Social Movements on Their Feet, a President without Direction, and a Socialist Leader out of Touch
by Jeffery R. Webber
article was posted on the Internet on Tuesday, May 17. The author is a Ph.D.
candidate at the
At around on Monday morning, massive crowds of
mostly poor indigenous Bolivians gathered on the cusp of a mountainside that
descends into the capital city of
Workers in the massive informal sector, ex-miners who “relocated” to the shantytown after privatization of the mines in 1985, the unemployed, recent migrants from the countryside pushed from their former livelihoods through the devastation of the agricultural economy in the high plateau, women in traditional indigenous dress with their unique bowler hats, shoeshine boys, Trotskyist teachers, communists, socialists, indigenists, neighbourhood activists, populists, and others milling around in a jovial mood eating breakfast on the street, provided by women vendors who have erected their food stands along the opening path of the planned march for the nationalization of the country’s natural gas.
Organizations participating in the day’s actions include the Federation of United Neighborhoods of El Alto (FEJUVE-El Alto), the Regional Workers Central of El Alto (COR-El Alto), the Public University of El Alto, the Departmental Workers Central, the Confederation of Original Peoples, the Federation of Peasants of La Paz “Tupaj Katari,” the Bolivian Workers Central (COB), the teachers unions of El Alto and La Paz, among many, many others.
The theme is the nationalization of
gas, but it doesn’t stop there. They want to close the Parliament and kick out
the president. Frustration is running high in El Alto and throughout popular
sectors in the country. The nationalization of gas was the historic demand of
the October rebellion of 2003 that left many dead and ousted the hated
president Gonzalo (“Goni”) Sánchez de Lozada. Vice president at the time,
Carlos Mesa Gisbert, who had distanced himself from the state violence
perpetrated by Goni, assumed the presidency through constitutional mechanisms,
with the support of many of the protesters who believed
It took three hours to march the
roughly 7 miles from the edge of El Alto to downtown
Along the way the chants of the protesters and casual conversations made clear the demands in descending order of importance: nationalization of gas, the shutdown of parliament as a show of popular force and determination, and the removal of the sell-out October president. But underlying all this is the more basic sentiment expressed by one worker marching next to me: “The governments have been on the side of the transnationals, and the rich. We want a government on the side of the people.” As the waves of demonstrators seemingly had no end, participants in the march started speculating: “Another October?”
But as an experienced Argentine journalist suggested to me, in October 2003 it took the massacres orchestrated by Goni to change the whole mood of protests. People were enraged, and through that rage accumulated the capacity to simply overrun the capital and kick out Goni the assassin. So far, Mesa—a former journalist and historian probably wary of going down in the history books in the same fashion as Goni—has been unwilling to really crack down and smash heads, as many in the business community demand, although always in the Orwellian speech of maintaining “legal security” for a “healthy business environment,” the “transitability of roads,” the “free movement of commerce and trade”, the inviolability of private property, the absolute necessity of bending to the will of transnational petroleum companies, and maintaining a suitable environment for tourism and foreign investment in general.
The road blockades and
mobilizations of the indigenous poor stand in the way of this conception of
Once we arrived in the center of La Paz, excitement grew as the front lines of the mobilization veered away from the road leading to the Plaza San Francisco (a frequent point of convergence for demonstrations), instead opting for the route leading to the Plaza Murillo, which hosts the Presidential Palace. Two blocks away from the Plaza, the march encountered its first line of heavily armed police, decked out in riot gear and grim faces. The marchers chanted and sung for the police to join them, pointing out that they had the option of uniting with the people or acting as the assassins of the state.
The march turned up a different street, opting out of confrontation at this point and circling around for an attempt to take the Plaza from another location. A few blocks later the march stopped short and the front lines began jeering and yelling at the next police barricade. In the tradition of the Bolivian tin miners—the old vanguard of the Bolivian Left—dynamite was exploded, not with the intention of killing anyone, but making some noise and building the energy of the protesters. This act, in conjunction with protesters on the front lines physically removing one of the blockades that had been set up, set the police off with their tear gas canisters, and soon after, rubber bullets.
