Bolivia: Mass Mobilization of Workers, Peasants, Indigenous People, Urban and Rural Poor
Part of a Growing Pattern of Mass Action in Latin America

by George Saunders


“The direct intervention of the masses in historical events is the most indisputable feature of a revolution.”

If this observation is true—and we think it is—a revolution is in the making in Bolivia now, in the second half of October 2003.

The resignation of Bolivian President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada on October 17 is only a first phase of this revolution.

Mass assemblies of the people are directly discussing, debating, and deciding what the future of their country will be. A report of the position of “class independence” taken by the main trade union federation, the Central Obrera Boliviana (COB), is attached. The COB announced on October 18 that it would continue its general strike of indefinite duration until all the demands of the people are met.

For weeks now, mass protests have been going on in every part of Bolivia. Around the capital, La Paz, a city of 1.5 million, the teeming shantytowns of impoverished working people have been organized into one solid mass of protest. Workers militias and neighborhood assemblies are inspired by a workers’ organization, the Regional Workers Central (COR), whose leader is a militant of the Aymara indigenous group, the MIP, or Indian Revolutionary Movement.

How intensely the feelings of the oppressed have been aroused! A leader of the Aymara peasant union federation has declared readiness to form an independent Aymara republic in the western half of Bolivia.

Communities in rebellion have blocked roads all over the country, especially those leading into La Paz. An occasional convoy of soldiers has shot its way through into La Paz, and the forces of repression have attacked protesters in many areas. The result has been a death toll that human rights organizations say has reached 80 since late September, in addition to hundreds wounded by the armed forces loyal to Sánchez de Lozada.

Below we reprint a report by a Western journalist, Forrest Hylton, describing the mass organization in El Alto, a working-class suburb, or “twin city,” of La Paz, where 800,000 of Bolivia’s urban poor eke out their existence. In effect, it seems that working class power has been established in that major urban area. (See the article “Aymara Rebellion, Democracy, and Dictatorship.”)

This assessment is confirmed by Earl Gilman, who reported on October 18 on the “Argentina solidarity” e-mail discussion group: “The COB, the central labor federation, has decided to continue the general strike, as the new president of Bolivia is only a change of figureheads and does not represent the working class. Although the struggle was against selling gas through Chile, they call for not selling gas through Peru either, but to develop the industry of Bolivia.

“In El Alto, which is the working class city of nearly one million that adjoins La Paz  (it is on the highest part of La Paz, which is the coldest—while the rich live in the southern part, which is the lowest and warmest), the working class has formed dual power in the last nine days through the neighborhood assemblies. There are 562 neighborhood assemblies in El Alto with a coordinating committee. There are soup kitchens on every block. The neighborhood assembly has to authorize demonstrations, marches on La Paz, etc. They have destroyed all the police stations in El Alto, and no policeman who did not support the revolt is allowed in.”

The trade union organizations of the Bolivian working class, especially the miners, are playing a leading role in the protests, as they have done repeatedly since the great national revolution of 1952. As we have said, the main trade union federation, the COB, has indicated an intention to have a decisive say in how Bolivia will now be reorganized.

And why should such forces not decide? The workers, peasants, indigenous people, the urban and rural poor, who make up the vast majority of the country, have risen up and given what little they have, many giving their lives, to assert their will. Now that their forces are fully mobilized, when most of the nation is united around demands for sovereign control of their country’s national resources, against domination by foreign multinational corporations, for genuine democracy expressing the will of the majority, why should they surrender decision-making power to a few professional politicians in Congress? Those represent mainly the wealthy and “educated,” But here the people themselves are exercising power, with their mobilization at full flood. Why should they give up the right to decide their destiny now that it is in their hands?

The protesting masses have been demanding a constituent assembly, or constitutional convention to reorganize their country, and nationalization of their country’s natural resources. They are also expressing opposition to the U.S.-backed proposal for a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), also known as “NAFTA on steroids.” Above all they have been demanding the resignation of President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, a millionaire from the Bolivian elite, whose family wealth came from the ownership of mining properties. Raised and educated in the United States, he typifies the deep division in Bolivian society, where a tiny minority of the wealthy and educated, descendants of Spanish conquerors, have long been running the country in the interests of domestic and foreign capital, while the vast majority, who are of indigenous heritage, labor as miners or wage slaves of other varieties or as street vendors in the “informal economy” or struggle to survive as peasant farmers.

