Bolivia’s Agony of the Stalemate Continues

“We can’t let history repeat itself.”
Miguel Zubietta, Miners’ Leader

La Paz, Bolivia.

With multicolored indigenous flags (wiphalas) flying alongside the Bolivian tricolor (red, gold, and green), on June 6, amid rumors that President Carlos Mesa would resign, perhaps 400,000 protestors descended like a “resplendent serpent” on the Plaza San Francisco in La Paz for a cabildo, or open-air assembly*. As the low bellow of cow horns (pututus) echoed through the plaza, young men armed with wooden rifles wearing black ski masks expressed the militant spirit. The largest mobilizations in Bolivia since October 2003 shut the city down for the second week running, as Plaza San Francisco overflowed to the point where those arriving from El Alto had to accommodate themselves in the surrounding streets. When marchers arrived at “the gateway” (La Portada) to the city, residents of that hillside neighborhood joined the protest, as last week neighborhood associations from Villa Victoria and Munaypata marched behind radical-popular demands for the nationalization of hydrocarbons and the convening of a constitutional assembly. Both neighborhoods were insurgent proletarian strongholds during the national revolution of 1952, and had provided important support for the overthrow of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada in October 2003.

The heterogeneous radical-popular bloc could no longer be characterized as an isolated vanguard confined to El Alto and the 20 provinces of the department of La Paz. Unlike the cabildo MAS organized on May 23, on June 6, protestors affirmed the possibility of radical, participatory democracy and negated the reality of liberal, representative democracy. Neighborhood activists from El Alto (FEJUVE), rural and urban teachers, bakers, butchers, market women, street vendors, students, factory workers, the unemployed, landless peasants, and community peasants pronounced unanimously in favor of nationalizing hydrocarbons and forming a transitional government composed of workers, peasants, and the middle class. Toward the end of the meeting, armed with clubs, stones, and slings, 20 truckloads of Aymara community peasants arrived from Aroma, the high plains province that fronts the department of Oruro and which was home to the two historic leaders of indigenous insurgency**. With marchers from other provinces, community peasants from Aroma headed to the Plaza Murillo to take over parliament and the presidential palace.

Equipped with copious quantities of tear gas and rubber bullets, the elite police unit (GES) blocked the plaza off from protestors, but by early afternoon their hold had loosened and they needed reinforcements from soldiers armed with live ammunition. The mood was decidedly insurrectionary, and peasants spent the afternoon attempting to take the plaza. Yet radical-popular unity was de facto rather than programmatic, and the collective discipline that was such a notable feature of mobilization in October was absent. Furthermore, whereas neighborhood activists from El Alto, familiar with La Paz and the prejudices of many of its inhabitants, spearheaded the October insurrection, in June 2005, community peasants and miners were on the front lines as the level of confrontation steadily increased.

In October 2003, facing marches from the Aymara communities of Chaskipampa, Mallasa, Achocalla, and Ovejuyo — and fed up with state violence — progressive sectors of the middle class initiated hunger strikes in the southern zone of the capital. These spread to middle-class neighborhoods further north, which backed the demands of the national-popular bloc led by El Alto, thereby helping hasten Sánchez de Lozada’s overthrow. This time, however, in San Miguel and Cala Coto (south), as well as Sopocachi and San Jorge (north), the middle class formed reactionary “self-defense” groups to protect themselves from perceived threats to property and persons. With a look of terrified horror, a woman in San Miguel explained, “We have to protect all that we have,” and a man in Sopocachi asked, “Geographically, what is our territory?” Such comments brought to light what historical sociologist Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui has called the “ancestral fear of indigenous siege.”

Polarization along regional, class, and ethnic lines was pronounced, but it was more complex than binary formulas (El Alto-La Paz, western highlands-eastern lowlands) allowed, for La Paz was divided against itself. A slight majority of laborers of Aymara descent outweighed the light-skinned, middle-class reaction. In October 2003, largely indigenous rebels figured as “patriotic martyrs” in the country’s political imaginary, but in June 2005, racist, unrepresentative minorities called the kettle black, accusing protestors of racism, and casting them as a radical, unrepresentative minority. A citizen who complained that Aymara communities used clubs, rocks, and slingshots failed to understand the historic modes and methods of peasant struggle in the southern Andes. Basic misunderstandings of this type highlighted the contradictions of a social formation scarred by internal colonialism. Lacking allies in the city center, the Aymara peasantry likely perceived it as a place hostile to radical-popular aspirations for sovereignty and self-determination, and acted accordingly. Smashing windows, dirtying the dyed hair of middle-class urban women with clumps of earth, cutting off the neckties of “gentlemen” (caballeros), and yelling insults at passers-by — these tactics depended for their effectiveness on the fear they inspired rather than damage they did.

