The main plaza of the Bolivian city of Cochabamba looked like a war zone on January 8th, as protestors demanding the resignation of Cochabambaâ€™s governor, Manfred Reyes Villa, tried to take over the government offices and were faced with violent police repression. Loud gun shots could be heard all over the city center, which fired off toxic gases that burn oneâ€™s eyes and throat and send crowds of people running. To counteract these harmful gases the protestors, who consisted predominately of coca farmers from the Chapare region of Cochabamba, started small fires all over the plaza to mitigate the gases. Several cars belonging to government officials had been destroyed and sat abandoned in the plaza, burning. The locked door to the governorâ€™s office was also set on fire, as Bolivian citizens who dared to get close to the police force hit the door with large sticks, attempting to break it down.
In a meeting at my workplace just two blocks away from the main plaza, we began smelling gases by 10:30 AM. Around noon gunshots could be heard every few minutes, and I went with several co-workers to support the various Bolivian social movementsâ€”agricultural unions, womenâ€™s cooperatives, urban neighbourhood organizations, coca farmersâ€”demanding the governorâ€™s resignation.
As we approached, a woman hanging on the shoulder of a man began vomiting. A crowd of people surrounded her, while other people started shouting, â€œDo not get near her, give her room to breathe!â€ Crowds of people dispersed from the plaza. Other groups of people shouted for everyone to stay, to surround the government offices again, that the peopleâ€™s power was in numbers. We continued walking towards the center of the plaza. Dumpsters were knocked over, piles of garbage were on fire, two cars were burning, and the door to the government office was completely burned and in flames. Not a single police officer was on the plaza any longer because they all had taken cover inside the government headquarters. Every few minutes a window would open and tear gas canisters would be fired into the plaza. If we were lucky a valiant person would rush to the canister, pick it up, and throw it back at the police.
As more people slowly poured into the plaza again, having recovered form the last teargas attack, chanting began: â€œ¡El pueblo, unido, jamas serÃ¡ vencido!â€ (The people, united, will never be defeated!) Soon people were around me on all sides and it seemed that we were once again a united force, demanding together the resignation of a corrupt governor who was impeding the progressive change in Bolivia that the grassroots wanted.
Suddenly, the windows opened again and I heard several gunshots at once. I did not immediately realize the seriousness of the situation, but the people around me ran, and I followed.
I looked around and saw my co-workers a block ahead of me, walking back towards the plaza. I ran to catch up with them. Now we were some of the only people in the area. Worried about facing the teargas again, since my eyes were still burning, I asked if the police were going to shoot more gas at us. No, I was told, not yet, there were not enough people. The police would wait until people found the confidence to come back, then they would shoot the teargas again, in full force. For the Bolivian police, I was told, this was all a game.
At the end of the day the conflict had resulted in 33 injured, destroyed vehicles, and an entire part of the center plaza burned down. President Evo Moralesâ€™ government immediately responded by firing Cochabambaâ€™s police chief, Wilge Obleas, for his decision to use tear gas on a crowd of civilians. Obleas continues to deny that he issued these orders.
The context of this demonstration is that last Thursday members of social movements from all over Cochabamba came together to march for the resignation of Cochabambaâ€™s governor, Manfred Reyes Villa. Tens of thousands of Bolivians that make up neighbourhood organizations, labor unions and agrarian movements came to the capital to denounce Manfred and call for his resignation. The march ended with a large rally in main plaza and the symbolic â€œburningâ€ of a representation of Manfred. For the next two days there were vigils held in the plaza, to continue the pressure on Manfred to resign. These vigils, however, was completely peaceful, with hundreds of people lying around in the plaza, sleeping, eating, laughing and sharing large piles of coca leafs together. After a days pause in the vigil on Sunday, the social movements came together once again on Monday, to continue to call for Manfredâ€™s resignation. Although the exact order of the events are unclear, news reports say that the actual conflict started when the protestors tried to enter the governorâ€™s office, and were immediately met with police violence. From this point the situation got out of control and violence escalated.
That is the short version of the story. The longer version of the story is that about a month ago Manfred Reyes Villa took a stand on two national issues that are currently highly charged. In December, Reyes Villa announced his support of Evo Morales opposition leaders, who believe that all new articles passed in the Bolivian Constitutional Assembly should by voted by two-thirds of the assemblyâ€™s delegates. The Constitutional Assembly is the legislative body currently charged with rewriting the Bolivian constitution. Members of Evo Moralesâ€™ party, the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), make up slightly more than fifty percent of the assembly, and believe that requiring two-thirds majority to pass new articles will impede the real change that the Bolivian people want to see.
In December, Reyes Villa also called for a second referendum vote in Cochabamba on the issue of state autonomy in Bolivia. Although this referendum had been voted down in a national vote in July, Reyes Villa called for a second vote in hopes that the state of Cochabamba would vote in favour of a regional autonomy, which would give states more freedom from Evo Moralesâ€™ government.
These issues go beyond Manfred Reyes and the recent protests for his resignation. Bolivia is a politically conscious country right now, on the brink of real change, and these two issuesâ€”regional autonomy and two-thirds majorityâ€”are at the center of the debate. The right is as aware of what they might lose as the left is of what they might gain. The right calls two-thirds majority in the Constitutional Assembly democracy, even as they employ violent police repression on Bolivian citizens who democratically protest. The left marches against two-thirds majoritu and denounce the entire Constitutional Assembly as a body that will never make radical change in Bolivia. Meanwhile, the MASistas (strong Evo Morales supporters) are willing to put their lives on the line for Evo and refuse to hear any critiques about him on the left or the right.
For these reasons, it is not surprising that the events in the main plaza of Cochabamba accelerated so rapidly. Even as I write this article the Bolivian Left is blocking roads all over the city to continue to pressure Manferd to resign, while the Right has announced a march in favour of Manfred and two-thirds majority, which will take place tomorrow. We are at a critical point in Boliviaâ€™s history, and everyone feels that everything is at stake.
Rebecca Tarlau is currently working for the Bolivian NGO Center of Documentation and Information (CEDIB), her blog is www.becktar.blogspot.com.