The protesters use the nickname “Goni” for Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada. They also call him “El Gringo,” because he speaks Spanish with a U.S. accent. “Goni Murderer” and “Fuera El Gringo” (Gringo Out!) have been common chants.

Bolivia is reported to be the poorest country in South America, with an average income of less than $2 a day. Impoverishment and stagnation have continued despite twenty years of neoliberal “market economics” following the prescriptions of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The immediate cause of the giant mass mobilizations of September-October 2003 was Goni’s plan to let a Western consortium of multinational corporations export natural gas from Bolivia, through Chile, to the United States, to California in particular. (We reprint two articles below, for the information of our readers, from the Los Angeles Times, which provide more details about the high finance and corporate wheeling and dealing behind this natural gas exporting project.)

The exporting of natural gas was encouraged by the IMF as a way for the Bolivian government to repay earlier loans from the banks and institutions of the advanced capitalist countries, mainly the United States and Europe.

The indigenous majority of Bolivians see the gas-exporting plan as just one more rip-off of their nation’s wealth—the kind of thing that started with the Spanish conquistadores, who plundered Bolivia’s silver, followed by the corporations of Europe and America who controlled and profited from the mining and exporting of Bolivia’s tin and other valuable minerals through most of the twentieth century.

In the Chapare region, the central jungle lowlands of Bolivia, peasant farmers—mostly indigenous, of Quechua nationality—for centuries have grown coca as a traditional part of their culture. The chewing of coca leaves there is as normal as coffee or tea drinking is for Americans. (It is not necessarily a part of the international cocaine trade. A full discussion of the phony “war on drugs,” which the U.S. government uses as a pretext for military intervention and which actually is one more, though peculiarly deformed, expression of control by finance capital over every type of internationally marketed commodity, is beyond the scope of the present article.)

Over the past several decades, as part of the “war on drugs,” a U.S.-sponsored program has tried, with military brutality, to suppress the growing of coca. The Bolivian peasant coca growers, again mostly Quechua, have organized a mass movement in their own defense. Their representative, Evo Morales, nearly defeated Sánchez, the candidate of the capitalist elite, in the August 2002 election. Sánchez won 22 percent of the vote, while Evo Morales won 21 percent. Now the coalition that gave Sánchez the presidency has collapsed, and Morales’s party, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), is a component of the nationwide protest movement.

(An accompanying article, “The ABC of Popular Revolt,” from the “Narco News” web site—a medium dedicated to exposing and refuting the falsity of the official U.S. government “war on drugs”—gives a good summary of the events of the past month in Bolivia, up to the resignation and flight of “Goni the Murderer.”)

U.S. government support—and the U.S. military presence in Bolivia—are of course the strongest forces that President Sánchez was counting on to try to survive this mass protest movement demanding his resignation. His support within the country was limited mainly to the wealthy upper-class minority, their hangers-on, and the Bolivian military, which is controlled by a U.S.-trained officer corps, many of whom undoubtedly got their training at the School of Assassins, that is, the former School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia.

According to Forrest Hylton’s report (reprinted below), the Bolivian generals were not sure that the rank-and-file soldiers would continue to follow orders. In at least one case, an officer is reported to have executed a soldier who refused to fire on his own people. Already, in February of this year, a fracture appeared in the armed forces of the Bolivian state. In that instance, a section of the Bolivian police rebelled, and even engaged in a firefight with the Bolivian military. Forrest Hylton’s report indicates that the masses of the working-class city, El Alto, have effectively neutralized the police. Also, a former leader of the rebel police of February 2003, David Vargas, is said to be active again on the side of the protesting masses in the present upsurge.

Late on Friday, October 17, reports circulated that the U.S. “Southern Command,” based in Miami, was sending an “assessment team” to La Paz. There were also reports of U.S. troops poised in Peru on the border with Bolivia ready to come to the aid of the shaky institutions of capitalism in Bolivia. A call went out for immediate protests this weekend against the danger of U.S. military intervention.

Protests Have Been Mounting in Bolivia Since 2000

The mass protests in Bolivia today are a repeat, on a larger scale, of a mass rebellion in that country in the year 2000.

