frontline 11

Bolivia Rises

Bolivia was the latest country in Latin America to see the people take to the streets to oppose their government's attempts to carry out neo-liberal attacks. In this article, reproduced from the US journal Labor Standard, George Saunders examines recent developments.

"The direct intervention of the masses in historical events is the most indisputable feature of a revolution."

If this observation is true - and we think it is - a revolution is in the making in Bolivia now, in the second half of October 2003.

The resignation of Bolivian President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada on October 17 is only a first phase of this revolution.

Mass assemblies of the people are directly discussing, debating, and deciding what the future of their country will be. The COB announced on October 18 that it would continue its general strike of indefinite duration until all the demands of the people are met.

For weeks now, mass protests have been going on in every part of Bolivia. Around the capital, La Paz, a city of 1.5 million, the teeming shantytowns of impoverished working people have been organized into one solid mass of protest. Workers militias and neighborhood assemblies are inspired by a workers' organization, the Regional Workers Central (COR), whose leader is a militant of the Aymara indigenous group, the MIP, or Indian Revolutionary Movement.

How intensely the feelings of the oppressed have been aroused! A leader of the Aymara peasant union federation has declared readiness to form an independent Aymara republic in the western half of Bolivia.


Communities in rebellion have blocked roads all over the country, especially those leading into La Paz. An occasional convoy of soldiers has shot its way through into La Paz, and the forces of repression have attacked protesters in many areas. The result has been a death toll that human rights organizations say has reached 80 since late September, in addition to hundreds wounded by the armed forces loyal to Sánchez de Lozada.

We have seen the development of mass organization in El Alto, a working-class suburb, or 'twin city,' of La Paz, where 800,000 of Bolivia's urban poor eke out their existence. In effect, it seems that working class power has been established in that major urban area.

This assessment is confirmed in reports from the region: "The COB, the central labor federation, has decided to continue the general strike, as the new president of Bolivia is only a change of figureheads and does not represent the working class. Although the struggle was against selling gas through Chile, they call for not selling gas through Peru either, but to develop the industry of Bolivia.

"In El Alto, which is the working class city of nearly one million that adjoins La Paz" (it is on the highest part of La Paz, which is the coldest - while the rich live in the southern part, which is the lowest and warmest),"the working class has formed dual power in the last nine days through the neighborhood assemblies. There are 562 neighborhood assemblies in El Alto with a coordinating committee. There are soup kitchens on every block. The neighborhood assembly has to authorize demonstrations, marches on La Paz, etc. They have destroyed all the police stations in El Alto, and no policeman who did not support the revolt is allowed in."


The trade union organizations of the Bolivian working class, especially the miners, are playing a leading role in the protests, as they have done repeatedly since the great national revolution of 1952. As we have said, the main trade union federation, the COB, has indicated an intention to have a decisive say in how Bolivia will now be reorganized.

And why should such forces not decide? The workers, peasants, indigenous people, the urban and rural poor, who make up the vast majority of the country, have risen up and given what little they have, many giving their lives, to assert their will. Now that their forces are fully mobilized, when most of the nation is united around demands for sovereign control of their country's national resources, against domination by foreign multinational corporations, for genuine democracy expressing the will of the majority, why should they surrender decision-making power to a few professional politicians in Congress? Those represent mainly the wealthy and 'educated,' But here the people themselves are exercising power, with their mobilization at full flood. Why should they give up the right to decide their destiny now that it is in their hands?

The protesting masses have been demanding a constituent assembly, or constitutional convention to reorganize their country, and nationalization of their country's natural resources. They are also expressing opposition to the U.S.-backed proposal for a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), also known as 'NAFTA on steroids.' Above all they have been demanding the resignation of President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, a millionaire from the Bolivian elite, whose family wealth came from the ownership of mining properties. Raised and educated in the United States, he typifies the deep division in Bolivian society, where a tiny minority of the wealthy and educated, descendants of Spanish conquerors, have long been running the country in the interests of domestic and foreign capital, while the vast majority, who are of indigenous heritage, labor as miners or wage slaves of other varieties or as street vendors in the 'informal economy' or struggle to survive as peasant farmers.

The protesters use the nickname 'Goni' for Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada. They also call him 'El Gringo,' because he speaks Spanish with a U.S. accent. 'Goni Murderer' and 'Fuera El Gringo' (Gringo Out!) have been common chants.


Bolivia is reported to be the poorest country in South America, with an average income of less than $2 a day. Impoverishment and stagnation have continued despite twenty years of neoliberal 'market economics' following the prescriptions of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The immediate cause of the giant mass mobilizations of September-October 2003 was Goni's plan to let a Western consortium of multinational corporations export natural gas from Bolivia, through Chile, to the United States, to California in particular.

The exporting of natural gas was encouraged by the IMF as a way for the Bolivian government to repay earlier loans from the banks and institutions of the advanced capitalist countries, mainly the United States and Europe.

The indigenous majority of Bolivians see the gas-exporting plan as just one more rip-off of their nation's wealth - the kind of thing that started with the Spanish conquistadores, who plundered Bolivia's silver, followed by the corporations of Europe and America who controlled and profited from the mining and exporting of Bolivia's tin and other valuable minerals through most of the twentieth century.

