Bolivia: The Uprising of Miners and Peasants -- RW
Bolivia: The Uprising of Miners and Peasants
Revolutionary Worker #1218, November 2,
2003, posted at rwor.org
For a month, the valleys of the high Andes mountains filled
with a flood of discontent. Rebellion built up--with strikes
and roadblocks all across Bolivia --during the last weeks of
September. And then in October the resistance poured in a
torrent down upon La Paz, Bolivia's capital.
The people came in caravans of buses and trucks, and on foot
to confront the hated government and its troops. Organized
ranks of miners came from the southwest mountains. Poor peasant
farmers, the cocaleros , arrived in huge contingents
from the mountainous coca-growing regions of northern
Around this core of militant miners and peasants, the broad population
rallied to defy the government. The peddlers of the shantytowns
around La Paz entered the city in force, from their ring of
red-brick shantytowns on the plateau that encircles the
Bolivian capital. Alongside them rallied contingents of bakers,
taxi drivers, truckers, hospital workers and many teachers.
Tens of thousands chanted their disgust at Bolivia's
President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, a millionaire owner
of the country's largest private mines. Sánchez is
famous for selling off the country to foreign corporations--and
for the American accent that marks his spoken Spanish.
The streets echoed: "Gringo dictador, ándate a
Washington." (Gringo dictator, go back to Washington!)
Bolivia is South America's poorest country. The indigenous
people of Bolivia have slaved away in these mountains for
centuries, dying and bleeding underground to haul silver, gold
and tin out -- only to enrich the colonialists and capitalists.
A small elite class of 4.5% of the landowners own 70% of
Bolivia's agricultural acreage--including almost all the
fertile land--while the peasant farmers scratch a living from
backbreaking labor on mountainous soil. The economy is
dominated by foreign imperialism in every way--and when the
world capitalist markets drop prices the people go hungry.
Over the last years, struggle has mounted over the
"privatization" that is sweeping over the third world. Previous
governments sold off the nationalized companies that
administered the country's oilfields, gasfields, telephone
services, and railroads. Three years ago, privatization led to
huge confrontations when the U.S. military mega-contractor
Bechtel Corporation took over the water system in the Bolivian
city of Cochabamba and jacked up prices until many people could
barely afford to drink or wash.
Meanwhile, under orders from the U.S. government, a massive
"coca eradication campaign" has targeted the poor farmers of
the north. Up to 90% of the coca harvest has been destroyed,
leaving many people with no way to live.
The average wage here is now a day. The poorest fifth of
the people receives 4% of the national income and the richest
fifth of the population rakes in over 55%. And 70% of the
people live in poverty; a third live in the extreme poverty
that brings hunger and cold. After five years of recessions,
all of these conditions have reached a breaking point.
In short: there are a thousand reasons for the people to
Breaking Point: Whose Gas? Whose Future?
In mid-September 2003, the anger boiled over when the
government announced approval of a plan by foreign corporations
to sell off Bolivia's natural gas. President Sánchez
called the project "a gift from god"--revealing that his "god"
owns global oil companies and banks.
The people of Bolivia often don't even have modern heating
or lighting in their homes--but the newly discovered energy
resources of the country were quickly going to be shipped
through billion-dollar pipelines to the Chilean coast, and then
sold to distant markets in Mexico and California.
Once again, the country's mineral wealth was going to be
robbed to enrich the few--government officials expected to get
massive returns, the people expected to get nothing. Already
there have been massive layoffs in the gas industry- -as the
operations have been automated.
And once again the hands of foreign capitalists would be
tightening their grip over the people's future. An
international consortium led by Repsol of Spain and British Gas
Petroleum was in control of the pipeline project. And U.S.
imperialism dominates the gas markets and the prices.
As September ended, miners and campesinos launched a general
strike and blocked the roads to La Paz for weeks in resistance
to the pipeline, denouncing the slavish pro-imperialist
government and its hated president Sánchez (known widely
Facing the Troops
"Like animals they kill us. They surround us with planes
and helicopters and tanks. Not even animals are killed like
this. There are children here, but still they barge into
people's homes, to look for leaders. Here's the proof--the
-- Indian woman from El Alto
The Bolivian ruling class and its military sent out their
troops to break up the roadblocks with armed force. In the
village of Warisata, near Lake Titicaca, the campesinos decided
to defend their barricades by any means necessary. In fierce
fighting on September 20, the army massacred at least five
peasants at Warisata. Two days later the Catholic Church tried
to call for a national show of peace--but it was clear many
people wanted none of that. All over the country, renewed
resistance, roadblocks, protests and strikes broke out.
