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Peacework has been published monthly since 1972, intended to serve as a source of dependable information to those who strive for peace and justice and are committed to furthering the nonviolent social change necessary to achieve them. Rooted in Quaker values and informed by AFSC experience and initiatives, Peacework offers a forum for organizers, fostering coalition-building and teaching the methods and strategies that work in the global and local community. Peacework seeks to serve as an incubator for social transformation, introducing a younger generation to a deeper analysis of problems and issues, reminding and re-inspiring long-term activists, encouraging the generations to listen to each other, and creating space for the voices of the disenfranchised.
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A New Day for Bolivia
Jim Shultz is the Executive Director of The Democracy Center in Cochabamba, Bolivia. He is also author of The Democracy Owners’ Manual (Rutgers University Press). A longer version of this piece originally appeared in NACLA Report on the Americas, November/December 2003, www.nacla.org. A more personal account of Jim’s experiences during the uprising is available on the Democracy Center’s website, www.democracyctr.org.
On the night of Friday, October 17, television screens across Bolivia were split into two mesmerizing images of history unfolding. At the bottom of the screen was a Boeing 767, an overnight flight to Miami, slowly taxiing out to the runway. Among its passengers was Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, who had just resigned the nation’s presidency. At the top of the screen was a live broadcast from the national Congress, where Sánchez de Lozada’s Vice President, Carlos Mesa Gisbert, was being sworn in to replace him.
What had begun a month earlier as a series of protests by Aymara Indians in the flat highlands outside of La Paz, had spread into a nationwide popular rebellion. More than 70 people were dead and hundreds of others wounded.
Bolivia had entered a new day. As the tanks and soldiers rolled back to their barracks and the road blockades were slowly lifted, the Bolivian people tried to understand what kind of day that would be.
The direct spark for the September-October civil uprising in Bolivia was a government plan to export a portion of the nation’s mammoth natural gas reserves. Under the plan the gas was to be sold to a British-led consortium called Pacific LNG, which would ship the gas out of Bolivia through a new pipeline to the Pacific coast via neighboring Chile, then on to Mexico for processing and finally off to the lucrative California market.
The plan ran smack into a deep national resentment over Chile’s seizure of Bolivia’s last remaining outlet to the sea in 1879. School children here are still taught that the nation must reclaim its coastline. But even if the gas were piped to the Pacific through a different route, polls say a majority of -Bolivians would still oppose the gas deal with California.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) claims that the sale would be a badly needed cash boon for the ailing country, but average Bolivians don’t buy the argument that the benefits of the sale will ever trickle down to them. "All the money will just end up in the pockets of the President, the ministers and other politicians," says Lourdes Netz, a former Roman Catholic nun. "Look at all the public companies that have been privatized. Have the people benefited?"
Bolivia’s political system is notoriously corrupt. Transparency International rates it among the most dishonest in Latin America. When local corruption meets big international conglomerates looking for a way to pipe away natural resources at rock-bottom prices, the result is usually a sweetheart deal that leaves the dealmakers happy and the public in the dust. "First let’s get a political system that we believe will actually sell the gas in the people’s interests," many Bolivians have said, "then we can sell the gas."
The gas issue may have been the spark, but there was enough tinder of discontent at hand to ignite the revolt into a full-scale inferno of public rebellion. The nation’s extreme inequalities and miserable poverty are in and of themselves sufficient factors to fuel broad resentment towards what is seen as an uninterested and incompetent government. While the vast majority in Bolivia struggles for basic survival, a tiny, wealthy elite intent on protecting its privileges runs the country. The stark social divisions in the country, as in much of the world, are marked with racial and ethnic overtones.
Bolivians also understood that the latest battle over the exportation of gas was only their most recent fight in the country’s ongoing struggle against exploitative globalization imposed from abroad. Like the loss of its seacoast to Chile, globalization is an issue that strikes a sensitive nerve in Bolivia’s deep historical memory.
In 1545, at the dawn of colonization in the Americas, the Spanish discovered one of the largest single sources of mineral wealth in the history of the planet, Bolivia’s Cerro Rico, (Rich Hill) the silver-filled hill of Potos'. For three centuries that single hill virtually bankrolled the Spanish Empire, leaving Bolivia with only the corpses of enslaved miners and the bitter memory of a stolen inheritance — an experience Bolivians see repeating itself with the nation’s gas reserves.
In modern times Bolivia has seen the arrival of a different type of conquistador, the well-dressed officials of the World Bank and IMF. In the name of opening the -country to foreign investment, a succession of Bolivian governments has obediently adopted the World Bank/IMF formula for prosperity — privatizing public enterprises, relaxing labor protections, and holding down government spending. The prescription has had a host of effects. Prosperity, however, is not one of them.
Bolivia’s fight against these policies first caught world attention three years ago -during the city of Cochabamba’s now -famous revolt against water privatization — considered by some analysts this century’s first battle over water (http://democracyctr.org/waterwar/index.htm). Under coercion from the Bank, the government privatized the city’s water system and gave a 40-year sweetheart lease to Bechtel, the California engineering giant. Within weeks of taking over the water, Bechtel imposed huge increases in water rates, triggering a regional uprising that kicked Bechtel out of the country. Bechtel is now suing Bolivia for $25 million in a secretive trade tribunal operated by the World Bank.
