Bolivia's Battle Of Wills
by Christian Parenti
The Nation magazine, July 4, 2005
At a roadblock on the Bolivian altiplano,
a group of indigenous tin miners in brown fiberglass helmets,
their jaws bulging with coca leaves, lounge around on an empty
strip of road. Suddenly the thin, high-altitude air shakes with
a quick explosion. Everyone laughs. The comrades are killing time
by tossing lit dynamite into a field. Tomorrow they will march
across these high empty plains, through the sprawling, impoverished,
majority Indian city of El Alto and over the edge of a steep canyon
down into the capital of La Paz, and there lay siege to the government.
The miners have held this road for the
past twenty-four hours. Both main arteries linking La Paz to the
outside world are shut down. The Bolivian economy is beginning
to sputter and stall; before long the restaurants, hotels and
offices of the capital will start to run out of food and fuel;
uncollected garbage will pile up in the streets. Soon six major
cities will be sealed off by more than eighty blockades.
"The Congress is dominated by the
transnational corporations. We are fighting to recover our natural
resources. It is our right," says a stern miner named Miguel
The social movements--a host of mostly
indigenous organizations representing Aymara and Quechua peasants,
miners, teachers, urban community organizations, coca growers
and the oldest national labor federation--are demanding nationalization
of the country's massive natural gas reserves, now estimated to
be the second-largest in the hemisphere, at 53 trillion cubic
feet. Their other plank is a constituent assembly to reformulate
Bolivia's political system and give greater power to the majority
Throughout South America, center-left
governments are taking power, with Uruguay and Ecuador being the
latest to join the trend. Bolivia, home to some of the most well-organized
and radical popular movements on the continent, could be next.
But the challenges facing the Bolivian left are enormous: Despite
all its strength, it is riven by ideological disputes, pervasive
Quechua versus Aymara ethnic factionalism and the constant clash
of leadership egos.
Meanwhile, the right is also mobilizing.
European-descended elites in the gas-rich lowland provinces of
Santa Cruz and Tarija are agitating for autonomy or possible secession.
The major oil companies operating in Bolivia are all threatening
disinvestment if the industry is restructured. There are also
rumors of a possible military coup.
On June 6 the centrist president, Carlos
Mesa Gisbert, resigned. For a tense week it seemed the next president
would be Hormando Vaca Díez, president of the Senate, a
right-wing cattle rancher who warned that continued protest would
"end in authoritarian government." But now Eduardo Rodriguez,
head of the Supreme Court, has been sworn in as Bolivia's president.
He is obliged to hold elections within six months.
The recently departed Mesa inherited
his job in October 2003, the last time the issue of natural gas
exploded. In that conflict his predecessor, then-president Gonzalo
"Goni" Sánchez de Lozada, ordered troops to open
fire on demonstrators. At least sixty-seven people were killed,
and in the outrage that followed, Goni fled to the United States.
Back at the miners' blockade, three
weeks before Mesa's resignation, nine trucks are sitting before
a string of stones laid across the highway. In the center of this
is a homemade bomb of dynamite, packed in a bottle full of pebbles.
A few of the stranded drivers play soccer next to their vehicles.
"With the blockades we all lose
out," says Fernando Chavez, an Aymaran shepherd from the
nearby village of Achica Arriba, where the miners have bivouacked.
"The dynamite scares the children," he says, one eye
on his flock of fifty sheep. "President Mesa should talk
to all sectors."
In a truck called Rey de Reyes ("King
of Kings") and painted with evangelical inscriptions sits
Johny Miranda. He had dropped off a load of soybeans in Peru and
was headed home to Cochabamba when he hit this barrier last night.
If he tries to run the blockade, he says, the miners will slash
his tires and destroy his truck. He doesn't support such tactics,
but he wants the people to get more of the revenue from natural
"Instead of blockades they should
go right for the power, attack the gas fields and the Parliament,"
says Miranda. Within hours that's exactly what happens.
Crucial in all of this is the character
of Evo Morales and his party, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS).
Morales is of mixed Aymaran and Quechuan descent and got his start
as a coca farmer, or cocalero.
He lost the last presidential election, in 2002, by only one percentage
point. MAS is now the second-largest group in Parliament. But
Morales is not the driving force behind Bolivia's social movements.
Most grassroots organizations in Bolivia
are far more radical than the social democratic MAS. Morales originally
called for a 50 percent royalty on foreign oil companies, while
most of the movement wants 100 percent nationalization. This has
caused Bolivian sociologist Carlos Crespo to describe Morales
as "Lula-ized," and to call MAS "hierarchical"
and just "a presidential vehicle." Antonio Peredo, a
senior MAS senator, has a different critique of his party: "If
we took power now we wouldn't last ten weeks. We're not ready."