In October, El Alto, a poor industrial city with 750,000
people, became a storm center of the struggle. This is a
radical city--growing rapidly over the last decade as mines
were shut down in "neoliberal" reforms, and young workers moved
looking for a way to live. Roadblocks in El Alto prevented
convoys of gasoline tankers from reaching the nearby capital of
La Paz for several days.
El Alto was in the control of various neighborhood
committees, many of them associated with trade unions or
communal kitchens and rooted in networks among the Aymara
Indian people. The army entered the city as a hated invader.
The troops reportedly brought tanks right into working class
neighborhoods and fired live bullets into protests. Intense
days of street fighting followed. The people fought with what
they had--sticks, stones and slingshots. Police stations were
burned. A thousand militant miners from the world's largest tin
mine in distant Huanani defied their trade union officials and
joined the street fighting in La Paz. Meanwhile their brothers
back in Huanani occupied the mines owned by President
In a series of massacres on October 12 and 13, at least 50
proletarians were killed in El Alto and La Paz--many shot at
close range. An infant was smothered when working class homes
were flooded with tear gas. One soldier was reportedly shot by
his commanding officer for refusing to fire on the people.
Pro-government death squads attacked the media: hooded men
seized two newspapers and several pro-people radio stations
were bombed. One target was a weekly magazine,
Pulso--which had charged that a team of four high- level
U.S. agents had arrived and were, behind the scenes,
coordinating the operations of Bolivia's military and
government. There were also reports of assassination teams
hunting local leaders.
President Sánchez went on CNN to claim that the
"subversion" was the result of "foreigners" and "terrorism." He
accused the Maoist Communist Party of Peru (called "Shining
Path" in the press), Colombian armed groups, and international
NGOs of backing the uprising in Bolivia.
On October 13, as machine guns were killing the workers in
Bolivia, U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice
announced White House support for the "democratic rule" of
Sánchez--and for the civilian constitution. The Bolivian
military high command (understanding who gives them orders)
quickly announced that they too supported Sánchez
--signalling that they would accept any U.S.-brokered
Faced with bloody attacks and this declaration of U.S.
support, the people intensified their struggle again. The
general strike entered its third week and spread outside its
stronghold provinces to new areas.
Large mass meetings overruled more conservative leaders--and
the decision was made to march together into the capital. The
vast stream of people emptied El Alto on October 13 and
completely paralyzed the capital--and were welcome by the poor
of La Paz who joined them in the city's main plazas. The street
fighting was intense--as thousands fought the army and police
for control of the capital. Over 25 protesters were reportedly
killed in La Paz as the army attacked the El Alto marchers.
At the same time, this now-hated Butcher-President announced
he would "freeze" the gas project. These concessions (too
little, too late) merely convinced people that they might be
close to overthrowing Sánchez.
On October 14, the masses staged marches of mourning and
burial all over the country--some observers reported that these
were the largest events in the history of the country.
And then with remarkable courage--chanting "Goni,
assassin!"--thousands more people put their lives on the
line and marched into the capital--demanding the resignation of
the president, an end to the pipeline project, and openly
talking about radical changes in who rules the country. New
columns of peasants from Achachi and coca farmers from Yungas
headed for the capital. Many made it into La Paz by avoiding
the roads and traveling over mountain paths.
On October 15, a fresh column of thousands of miners from
Huanani were attacked by troops a hundred miles outside La Paz.
Miners reportedly fought, forcing the army tanks back with
sticks of industrial dynamite. One journalist, shot at the
scene, reported that an army plane strafed the miners, and
scattered them into the surrounding countryside. Police shot
out the tires of the miners' trucks and burned their food
supplies. At least three miners were killed.
Hoping for breathing room, President Sanchez suddenly
announced he would organize a "consultative" (not binding)
national referendum on the gas export plan and a new national
constituent assembly (scheduled for after his term of
office)--all in the name of "maintaining democracy and unity in
But it was too late for such transparent maneuvers--the
people wanted this butcher gone .
