament and kick out the president. Frustration is running high in El Alto and throughout popular sectors in the country. The nationalization of gas was the historic demand of the October rebellion of 2003 that left many dead and ousted the hated president Gonzalo (“Goni”) Sánchez de Lozada. Vice president at the time, Carlos Mesa Gisbert, who had distanced himself from the state violence perpetrated by Goni, assumed the presidency through constitutional mechanisms, with the support of many of the protesters who believed Mesa would carry through the “October Agenda,” as he promised. Nineteen months later and Mesa remains in the hands of the transnationals, the American empire, European imperialists, the IMF, the World Bank, and the internationalized sections of the local bourgeoisie.
It took three hours to march the roughly 7 miles from the edge of El Alto to downtown La Paz. When we were close to the edge of downtown, we could look up the mountainside to the start of El Alto, and a steady and thick stream of protesters was still visibly just beginning their participation in the march. This seriously calls into question the low-ball figures of twenty to twenty-five thousands protesters provided by the mainstream daily La Razon. Other dailies failed to provide figures, simply assuring the readers that the protests were “massive.”
Along the way the chants of the protesters and casual conversations made clear the demands in descending order of importance: nationalization of gas, the shutdown of parliament as a show of popular force and determination, and the removal of the sell-out October president. But underlying all of this is the more basic sentiment expressed by one worker marching next to me: “The governments have been on the side of the transnationals, and the rich. We want a government on the side of the people.” As the waves of demonstrators seemingly had no end, participants in the march started speculating: “Another October?”
But as an experienced Argentine journalist suggested to me, in October 2003 it took the massacres orchestrated by Goni to change the whole mood of protests. People were enraged, and through that rage accumulated the capacity to simply overrun the capital and kick out Goni the assassin. So far, Mesa a former journalist and historian probably wary of going down in the history books in the same fashion as Goni has been unwilling to really crack down and smash heads as many in the business community demand, although always in the Orwellian speech of maintaining “legal security” for a “healthy business environment,” the “transitability of roads,” the “free movement of commerce and trade”, the inviolability of private property, the absolute necessity of bending to the will of transnational petroleum companies, and maintaining a suitable environment for tourism and foreign investment in general. The road blockades and mobilizations of the indigenous poor stand in the way of this conception of Bolivia. It’s still unclear what Mesa will do eventually if massive mobilizations that shutdown the capital and blockade major arteries of trade within the country continue to grow.
Once we arrived in the centre of La Paz, excitement grew as the front lines of the mobilization veered away from the road leading to the Plaza San Francisco (a frequent point of convergence for demonstrations), instead opting for the route leading to the Plaza Murillo which hosts the Presidential Palace. Two blocks away from the Plaza, the march encountered its first line of heavily armed police, decked out in riot gear and grim faces. The marchers chanted and sung for the police to join them, pointing out that they had the option of uniting with the people or acting as the assassins of the state.
The march turned up a different street, opting out of confrontation at this point and circling around for an attempt to take the Plaza from another location. A few blocks later the march stopped short and the frontlines began jeering and yelling at the next police barricade. In the tradition of the Bolivian tin miners the old vanguard of the Bolivian Left dynamite was exploded, not with the intention of killing anyone, but making some noise and building the energy of the protesters. This act, in conjunction with protesters on the frontlines physically removing one of the blockades that had been set up, set the police off with their tear gas canisters, and soon after, rubber bullets. Also, for the first time, the state used its special anti-disturbance vehicle, the “Neptuno,” which looks like a cross between a tank and a banking security truck. The Neptuno’s special feature is a powerful water gun that hoses people to the ground, inciting panic among escaping crowds in the narrow colonial streets of the capital. The stores on these streets were all closed and barricaded allowing no means of reprieve but to run from the state reaction to mobilization. This area of the city is heavily populated with kindergartens, and primary and secondary schools. Many youngsters suffered from the tear-gas that had everyone running and crying blocks away from the actual confrontation.