But neither is anyone else on the left, and as Alex Contreras,
a radical Bolivian journalist, puts it, "MAS is the only
organization capable of uniting enough factions to win elections.
They're not corrupt and they're not fanatics. They're the only
To find out what Morales thinks of the
unfolding turmoil I track him down at the party offices in Cochabamba.
Morales shows up late for the interview, a crowd of campesino
activists, cooperative miners and two television crews in tow.
He politely locks them out of his office and sits for the interview
at a simple desk. Behind him hangs a wiphala, the square,
rainbow-checked flag of indigenous self-determination. On other
walls are posters bearing pictures of Che Guevara and Evo Morales
How does MAS plan to win elections to
be held before the end of this year? "We are the primary
political force in the country. If there had been a runoff in
2002 we would have won," says Morales, as if victory had
been almost assured. Not all agree with this assessment--many
suspect that the traditional rightist parties would have united
to smash MAS in a runoff.
When I press Morales on various issues--such
as how to expand his base and reach out to Aymaran organizations
that are now openly hostile to MAS, which is seen as heavily Quechuan--Morales
is surprisingly reticent. He appears tired and distracted. What
would the party do once in power? Morales says they would abolish
a few ministries and create a few new ones that would better serve
the poor. How will MAS woo the middle classes? "Who knows
about the middle class, they are fickle," says Morales with
an evasive grin. "Mesa is damaging the middle class. He can't
walk in the streets now." Other than pointing out Mesa's
faults, Morales seems to have no real plan for winning and using
As for the famous Aymaran leader Felipe
Quispe, who is one of Morales's main rivals, "sometimes we
get along, sometimes we don't," says Morales. What are the
biggest challenges MAS faces? "Political meddling from the
United States." When I ask him about the difference between
his call for 50 percent royalties and the increasingly popular
demand for nationalization, he offers a contorted attempt to reconcile
the two. "If we renegotiate all of these illegal contracts,
and insure local community consultation on the new contracts,
that is essentially nationalization."
A week later, when the airports have
not yet been shut down, Morales and I end up on the same flight
to La Paz. He can't remember our recent hourlong interview. I
remind him of all the details; he looks at me with earnest, tired
eyes but still can't remember. I am traveling with a colleague,
Ryan Grim from Slate. Neither of us can decide whether Morales's
total lack of pretense should be read as reassuring honesty or
simple incompetence. After all, glad-handing journalists is Politics
101. As we take our seats in coach and Evo slides into first class,
Grim leans over to me: "If you hear a loud bang and see a
bright light, you know the CIA has gotten rid of the Evo Morales
problem with a 'mysterious plane crash.'"
The lowland jungle of the Chaparé
region, a few hours east and downhill from Cochabamba, is where
Morales got his start as a union leader among the cocaleros. Driving into the Chaparé on alternately
paved and washed-out dirt roads, the jungle looms up--lush, wet
and claustrophobic. The roadside villages are mildewed and feel
broken down. The air is soft and full of oxygen, unlike planet
La Paz at 13,000 feet.
The first white and mestizo settlers
in this area were deserters from the Chaco War with Paraguay in
the late 1930s. Disease whipped most of the local Yuki Indians.
In the 1980s a new wave of immigrants arrived, pushed out of the
highlands by the layoffs and deindustrialization of president
Victor Paz Estenssoro's monetarist "new economic policy."
To survive, the former miners and displaced highland Quechua campesinos
turned to growing coca, some of which made its way to the legal
market to be chewed as a mild stimulant and hunger suppressant
but most of which was, and is, purchased by Colombia-connected
drug traffickers who turn it into cocaine.
In many ways the first chapter in Bolivia's
current season of political upheaval began here in the Chaparé
during the 1990s, when the US-orchestrated drug war began targeting
these new cocaleros and their openly socialist and indígenista
trade unions. Known simply as the Six Federations, the cocaleros'
unions function as a de facto state, mixing traditional Quechuan
communitarian custom with more modern forms of political organizing.
Though land is formally titled to individuals, it is really the
Six Federations that collectively manage it. Cocaleros who do
not cultivate their plots and refuse to participate in union and
community struggles have their land repossessed and redistributed
by the unions.
In the city hall of Villa Tunari, one
of the damp little towns in the Chaparé, MAS party mayor
Feliciano Mamani takes a break from meetings to explain the politics
of the Chaparé. "The drug war is a political fight.
