Bolivia's Political Earthquake
Semana (centrist newsmagazine),
Bogota, Colombia, Oct. 27-Nov. 2, 2003
World Press Review, January
[Bolivia's downtrodden indigenous people,
once regarded as a silent majority, are now an organized political
force. Their weeks-long protest against a plan to export natural
gas, fueled by frustration with neo-liberal economic reforms and
a U.S.-funded coca eradication program, toppled the president.]
The most impressive social mobilization
in recent times has succeeded in forcing the president of Bolivia
to resign. Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada left a letter of resignation
that was approved by the Congress on Friday, Oct. 17. His _ fall
from power is sending a warning signal to all countries in the
region with a history of unmet social demands.
Atop the Andes mountains, the poorest
and proudest peoples of South America, the Aymara and Quechua
Indians, coca-producing peasant farmers whose skin is tanned and
weathered by the sun, and miners with blackened faces overthrew
Sanchez de Lozada, whom they blamed for their poverty and the
intense repression that left an estimated 60 to 80 dead in recent
The departure of "Goni" or "the
Gringo," as he is disdainfully called on the street, was
decided amid one of the largest mobilizations that this Altiplano
country had seen in its history. From the time the protests began
in mid-September until their dramatic conclusion, the country's
highways, the streets of La Paz, and the plazas of its main cities
had been falling little by little into the hands of the demonstrators.
They did not back down in the face of the government's violent
response, which left dozens of people dead. The political and
economic life of the country became totally paralyzed.
On Thursday, Oct. 16, hundreds of thousands
of people took over La Paz, coming from different corners of the
country, descending from the city of El Alto, which had been the
focal point of the main protests, until it became impossible for
Sanchez de Lozada to remain in power. On Oct. 17, the country
witnessed two contrasting scenes: Sanchez de Lozada, with his
head bowed, hurried to board a plane headed for Miami, while,
on the streets of La Paz, a noisy celebration broke out.
As though obeying an ancestral order,
the entire country arose from its routine and set itself into
motion to put an end to "El Goni." It all began with
the protest of the Aymara farmers of the Altiplano, led by Felipe
Quispe, against the export of natural gas to the United States
and Mexico by multinational companies by way of Chile. The repression
of the uprising left seven dead, but instead of intimidating the
farmers, it caused the rebellion to spread.
The Bolivian Central Union, or COB, the
trade-union federation headed by Jaime Solares, called for an
indefinite general strike, and the coca growers from the subtropical
valleys, led by Evo Morales, joined the outburst of fury. The
focus of the uprising shifted to El Alto, 12 kilometers from the
capital, where most of its 700,()()() inhabitants are united by
their Aymara blood with the farmers who initiated the protest.
The residents of El Alto have a more effective
organization than even the labor unions. "A new actor has
entered the stage: the neighborhood councils," said Pablo
Solon, coordinator of the committee against the Free Trade Agreement
of the Americas. In El Alto, 462 neighborhood councils come together
in an assembly whenever conflicts affect the whole city. After
the killing of two people, thousands of demonstrators from the
councils cut off the highway and threatened to use their weapons
if there was even one more victim in the confrontations.
The worst days were Sunday, Oct. 12, and
Monday the 13th, when a number of demonstrators died after the
government forcibly attempted to regain control over a deposit
of 3(),00() liters of gasoline in El Alto. From that point on,
the rebellion spread throughout the country, especially in Sucre,
Oruro, and Cochabamba. The repression of a miners' march claimed
new victims on Wednesday, Oct. 15. On Thursday, multitudinous
columns of residents from all El Alto's neighborhoods began to
descend on La Paz to take out the "people-killing gringo,"
as he was called in the neighborhoods that had suffered repression
by the army. According to eyewitnesses, never had so many people
been seen gathered in one place in La Paz.
"What do we want?"-"Goni's
head!" "When do we want it?"- "Now, damn it!"
the demonstrators chanted. In El Alto the people set fire to all
the police stations and took the weapons left by the police as
As they entered La Paz, the demonstrators
torched the headquarters of the parties that supported Sanchez
de Lozada. Toward the end of the week, the paralysis was total;
the indefinite general strike called by the COB was being followed,
and the country was in a state of insurrection
All the political and social movements
were becoming unified around opposition to the export of natural
gas and the demand for the resignation of Sanchez de Lozada. He
was president from 1993-97 and was re-elected in 2()()2 for a
new five-year term with a little over 20 percent of the vote.
The administration was weak from the start and its isolation became
greater day by day. The Gringo-as he was called on account of
his education in the United States, his foreign accent, and the
privatizations he pushed forward during his previous term-was
finding himself increasingly alone.
The opposition parties-the Movement Toward
Socialism, or MAS, of Evo Morales, and the Pachacuti Indigenous
Movement of the peasant leader Felipe Quispe, which hold one third
of the seats in Congress-were adamant in demanding his resignation.
During the final week, Sanchez de Lozada lost the support of his
vice president, Carlos Mesa, and the head of the armed forces,
Gen. Roberto Claros.
In a desperate attempt to hold on to power,
the three parties of the ruling coalition announced that a referendum
would be held on the export of natural gas, the amendment of the
law on hydrocarbons, and the issue of a constitutional assembly,
but the proposal was rejected by the opposition.
"Until Goni resigns, there will be
no dialogue," declared Morales. "We do not need a referendum
to make a decision about the gas, and there is no need to revise
the law, because it is opposed to the constitution," said
Jaime Solares, the executive secretary of the COB. Quispe emphasized
that there had been many deaths and "this blood that has
been spilled is something sacred, so that we cannot negotiate
it away. We are not going to dialogue." "Now it is the
resignation of the president or nothing," said Roberto de
la Cruz, the leader of the Regional Workers' Central Union of
On Friday, the coalition of three parties
that had made possible Sanchez de Lozada's victory by a narrow
margin in 2()()2 fell apart. The New Republican Force, or NFR,
of Manfredo Reyes Villa withdrew its ministers from the Cabinet,
and the president had no choice but to resign. At press time,
the presidential succession had not been resolved and the Congress
was listening as the vice president, Carlos Mesa, was being sworn
in as the head of state.
For the U.S. government, the resignation
of Sanchez de Lozada is a clear setback, because the U.S. Embassy
backed the president almost personally. "They estimate that
the fall of Sanchez de Lozada opens up a situation in which any
government is going to be confronted by a series of demands that
run counter to U.S. interests," Pablo Solon told El Pais.
Moreover, the prospects that a leader of the coca farmers such
as Evo Morales might play a decisive role in Bolivia clearly shows
the failure of the policies to eliminate coca cultivation promoted
by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Bolivia, which had been in a state of
calm in recent years, has been added to the toll of the Latin
American whirlwind; the protests that toppled the governments
of Fernando de la Rua in Argentina, Alberto Fujimori in Peru,
and Jamil Mahuad in Ecuador; the serious instability and social
fracture in Venezuela; the triumph of a labor union leader in
Brazil; and the armed conflict in Colombia.
The events of the last days have led many
to question the good will of neo-liberal policies and international
monetary bodies in poor countries. Often these policies have caused
an increase in poverty and misery, and as was seen in Bolivia,
when a people's capacity to suffer runs out, no president, no
party, and no political system can stand.