Then too a multinational corporation—in fact, Bechtel, which today is fattening off the government contracts for “reconstruction” of Iraq—tried to carry out a rip-off of the Bolivian people. With the backing of the IMF and World Bank, Bechtel acquired control of a basic necessity, the water supply in the region of Cochabamba, Bolivia’s second largest city, after La Paz-El Alto. Bechtel wanted a 35 percent increase in water rates. But a mobilization of the people, led by the trade unions, with crowds as large as 100,000 confronting government troops, forced the government, then headed by former General Hugo Banzer, to abandon the privatization scheme.

(We will be posting on our web site, in a special section on Bolivia, an article from the web site Workday Minnesota reporting on a speech in Minneapolis exactly two years ago, in October 2000, by a Bolivian trade unionist and leader of the movement that drove Bechtel out and regained control of the water for the people of Cochabamba.)

Increase of Mass Protests in Latin America

In the past few years mass mobilizations by the poor and oppressed have become more and more frequent in Latin America. Besides the defeat dealt to the international water cartel by the people of Bolivia in 2000, there were several giant mobilizations of the people in Ecuador, involving especially the organizations of the indigenous people. One such mass outpouring resulted in the ouster of Ecuador’s pro-IMF president, Jamil Mahuad, in January 2000. Last year Ecuadorans elected Lucio Gutierrez, a military man who had refused to use force to suppress the mass protests of 2000. At that time he sided with the people. But since his election Gutierrez has betrayed the trust placed in him by the masses. He, too, has begun to cooperate with the IMF, the financial institutions and capitalist corporations of the U.S. and Europe. Now the main indigenous organization of Ecuador, Pachakutik, has withdrawn its support of Gutierrez.

Similarly, in Peru, another mass protest—this time in southern Peru, around the city of Arequipa, in 2002—forced the Peruvian government of Alejandro Toledo to abandon a rip-off project that would have privatized the electric power system, enriching foreign capitalist corporations at the expense of the people of Peru.

The greatest mass protest of recent years in Latin America was the “Argentinazo” of December 19–20, 2001, in Buenos Aires, where a huge outpouring of virtually every stratum of the population in that metropolitan area of many million, forced the ouster of  Argentina’s president, the IMF puppet de la Rua. That mobilization of the masses, although it gave rise to neighborhood assemblies which had characteristics similar to those of Soviets (workers’, peasants’, and soldiers’ councils) in the Russian revolution of 1917, was unable to find its way politically out of the continuing morass of the capitalist system. The election of a “populist” Peronist politician, Kirchner, in the spring of 2003 has resulted in what we hope will be only a temporary pause in the process by which the masses seek for and eventually find a solution to the crisis created by capitalism and move beyond this antiquated system to a society that is run by the working class majority to meet the needs of the majority, not the profit-hunger of the few.

The election of Lula in Brazil in the fall of 2002 is another expression of mass protest, of the massive rejection, throughout Latin America, of the “neoliberal model” in which social needs are subordinated to “the market,” that is, the profit-seeking greed of finance capital which dominates the world market. (On our web site, we have three separate articles about the present situation in Brazil, and so will not discuss Brazil further in this article.)

Another great mass outpouring happened in Venezuela in April 2002.

At that time the urban poor of Caracas, and the peasant masses in the countryside, together with the dark-skinned ranks of the military, mostly of African American, mixed, or indigenous origin, moved into action, pouring into the streets of the capital city and towns all over Venezuela. Their actions stymied an attempted coup against the elected president, Hugo Chávez.

The coup attempt of April 2002, with U.S. government backing, had its source in the Venezuelan upper class, mostly of European origin, the wealthy minority of capitalists and professional hangers-on of the capitalist class. Since then the Chávez government has persisted, taking measures favoring the Venezuelan workers and peasants, including the indigenous. In the winter of 2002–2003 the Chávez government survived an attempt by pro-capitalist managers and their allies among trade union bureaucrats to shut down Venezuela’s nationalized oil industry. Rank-and-file workers stepped in and helped keep the oil industry going, and now the wealth from that industry can be used to benefit the people of Venezuela rather than to benefit mainly the wealthy elite, as had previously been the case. Reportedly the Chávez government, balancing on support from the masses of workers and peasants, has by now turned over nearly two million hectares of land to poor farmers, including the indigenous.