It's about dismantling our union organizations," says Mamani,
who came up through the ranks with Evo. "First they called
us communists, then they called us narco-traffickers, now they
call us terrorists."
To emphasize his point Mamani rolls up
his pants to reveal his dented and blackened shin, where he took
a canister of police tear gas five years ago. The wound exposed
his bone and remained open and weeping until recently. As he explains
the story of his injury, a gray Huey helicopter sweeps low and
For the past six years the Chaparé
has been in the grip of a very-low-level guerrilla war and counterinsurgency:
The military kills unarmed civilians, tortures detainees, uproots
the cocaleros' crops and occasionally burns down their
homesteads, while police and prosecutors jail union leaders and
MAS officials on charges of drug trafficking and terrorism. So
far, 150 MAS leaders have faced such charges, often based on evidence
as flimsy as possession of coca or pamphlets by Che Guevara.
The cocaleros fight back with
blockades, protests, roadside sniping, occasional abductions and
homemade bombs hidden in the coca fields, set to kill the military
eradication teams. According to Kathryn Ledebur of the Andean
Information Network, an NGO that monitors human rights conditions
in the Chaparé, the violence has claimed the lives of about
sixty cocaleros and twenty soldiers since the conflict
began, with hundreds more, mostly cocaleros, wounded and
maimed. During my trip to the Chaparé two corpses show
up: One is a possible snitch, found in the field of a local union
The cocaleros claim that the drug
war has only made them stronger, but I can't help getting the
impression that MAS and the Six Federations would be better off
if the United States were not giving the Bolivian police and military
roughly $90 million every year to harass and prosecute rank-and-file
Off one of the back roads, through some
coca fields and up a dirt path lives Hilaria Perez, a Quechuan
woman who was shot in the back by the military when they tore
up her coca crop in 2003. The bullet went through her right lung,
but she survived. She still farms coca and lives in a dark brick
shack with her husband and four little children. Since the shooting,
the Perezes have drifted from the union.
"I haven't been to a meeting in
two months," says Hilaria's husband. To enforce participation,
the unions--like all Bolivian social movements--impose fines on
members who shirk their political duties such as attending meetings,
marches and blockades. The new social movements fit the romantic
activist's vision of a reinvented left in that they are "networked,"
highly democratic and rooted in indigenous forms of community
decision-making. But politics in Bolivia are deadly serious, and
the movements use subtle forms of coercion to bolster consent
and to keep the cadre marching.
Despite the drug war and grinding poverty,
MAS has run the local governments of the Chaparé remarkably
well. Over the past decade they have practiced a type of Third
World gas-and-water socialism, investing their meager budgets
in an infrastructure of roads, schools and clinics.
To the left of Morales and MAS are
myriad other organizations and leaders. One of the most important
is the Aymaran nationalist and former guerrilla Felipe Quispe
(a k a "El Mallku," the
Condor), who now heads a large peasant union called the CSUTCB.
I meet Quispe in the CSUTCB's chilly
and barren La Paz offices in a brick building with a round facade.
He wears a dusty black fedora and a heavy leather jacket. His
face is set in a permanent, take-no-crap frown. He begins the
interview by offering a small pile of coca leaves and sweet herbs.
Throughout the discussion he methodically strips the stems from
the small leaves.
Quispe's worldview is nothing if not
radical. Forget the presidency, the Parliament, the squabbles
over gas royalties and tax rates. He sees a future indigenous
nation run by a council of elders and encompassing Bolivia along
with parts of Peru, Argentina and Chile. Quispe tried his hand
at liberal democracy; he was a congressman from the indigenous
party, MIP, but walked out, dismissing Parliament as a decadent
"My mother was a slave," says
Quispe with a blunt stare. Indeed, many indigenous Bolivians were
serfs, tied to the land they worked until 1946. "I am accustomed
to living dirty. Eating simple food. How much money do those pigs
in Congress spend? One deputy could pay the salary of ten or twelve
teachers. While I was there my brethren continued to live in poverty.
The deputies are supposed to start work at 8 but show up at 11."
He strips and chews more coca.
Quispe insists his vision of an Aymaran
nation is not atavistic or fanciful. "We want technology;
we will have relations with other countries." And as for
"The foreigners can stay as long
as we get 90 percent of the power. If not, there will be war.
But the foreigners will have a hard time here. They don't own
any land. We don't want to exterminate white people. We just want
As for Evo Morales's more mundane quest
to be president, Quispe is dismissive. "Evo is like [President
Alejandro] Toledo in Peru. Nothing will change for the Indians
if he is president." Getting back to the big picture, he
sums up: "We will rewrite history with our own blood. There
will be a new sun, and even the rocks and the trees will be happy."