While in no sense a bloody replay of Goni’s massacre in October 2003, Monday nonetheless left at minimum of eight people injured, and the crowd notably stirred up and angered in comparison to the jovial breakfast reunion in El Alto. Peasant leader Ramiro Llusco and Daniel Chinchi, a student at the Public University of El Alto, were injured by rubber bullets, as were Lucio Bascopé of the Confederation of Indigenous Nations of Eastern Bolivia, and Sergio Tarqui of the Federation of Peasants of La Paz, “Tupaj Katari.” Teacher activist José Luis Álvarez told La Prensa that another unidentified person was hit in the chest with a rubber bullet. Meanwhile, TV images from Monday night showed a man with a basically destroyed and bloody hand and a man with open wounds from rubber bullets around his ribcage.
On Monday the mobilizations were unable to take the Parliament. Today, Tuesday, most organizations planned to hold open assemblies to organize future actions as they awaited President Mesa’s position on the hydrocarbons law that was approved by Congress ten days ago and was thus moved to the hands of the executive. According the Constitution the President had ten days to decide on one of four possible reactions to the law which would require Petroleum companies to pay eighteen percent well-head royalties and a thirty-two percent direct hydrocarbon tax. At 1:00pm today, the last possible minute, it was publicized that the president would neither promulgate nor veto the law. This decision by Mesa, according to article 78 of the Constitution, requires the president of the Congress, Hormando Vaca Díez, to promulgate the law putting it into effect immediately. This decision therefore falls far short of the demands for nationalization coming from the social movements. They will decide tonight on what actions to take in response.
Popular but Divided Movement throughout the Country
The following important popular organizations have come out in support of nationalizing gas and closing the Parliament: FEJUVE-El Alto, COR-El Alto, and the COB, with the teachers’ unions at minimum supporting nationalization. Most of these organizations roots and strength are based in the poor indigenous population of El Alto. These demands clearly reflect the demands of the bases of El Alto’s mobilized populations, as anyone who participated in Monday’s huge march or various general assemblies of FEJUVE and COR in El Alto recently could testify.
Nonetheless, Evo Morales and his party the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) has rejected both demands. The MAS is the umbrella organization of another important protest march of thousands which has started from the high-plateau community of Caracollo on route to La Paz. This march is significantly less radicalized then the El Alto-La Paz protests of yesterday, calling for a hydrocarbons law with fifty percent royalties instead of eighteen, and rejecting road blockades and taking the Parliament as tactics of dissent. Participating in this wing of mobilizations are all those organizations that compose the “Pact of Unity”: Conamaq, CSUTCB, CSCB, CSPESC, CEPMB, AGP, MST-B, FNMCB-BS, CDTAC, Bocinab, Doderip, CIOEC, COD, coca growers, and other organizations. While an impressive array of organizations, the demands seem distant from those of the October Agenda and the sentiments of the core base of October, the population of El Alto. Morales’ discourse on television appears downright passive in relation to activities in the streets of the shantytown and the capital.
There is a chance that as the march from Caracollo to La Paz nears the capital and receives the news of Mesa’s de facto promulgation of the hated hydrocarbons law, this wing of the mobilizations will radicalize as well. Some members of the MAS are already starting to recognize their distance from the bases. As one MAS leader, Román Loayza, told La Razon, “The bases are by-passing us. We want to march for more royalties, but the people want nationalization. And for that we will struggle.”
Reflecting the limits of MAS directives, Morales’ televised appearances against road blockades have hardly left the country’s roads free for commerce. Cooperative miners, with a mix of national and sectoral demands, have blockaded the principle highways linking Potosí-Sucre-Tarija and La Paz-Oruro-Cochabamba. The Federation of Peasants of La Paz “Túpaj Katari” has announced that today they will block the roads of the twenty provinces of the department of La Paz. The central Bus Terminal in La Paz announced yesterday that no busses are therefore operating in the capital.
There is little sense in guessing what will happen in the following days, but it’s at least clear that the Bolivian popular sectors are demonstrating their ongoing capacity to mobilize for their rights and for a government on the side of the people.
JEFFERY R. WEBBER is a PhD Candidate in political science at the University Toronto and a member of the Canadian New Socialist Group. He is currently in Bolivia. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org