The Vandalism of the Bolivian Media


[translated by Justin Podur]

On Friday afternoon President Sanchez de Losada met with the directors of the media, in his office, to ratify his denunciation of the ‘effort to destabilize democracy’. He spoke of an attempt on his life and an attempted coup. To prove this he showed six bullet holes (of the hundreds that were fired on Wednesday) that had struck the windows of his office, the receiving rooms, and the kitchen, all supposedly by snipers. The bullets had struck between 1-2pm, which were hours of violent confrontation.

Sticking to the line of a ‘destabilization attempt’—this time moving towards the truly ridiculous—the snipers who attacked the mobilization, killing and wounding many civilians, were supposedly part of the conspiracy against the president.

According to a report from the daily ‘La Prensa’, the president said “I will only leave the Governmental Palace if I’m dead”. Two days before, palace workers told us, he escaped (quite alive) disguised as a doctor in order to avoid being caught by the angry people.

Of course the supposed personal courage of the president is a minor lie. The media, who have succumbed to becoming cheerleaders of the government, are doing everything they can to ‘return to normalcy’ by resorting to these two deformations of reality: a coup attempt and vandalism.

According to one press release sent out Friday night, the events of Wednesday and Thursday were ‘an action of snipers combined with street vandalism, planned and executed, according to preliminary investigations, to conspire to interrupt the constitutional mandate of the president…’

It’s worth slowing down and addressing each point, to understand the situation and how power acts when it is mortally wounded, here in Bolivia.

Snipers in sight: bullets that don’t make holes

The official version tries to cover the sun with a hand. The precise graphs that explain how six bullets (of the thousands fired) struck the palace are tiny scratches at the surface of an incredibly deep uprising that came about as a result of the “impuestazo” (the attempt at raising taxes). For the government and most of the media, the causes of the conflict can be anything but that, and the theory of the moment is the supposed conspiracy.

It would have been very easy for a group of conspirators who wanted a coup d’etat to kill the president on Wednesday before his flight. In the general chaos, a simple infiltrator could have followed his movements, or a sniper—like those who acted against the civilian population on Thursday—could have served as the assassin.

And if the first appearance of the snipers on Wednesday was a fiasco, their appearance on Thursday buries the official version. Hundreds of people saw a helicopter dropping people off on ceilings. Thousands were testimony to the way defenceless civilians were shot by FAL rifles in their legs or chests, with enviable precision.

The salad of turbulent vandalism

The second aspect of the supposed conspiracy is the ‘organized street vandalism’. Here the plot thickens: no longer a matter of professional political conspirators, we are now talking about sectors of the population, conjured up and paid to act in a coordinated and chaotic manner. For the most right-wing dailies, like El Pais, it was ‘self-destruction’ by the Bolivian people.

This might be the most brutal method of official propaganda: mix the facts, confuse the issue, put what is of primary importance at the same level as the secondary.

Popular action ended, spontaneously, by noon on Thursday. Until noon, hundreds and then thousands gathered near the Plaza Murillo, to repudiate the action of the government and the military. In the afternoon, just before 7, the Vice-President’s building, the Ministry of Labour, the offices of the MNR and the MIR and other symbols of power were in flames.

We stayed at one of the targets: the Labour Ministry. Nearly a thousand people were there, many of whom came to escape the bullets of the Plaza Murillo. The bonfire, fed with the furniture of the building, began. It was only when someone tried to take a trophy that the crowd prevented things from getting out. The people burned things out of hatred, as a symbol of freeing themselves from a regime they hate. No one wanted to steal—this was instead a spontaneous, massive, and profoundly political act. It was a popular uprising that had to destroy that which deserved to die in order to create a new way of living.

Minutes later, a few meters from the ministry, someone took their rage out on one of the many kiosks of La Paz. The multitude surrounded it, and took it to a safe place. “We are the people, we can’t do that.” The collective conscience, unguided by anyone in particular, was that of an indignant mass of people who had decided to do what was necessary to get rid of a government that did not represent it. What was burned was burned consciously and spontaneously, and the burning was limited to symbols of hated power. The fires were fires of rebellion.

