Bolivian Opposition Blockades Intensify Despite Repression

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Bulletin #1

January 20, 2003

Translated by Forrest Hylton

On Sunday, January 19, the seventh day of mobilizations and blockades in Bolivia, a Joint Chiefs of Staff of the People was established in the city of Cochabamba. Grouped around the trade union federation, the Bolivian Workers’ Central (COB), the council is made up of departmental labor federations (CODs), peasant colonizers, the teachers’ union, truckers from Sucre, CONAMAQ [Quechua and Aymara federation of ayllus-tr.], university students, peasant federations from Sucre, Potosí, Cochabamba, Oruro, and part of La Paz, irrigators and the Coordination for Life and Water of Cochabamba, the Bartolina Sisa women’s peasant federation, the unemployed, miners, and coca growers from Cochabamba and the Yungas. The Joint Chiefs of the People demand a halt to the forced eradication of coca, a rejection of the FTAA and the sale of natural gas to the U.S. via Chile, among other things.

Starting Monday, January 20, Indian peasants, miners, and the civic committee resolved to strengthen the blockades in Oruro. In Sucre not only the peasant federation has declared its support, but also the Coordination of the Mobilization, composed of neighborhood committees, the departmental workers’ federation, and the retired. Besides a blockade of the road to Villazón (frontier with Argentina), there will be blockades in Potosí and northern Potosí. It has been resolved that if the government declares a State of Siege, the movements will break it through massive civil disobedience. As of Sunday, January 19, blockades have shut down the Chapare in eastern Cochabamba and the tropical Yungas north of La Paz.

More repression, more killings and more sectors joining the mobilization were the results of the first week of blockades. “We cannot resolve this because of outside pressures,” affirmed Ana María Romero, the Defender of the People [a government post-tr.]. To what does she refer, exactly? Due to the visit of Otto Reich, the most important U.S. functionary for Latin America, in October, President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada’s proposal to pause the forced eradication of coca was scrapped, such that five meetings between opposition leader Evo Morales and Sánchez de Lozada came to naught. In spite of the high level of representation of the social movements in parliament, the initiatives presented in Congress did not advance by democratic means. There was no response to the letter that nine peoples’ organizations sent to the president on December 24 listing their fifteen demands and urging the president to attend to them in order to avoid blockades. In spite of propaganda suggesting the contrary, the movement’s demands are not confined to coca, but extend to issues of national concern such as the FTAA and the export of natural gas.

Thus Monday the 13th of January arrived with the road from Sacaba (Cochabamba) to Yapacaní (Santa Cruz) blocked, paralyzing the east of the country. The armed forces had already taken to the roads to prevent a blockade, with 7,000 troops in the Chapare, 3,000 in Oruro and La Paz, 1,000 in Sucre and Potosí, plus 22,000 police mobilized throughout the country. The day ended with the first injury [a government bullet to a coca-grower’s jaw-tr.], 160 arrested, confrontation between the “dalmation” police, who violated university autonomy, and students of Saint Simon University in Cochabamba, as well as blockades outside the city of Oruro. In spite of the government strategy to defeat the mobilization militarily, and from the outset, the blockades opened forcefully.

On Tuesday January 14, with President Sánchez de Lozada in Ecuador to attend the swearing in of Lucio Gutierrez, the confrontation between the force of the blockades and the excessive repression ordered by Vice President Carlos Mesa produced the first killing: in Colomi, Rómulo Gonzales, 22, a coca grower, was shot by agents of the state from a distance of 500 meters. As parliament continued on vacation and the government negotiated the donation of 500 tractors with Felipe Quispe, leader of the highland Aymara peasant trade union federation, senior citizens broke off their dialogue with the government, which refused revise Law 2434, a law that diminishes the returns of retirement benefits. These developments confirm the government strategy of “divide and rule”, such that rather than allow the formation of a unified opposition, the government negotiates with some and kills others.

Wednesday, Felix Ibarra was murdered in Aguirre, 40 km from Cochabamaba; Willy Hinojosa, 23, died from bullet wounds in the Villa Tunari hospital; Victor Hinojosa died in Llavín from bullet wounds, bringing the total of government killings to four in three days of conflict. In El Alto [an Aymara city of 500,000 on the upper edge of La Paz-tr.], market people, students, and heads of families marched toward La Paz to meet up with the march of local senior citizens. The blockades extended partially to Santa Cruz, Potosí, and Oruro. For the first time, the police did not impede a blockade, as the wake of Rómulo Gonzales was conducted on the road near Colomi. In Cristal Mayu, Cochabamba, coca growers’ militias injured eight soldiers in an ambush, and unlike the wounded coca growers, the soldiers received immediate medical attention in the Chimoré hospital. Six retired people, forced by police to get on various buses rented by the government in order to disperse the march on La Paz, died in an accident on the road to Oruro, along with seven other passengers. Their compañeros blamed the government for excessive repression, and according to polls, sympathy mounted for the plight of the senior citizens.

On Thursday the fifth killing took place in San Julián, Santa Cruz, when 7,000 peasants blocked the road to Trinidad; two people were injured. Colonizers from Caranavi blocked the road to Beni, and in La Paz¸ the Tupak Katari departmental peasant federation held an assembly in which leading delegates voted to join the blockade, but leader Felipe Quispe triumphed and no blockade was initiated. Sánchez de Lozada returned from Ecuador with a proposal for dialogue and gave the coca-growers and the senior citizens three hours to stop their protests, promising to lift the “control measures” in return. Though President Sánchez de Lozada arrived lamenting his absence, he failed to show up at the meeting with Evo Morales in Cochabamba. As the president applied a strong hand in Cochabamba, the vice-president announced the re-initiation of dialogue with the retired, since their measures were “peaceful.” The Minister of Government Sánchez Berzaín arrived in Cochabamba only to tell Morales and the opposition that the government would not negotiate under pressure. The Defender of the People recognized that the social movements have mechanisms of decision-making that do not permit an immediate response: “Short-term time-limits could frustrate the dialogue.” This demonstrates the blindness of the government in the face of a participatory, communal democracy that deviates from the norms of liberal individualism.

By Friday, 700 had been detained on various air force bases throughout the country. The Defender of the People, Ana María Romero, visited the prisoners and found that women had been raped and threatened with rape, and that racial epithets were being used to degrade the detained. Blockades were initiated at several points in the Yungas. For the third time, police and students faced off in Cochabamba at Saint Simon University, and several main streets near the city center were tear-gassed by the “dalmation” police [their uniforms give them the aspect of Dalmations-tr.]. Felipe Quispe, leader of the highland peasantry, announced blockades for February.

With great media fanfare, the senior citizens’ march arrived in La Paz, and enjoyed a tremendous outpouring of material solidarity and moral support from the people of the capital. As part of a strategy to soften the impact of the repressive role it has played, government spokesmen tried to come off as especially conciliatory with the retired. From here on, the government and the media would represent the senior citizens as acting within the parameters of the constitution, such that the government could negotiate with them, in contrast to the coca growers, who were increasingly criminalized.

On Saturday the 18th, fourteen representatives of twenty sub-central federations of North and South Yungas declared their unanimous support for the blockade. In Huanuni, 1500 miners marched on the departmental capital, Oruro, but tanks surrounded the town and planes flew overhead, and in Machamarquita Adrián Martínez was shot in a confrontation of 500 miners with the armed forces.

In spite of the government’s use of excessive force and manipulation of negotiations; and though the media has, for the most part, supported the government strategy with abundant propaganda, the mobilization gathers strength. In the face of this disinformation, the Mobilization Support Collective has arisen in order to share information produced by and for the movements and organizations in struggle

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