War And Peace In Bolivia


“Like animals they kill us.  They come to surround us with planes and helicopters and tanks; not even animals are killed like this, there are children here …yet they’re entering people’s houses, to look for leaders.  Here’s the proof–the bullets….”                                                                Aymara woman from Rio Seco, El Alto

Since October 12, at least fifty-nine civilians have died in Bolivia as a result of government repression.  More than two hundred have been injured, and the number of detained and disappeared is unknown. Instead of negotiating with a non-violent Aymara movement based in El Alto, which now extends to the hillside neighborhoods of Upper Miraflores, Munaypata, Villa Victoria, Villa del Cármen, Villa Fátima and the Cemetery of La Paz, President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada went on CNN to declare that the protests were being financed with foreign funds from well-intentioned NGOs, whose naïve sympathies with the plight of indigenous people has led them to support terrorist leaders like Evo Morales, who has visited Libya, and Felipe Quispe, an ex-guerrilla of the EGTK (Guerrilla Army Túpak Katari).  According to Sánchez de Lozada, the alternative to his reign would be an “authoritarian, trade union dictatorship.” Just as Álvaro Uribe accused human rights NGOs of supporting terrorism in September, so Sánchez de Lozada accuses indigenous rights NGOs of supporting terrorism in October.  He contends that Sendero Luminoso as well as the Colombian FARC and ELN are operating in Bolivia, and on October 9, District Attorney René Arzabe brought coca grower Mercelino Janko to jail in La Paz in connection with the “drugs and terrorism” case of Pacho Cortés, Carmelo Peñaranda and Claudio Ramírez, peasant leaders who are currently detained  (illegally) in the Chonchocoro Maximum Security Prison.

On October 13, Condi Rice expressed the Bush administration’s support for the democratic, constitutional rule of Sánchez de Lozada, as did the OAS.  Rice’s declaration needs to be placed in context: Bush called Ariel Sharon a “man of peace”; Colin Powell is impressed with Álvaro Uribe’s “commitment” to human rights.  The semantic pattern is clear.  Of course the evidence for anything other than imperially supported state terror—of the type that characterized Bolivia’s worst dictatorships (García Meza and Natusch Bush)—weighs heavily against Sánchez de Lozada, but didn’t Rumsfeld say, “The absence of evidence is not necessarily the evidence of absence?”  Didn’t Bush insist that Saddam Hussein had a connection to the events of September 11, although the “intelligence” agencies of the North Atlantic, including the CIA, insisted he did not?

The average Aymara in El Alto earns no more that $105 per month, and many earn less.  Few have contacts with NGOs, and neighborhood organizations are funded with what little residents can contribute, since municipal funds are embezzled and misspent by the mayor.  Poverty does not adversely affect the collective discipline of the Alteños, however.  Looting and property destruction were not permitted.  Since the march was organized by neighborhood, marchers knew one another and did not allow unknown people to participate or provoke the police or military.  The response of neighborhood residents below the cemetery and descending to the city center was to applaud and offer food and water to the marchers.  Street corners were plastered with homemade signs expressing solidarity with the pain and aims of the marchers, and the poorer neighborhoods of the northern hillsides and southern outskirts of La Paz marched toward the center to show their support.  Perhaps as many as 100,000 filled the city center, forming an oblong-shaped chain bisected by those who filled El Prado (the main street in La Paz), from the Plaza del Estudiante to Pérez Velasco, calling for the renunciation of Sánchez de Lozada, the industrialization of Bolivian gas for Bolivians, the repeal of privatization laws, as well as the re-foundation of the country along participatory democratic lines, via a Constituent Assembly.  By early afternoon, the 4th regiment of the police waved white banners from their post just below the Plaza de San Francisco, and other regiments ceased to patrol the city.