It was only after sunset, when the tensions in the city had calmed, that the looting of the big commercial centers and official buildings began. It was not the same mass that had, hours before, demanded the resignation of the president, faced the army, or made sure that everything that left the offices fed the bonfires. Now it was hundreds of the excluded, part of the 70% of the population living in poverty, part of the 25% that is malnourished or works for less than $100 a week. It was an army of the poor, who took what they could: broken furniture, pieces of files, parts of computers, books. There were also quarrels, the quiet, contained quarrels of those who have nothing. Poor people loaded the refuse onto their backs, young people helped. It was an eruption of the condemned.

And it was only at night, when silence enveloped everything, that small groups of criminals took advantage to steal—attacking small and big businesses, offices, and even people’s homes without discriminating. There were terrible scenes—the workers of the Coca-Cola bottling plant defending the factory against looters, neighbours who organized themselves to defend their miserable little businesses. It was the undertow of the rebellion, of a crude, complicated, consuming, unpredictable, traumatic reality.

For the government and the media these last facts became the only story of the day. A story the media repeated tirelessly.

The old story of the palace

Throughout history, it has been an irresistible temptation to explain social facts by means of palace conspiracies. When the narrator in question is the fallen monarch, the resource is used to paint reality as a result of dark plots in scheming rooms.

In Argentina in December 2001, De la Rua himself called for a state of siege on December 19, supposedly against a ‘plot against democracy’. He later explained his fall as the product of a conspiracy. The situation that followed, with 4 Presidents in 10 days, the popular uprising that brought about his fall, and his own stupidity didn’t allow his theory to even survive as a historical footnote.

In the case of Sanchez de Losada, the theory of the ‘plot’ and ‘vandalism’ is intended to cover up his inability to provide a political response to the situation. In no official declaration, except for one insinuation about the reduction of public investment, is there a single word about the political or economic future of the country.

The only plot that really existed was of the government against itself: it managed to unite and mobilize the entire country against it in just two days, taking the social conflict from the country to the city.

The idea now is to mount the entire massive propaganda machinery, conveniently paid for with public funds, to try to bury what was a popular uprising and a social crisis that is left in the air, that has fatally wounded a neoliberal government.

Me, or Chaos

If the government didn’t fall in all the mobilizations it wasn’t because of the failure of a ‘conspiracy against democracy’. The real causes are to be found in the social actors and the development of the situation.

First of all, from the beginning of the strongest social forces—Evo Morales’s ‘MAS’ and the COB (Bolivian Worker’s Central) were not seeking a ‘Bolivian December 20’ (translator’s note—this is a reference to Argentina’s uprising of December 2001) but for a ‘defense of democracy’, with an ordered solution by means of the renounciation of the president followed by elections to be called by parliament.

On the other hand, the US, Kofi Annan, the OAS, the IMF, and all of the parties who sustain neoliberalism in Bolivia completely understand that they are in the terminal stage of a crisis and that Sanchez de Losada is the last statist in a class of politicians who have guaranteed multinational looting of Bolivia. If this president flees, all of the dominant sectors are in danger of having to flee as well.

For these reasons, no force was interested or able to rise to power, neither by way of conspiracy nor at the head of a popular uprising, during the crisis of Feb 12-13.

And so it is that for the government and the old foxes of Bolivian politics it was possible to not have to flee. And if they now lack the strength to carry through their IMF recipes, the effect is that a decadent regime that belongs in history continues to rule.

Today it is calm and they are trying to re-legitimize their rule—as Duhalde does in Argentina—presenting themselves as the only alternative to ‘chaos’, ‘vandalism’, and the supposed conspiracy.

For the thousands of voices who broke from routine to release their fury, it was a deaf rebellion, a mere step in the slow march to build their own destiny. Adding our own little grain, with our own little weapons against the tinted glasses of official propaganda, is the least we can do.

Indymedia Argentina February 15, 2003.

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