In the Chapare region, the central jungle lowlands of Bolivia, peasant farmers - mostly indigenous, of Quechua nationality - for centuries have grown coca as a traditional part of their culture. The chewing of coca leaves there is as normal as coffee or tea drinking is for Americans. (It is not necessarily a part of the international cocaine trade. A full discussion of the phony 'war on drugs,' which the U.S. government uses as a pretext for military intervention and which actually is one more, though peculiarly deformed, expression of control by finance capital over every type of internationally marketed commodity, is beyond the scope of the present article.)

Over the past several decades, as part of the 'war on drugs,' a U.S.-sponsored program has tried, with military brutality, to suppress the growing of coca. The Bolivian peasant coca growers, again mostly Quechua, have organized a mass movement in their own defense. Their representative, Evo Morales, nearly defeated Sanchez, the candidate of the capitalist elite, in the August 2002 election. Sanchez won 22 percent of the vote, while Evo Morales won 21 percent. Now the coalition that gave Sánchez the presidency has collapsed, and Morales's party, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), is a component of the nationwide protest movement.


U.S. government support - and the U.S. military presence in Bolivia - are of course the strongest forces that President Sánchez was counting on to try to survive this mass protest movement demanding his resignation. His support within the country was limited mainly to the wealthy upper-class minority, their hangers-on, and the Bolivian military, which is controlled by a U.S.-trained officer corps, many of whom undoubtedly got their training at the School of Assassins, that is, the former School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia.

Bolivian generals were not sure that the rank-and-file soldiers would continue to follow orders. In at least one case, an officer is reported to have executed a soldier who refused to fire on his own people. Already, in February of this year, a fracture appeared in the armed forces of the Bolivian state. In that instance, a section of the Bolivian police rebelled, and even engaged in a firefight with the Bolivian military. Also, a former leader of the rebel police of February 2003, David Vargas, is said to be active again on the side of the protesting masses in the present upsurge.

Late on Friday, October 17, reports circulated that the U.S. 'Southern Command,' based in Miami, was sending an 'assessment team' to La Paz. There were also reports of U.S. troops poised in Peru on the border with Bolivia ready to come to the aid of the shaky institutions of capitalism in Bolivia. A call went out for immediate protests this weekend against the danger of U.S. military intervention.


The mass protests in Bolivia today are a repeat, on a larger scale, of a mass rebellion in that country in the year 2000.

Then too a multinational corporation - in fact, Bechtel, which today is fattening off the government contracts for 'reconstruction' of Iraq - tried to carry out a rip-off of the Bolivian people. With the backing of the IMF and World Bank, Bechtel acquired control of a basic necessity, the water supply in the region of Cochabamba, Bolivia's second largest city, after La Paz-El Alto. Bechtel wanted a 35 percent increase in water rates. But a mobilization of the people, led by the trade unions, with crowds as large as 100,000 confronting government troops, forced the government, then headed by former General Hugo Banzer, to abandon the privatization scheme.


In the past few years mass mobilizations by the poor and oppressed have become more and more frequent in Latin America. Besides the defeat dealt to the international water cartel by the people of Bolivia in 2000, there were several giant mobilizations of the people in Ecuador, involving especially the organizations of the indigenous people. One such mass outpouring resulted in the ouster of Ecuador's pro-IMF president, Jamil Mahuad, in January 2000. Last year Ecuadorans elected Lucio Gutierrez, a military man who had refused to use force to suppress the mass protests of 2000. At that time he sided with the people. But since his election Gutierrez has betrayed the trust placed in him by the masses. He, too, has begun to cooperate with the IMF, the financial institutions and capitalist corporations of the U.S. and Europe. Now the main indigenous organization of Ecuador, Pachakutik, has withdrawn its support of Gutierrez.

Similarly, in Peru, another mass protest -this time in southern Peru, around the city of Arequipa, in 2002 - forced the Peruvian government of Alejandro Toledo to abandon a rip-off project that would have privatized the electric power system, enriching foreign capitalist corporations at the expense of the people of Peru.

The greatest mass protest of recent years in Latin America was the 'Argentinazo' of December 19-20, 2001, in Buenos Aires, where a huge outpouring of virtually every stratum of the population in that metropolitan area of many million, forced the ouster of Argentina's president, the IMF puppet de la Rua. That mobilization of the masses, although it gave rise to neighborhood assemblies which had characteristics similar to those of Soviets (workers', peasants', and soldiers' councils) in the Russian revolution of 1917, was unable to find its way politically out of the continuing morass of the capitalist system. The election of a 'populist' Peronist politician, Kirchner, in the spring of 2003 has resulted in what we hope will be only a temporary pause in the process by which the masses seek for and eventually find a solution to the crisis created by capitalism and move beyond this antiquated system to a society that is run by the working class majority to meet the needs of the majority, not the profit-hunger of the few.

The election of Lula in Brazil in the fall of 2002 is another expression of mass protest, of the massive rejection, throughout Latin America, of the 'neoliberal model' in which social needs are subordinated to 'the market,' that is, the profit-seeking greed of finance capital which dominates the world market.

Another great mass outpouring happened in Venezuela in April 2002,(editors note: see the article on Venezuela in this issue of Frontline for a more detailed analysis.)