In February, 2003 the IMF attempted to impose a national austerity package on the country. But the IMF disregarded government warnings that the package would provoke serious social unrest.
The proposed tax hikes resulting from the IMF plan sparked nationwide demon-strations ("el impuestazo" or "tax revolt"). At the epicenter of the protests were striking national police officers in La Paz. On February 12-13, army units dispatched by Sánchez de Lozada opened fire on protesting police in the capital’s central plaza directly in front of the Congress and the Presidential Palace. Thirty-two people were killed in the protests, including a young nurse shot by government sharpshooters as she attempted to aid the wounded. The government rescinded the tax hikes.
The "gas revolt" began against this backdrop of a people already fed up with their government and a President already stripped of public credibility. In mid-September tens of thousands of men and women marched on La Paz via El Alto, a poverty-stricken suburb at 14,000 feet above sea level. The roads leading in and out of the capital city were blocked with a ragtag assembly of rocks, logs and whatever else people could find. Late in the struggle a group of protesters moved an abandoned rail car and dropped it off a bridge to block one road.
As in the February anti-IMF uprisings, Sánchez de Lozada feigned dialogue as he sent in the troops. When the death toll climbed, marchers from cities hundred of miles away began marching on La Paz. Indians from the altiplano — the highland plains — were joined by coca growers from the lowlands of the Chapare on the other side of the country. In early October, with the death toll surpassing 30, the government began to crack. Vice President Mesa publicly broke with the President, telling one local radio station: "I cannot accept the number of deaths this conflict is causing and I cannot accept the fact the government… is not heeding the loss of life."
Over the weekend of October 11-12 the government stepped up its repression, and the death toll nearly doubled. Protest leaders demanded the President’s resignation. Sánchez de Lozada disappeared into his fortressed presidential residence as the US government repeatedly proclaimed its backing for him. The State Department declared that "the American people and their government support Bolivia’s democratically elected president." The US Embassy issued a warning to all US citizens in Bolivia to leave the country immediately.
As the sun rose on October 17 many expected Sánchez De Lozada to declare a formal "state of emergency" — martial law. Instead he was apparently packing his suitcases for his flight for Miami. That afternoon rumors of the resignation circulated through the airwaves and the streets. At 10 pm, with the President already on the tarmac waiting for takeoff, his angry letter of resignation was read before a televised session of Congress. He blamed everyone but himself, made no apologies, and made absolutely no mention of the dead left in his wake. In a heated vote marked by angry exchanges: "terrorists!" from those loyal to the deposed President and "assassins!" from the opposition, the Congress voted overwhelmingly to accept the resignation.
Minutes later the nationally televised chaos in the Congressional chamber was broken by the solemn swearing-in of Carlos Mesa as the Republic’s new President. The tall, gray-bearded, and bespectacled Mesa began his speech to the nation by asking for a moment of silence for "the men and women of Bolivia who gave their lives fighting for democracy and justice." The contrast with his predecessor could not have been more pronounced.
Mesa told the Congress and the Bolivian people that he would govern as an independent, excluding the nation’s highly suspect political parties from the executive branch entirely. He committed to a binding popular vote on gas exportation, a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution, and an aggressive anti-corruption campaign. He also expressed his willingness to leave office before the end of his constitutional term if it were the will of the Bolivian Congress.
The next day the clearing of the roadblocks began, life began to return to normal, and Mesa began a series of symbolic acts to persuade people that something different had begun. The new President waded into a massive crowd of thousands in the heart of El Alto and visited with the families of those killed. The next day he arrived unannounced and uninvited at a huge victory rally in the capital presided over by the government’s fiercest adversary, Aymara leader Felipe Quispe ("El Mallku"), a chief architect of the blockage of La Paz.
"Please give me time, give me space," Mesa told the indigenous crowd, standing at Quispe’s side. "Let’s show the world that we know how to construct peace." Quispe responded cautiously, telling the crowd: "This is a mestizo who can help us. If he keeps his promises he will be our friend. If not, that means he is a friend of the gringos and he will be our enemy."
Bolivia’s key movement leaders, including Quispe and Evo Morales, the leader of the nation’s coca growers, who was runner-up in last year’s presidential elections, have granted Mesa and his -government a truce until late January to see what progress can be made. As he tries to carve a way forward, Mesa will find himself stuck between a rock and a hard place on many fronts at once. On the gas issue, protests in the west against the sale are being matched by an increasingly militant pro-sale movement in the east, where the gas is located and where people expect to benefit more directly.
Finally there is Bolivia’s perennial issue — coca. Morales and the coca grower unions are demanding that the government drop its "zero coca" pact with the US government and allow coca-growing families in the conflicted Chapare region to grow small family plots. The US Embassy insists that those crops will end up feeding the cocaine trade, and is unlikely to give Mesa any wiggle room on the issue.
"This is a victory in a battle, like other battles we have won, but we haven’t won the war," says water revolt leader Oscar Olivera. "We are trying to recover democracy through peaceful means. This is the hour for Bolivians to offer proposals about what kind of country we want to have."
Each of Bolivia’s three recent battles over globalization has ended in both a victory and a death toll substantially larger than the one before it. While there is still much to be seen about whether the departure of one President and the arrival of a new one will actually make a difference here, a month of protest and bloodshed did end with something many did not expect — hope.