How Militant Civil Disobedience Brought Down The Bolivian Government

“La protesta es una mujer de fierro sin partido ni caudillo”

Teeming with tens of thousands of angry protesters and shaking from the resounding blasts of dynamite, the streets of La Paz on October 18th were the scene of a dramatic climax to the past 6 weeks of mounting protests. Multiple marches had descended from the neighboring city of El Alto. More than ten thousand miners and campesinos had arrived from rural areas and neighboring states. And earlier that morning the amas de casa (the housewives of La Paz) had come out onto the streets in mass giving their support to the protests. The universal demand was nothing less than the resignation of Bolivia’s president, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada. Meanwhile, the president – isolated and trapped inside the presidential residence under heavy military protection in a wealthy neighborhood of La Paz – was making phone calls to the US. Around 5 o’clock that afternoon, the rescue mission was launched. A helicopter picked up President Sanchez, his family and few remaining ministers in a field near the residence and dropped them off in an airport, where a plane was waiting to take them to the United States.

Once in the United States, Sanchez would claim that the popular uprising that led to his resignation was actually a plot to overthrow democracy in Bolivia, financed by an international cartel, and carried out by drug traffickers, narco-syndicalists and the country’s political opposition leaders. His ridiculous story was clearly intended to appeal to Washington’s purported political agenda for the Andean countries of South America – the defense of democracy and the eradication of the coca leaf. Yet, not surprisingly, he turned everything upside down. The uprising in Bolivia was actually organized from the bottom up, with autonomous groups primarily made up of poor indigenous people carrying out militant civil disobedience. Over a period of 6 weeks, a few isolated protests turned into a mass uprising that left over 80 people dead (all but a few killed by the army or the police) and 400 people wounded. Armed with sticks and stones, the protesters resisted tear gas, army tanks, machine gun fire and even fighter jet planes to slowly bring the country to a standstill. Their unceasing and mounting pressure succeeded in ousting the president within the legal bounds of the Bolivian democracy. While the uprising was truly nation-wide in scope, transcending ethnicity and class, there were two main groups that instigated the protests and were crucial to its success. The first group consisted of indigenous campesinos living in the rural areas around La Paz. And the second group consisted of the indigenous habitants in the city of El Alto.

The revolt against Goniism

While he was in power, the United States couldn’t have invented a better puppet than Goni (the president’s nickname) to help secure their interests in South America. A millionaire businessman raised in the United States, Goni had already served one term in the presidency from the years 1993-1997, and had just been re-elected by a popular vote of 22% last year to a term ending in 2007. Back in 1986 he helped transform the Bolivian state supported economy into a neo-liberal based one, privatizing key industries such as oil, water, communications, mining and train transportation. As president he oversaw the selling of gas rights to transnationals for near give away prices. Then, against heavy opposition from the Coca leaf harvesters who see their only source of livelihood being taken away from them, Goni kowtowed to Washington in implementing an unpopular coca eradication program. Just 6 months ago, under pressure from the IMF, he introduced very unpopular austerity measures.

Consistently, he has worked on behalf of the US and IMF in securing their interests at the expense of the needs of the people. In the past 17 years of privatization, Bolivia has seen its standard of living drop and the gap between rich and poor widen. Approximately two thirds of the population is indigenous and they earn substantially less than the mestizos (mixed race) and whites. Indigenous campesinos (poor farmers who barely subsist on small patches of land) are the poorest, earning roughly 15 cents a day.

The past 17 years of privatization has not passed unchallenged in Bolivia. However, the opposition in Bolivia has long been divided, with the leaders often fighting amongst themselves. This in-house fighting along with the competing demands of the different sectors has historically weakened the left and made it easier for the government to divide it. When the protests started in early September, the demands (though thread together by a popular opposition to the Government’s neo-liberal policies) varied among the different groups and touched on multiply issues, ranging from regional to national. However, as the protests gained steam, one demand caught fire and became a lightning rod that helped unite the different sectors. This demand was that Bolivian natural gas not be sold to the US.

