The ABC of Popular Revolt

Or, How They Got Rid of a Tyrant in Bolivia

by Andrea Arenas Alípaz and Luis Gómez
Special to The Narco News Bulletin
October 18, 2003


LA PAZ, BOLIVIA; OCTOBER 17, 2003

It wasn’t a coup. It was the people.

And nobody, not even Viceroy David Greenlee [U.S. ambassador to Bolivia], could stop it.

Gonzalo “Goni” Sánchez de Lozada had to resign from the Bolivian presidency after weeks of popular mobilizations, for having massacred the people, for lying and trying to hang on to power by all means necessary. Now, vigilant and festive in the streets, the Bolivian people are the live expression of a democracy constructed from below.

In these sentences, kind readers, we will try to give you the clearest picture possible of what has occurred in this country where the people have rewritten history...

A. Who and How

“If Goni wants money, let him sell his wife,” the women and men of deep “Bolivia Bronca” began to chant two months ago. It all began there: The sale of the country’s natural gas reserves, a multi-billion dollar business deal that the administration of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada tried to make with the multinationals Pacific LNG and Sempra, passing a gas pipeline through Chile to the Pacific. “Not the multinationals, nor the Chileans, should benefit from the Bolivian people’s wealth…We are going to recover our natural resources,” was what Congressman Evo Morales, leader of the coca growers, said during a session of the national Congress.

Congressman Felipe Quispe, national peasant farmer leader, began, in the first days of September, a hunger strike demanding that the gas not be for sale. The well-known “El Mallku” made it clear: “This is a personal business deal for Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada.”

The national labor union – Central Obrera Boliviana, or COB in its Spanish initials — led by Jaime Solares (a miner with 35 years of experience in the union struggle), launched a series of marches in different regions of the country. But the government, which didn’t see any strength in the mobilizations, thought they weren’t important. That was a mistake.

After the first blockades, confrontations, and deaths in the high plains of Sorata and Warisata (the Athens of the Aymara world, because the first indigenous school was built there), the movement from the towns and neighborhoods snowballed. The leaders of the principal popular organizations began to instruct their bases: radicalize the fight with pressure tactics.

On Wednesday, October 8, El Alto awoke semi-paralyzed. It is a city with 800,000 residents, the majority indigenous migrants from the countryside. The neighborhood councils began to adhere to the COB’s action plan, based on an indefinite General Strike. That set the course for the fight, because to paralyze this city of poor people, where the median age is 22 years, is the same as leaving the city of La Paz without resources, without workers, without communication, and without food.

The massacres of the following days brought determination to the people. El Alto resisted, with sticks and stones, the rain of teargas and bullets. And nearly all the cities [and towns] of Western Bolivia then mobilized. While Goni insisted that he would not go, because the Bolivian people were with him, the general strike hit Cochabamba, Oruro was paralyzed, Potosí too, and Sucre saw 25,000 people take to the streets day after day. In La Paz, the residents came out to receive the marches from El Alto, and, together, they took over the Plaza of San Francisco numerous times, demanding the exit of “the gringo”—as they called the president, raised in the United States, who spoke Spanish with a North American accent, who had assassinated them.

B. What

Well, kind readers, first it was the gas and the call not to sell it to the multinationals so that they could pump it out through Chile.

But when the massacres began, all the leaders joined together under one banner: The resignation of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada. The now ex-president called for a dialogue without conditions on Tuesday morning [October 14] and issued a decree to have a nonbinding referendum regarding the gas and hydrocarbons. But it was already too late. The giant snowball was closing in on his house.

“How can we have talks with an assassin,” said Felipe Quispe.

“The people know. The people think. The people decide. There will be no talks until the president resigns,” added Evo on Wednesday afternoon, from the war room of the “Coordinadora” for the Defense of Gas and Sovereignty, in Cochabamba. Via radio, the voice of the people began to be heard, plus the voices of their leaders and some analysis coming from the social movements: NO, he must go.

Yesterday morning, thousands of coca growers from the Yungas region arrived in La Paz, with hundreds of miners from the South. El Alto came down from the hills again, into the city. An open meeting was held to decide what to do, and the popular clamor was to refuse to move one step from the demand that the president resign.