Happily, middle-class participation was much greater in October 2003, as most of the middle class flooded the country’s supermarkets and neighborhood stores in June, hysterical at the prospect of scarcity (a prospect made more likely by their own behavior). Remaining progressive elements of the middle class mobilized around La Paz mayor Juan del Granado, declaring a civic strike on June 7. As in October, they backed the demand for nationalization, and called for a halt to the marches and protests. By and large, however, October’s temporary national-popular convergence had fractured into trajectories of mobilization that scarcely overlapped. In the unlikely event that it came into being, workers and peasants would likely dominate the hoped-for transitional government. The inclusion of the middle class may have been little more than an act of rhetorical generosity.


Meanwhile, 61 peasant blockades (up from 46 on Friday, June 3) paralyzed the circulation of commodities throughout the country, with an estimated $5,000,000 in exports lost per day. Food prices in the capital increased between 10 (bread, sugar, wheat) and 100 per cent (meat, chicken, peas, eggs). In El Alto, neighborhood organizations in District 2 blocked the transport of gas to La Paz as in October, but Mesa continued to eschew violent repression, so the massacres that led to Sánchez de Lozada’s downfall did not materialize. The entrances to El Alto and La Paz were sealed off, like the countryside to the north, east, and south of the capital.

Contrary to last week’s forecast, and similar to October 2003, the mobilization had taken on a national, hydra-headed character, as indicated by the fact that eight of nine departments were shut down on June 3 and June 6. MAS mobilized its rank-and-file in the Chapare (lowland Cochabamba) and the southern highlands and valleys of Potosí, Sucre, and Oruro, but even MAS’s peasant caudillo, Román Loayza, appeared to have lost control over his followers. This was also true of El Alto’s Abel Mamani, leader of the FEJUVE. Only Gualberto Rojas, head of the Aymara peasant community trade union in the department of La Paz (CSUTCB-Túpaj Katari), was able to maintain a semblance of control, and he called for unity among the Quechua, Aymara, and Guaraní. Taken together, these indigenous groups made up a majority of the Bolivian population. In sharp contrast to Evo Morales and the MAS leadership, Rojas and his constituency showed no interest in obtaining support from the urban middle class.

The range of actors was broad, and tactics were more radical than those sanctioned by Loayza, the MAS leader located furthest to the left. 1,500,000 barrels of gas per day were blocked when the lowland Guaraní took over fields in Camiri, Santa Cruz, while in Milluni, La Paz, approximately 100 peasants blew up part of the canal that brings water to the capital. Three hydroelectric plants were taken over, while in Tapacarí, Cochabamba***, under pressure from peasants, workers shut down pipeline valves — property of the transnational Transredes (Enron) — carrying 20,000 barrels of gas to Chile.

With strikes, marches, and protests accompanied by other forms of direct action at the national level, international consequences were immediate. The largest investor in the Bolivian gas industry, Repsol YPF, a Spanish consortium with majority U.S. ownership, had earlier announced it would suspend proposed investments of $850 million. The Chilean, Argentine, Uruguayan, and Brazilian governments announced intentions to construct a pipeline through Peru in order to bypass Bolivia. According to José Aylwin, a lawyer from the Institute of Indigenous Studies in Temuco, Chile, the U.S. government had a “perception of indigenous activists as destabilizing elements and terrorists.”

