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News :: Globalization : Human Rights : International : Labor : Media : Organizing : Politics : Race : Social Welfare
Behind the Indigenous-led uprising in Bolivia
15 Jun 2005
The Indigenous peoples, together with peasants and workers, have been waging a courageous uprising against U.S. and other foreign transnational corporations. For decades these outside forces have been stealing the country’s natural resources, leaving the Indigenous peoples in the most abject misery.
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Behind the Indigenous-led uprising in Bolivia

By Berta Joubert-Ceci
Published Jun 14, 2005 9:54 PM

On the evening of June 9, after three weeks of mass uprising, Bolivian President Carlos Mesa was forced to resign. The president of the Bolivian Supreme Court, Eduardo Rodríguez, replaced him.
The irrepressible force of outrage, pride and the quest to defend natural resources by Bolivia’s Aymaras, Quechuas and Guarani Indigenous population—who went to the capital of La Paz waving their Whipalas liberation flags—has placed this country in the center of Latin America’s revolutionary effervescence.

The Indigenous peoples, together with peasants and workers, have been waging a courageous uprising against U.S. and other foreign transnational corporations. For decades these outside forces have been stealing the country’s natural resources, leaving the Indigenous peoples in the most abject misery.

They also rose up against their own capitalist class, which has been the agent of their subjugation by foreign monopolies.

With the two main demands—nationalize hydrocarbons (natural gas) and convene a Constitutional Assembly—they have been increasingly mobilizing and striking until the country was paralyzed.

Bolivia, with a population of 9 million, is the poorest country in South America Yet it is rich in natural gas. Bolivia has the second biggest natural-gas reserve in the region, after Venezuela.

In the hands of foreign companies like Repsol, British Petroleum, Total, Enron, Shell, Petrobras and others, this natural wealth has done nothing to improve the quality of life of the masses.

Infant mortality is very high: For every 1,000 live births, 56 babies die. Maternal mortality is 550 per 100,000 live births.

Around 30 percent of the population lives on less than $1 a day. Poverty and social exclusion hit the Indigenous people hardest. The Indigenous are 62 percent of the population.

The poverty stems from the imperialists stealing resources—through neoliberal, free-market economic policies that were put into place in 1985 to “control” a 24,000% hyperinflation, and through imposition of International Monetary Fund and World Bank requirements. During this time foreign enterprises took over the ownership of Bolivia’s natural gas.

The three traditional parties—the Nationalist Revolutionary Movement (MNR), the Nationalist Democratic Action (ADN) and the Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR)—have been sharing power. They have dutifully put these policies into place, to the detriment of the vast majority of the population.

This has created great discontent, and distrust of the ruling class and its parties, among the poorest sector of society.

But Bolivia has also a great and long history of mass political protest. In 1952 a rebellion forced the nationalization of mines and universal suffrage. Most recently, the masses’ militancy prevented foreign capital from taking over control of water resources.

In April 2000 a ”Water War” arose in the city of Cochabamba, southeast of La Paz—which prevented U.S.-based Bechtel Corp. from privatizing water.

In January, Indigenous residents of La Paz’s satellite city, El Alto, held militant protests that forced President Mesa’s government to end a contract with the French Lyonnaise des Eaux Co. This firm had been operating in Bolivia since 1997, under the name “Aguas de Illimani.” It administered water utilities in El Alto, charging exorbitant prices to consumers and denying this vital service altogether to the poorest neighborhoods.

Keep in mind that the U.S.-led World Bank and Interamerican Development Bank are business partners of Aguas—and the force behind the wave of privatization of not only the water services, but all Bolivia’s natural resources and services.

Uprising starts in El Alto

The recent uprising is a step further in the people’s struggle.

It started in mid-May in the city of El Alto. Then resistance spread to the rest of the country.

El Alto is located in the “altiplano” or highland plain, 4,000 meters above sea level. It is a fast-growing city of approximately 1 million people, most of them rural Aymaras. El Alto sits above La Paz, only seven miles away.

This unique topography makes El Alto’s protests highly effective, since it surrounds La Paz Airport and hosts in its center the main road that connects La Paz with the rest of the country.