Never in the history of the young (21-year-old) democracy of Bolivia had there been a demonstration like this one: 200,000 people chanting, marching, deciding from below the future of their country.

There had been other factors that ended up placing Sánchez de Lozada off balance. He was already thinking of carrying out a “self-coup” and maintaining himself in power through the armed forces. On Thursday afternoon, intellectuals and artists, journalists, and the middle and upper classes began to join the opposition. The former Public Defender of the nation, Ana Maria Romero, launched a hunger strike, also demanding his resignation, and, together with her, six intellectuals and human rights defenders, and a Catholic priest. Ten hours later, there were already 400 people in the hunger strike from diverse points throughout Bolivia.

“Goni, you bastard, we want you to resign...”

C. When

When the popular sectors of Bolivia march, there is common call and response: One of the marchers asks the contingent: “What do we want?” The response varies according to the demands of the mobilization. The demonstrators begin to call out, “When?” And then the response, “Now!”

Today, there was no time for that. The “now” of the popular revolt became reality. After killing more than 80 Bolivian citizens, after wounding more than 400, and receiving the rejection of more than 400 hunger strikers, Sánchez de Lozada literally flew out of his post…to Miami.

This day in history, that feeds our last report to Narco News with happiness, was overwhelming.

It was 9:00 a.m. [on Friday, October 17] and the envoys from the Brazil and Argentina governments entered the presidential palace, which had become, since Monday, the office of the entire administration. At 10:00 a.m., the mediators sent by Lula and Kirchner headed from there to the house of Vice President Carlos Mesa, who minutes before had bid Viceroy Greenlee goodbye. “We will not allow democratic institutions to be violated,” said the viceroy, assuredly terrified at the spectacle of the Indians who were watching him from afar. At 4:00 p.m. on this day, dozens of soldiers arrived at the United States Embassy to protect it.

At 11:00 a.m. the leader of the New Republican Force party (NFR, in its Spanish initials), Manfred Reyes Villa, left the house of his ally, the president, and announced to the national press that he was resigning from the governing coalition of Sánchez de Lozada. While these events occurred, the Bolivian people continued marching and breaking all records (today, there were 350,000 in the streets of La Paz, coming from everywhere).

Today, October 17, 2003, Bolivia celebrated two victories: one, the anniversary of the nationalization of the Gulf Oil Company [in 1952]; and the other, the defeat of the administration of Sánchez de Lozada. At midday, another march began, by the coca growers of Yungas, arriving in La Paz from Calahahuira. Simultaneously, another march began, by 10,000 homesteaders, who broke through the military barricade and passed, triumphantly, onto the Guilberto Villarroel Plaza.

Under such pressures from the Bolivian people, and in spite of the fact that, hours earlier, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, had declared to Telefé of Argentina and our “dear” CNN that he would not resign from the presidency, he was already preparing his resignation. However, he did not show his face in the halls of Congress. Instead, he sent a letter and a video.

The airport of the Military College, located in the Southern Zone of La Paz, was utilized to help Sánchez de Lozada and Defense Secretary Carlos Sánchez Berzaín. Two small helicopters transported the ex-president and crony and their suitcases. Each time that someone came down off a helicopter, the soldiers, their chests to the ground, pointed their guns at the tumult of people gathered behind the fence: some journalists recording the scene, and women with placards that said, in English, “Goni Go Home!”

Evo Morales told Narco News, after the exit by the ex–president, that this has been a great triumph by the Bolivian people. He asked all the people to avoid confrontations and said that we are beginning to recover democracy, and that, “we are going to defend the Constitution.” He said that Carlos Mesa will have to answer to the Bolivian people. The new president will have to comply in the formation of a Constitutional Convention, providing education and health for the people, and amending the hydrocarbons law [privatizing these national resources], because “we can’t lose so many lives and still not win back our fuel.”

In the same vein, Morales corrected, to CNN, the accusations made by Sánchez de Lozada, in which he was accused of having connections with the Colombian FARC rebels and of being a narco-trafficker. The coca growers’ leader denied all of it and said that Goni had always accused the popular movements with words like those. And in regard to the new president, we asked Evo in a telephone interview after he spoke with various members of the commercial media: “What about the coca leaf?”