In its annual report, Amnesty shrewdly listed the Bush administration’s “war on terror” as a threat to indigenous movements in the Americas. Beginning in the Cold War and accelerating after the Cuban Revolution, U.S. counterinsurgent ideology dictated that those working to bring about social reform and/or transformation were actual or potential allies of communism. They were the sea in which communists were thought to swim, such that no distinction could be made between those who confronted state and empire by force of arms and those who did not. This ideology, and the practices it inspired — the formation of death squads in particular — laid the foundation for Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, and torture chambers dotting the world, from Central Asian steppes to South Pacific seas. And indeed, following the June 6 assembly, an authoritarian solution — entailing the resignation of Mesa, the imposition of a State of Siege, and an attempt at a Pinochet-like beheading of social movements — was rumored to be in the works. The military high command and Hormando Vaca Díez were said to be ready to assume power, but crowds in San Francisco burned effigies of a cow to make clear that they were unwilling to accept Vaca Díez as president (vaca meaning “cow” in Spanish).


On the morning of June 6, shortly before the mass assembly, from which Evo Morales was conspicuously absent, Morales emphasized that both Vaca Díez and the head of the Lower House of Congress, Mario Cossío, would have to resign after Mesa. The President of the Supreme Court, Eduardo Rodríguez, would then call elections for December. On Friday, June 3, thanks to stall tactics the bloc from Santa Cruz utilized to powerful effect, when parliament failed to achieve consensus or discuss regional autonomy and the constitutional assembly, Morales and Mesa asked the Catholic Church to step into the growing institutional vacuum. Coup rumors had become serious enough that the head of the armed forces, General Marcelo Antezana, held a press conference to deny them. Mesa emitted a decree the night before that called for the convening of a referendum on autonomy and a constitutional assembly for October, but it was too little, too late.

The weekend thus witnessed a last-ditch effort to “bring the two agendas together”: the January 2005 agenda of regional autonomy for dominant minority interests in Santa Cruz, and the national-popular agenda of October 2003 — a constitutional assembly and nationalization of hydrocarbons — property of the country’s exploited and oppressed majority. In retrospect, the Church’s effort can be viewed as a doomed attempt to construct a viable political center. That center had already collapsed under the weight of mobilization, polarization, and not least, the parliamentary cretinism of the bloc from Santa Cruz, which was adamantly opposed to a constitutional assembly that might allow for debate over new, more inclusive forms of political representation.

Recognizing the absence of a center, on the evening of June 6, Mesa presented his resignation to Congress. He complained that radical-popular leaders had taken advantage of his unwillingness to kill innocent civilians, and, ironically echoing the reactionary leaders who prepared and cheered his downfall, Mesa urged the country’s social movements to demobilize. Hoping to take the wind out of insurgent sails, Vaca Díez proposed to convene congress in the former colonial and republican capital of Sucre on Thursday, but after he announced his plans, Gualberto Choque offered security guarantees for all congressmen and women. Choque could point to the willingness the rank-and-file demonstrated last week in order to illustrate his point, and Vaca Díez was obliged to call for sessions in La Paz on June 8.

At the time of writing, a march as large as yesterday’s — led by Aymara peasants from La Paz and miners of Quechua-Aymara descent from Oruro, who had arrived by the truckload — had taken over the center of La Paz. Twenty soldiers with live ammunition were posted on each corner of the Plaza Murillo, as miners and community peasants tried to take it over. What comes next is anyone’s guess, but the semantic fiat of empire is unlikely to resolve Bolivia’s problems: calling radical, indigenous-based democracy “terrorism” does not make it so. In the event that Vaca Díez declines to make a bid for power, elections are likely to prolong the agony of stalemate rather than end it. Insurgents were willing to pull back from the Plaza Murillo in October so as to permit a constitutional succession. Unwilling to see history repeat itself, this time they seem bent on seizing power.


* Túpaj Katari, the name taken by Julián Apaza, leader of the Aymara rising of 1781, means “resplendent serpent” in Aymara.

** Katari and Pablo Zarate “Villca,” head of indigenous community forces in the Federal War of 1899.

*** In 1899, Tapacarí was a key foco of indigenous insurgency.

FORREST HYLTON lives in La Paz. He is author of An Evil Hour: Colombia in Historical Context (forthcoming from Verso), and co-author of Ya es otro tiempo el presente: Cuatro momentos de insurgencia indígena, the second edition of which is forthcoming from Muela del Diablo Editores. He can be reached at


Sources: Canal Universitario, Inter Press Service, Narco News, La Prensa, La Razón, Radio Erbol, RTP.

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.