El Alto began as a shantytown. Unemployed workers would settle there in the hopes of finding work in the capital.

Many were part of the 25,000 Bolivian miners who lost their jobs in the 1980s, when tin mines were shut down after the world price of tin crashed. Aymara Indigenous people and to a lesser degree Quechuas joined the community after being forced off their small farms.

They bring strong organizational skills and traditions. And they share a common experience: They are all victims of Washington’s policy of neoliberalism carried out by the IMF with the help of the local bourgeoisie.

Now El Alto is 90 percent Indigenous. According to research by the Center of Labor and Rural Development Studies in La Paz, 60 percent of the “alteños”—residents of El Alto—live below the poverty level. Of these, 50 percent survive under indigent conditions.

Only 30 percent of the households have basic sewage. Education and health services are extremely poor.

Strong neighborhood committees are the backbone of the Federation of Neighborhood Committees—FEJUVE. This is one of the two main Alto organizations that have played a big role in the mobilizations.

FEJUVE is led by Abel Mamani, but the rank and file are decisive. FEJUVE and the Regional Workers Central—COR, whose executive secretary is Edgar Patana—together form the basis of a coordinating committee that mobilizes the masses.

They were the force behind the recent road blockades and the symbolic takeover of gas plants in El Alto.

In 2003 they initiated and became the center of protests, with shouts of, “El Alto on its feet, never on its knees!” and “Civil war now!”

This was the “Gas War” to defend that reserve and prevent its sale to the North. The rebellion forced the 2003 resignation of President Sanchez de Lozada, a strong U.S. ally. He escaped to the United States after unleashing the police and the military to try to crush the protests.

The repression killed 80 people and wounded 400, many of them alteños. This “Black October” is still vivid in people’s minds. One of the current demands is to prosecute the former president. Sanchez de Lozada still roams free in the terrorist sanctuary that is the United States today.

Many other organizations in Bolivia form the resistance along with FEJUVE and the COR. There is no overall political unity yet; some of their specific demands sometimes even seem in conflict. The great majority, however, share a resistance to neoliberalism and a readiness to take action even in the most trying circumstances.

They all were pressing three major demands: nationalize gas, convene a Constitutional Assembly, and prosecute Sanchez de Lozada and later, dump Mesa, neoliberal head of Senate Hormando Vaca Diez, and Mario Cossio, head of the lower Chamber of Deputies.

Combined action drove out Mesa

The combined national actions of all the opposition groups shut down of the country, forced Mesa to resign, and prevented the constitutional presidential succession, which would have been the head of the Senate and then the president of the deputies. These posts were held by the unpopular Vaca Diez and Cossio, who were known participants in the neoliberal program put into place by Sanchez de Lozada. The new president, Eduardo Rodríguez, is the head of the Supreme Court, and as such, the only one who constitutionally can call for early elections.

Some other forces in the uprising are Aymara Deputy Evo Morales and the Movement Toward Socialism, MAS, which holds the second biggest representation in Congress after the traditional parties.

Morales, a coca grower, is well known for his organization’s battle against the eradication of coca in the Chapare region, especially by particularly Washington’s Plan Colombia. The U.S. government has strongly opposed Morales and falsely accuses him of receiving financing from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

The militant miners, who formed the base of the Bolivian Workers Central, COB, are the ones who exploded dynamite caps during the protests. Indigenous and peasant groups from the eastern lowland of Bolivia were also crucial to the struggle.

Santa Cruz: home to the oligarchy

This eastern region of Bolivia is very rich in natural gas. It is also the home of the oligarchy, the white and racist minority population. The residents of the department of Santa Cruz launched a secessionist movement with a demand of autonomy that was supported by the U.S. embassy and the oil transnationals, and by Vaca Diez, who also lives in this region.

The rebellious masses strongly opposed secession. They saw this maneuver as an attempt to oppose the militant struggle for nationalization and steal the country’s natural resources. On June 1, a demonstration voicing the national demands by the Indigenous, peasants and workers from the area was brutally attacked by a paramilitary group of racists, the Santa Cruz Youth Union, shouting racist statements.