Also, for the first time, the state used its special anti-disturbance vehicle, the “Neptuno,” which looks like a cross between a tank and a banking security truck. The Neptuno’s special feature is a powerful water gun that hoses people to the ground, inciting panic among escaping crowds in the narrow colonial-era streets of the capital. The stores on these streets were all closed and barricaded allowing no means of reprieve but to run from the state reaction to mobilization. This area of the city is heavily populated with kindergartens, and primary and secondary schools. Many youngsters suffered from the tear-gas that had everyone running and crying blocks away from the actual confrontation.
While in no sense a bloody replay of Goni’s massacre in October 2003, Monday nonetheless left at minimum eight people injured, and the crowd notably stirred up and angered in comparison to the jovial breakfast reunion in El Alto. Peasant leader Ramiro Llusco and Daniel Chinchi, a student at the Public University of El Alto, were injured by rubber bullets, as were Lucio Bascopé of the Confederation of Indigenous Nations of Eastern Bolivia, and Sergio Tarqui of the Federation of Peasants of La Paz, “Tupaj Katari.” Teacher activist José Luis Álvarez told La Prensa that another unidentified person was hit in the chest with a rubber bullet. Meanwhile, TV images from Monday night showed a man with a basically destroyed and bloody hand and a man with open wounds from rubber bullets around his ribcage.
On Monday the mobilizations were
unable to take the Parliament. Today, Tuesday, most organizations planned to
hold open assemblies to organize future actions as they awaited President Mesa’s
position on the hydrocarbons law that was approved by Congress ten days ago and
was thus moved to the hands of the executive. According to the Constitution,
President Mesa had ten daysto decide on one of four possible reactions to the
law, which would require petroleum companies to pay eighteen percent well-head
royalties and a thirty-two percent direct hydrocarbon tax. At today, the last possible
minute, it was publicized that the president would neither promulgate nor veto
the law. This decision by
Popular but Divided Movement throughout the Country
The following important popular organizations have come out in support of nationalizing gas and closing the Parliament: FEJUVE-El Alto, COR-El Alto, and the COB, with the teachers’ unions at minimum supporting nationalization. Most of these organizations roots and strength are based in the poor indigenous population of El Alto. These demands clearly reflect the demands “at the base,” that is, among the masses of El Alto’s mobilized populations, as anyone who participated in Monday’s huge march or various general assemblies of FEJUVE and COR in El Alto recently could testify.
Nonetheless, Evo Morales and his
party, the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), has
rejected both demands. The MAS is the umbrella organization of another
important protest march of thousands which has started from the high-plateau
community of Caracollo on route to
El Alto-La Paz protests of yesterday, calling for a hydrocarbons law with fifty percent royalties instead of eighteen percent, and rejecting road blockades and taking the Parliament as tactics of dissent. Participating in this wing of mobilizations are all those organizations that compose the “Pact of Unity”: Conamaq, CSUTCB, CSCB, CSPESC, CEPMB, AGP, MST-B, FNMCB-BS, CDTAC, Bocinab, Doderip, CIOEC, COD, coca growers, and other organizations. While an impressive array of organizations, the demands seem distant from those of the October Agenda and the sentiments of the core base of October, the population of El Alto. Morales’s discourse on television appears downright passive in relation to activities in the streets of the shantytown and the capital.
There is a chance that as the march
from Caracollo to
Reflecting the limits of MAS
directives, Morales’s televised appearances against road blockades have hardly
left the country’s roads free for commerce. Cooperative miners, with a mix of
national and sectoral demands, have blockaded the principal highways linking Potosí-Sucre-Tarija
and La Paz-Oruro-Cochabamba. The Federation of Peasants of La Paz “Túpaj Katari”
has announced that today they will block the roads of the twenty provinces of
the department of
There is little sense in guessing what will happen in the coming days, but it’s at least clear that the Bolivian popular sectors are demonstrating their ongoing capacity to mobilize for their rights and for a government on the side of the people.