Aymara Rebellion, Democracy, and Dictatorship

by Forrest Hylton

This article was posted by Bolivia Watch on October 13, 2003.

“We’re going to count up how much you owe us in back taxes since 1532! You’re just tenants! We’re the rightful owners of this country!...Since you can’t govern, give us back the power!...Let us govern!”

—Opposition Senator Germán “El Inca” Choquehuanca to Bolivian Vice-President Carlos Meza, October 9, 2003

With rumors of an impending State of Siege and/or coup attempt circulating through the body politic, on October 10, twenty-one years after the end of its last dictatorship, Bolivia’s citizens were comparing dictatorship and democracy.

After the October 12 massacre in El Alto, an Aymara city of 800,000 on the upper edge of La Paz, which left at least twenty-five dead and one hundred injured, millions of Bolivians have concluded that dictatorship and democracy are not mutually exclusive, but complementary. The opposition demands a new democracy in the form of a Constituent Assembly, in which the majority will enjoy political/cultural equality and decide the fate of its natural resources—gas in particular. The time of the domination of multinational corporations and pseudo-multiculturalism—the time of neoliberal democracy—is in its death agony.

If a State of Siege has yet to be declared, it is because the military high command fears a barracks revolt. The situation in the police force is no less unstable: on the evening of October 10, for example, six police officers were arrested on charges of plotting rebellion under the direction of ex-police officer David Vargas, who led the police revolt that triggered the urban uprising of February 12/13, 2003.

Once again, this time ironically, Bolivian President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada has summed up the situation succinctly: a tiny minority is trying to divide the country. Sánchez de Lozada—whose approval rating stands at 8 percent—and his inner circle have dug in their heels, raised their voices in contempt, and adopted bellicose postures. The U.S. Embassy, the media, and the upper layers of the military and police are the only remaining supports of the regime.

The opposition sectors insist on the resignation of Sánchez de Lozada and his draconian ministers, Carlos Sánchez Berzaín and Yerko Kukoc, as well as a change in the law regulating petroleum multinationals (D.S. 24806).

Throughout the afternoon of October 10, at the wake of the 22-year-old Aymara bricklayer, Ramiro Vargas, held in the middle of Avenue 6 de Marzo in Ventilla, on the outskirts of El Alto, the mourners chanted, “Now for sure! Civ-il war! Now for sure! Civ-il war!” Police shot Vargas on October 9 for no reason other than that 500 miners had arrived from Huanuni to join the civic strike in El Alto, rejecting the FTAA and the export of Bolivian gas to the U.S. via Chile.

Following the killing of Ramiro Vargas, neighborhood committees in El Alto gave the police in 24 hours to leave their houses and called on them to join the uprising. Otherwise they would become victims of popular justice. On October 11, one policeman was captured by neighborhood residents in El Alto and held for seven hours before being rescued by fellow police. Other policemen and women have either gone into hiding or stayed at home; none dares to patrol the streets of El Alto.

On the evening of October 11, part of El Alto was without electricity as a result of an attack

on Electropaz, a multinational company targeted by rebels on February 12/13, and because soldiers shot out streetlights to make way for the gas tankers destined for La Paz. Earlier, the army killed two civilians—twenty-seven year-old Walter Huanca Choque and five year-old Alex Mollericona—during an operation designed to bring the tankers to La Paz (then suffering from a severe shortage of gas and cooking fuel).

The operation failed, and La Paz was without gas until October 12, when, as a result of the massacre in the neighborhood of Senkata, gas tankers, under military escort, arrived in the capital with 32,000 liters (5% of daily consumption). On October 13, La Paz will be without bread or meat, since the bakers and butchers have decided to join the protest against the proposed export of Bolivian gas; it will also be without public transport, because a departmental transport strike has been declared in solidarity with the citizens and martyrs of El Alto.