In the October 13 march from El Alto to La Paz, protestors, armed only with wooden clubs and poles, took no lives, and destroyed only one building, Shopping Dorian’s, on the corner of Sagárnaga and Murillo behind the Plaza de San Francisco—from the top of which a sniper had killed a young, unarmed man who was running from tear gas.  Two other buildings were burned—the seats of two political parties, NFR and the ruling MNR—but both had been destroyed in the uprising of February 12, and neither had been rebuilt.  Protestors attempted to occupy the residence of former president Jaime Paz Zamora in Cota Cota, but Paz Zamora—leader of MIR, the principal coalition partner of Sánchez de Lozada’s MNR—was rescued by US intelligence operatives.  In El Alto, backed by protestors, a cousin of Paz Zamora’s forced the military to pull back, and Alteños proceeded to burn a tank.  As this incident demonstrates, a considerable number of rank-and-file militants in the ruling political parties are in conflict with their leaders.  Nor is dissent within the military confined to the high command: private Edgar Lecoña was shot and killed by his superior for refusing to murder his Aymara brothers and sisters.

The southern area of La Paz is designed like a US suburb, and many in the zona sur share the values and habits of the average American suburbanite, so when Aymara peasants and workers came out to protest in solidarity with Alteños, they were met with an abundance of bullets.  Four died in Obejuyo, near Chasquipampa, and at least six died in Apaña, a semi-rural community located on the road to Illimani, the snow-capped peak that towers more than 1500m above La Paz.  In El Alto, where soldiers killed twenty-five Aymaras on October 12, “only” three were killed on October 13: a one year-old was asphyxiated by tear gas, a woman was shot on her balcony in Rio Seco, while another woman died in Rio Seco when someone blew up a gas station, which left twenty civilians with severe burns.  Meanwhile, in Cochabamba, the Plaza 14 de Septiembre was occupied by the military in the afternoon, and protesters were dispersed with tear gas throughout the afternoon and evening.  In the Chapare lowlands, blockades went ahead as planned, with one coca grower killed in San Julián, Santa Cruz.  Blockades continued in the southern highlands of Potosí and Chuquisaca as well.

On October 14, while maintaining their civic strike, Alteños rested, mourned their dead, and plotted their next move, while marches and civic strikes in Cobija, Sucre, Potosí, Oruro and Cochabamba paralyzed the country and demanded the renunciation of Sánchez de Lozada.  In the zona sur of La Paz, Bolivian Green Berets patrolled the streets, while in Calacoto, Rangers flown in from Santa Cruz harassed small groups of marchers who had ascended to the city center to protest the massacre of October 13. It seems the only thing that could stem this tidal wave of popular mobilization against neoliberalism and its leading representative in Bolivia would be the president’s resignation, or the repeal of the law regulating privatization and multinational investment, along with the convocation of a Constituent Assembly.  At the time of writing, Sánchez de Lozada is negotiating with Manfred Reyes Villa, leader of the NFR, and once he has the support of Reyes Villa, Sánchez de Lozada will most likely declare a State of Siege.  The president and his closest allies have calculated that by killing three to four hundred opposition leaders, intellectuals and students, and detaining between one thousand and twelve hundred, they can “pacify” the country.  Though four US military officials are directing operations on the ground; though thousands of troops have been flown in from the eastern lowlands of Beni, Santa Cruz and Pando; and though the military high command issued a communiqué on October 13 in support of Sánchez de Lozada, a massacre of gross proportions a la Pinochet may be out of the question, because an important current within the high command recognizes the democratic nature of popular demands and would like to see the Minister of Defense, Carlos Sánchez Berzaín, dead.  A State of Siege entailing mass killings and detentions could easily divide the army, at which point the war cry of the unarmed Alteños–“now for sure, civ-il war”—could materialize.  If it does, it will likely begin on the afternoon of October 16, but the hunger strikes, led by the middle class, that have begun to proliferate throughout the capital, might well prevent it.  The emergence of a middle class opposition is a new and welcome development that may tip the balance in favor of the Aymara working class and peasantry in the epicenter of conflict.

One can only hope that with the backing of the opposition movements, and before it’s too late to stop the bloodshed, Vice-President Carlos Mesa calls an extraordinary session of Parliament to demand Sánchez de Lozada’s resignation, the repeal of the laws regulating privatization and multinational investment, and the formation of a Constituent Assembly.  Fifty-one years after its first national revolution, which brought the MNR to power, Bolivia is ready for another—one which will bury the MNR once and for all.

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