Another radical, but pragmatic, vision
comes out of the Cochabamba Water War of 2000, in which Bechtel's
privatization bid was defeated. Oscar Olivera is one of the most
respected local leaders in this region, known for his humility,
honesty and hard work. Like many others he sees elections and
the quest for state power as distractions.
"We need self-management,"
says Olivera. "That is what we are trying to do with the
water company here." Later I tour the outlying self-managed
water districts. As in the Chaparé, the movements here
function as a de facto government and do so with remarkable efficiency.
But what about Bolivian elections in
a hemispheric context--doesn't Olivera think adding another country
to Latin America's new left bloc is important? He pauses, then
almost apologetically says, "It's true. We become very regionalized
and localized here in Bolivia and do not think about the wider
context much. Maybe we should."
And how would self-management work in
relation to a highly complex oil and gas industry? In El Alto,
some activists with the powerful neighborhood organization FEJUVE
tell me of plans to occupy and "self-manage" the gas
fields. But later the head of the engineering and technicians'
organization supporting them says that such occupations would
not involve pumping and selling gas.
It's late May, and week two of protests
is under way. A general strike has been called. At a huge march
descending from El Alto to La Paz I meet a young street vendor
named Ricardo. He supports nationalization, but adds: "If
I didn't march I would be fined by the union. The union controls
everything--where you can sell, if you can sell."
When some of his fellow merchants find
a few street stalls still active in La Paz, they knock down the
offending merchants' umbrellas. The laggards quickly close up.
"We are fighting for everyone's rights," says one of
the stick-wielding women merchants. "They have to respect
The next day the cadre of the CSUTCB,
along with miners, teachers and landless peasants from the Movimiento
Sin Tierra, march down from El Alto. In typical highland dress
of heavy jackets, bowlers and felt hats and bearing sticks, pipes,
shepherds' whips and the colorful wiphalas, the weather-beaten
columns of Aymara farmers move fast through the narrow streets
of old La Paz, occasionally tossing dynamite down empty streets
for effect. Their destination is Plaza Murillo, where the Congress
and the presidential palace sit. Nervous police in riot gear have
blockaded all the key entry points.
The marchers smash in the windows of the
few minibuses that have ignored the strike. A journalist appears
on a balcony with a camera. Rocks are let loose and just miss
his head as he ducks back inside. These rugged peasants are furious--it's
been 500 years, and the bill is due.
At a standoff with police there is some
yelling in Aymaran, and people back away. Someone tosses a small
charge of dynamite in front of the cops, who fall back and block
the blast with their Plexiglas shields. The police answer with
volleys of tear gas and shotguns firing rubber bullets. Ryan Grim
and I sprint with the crowd up a narrow colonial side lane, sucking
in the harsh gas as we go. Rubber bullets ricochet through the
toxic clouds. One catches Grim in the back and we get separated
in the mayhem. Hours later the police and protesters clash again.
This time the gas is extremely thick. It's like drowning on dry
land. The streets are cramped and chaotic.
The next day brings more of the same.
Protesters and journalists rely on the Bolivian remedy for tear
gas: smoking cigarettes. Strangely, this actually cuts the effect
of mild gassing. At one point, when we are standing among cops
with a few other journalists, a man uphill tosses what looks like
a potato down toward the police lines. The cops scatter. The potato
detonates in the biggest dynamite blast yet. The collision of
air is deafening; windows shatter up and down the block. The cops
regroup and fire more gas and rubber bullets.
The battle goes on like this for three
weeks, with La Paz and most of Bolivia's other major cities blockaded,
with food and fuel running low, the buses and taxis idled. Seven
gas fields and a pipeline station are seized. Before bowing out,
Mesa agreed to take the first steps toward a constituent assembly;
the new president, Eduardo Rodriguez, will have to organize emergency
elections. The blockades have just now started to lift but Bolivia
is still locked in stalemate; the core issues are unresolved and
the path forward unclear.
Many in the social movements dismiss
elections as a trap; they attempt to go around the machinery of
government by turning protest into what Oscar Olivera calls self-management,
and they critique Evo Morales and MAS for being fixated on the
presidency. But making radical demands on the old political class
is insufficient. Nationalization and a reconstruction of the political
order are projects so massive that they may require the left to
take power, ready or not.
Christian Parenti is the author of The
Freedom: Shadows and Hallucinations in Occupied Iraq (New Press)
and a visiting fellow at CUNY's Center for Place, Culture and
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