“He will have to accept the fact that there will never be ‘zero coca’ in this country. We have sat down five times with the ex-president without winning anything, and now we hope that things will change and that Mesa will not subject himself to the imperialist interests of the United States,” was the firm response.

“We, of the Six Federations of the Tropic of Cochabamba,” Evo challenged, “will not permit the situation to continue like it has. The issue that the new president will have to analyze comes down to two words: forced eradication. We know that the ambassador (Greenlee) has been trying, since this morning, to put pressure on Carlos Mesa. But we hope for a new policy, more open, more human, that leaves behind the attacks and assassinations that we have suffered for a long time…If he tries to repeat them, we will go out into the streets again to force Mesa to leave.”

Given that one of the most combative parts of Bolivia is the Chapare [the coca-growing region represented by Evo Morales], and that the new president, a former leader of the La Paz journalists’ union, is, as Miguel Pinto said, the “new prisoner of the palace” (the palace of the people, of course), a colleague from Radio Erbol asked Evo if he was thinking of becoming part of the administration. The congressman and coca grower replied: “The MAS (his “Movement Toward Socialism” party) doesn’t seek jobs in the new government. It will not cogovern with Carlos Mesa or anybody else because we have great differences in culture and ideology.”

During our telephone interview, Evo confirmed that the MAS is not thinking of becoming part of the administration. “Gómez,” he said, “you’ve already seen what the people can do. For what do we need the government? If they threaten the coca leaf again, we’re sure the people will come forward to defend it.” And before hanging up, because, of course, he was quite busy, he asked me to send his regards to his compañero Al Giordano [of Narco News].

But his final words were particularly special, in response to this question: “Are the issues of gas and the coca leaf related?”

“The defense of our natural resources is an issue that affects the entire Bolivian people. This is our wealth. And we should benefit from it. The same for the coca leaf, because it has been part of our culture for millennia,” he said. Plan Colombia, said Evo, is no more than a plan to colonize us. “I’m remembering that the Colombian and Gringo troops dedicated to combating ‘narco-trafficking’ are also guarding oil pipelines, for example.”

And, kind readers, can you guess where they have “discovered” a lot of oil and gas in this country? Aha, in the Chapare! Well, okay, we’ll continue with this report on this day in history…

At 9:30 p.m. tonight the Congress began its session to ratify the resignation of Sánchez de Lozada. The party bosses had agreed beforehand that this session would simply read the letter signed by

Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and transfer power to Carlos Mesa. In the letter, Sánchez de Lozada said that democracy “was being used for the convenience of some.” (Is “some” his way of saying “millions”?) And that “the issue of gas has been used as a pretext” with the goal that democracy would be disrespected—as if it had been the citizens who shot the soldiers in cold blood.

A while ago, at 10:25 p.m., Carlos Mesa was sworn in and became the president, thanks to the people. In his first words as head of state, Mesa, who of course is a journalist, said that he would put the gas issue to a referendum, a “binding” referendum, so that the will of the people would be respected. “We must be able to understand the country beginning with the ethnic groups like the Quechua, the Aymara, and the Guaraní, who have paid for the history of inequality with their blood, a history that we are obligated to repair,” he said. Now, at 10:45 p.m., on October 17, 2003, Bolivia has a new president, and from the street the fireworks sound and this nation is celebrating its triumph.

The people came, they spoke, and they decided. A new victory for Authentic Democracy has been constructed, but with deaths and with rage. And your correspondents, although tired, we are going to drink a toast to the health of Bolivia, which begins rebuilding from the streets. Eh, and another toast, because we may not see each other again, kind readers. To Dan, to Al, it has been a pleasure ending on this happy note. The War on Drugs, imposed by the gringos, has suffered a brutal defeat with what has happened here. There is no doubt. The maximum leader in El Alto commented to us tonight, with tears in his eyes, that the people “have delivered a huge punch to the United States.”

Well, see you next time, with a bold smile, somewhere else “in a country called América.” See you in the next battle. Cheers!