The opposition to selling Bolivian gas to the States taps deep into the psyche of Bolivians for historical reasons. Starting with the Spanish conquistadores in the 16th century, Bolivia has seen its abundant natural resources stripped by colonizers, rich countries, and most recently by transnationals. Gas is the latest bonanza along a long line of now near-exhausted resources that include silver, tin, copper, uranium, and timber. It’s estimated that Bolivia’s oil and gas reserves total more than those of any other South American country including those of Venezuela. Yet despite the abundance of its rich natural resources, Bolivia has never been able to develop or profit from them. The most staggering example is the famous and tremendously rich Bolivian silver mine of Potosi, whose silver was carried off by Spanish ships in the early centuries of the American conquest and which almost single-handedly sustained the Spanish Empire for more than two centuries without the people benefiting a bit. Historically, just like most third world countries, Bolivia’s economy has been based on selling raw materials to other richer countries rather than developing the resources into finished products themselves, thereby forcing the country to import these very products at high prices. The rallying cry has been “Gas for all Bolivians!” The protesters want to see the gas industrialized in Bolivia and converted into usable and more profitable forms such as in gasoline, plastics and fertilizers – finished products that Bolivia currently needs to import. However, the US also wants this gas in its cheap raw form and Goni had already agreed to this sale, claiming that the country needed an immediate infusion of capital. Not surprisingly, the negotiations between the US and the Bolivian Government over the gas had been carried out behind closed doors. In fact before the protests started in August, there had been very little public discussion or media coverage over this issue. But that was soon to change.

The campesinos take to the highways

The protests started off with a murmur back in the first week of September when campesinos started blockading highways outside of La Paz and another 2000 began a hunger strike. Historically, the blockading of highways has been the tool of protest among the campesinos. Because there is often only one possible road connecting two points on the map, it is an incredibly effective strategy. Blocking the roads with numbers of 20 up to 200 people, the campesinos can prevent the transit of passengers and products. Consequently, by the end of the second week of August, the blockades were already having a noticeable effect on La Paz. Products weren’t reaching their destinations, produce was rotting in the stalled trucks, tourists were complaining and people were stranded from their homes. Initially, the army avoided confronting the blockaders. The campesinos had stated that they would resist any military aggression and blood had been spilled in similar confrontations in the past. Maybe the campesinos would have tired out if the Bolivian government had tried waiting it out. Or even agreed to dialogue. But instead Greenlee, the American ambassador, stepped into the picture. And like most cases of American foreign intervention, things just got worse.

Surrounded by some of the most militant campesino communities in Bolivia, Sorata is a sleepy tourist town located 100 miles outside of La Paz. An annual festival had drawn some one thousand people (among them 200 gringos) to Sorata for the weekend of September 13th and 14th. By early morning the following Monday, the campesinos in the nearby town of Warisata had blockaded the only road out of Sorata. The people had been trapped there for 5 days when Greenlee approached Goni and “convinced” him of the need to rescue the “hostages”. The following day, September 20th, a military convey of over 20 vehicles loaded with soldiers and sharpshooters left La Paz. With support from jet planes and helicopters, it broke through the blockade, loaded up the stranded people in Sorata and turned around to return to La Paz. It’s not clear who shot first, but this time as they were passing through the blockade, shooting broke out and six campesinos (apparently some if not all of them unarmed) were killed along with an army conscript. Hours later enraged campesinos stormed into Sorata and burned down both a government municipal building and the fancy hotel of an unpopular foreigner. The Government’s violent assault on the blockaders ignited an already simmering rage throughout the campesino communities and further radicalized the campesinos. The demand that Bolivian gas not be exported to the US had now turned into the major demand. In the more militant communities, campesinos were now beginning to talk of a civil war.