In spite of the tanks, planes, and soldiers, and helicopters strafing randomly, more than 90% of El Alto, entering its fifth consecutive day of a civic strike, remains under control of neighborhood associations, market vendors, public university students, and the Regional Workers’

Central (COR), led by Roberto de la Cruz, an Aymara militant of the Indian Revolutionary Movement (MIP), and followers of Felipe Quispe, leader of the Aymara peasant trade union federation (CSUTCB).

Quispe and the Aymara peasant trade union leaders continue their hunger strike at Radio San Gabriel in El Alto, and the blockades continue north of La Paz as well; for the first time, the insurgent altiplano—Huarina, Warisata, Acacachi and Sorata—is politically connected to the upper edge of the nation’s capital in what has become the most important Aymara uprising since 1899. The “surrounding of La Paz” (el cerco a La Paz), a tactic not effectively employed since

1781, has become a material possibility rather than an empty piece of radical rhetoric.

The media insists that the COR and de la Cruz are obligating people to participate in the blockades, which, to some extent, is true: in Aymara community politics, the minority is obliged to respect majority decisions on pain of expulsion from the community. No one should be surprised that this non-liberal pattern is being repeated in El Alto, which is overwhelmingly Aymara.

The degree of coercion should not be overemphasized, however: in the wake of the massacre of October 12, even people initially opposed to the civic strike are participating of their own free will.

Though the axis of revolt straddles the western highland region, the sub-tropical Yungas region northeast of La Paz, loyal to Evo Morales and the leading opposition party, Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), was completely blocked through the week of October 6-13.

Hundreds of vehicles and thousands of people were stranded in transit, but since none were foreigners, there were no rescue missions in the Yungas—and, as yet, no massacres like the one carried out on September 20 in Warisata, in which six Aymara peasant/workers and a police official were killed so that tourists could return to La Paz.

In the southern highlands and valleys of Sucre and Potosí, blockades have not been constant, but are set to intensify on October 13.

In Yapacaní, Santa Cruz, there have been sporadic blockades, but the eastern part of the country is under government control.

The Chapare lowlands—Evo Morales’s stronghold—have been completely militarized [that is, under military occupation] by day, but by night burning tires and trees block the roads, and after five hundred delegates of the coca growers’ trade union federations met in Cochabamba on October 11, a massive blockade was declared for October 13 in coordination with a rally in Cochabamba to commemorate the nationalization of Bolivian petroleum during the National Revolution of 1952.

The coca growers, like the citizens of El Alto and the highland Aymara communities, are calling for the resignation of Sánchez de Lozada, the repeal of the laws regulating multinational exploitation of petroleum resources, and the nationalization of Bolivian gas. In addition, the coca growers demand an end to the forced eradication of coca.

It remains to be seen whether the opposition movements, led by the highland Aymara, will succeed in overthrowing Sánchez de Lozada, implementing a Constituent Assembly, and forging a new Bolivia, or whether right-wing authoritarianism a la Uribe [the new president of Ecuador] will be imposed with the aid of the US Embassy.

The situation is unfolding with such rapidity that predictions are of marginal utility, but one thing is certain: the Aymara working class and peasantry of the western highlands; the coca growers of the eastern [and central] lowlands; the Quechua-speaking Indian peasantry of the southern highlands and valleys; the working class of La Paz and Cochabamba; in other words, the people who produce Bolivia’s wealth are demanding an end to 511 years of looting, exploitation, and political domination. They insist on becoming the beneficiaries of their labor, on making the political decisions that affect their lives, and exercising sovereignty over their natural resources.

But not for themselves: as one neighborhood leader in Santa Rosa, El Alto, put it on the evening of October 12, “Mr. Journalist, we will not move until the gringo [Sanchez de Lozada] is gone. He is no longer president here in El Alto. We run things here. We will not let anyone export our gas, much less to the U.S. via Chile. The gas is ours, and we want it for our children and grandchildren, so they won’t have to live like this. Our gas is for their future.”