Protests Rock Bolivia's Government
by Tom Lewis
Review, April 2003
Demonstrators rocked the government of
Bolivian President Gonzalo Sanchez de Losada in an outpouring
of rage against the International Monetary Fund February 11-14.
Two days earlier Sanchez de Losada had decreed a 12.5 percent
hike in the income tax for workers earning more than four times
the minimum wage. In a nation ravaged by underemployment, the
new tax would have gouged full-time workers by increasing salary
deductions to over 30 percent. When Bolivians learned that an
International Monetary Fund (IMF) "adjustment" plan
lay behind the government's decree, they targeted the national
government in protest.
Sanchez de Losada justified the tax as
necessary to comply with an IMF requirement that Bolivia reduce
its fiscal deficit from 8.6 to 5.5 percent. To many Bolivians,
the president appeared as a lackey of international capital. Violent
clashes left 33 dead and 170 wounded in the streets of La Paz,
Cochabamba and other cities.
After responding with iron repression,
Sanchez de Losada sought to save his own skin. He placed the hated
tax on hold and vowed to maintain the buying power of workers'
wages. He later sought and obtained the resignations of his entire
The conflict broke out on February 11,
following a day of fiery criticism of the government. La Paz police
walked off the job at nightfall after hearing they would get only
a 2.2 percent raise- nowhere near enough to offset the new tax.
They demanded repeal of the tax and a 40 percent salary increase.
La Paz firemen, as well as police in the cities of Cochabamba
and Santa Cruz de la Sierra, joined the job action later that
The next day, a march by high school students
from the Colegio Fiscal Ayacucho de La Paz set in motion events
that brought tens of thousands Bolivians into the streets. As
the students shouted outside the presidential palace in La Paz's
Plaza Murillo, military police inside the palace used tear gas
against them. The students refused to disperse and hurled rocks
back at the soldiers.
Bombarded by still more gas canisters,
the students withdrew to a street corner controlled by mutinous
city police. As the military police advanced in pursuit, the city
police sheltered the students and returned fire-first with tear
gas, then with live ammunition. Windows in the presidential palace
near Sanchez de Losada's office were sprayed with bullets as he
The mass of demonstrators jumped into
the fray on the side of the students and the city police. Protesters
demanded Sanchez de Losada's resignation and those of his vice
president and cabinet. They set fire to at least three government
buildings in La Paz, as well as to the headquarters of the two
political parties that make up Sanchez de Losada's governing coalition.
Office buildings, banks, shopping centers and some local businesses
were either ransacked or occupied in the city center. In El Alto,
the poorest part of La Paz's greater metropolitan area, demonstrators
torched City Hall, the Customs Office and the Coca-Cola plant.
Two hundred arrests occurred in Cochabamba,
where roadblocks disrupted traffic between the Andean city and
the tropical capital of Santa Cruz. Armored vehicles, carrying
soldiers with painted faces and fixed bayonets, were mobilized
across the country. By 4 PM on February 12, Sanchez de Losada
announced that he would withdraw the tax proposal from Congress.
A general strike called earlier by the Confederation of Bolivian
Workers (COB) went ahead as scheduled the next morning. Even the
usually pro-government COB was calling for Sanchez de Losada to
As the militant protests subsided, Oscar
Olivera-head of Cochabamba's Factory Workers Union and chief spokesperson
for the Coalition in Defense of Water and Life-explained that
the tax rebellion represented "one of those absolutely blind
measures taken by the government in the belief that the people
are submissive. But instead the population rises up to say 'no!,'
to say 'enough' and to take on as its own discussions that used
to happen only in the hallways of the palaces of the powerful."
The tax rebellion builds on a series of
struggles against the IMF, the World Bank and neoliberalism in
Bolivia that date back to the victory against water privatization
in Cochabamba during the Spring of 2000. Prior to the February
tax revolt, the most recent wave of roadblocks and mass protests
had paralyzed the country throughout the second half of January.