After three weeks, the protest that had initially begun in El Alto had extended as a general strike to the rest of the country. It paralyzed the Congress, airport, services, transportation, small markets—and in the end it shut down the whole country.

The strike completely blockaded La Paz. It stopped any gas or oil supplies from getting through.

Food began to be scarce, not only in the capital but also in El Alto.

In the final days, the Congress’s deliberation, in an attempt to debate Mesa’s resignation, had to be transferred to Sucre, the constitutional capital, supposedly a quieter city devoid of protesters, southeast of La Paz.

Miner’s death sparks broader revolt

On June 9, Workers World spoke with Bolivian alternative-media reporter and writer Alex Contreras, who was in Sucre. Gasping for air after running from tear gases, he said: “Today Congress was supposed to meet to debate the presidential succession, but at 2:30 this afternoon there was a confrontation where a 52-year-old miner was killed by police. They were mine workers who were coming to Sucre to prevent Vaca Diez from getting elected as president. This has radicalized the actions of the rest of the protesters and they are trying to take over the main plaza where the deliberations are taking place.”

Contreras described how demonstrators had poured in by the thousands from many rural areas when they heard the news of the miner’s death: “There were police and military contingents in roads, the airport and particularly in the Plaza 25 de Mayo where there were hundreds if not thousands of Bolivians on the streets. There is a confrontation with the police—”

At this point, with the noise of shots and dynamite explosions in the background, the telephone connection was broken. WW was able to contact Contreras later and learn that he was not injured.

These developments forced Congress to unanimously approve Mesa’s resignation. Most important, the successors to the presidency, Vaca Diez and Cossío, decided to step aside from the succession.

When Mesa took office in 2003, he was to have carried out the “October Agenda,” the nationalization, which would in fact have been development of the gas industry for the people’s benefit instead of the transnational corporations’. He was also to convene a constitutional assembly where the people could freely choose and plan out the future for their country.

Mesa fulfilled neither of these promises. Confronted soon after taking office by a majority neoliberal Congress and a racist and pro-United States oligarchy that despised and feared the Indigenous population, Mesa vacillated.

In March, a watered- down Gas Law was finally passed. It increased taxes on foreign corporations by 32 percent on top of the previous 18 percent. But it fell short of meeting the people’s demands.

According to the law’s critics, it would still benefit the corporations at the expense of the Bolivian masses. Now the demand is for full nationalization and development of the natural gas for the benefit of the poor majority.

The struggle continues

After Rodriguez was sworn in as president, not all the blockades were lifted. The combative people of El Alto vowed to keep struggling until nationalization is won.

The new president met with the leaders of El Alto for hours, until an agreement was reached. The organizations granted the new government a brief but vigilant truce.

Abel Mamani announced the formation of a joint commission of government and El Alto social organization representatives to make sure that nationalization, a constitutional assembly, and the call for general elections are included in the National Congress’s agenda.

The rebellion in Bolivia has not finished. There is only a temporary truce. Even the combative residents of El Alto were asking their leaders to allow a truce in order to replenish their meager food supplies and feed their children.

But they have no illusions about Rodriguez or the traditional parties. They confront their bourgeoisie and U.S. imperialism.

Meanwhile, Washington and U.S. corporations are working nonstop with their allies, both internationally and in Bolivia itself.

It was recently reported that the United States and Britain are “pardoning” the debt of 18 of the poorest countries of the world, among them Bolivia. Do they think this is enough to quiet the combative masses there? Will the U.S. companies leave? Pay reparations to the people?

Or do they want a “stable” situation so that the transnational corporations can reap the profits of these countries’ natural resources without any bother?

Imperialism always underestimates people’s movements. The question in Bolivia now is how the Indigenous, workers and peasants can take power. According to Contreras, there are attempts to form a Unitary Committee of Mobilizations among all organizations. He also informed WW that El Alto’s FEJUVE and COR had joined with the Aymaras Peasant Federation of La Paz to create the Popular Assembly of Indigenous People and Workers—and declared El Alto the capital of the Bolivian Revolution of the 21st century.
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