Rather than prosecute those responsible for torture, rape and murder during Bolivia’s dictatorships, the government persecutes those who demand justice.
Walking down the Paseo del Prado in La Paz, one couldn’t fail to notice the big green tent (surrounded by two smaller ones) with the notice “548 días de vigilia” — 548 days of wake — at the entrance, and a banner next to it reading: “platform for the social struggle against impunity, for justice and for the history of the Bolivian people.”
And there was one additional reason why one couldn’t fail to notice the tents: they had been there for almost two years — two years of struggle for the recognition of the crimes of the Bolivian dictatorships, for the declassification of the relevant military documents, and for reparations for the victims and their families. The tents were pitched just across from the Ministry of Justice.
“It’s the Ministry of Injustice for us,” says Julio Llanos Rojas, the president of the platform and a dignified 75-year-old veteran of Bolivia’s struggles for social justice, who fought against a number of dictatorial military governments that ruled Bolivia for 18 years in total.
“All these experiences of the Bolivian people, the government wants to erase them. There’s no reference to the military dictatorships in any of the school books. They mention ‘military governments’ or ‘pact governments’, but it is not the same thing.”
But who are the luchadores sociales – those involved in the social struggle?
“We are people who struggled against the dictatorships, some of us very old now, and these people have the right to be recognized like in other countries. Here, no — here they are humiliating and re-victimizing us, and so here we are.”
Don Julio narrates the struggles of the peoples of Bolivia and the violent response of the successive dictatorships. Starting with the 1964 coup d’état by René Barrientos, the government brutally repressed the country’s popular movements for fear of the resonance of the Cuban revolution and Che Guevara’s guerrilla activities in the country. Don Julio recounts the massacres these dictatorships were responsible for, like those of San Juan and the Caracól mine, where the wives and children of the miners were assassinated and raped, and the miners themselves were left to freeze to death in a field at 5.000 meters altitude.
Don Julio also remembers the torture and the assassinations of the students who resisted the dictatorship of Hugo Banzer, and other stories of blood, rape, abuse, exile and imprisonment that he and his comrades went through during all those years.
“On the walls of the prisons we used to write in blood: ‘My name is so-and-so and I was here, please inform my family.’ Once, when I was a prisoner in San Pedro and the guards got drunk at night, I heard them bragging that they used to stuff people into big sacks and throw them from their helicopters into lake Titicaca…”
Today, with a left-wing party in government, one would expect that the rightful demands of these people — for recognition, reparations and justice — would be met. Unfortunately, that is not the case.
“There is no political will,” says Don Julio. “They believe that the history of Bolivia is only beginning now that they have came to power. But who fought the Water War? Us! Who fought in El Alto against Goni? Us! We are the anti-imperialists of action, not of words or paper. This process did not begin in 2005, it began on the very same day that Barrientos came to power. That was the day the resistance began.
“We fought the government of Goni Sánchez de Lozada in the streets — in Cochabamba, in El Alto, here in the Plaza San Fransisco. There was a power void, there was no political proposal. The Central Obrera Boliviana, with its maximum leader at the time, Jaime Solares, and the neighborhood councils, we spontaneously got organized. Evo Morales appeared in order to occupy that void. He had a certain prestige for having been expelled from Parliament by the reactionary forces and we all supported him. We made him President — and today we are disillusioned by his actions. Unfortunately we were misled once more.”
So what do the luchadores sociales fight for? First of all for the establishment of a Truth, Justice and Reparations Committee and for the implementation of Law 2640, which would compensate the people who suffered damages at the hands of the dictatorships; and secondly for the declassification of the military documents of those 18 years, in order to find out who is responsible for all the terrible crimes committed by the army.
“This socialist government gives the Marcelo Quiroga Santacruz medal to the army, but the army does not even reveal where the body of Marcelo Quiroga Santacruz was buried. Moreover, Law 2640 pays 1.400 people 27 Bolivianos per day [approximately 2.70 euros] for every day they spent in detention. But tortures, disappearances, deaths, rapes — those are not taken into account. And what do they want from us to certify those crimes? Do they want a forensic certificate of rape from the women? A formal certificate of the beginning and the end of the persecution? What idiocy!
“In those years there was no forensic institute nor were there any forensic examinations. How can a lady who was raped find such certificates?! Or testimonies of torture? Idiocy! That’s why we are here. Also, in the list of those 1.400 people who have been earmarked to receive reparations, there were also the torturers themselves! We obtained access to the lists — that’s why they don’t publish them!”
So why is the Morales government not responding to such legitimate demands for justice, as happened in other countries, like Argentina? For Don Julio the key reason is control over the army. Even though Morales, prior to his rise to power, had promised to support the social struggle of Don Julio and his comrades, he never fulfilled his promise for fear of losing control over the army.
“The army is the force that backs governments. In Bolivia, as in many other countries, the army is a caste onto itself; a military caste. If the grandfather was a military man, so will be his son and his grandson. Why would they order the declassification of those documents incriminating their fathers and grandfathers? The only one who could do this is the Commander-in-Chief of the Army — Evo Morales.
“The Supreme Court of Justice has published a resolution for the army to submit the documents. And what does the army say? That the Commander-in-Chief should order it, which he doesn’t. Others say that the documents are now burnt. If they are burnt, they will have to start investigations to find out how and why. These are official documents of the Bolivian state, nobody can just burn them like that.”
But, what about Álvaro García Linera, the current Vice-President and leading socialist intellectual? He was also imprisoned, wasn’t he?
“Yes, right, he was imprisoned for blowing up a couple of electricity towers with dynamite. García Linera is known to receive more than $30.000 USD in reparations. Even though he didn’t claim any of that money, he still has the right to receive it. But if he has that right, why not the comrades who have been fighting for 45 years now? Now we are 75 years old, I was a young lad, and I am still fighting but my comrades who were older are now in a very bad condition.
“That’s why we are here, and we are going to continue this struggle. Here we will die. We actually have a list of eleven comrades who died right here, in this vigilia, in this tent. And the next comrade who dies, we are going to leave him or her for two days in front of the Ministry of Justice, because for us it’s the Ministry of Injustice!”
Last Saturday, February 8, 2014, the big green tent of the plataforma was mysteriously set on fire in the middle of the night. Fortunately Don Julio’s comrades who were sleeping inside the tent managed to escape without a scratch, but all the platform’s documents were burnt. “Short circuit”, said the authorities. The plataforma doesn’t buy this explanation, though. They suspect that it was an act of violence committed by people who were annoyed by their presence in front of the Ministry — people inside the government.
It wouldn’t be the first attack. In February 2013, the platform’s secretary general, Victoria López, was assaulted while she was on her shift in the vigilia, and left with a serious head injury. Now, exactly a year later, their tent is burnt down. The only thing that remains standing is the day-count: “698 días de vigilia.”
Leonidas Oikonomakis is a PhD candidate in Social and Political Science at the European University Institute. His research focuses on the relationship between social movements and the state in Bolivia and Mexico. He is also a rapper with the Greek hip-hop group Social Waste and an editor at ROAR Magazine.