Showdown and Regime Change
"The miners arrived, also crossing through El Alto. These
were faces coming from deep down in the mines, with helmets,
sticks of dynamite, organized in platoons, and bringing their
coca leaves and blankets. `Goni, you bastard, the miners have
arrived!' The sound of exploding dynamite could be heard even
before you could see them. The masses gave them an ovation,
sang with them, embraced them, gave them something to
-- An eyewitness account
On October 15, government officials sat besieged in their La
Paz palaces behind iron rings of tanks and troops. Surrounding
them were barricades of the people. Trenches were planned for
city streets to prevent the movement of tanks.
Police stations reportedly raised white flags of neutrality.
An association of policemen's wives went to the rallies and
announced they would form barricades around the police stations
to guarantee that the cops couldn't leave to attack the
people--so the people would not feel the need to burn all the
police stations with their husbands inside.
The rest of the capital was in the hands of the opposition
movement. The trade union federation called a massive "Cabildo
Abierto"--a traditional assembly of people dating back to
colonial times. There were estimates of hundreds of thousands
of people camped out in the capital.
In La Paz U.S. Ambassador David Greenlee met with vice
president Carlos Mesa. Soon it was announced that
Sánchez had resigned and Mesa was the new president.
"Goni" was already on a plane to Miami.
U.S. Southern Command announced that a special team of
observers were on their way to monitor "the security situation"
in Bolivia--such teams are often used to give "advice" in case
the U.S. thinks a military coup is needed.
Meanwhile, the reform leaders within this mass movement
declared victory. The head of the trade unions called the fall
of "Goni" a "social revolution." The head of the coca growers
called for giving Carlos Mesa "breathing room" to fulfill his
promises. The people were told to go home and wait.
Carlos Mesa announced concessions similar to those "Goni"
had offered: a future referendum on the pipeline, government
investigations of the grievances of the workers, and a new
constitutional assembly. He appointed some Indian people to
cabinet posts, but the core of power remains in familiar hands.
Mesa's new foreign minister is the nephew of the Chilean
foreign minister under the fascist General Augusto
Carlos Mesa did not cancel the pipeline project--and he
announced that he strongly believed in pressing ahead to export
natural gas. He accused the anti-pipeline opposition of
spreading "radical positions based on half-truths and lies."
Mesa also did not address the peasants' demand for radical land
reform. And he has so far not mentioned the U.S. defoliation
campaign against coca farmers-- which suggests he will continue
to support it.
In other words, the only demand the people have won
so far has been the removal of "Goni."
The U.S. appointment of Mesa left the wealthy landowners,
the corrupt Bolivian elite and the foreign imperialists all
still in power. It left the blood-soaked Bolivian army in
place, undefeated, ready to bloody the people again--if
Washington decides a military dictatorship is needed to
suppress the people. And many among the masses of people
understand this well. Bolivia has seen many such "regime
changes" throughout its history. Its presidential palace is
known as the Palacio Quemado , the Burnt Palace because
it has been scorched by so many power struggles within
Bolivia's ruling class.
The fierceness and power of this movement in Bolivia has
been breathtaking. Clearly there is the raw material for a
revolutionary movement that aims at state power, a new society
and a radical rupture that really solves the profound problems
of the people. One report from Bolivia said that the massive
crowds of workers and peasants in La Paz had chanted, before
the fall of "President Goni": "Now is the time, civil war."
Many debated among themselves how to really put power in the
hands of the people and break the grip of their oppressors.
Up until now, the movement has been, overall, under the
control of a reform leadership of trade unionists and electoral
politicians whose strategy is to pressure the ruling
class and the imperialists for changes in policy.
Still, these heavy struggles in Bolivia have left the masses
highly mobilized and focused. The struggle and sacrifice of
Bolivia's workers and peasants have created a new and favorable
political situation in Bolivia--that affects this whole region.
And now powerful forces among both the people and the
oppressors are summing up and planning their next moves.
* Coca is a
traditional crop of the peoples of the Andes, going back even
before the arrival of the Spanish. The leaves are chewed or
brewed to produce a "pick-me-up" like coffee, and to suppress
hunger pangs. More recently, coca production has also become a
large export crop, as countries like the U.S. became a huge
market for the cocaine, which is processed from coca.
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