This year the Chávez government declared October 12 to be Indigenous Day, instead of the day that honored the Spanish—and international capitalist—conquest of the Americas, “Columbus Day.” (We reprint below a report about an international conference in Caracas of “Indigenous Peoples and Peasants of the Americas.” Significantly, this conference included indigenous organizations from Bolivia and Ecuador, which have played key roles in the recent upheavals in those two countries.)


Indigenous Peoples and Peasants of the Americas Vow to Globalize Resistance

This article was posted on the Internet on Thursday, Oct 16, 2003, by Venpress and Venezuelanalysis.com

“Let’s Globalize the Struggle! Let’s Globalize Hope!” is the slogan of the first International Encounter of Resistance and Solidarity of Indigenous and Peasant Peoples, held in Caracas from October 11 to 14. Over a thousand representatives from over 20 countries of both North and South America and the Caribbean attended the four-day event of speeches and workshops.

President Hugo Chávez inaugurated the event saying, “Today we will not give honors to Columbus; today we give honors to our indigenous peoples who heroically resisted being trampled upon. As Latin Americans we do not need to give honor nor tribute to Christopher Columbus. Christopher Columbus was the spear head of the invasion and the greatest genocide in recorded history of the people.”

Among the groups in attendance at the encounter were: Vía Campesina from Honduras; the Landless Movement (Movimento dos Sem Terras) from Brazil; the confederation of Indigenous Nationalities from Ecuador (Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas de Ecuador); the National Indigenous and Peasant Coordination from Guatemala (Coordinadora Nacional Indígena y Campesina); the Movement Toward Socialism from Bolivia (Movimiento Al Socialismo); plus numerous Venezuelan organizations, such as the National Indian Council (Consejo Nacional Indio); the National Agrarian Coordination Ezequiel Zamora (Coordinadora Agraria Nacional Ezequiel Zamora), and the Bolivarian Forum of the Americas (Foro Bolivariano de las Américas).

The purpose of the meeting was to celebrate the unity of indigenous peoples and of peasants and to support the Venezuelan process and the agrarian transformation in the country.

Rafael Alegria, the leader of Via Campesina, from Honduras, said, “Venezuela is the only country of the Americas to have designated October 12 as the day of indigenous resistance and for this reason it deserves the recognition of all international indigenous organizations.” Also, Alegria added, Venezuela deserves recognition for being the only country in which there is a true agrarian revolution. Nearly 2 million hectares of land have been transferred to peasants in the past year.

One of Venezuela’s most important indigenous leaders, Noeli Pocaterra, who is also a representative in Venezuela’s National Assembly and the second vice-president of the assembly, said that the Venezuelan process has given dignity back to the indigenous peoples of Venezuela.

According to her, “We have been here on this land before anyone else and after many years we were made to feel like strangers in our own land. With our incorporation into the constitution we have achieved that the indigenous peoples are not seen as a folkloric issue or as stone statues (“convidados de piedra”).

President Chávez’s weekly television program, Alo Presidente, was devoted to the international encounter of indigenous peoples and campesinos. In the course of the program Chávez announced that he named a new presidential commission, Mision Guaicaipuro, which would guarantee the implementation of the rights of Venezuela’s indigenous peoples. Among other things, it would demarcate the land of the indigenous population. It will be headed by the minister of the environment, Ana Maria Osorio.

Chávez also read from the literacy campaign textbooks, Misión Robinson, written in several of the different indigenous languages—more than a million people have so far benefited from the program after only three months of its existence. Also, the project Misión Sucre will prioritize the poor and indigenous populations, giving 100,000 scholarships of $100 per month.

Finally, Chávez also announced the creation of indigenous “micro credit banks”. Isa Sierra of Fondo de Desarrollo Microfinanciero (Fondemi) followed up this proposal the next day, saying that 33 such banks would be created with 10,000 million bolivares by the end of the year. The loans they provide would be at an interest rate of 1%.

The encounter concluded with a statement in solidarity with the indigenous people of Bolivia, which also denounced the repression by the neoliberal government, in which more than 80 people have died in the last days.