By the end of August, food shortages were becoming apparent in La Paz and prices were rising. Blockades were multiplying in the rural areas outside of La Paz. Of the roughly eight highways entering La Paz, half of them were permanently blocked and the rest were being intermittingly blocked. Tensions were running high on these roads as the armed forces were challenging certain blockades – yet with little success. In addition to blocking the roads with their bodies, the campesinos were also strewing the road with thousands of rocks and boulders. This strategy was extremely effective as no 4-wheel vehicle can pass over a road full of rocks. The army would send out an army troop with a bulldozer to clean the road; meanwhile campesinos would gather in other stretches of the road and clog them up with more rocks. Campesinos were also using dynamite to carve out wide trenches in the roads rendering them impassable. By mid-October, stores in La Paz were running empty, prices for the scarce goods remaining had doubled and tripled, and restaurants were closing for lack of food and gas. But by this time, the rural area was no longer the battle ground. The war had moved to El Alto.

El Alto rises up

El Alto is the sister city of La Paz. With a population of around 1 million, it is said to be both the fastest growing city of South America and the poorest. Poor campesinos migrating from the surrounding rural areas began settling it in the 50´s on the edge of La Paz. Today it retains a strong worker and indigenous identity with many ex-miners having settled there and 80% of the people identifying as indigenous. In the past 50 years the city has grown up quickly with very little planning, infrastructure or financial help from the National Government. Many homes lack access to potable water, electricity and connections to sewers. 45% of the people live in poverty and 26% live in extreme poverty, meaning they live on less than 1$ a day.

By the first week of October, many campesinos and miners had come to El Alto to directly pressure the Government. El Alto was an obvious choice for the out-of-towners due to the strong ties existing between the many first and second generation campesinos and miners in El Alto and their brethren from the countryside. In fact, many neighborhoods in El Alto were settled by campesinos from the same rural communities further fortifying the ties between the urban and rural. The city also has a strong sense of neighborhood solidarity – a legacy from the past ten years of organizing to demand basic water and sanitary services from the government. El Alto was also an obvious strategic choice for its proximity to La Paz. Most roads that enter La Paz pass through El Alto and the international airport lies in the middle of the city. Already radicalized by a strong working class consciousness, angered by the army’s violence and intimidation against the campesinos in the countryside, and strategically located next to La Paz, the Alteños (name given to the people of El Alto) were ripe to rise up in a big way.

Up until the second week of October, La Paz and El Alto had been relatively removed from the conflicts occurring outside the cities. But despite the calm, an urban movement was slowly building. After the violence outside of Sorata, a few general strikes were declared in both El Alto and La Paz over the following three weeks. The strikes were only partially obeyed and they petered out after a few days, but they were getting stronger going on October. The COB, a huge umbrella workers´ union, played a major role in the strikes from the beginning. By the end of September, local unions of butchers, health care workers, bus drivers, teachers and other trades had joined the strikes and were organizing marches. The universities were suspending classes with students, professors, and administration joining the protests. Meanwhile, confederations of retired workers and landlords were organizing marches through out both cities. And, the vendors in the huge outdoor markets were beginning to close their stands in solidarity. The marches were becoming more confrontational, the police were using more and more tear gas, and protesters were getting injured by the police. In both cities, a barely concealed rage that seemed close to igniting was radiating in the streets.

A new general strike was declared in El Alto on October 8th and this time it was universally obeyed. On that day, two protesters had been killed when the army broke through a blockade just outside El Alto and the city was buzzing. Over the next few days, stores that dared open were forced to close (within a few more days, offending stores were being looted.) Groups of striking vendors patrolled the outdoor markets, pouring kerosene over the few open stands and forcing them to close under threat of being torched. Utilizing the same techniques of the campesinos, Alteños congregated at strategic intersections to blockade the streets, reinforcing the blockades with burning tires, rocks and trashed property. Not a single vehicle circulated the city. The highway between El Alto and La Paz was blockaded and the airport was unreachable. El Alto was completely shut down.

El Alto finally exploded on the night of October 12th. A day earlier, neighbors had surrounded the only gasoline distributor for both El Alto and La Paz and prevented the gas trucks from leaving. By evening, the gas stations in La Paz were running on empty and the Government desperate to show it was in control. That next night, the gas trucks left the plant with a military escort that included tanks and helicopter support. Resisting with only rocks and sticks, the protesters succeeded in forcing the convey back, but at the cost of at least 5 dead. As news of the violence spread through the city, protesters and police clashed in other parts of the city. Though there was no evidence of protesters firing arms, the police fired live ammunition and tear gas indiscriminately. Of the more than 20 civilians that died that night, some were killed in their house by stray bullets. The next day, the heavily militarized convey again tried to leave and this time succeeded in reaching La Paz – but only after breaking through at least ten different blockades on its way through El Alto and leaving a bloody wake of 20 corpses.