January's demonstrators demanded a halt
to the government's program of eradicating coca plants. Protesters
succeeded in disrupting traffic along Bolivia's main highway connecting
Cochabamba with the capital of Santa Cruz. At one point, the army
retaliated by completely surrounding Cochabamba before assaulting
the blockades. Eighteen died and hundreds were arrested in violent
dashes with police between January 13 and 27.
The coca eradication program, imposed
by both the Bolivian government and the U.S. military's Andean
Regional Initiative, is a centerpiece of corporate globalization
in Bolivia. Its aim is to create a stable business environment
for U.S. capitalism and to eliminate a possible source of funding
for insurrectionary movements. An expansion of Plan Colombia,
eradication in Bolivia has ruined the lives of thousands of small
"The government doesn't want to discuss
the coca issue because it has no viable solutions," stated
Evo Morales, a member of Congress from the Movimiento al Socialismo
Party (MAS), and the main leader of the coca growers (or cocaleros).
Many cocaleros are ready to give up coca production in exchange
for equal- or better-paying jobs. But neither the government nor
the U.S. has put any serious offers on the table. Until a real
alternative is found, the cocaleros are demanding an indefinite
pause in eradication. Responding to the pressure, the government
has taken a small step by agreeing to allow each coca-growing
family to legally cultivate about 1.25 acres of the plant.
The struggle of the cocaleros has become
a rallying point for Bolivia's social movements. Images of the
coca leaf now symbolize the plight of millions of Bolivian workers
and peasants who have suffered as a result of the extensive privatization
of the economy during the 1 990s. According to Morales, "the
coca issue is not the [only] central one [in the current struggle],
but rather the exporting of [Bolivian] natural gas by way of Chile
and the opposition to the Free Trade Area of the Americas."
The cocaleros actively support-and receive
active support from-peasant organizations, the main state and
local factory workers' unions, sections of the COB and the irrigation
associations. As part of the broad mobilization in January, moreover,
some 10,000 retirees trekked 68 miles before entering La Paz on
January 17 to press their demands on the government. The protesters
forced the government to adjust the value of the pensions in their
favor and to peg them to the dollar.
Leadership and direction
Perhaps the most important development
to emerge from the recent protests is the creation of an Estado
Mayor del Pueblo (EMP, People's General Staff; or, literally,
People's Joint Chiefs of Staff). The lack of centralization in
Bolivia's social struggles has weakened the movement in the past.
The formation of the EMP is meant to bring greater unity to the
movement and to allow antigovernment actions to pack a greater
In its second official communique on January
22, for example, the EMP called for intensifying the campaign
of roadblocks and mobilizations. It also demanded the resignation
of President Sanchez de Losada for his incompetence and acts of
repression. The EMP vowed to topple the Sanchez de Losada government
if it refuses to stop coca eradication and to embark on serious
negotiations around such issues as the re-nationalization of industries,
indigenous rights and the government's acceptance of the Free
Trade Area of the Americas and U.S. militarization of the region.
But the February tax revolt caught the
EMP by surprise. It was a spontaneous uprising without any organized
leadership, according to EMP leaders Morales and Olivera, as well
as Estanislao Aliaga of the urban teachers' union and Genaro Torrico
of the Confederation of State Unions. The EMP was simply not "up
to the challenge" posed by the February events, they acknowledged.
Since the start of 2003, there have been
53 dead, 233 wounded and almost 500 arrests as the result of government
repression. The momentum of struggle, however, belongs to the
EMP and to Bolivia's workers and social movements. The IMF has
been forced to soften its demand for deficit reduction in an effort
to make it easier on the government to "move in the right
direction" without sparking new protests. Sanchez de Losada
is fighting for his political life, and deep divisions exist in
the armed forces.
As the government and the IMF bargain
for time to lick their wounds and to regroup, the time to press
the struggle against them is now.
Tom Lewis is a frequent contributor to
the International Socialist Review on Latin American issues.