The two days of military violence against the protesters in El Alto left around 50 people dead and over 200 wounded. The next day Goni declared martial law in El Alto. The deaths had an incredible effect on public opinion. Whereas before there had been a general sympathy for the protesters, they were now being called patriots – fighting so that Bolivian gas would be used to benefit all Bolivia. Throughout La Paz, from the wealthy to the poor neighborhoods, Bolivian flags were unfurled from houses with black ribbons attached to them, honoring those killed. Even the conservative national newspapers were calling the Government guilty of a massacre. The unifying demand nation-wide was now nothing less than the resignation of Goni.

The violence of those two days further radicalized the Alteños. Local neighborhood assemblies were called throughout El Alto to determine the most effective ways to resist the government and the army. Neighbors went from house to house calling on the residents to take to the streets (sometimes under threat). When the army went on house-to-house searches for union leaders, neighbors hid them or surrounded their houses, forming human barricades to prevent their being arrested. Organized by neighborhood, blockades multiplied throughout the city. Dynamite was used to carve out craters in the streets to prevent tanks from moving through the city. El Alto had turned into a war zone.

It took five more days for Goni to finally give up. But with the unrelenting pressure from El Alto, his defeat was just a matter of time. The following events were nothing more than nails in the coffin. The police and armed forces were beginning to waver. Some police officers who lived in El Alto were to desert, fearing that their families might be harmed by angry neighbors. Witnesses claim that a soldier was executed on the streets of El Alto for refusing to fire at protesters. (The accused officer is currently being investigated by the current government.) Religious leaders, intellectuals, human rights activists, and more moderate leaders of the middle classes initiated hunger strikes throughout the country demanding Goni’s resignation. And of course, there were the thousands of miners and campesinos descending on the capital.

I discovered the Spanish quote headlining this article scrawled on a downtown wall in La Paz sometime around the mid-point of the protests. It translates as “The protest is an iron woman without party nor leaders”. While the protests were not without opposition party leaders, it was the militant civil disobedience carried out by thousands of poor indigenous rebels organized by rural community, neighborhood, or trade union who succeeded in bringing down the government. The iron will of the protesters was truly amazing. In the countryside, grandparents, mothers, fathers and children camped out on the highways for 6 weeks, manning blockades in the face of army intimidation. Campesinos discovered alone on the highways in the vicinities of blockades were captured and jailed by the army. Dirt poor campesinos allowed their produce to wilt in the fields, sacrificing the meager profits they could have made from selling it. In the streets of El Alto, protesters armed with only rocks and sticks resisted the advance of tanks and machine guns. And the ultimate sacrifice of blood was paid by more than 80 people who were killed and over 400 who were wounded.

The uprising and ousting of President Sanchez was a stunning triumph for Bolivia’s indigenous people over a government totally unsympathetic to their needs. But Goni was only a figurehead. The real target of the uprising was the power behind him – the transnationals, the IMF and the US who were using Goni to extract as much as they could from Bolivia. Though a far cry from a revolution (Goni’s vice-president who assumed the presidency will undoubtedly make only a few minor reforms), the rebellion demonstrated a growing consciousness, unity and collective power on part of the country’s indigenous people. However, with the growing resistance of many South American countries (such as Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina and Ecuador) opposing US aspirations, Bolivia will find itself under stronger pressure to abide by Uncle Sam’s wishes. Caught within the growing chasm separating these two opposing sides – the demands of the country’s mostly indigenous people and those of the US, Bolivia’s leadership will eventually be forced to take a side…with either choice entailing huge, but distinct, repercussions

Jeff McClelland is an English and gardening teacher. A California gringo, he has been living in La Paz since February of this year. He has been a social justice activist for over a decade working with Food Not Bombs and Housing Not Borders. He can be reached at

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