The A-B-C of the Bolivian Rebellion

Andrea Arenas Al?paz and Luis G?mez

"If Goni wants money, let him sell his wife,” the women and men of deep “Bolivia Bronca” began to chant two months ago. It all began there: The sale of the country?s natural gas reserves, a multi-billion dollar business deal that the administration of Gonzalo S?nchez de Lozada tried to make with the multinationals Pacific LNG and Sempra, passing a gas pipeline through Chile to the Pacific. “Not the multinationals, nor the Chileans, should benefit from the Bolivian people?s wealth… We are going to recover our natural resources,” was what Congressman Evo Morales, leader of the coca growers, said during a session of the national Congress.

One of the world's richest capitalists, Gonzalo S?nchez de Lozada wanted to hold a fire sale of the assets belonging to the poorest country in South America.

One of the world’s richest capitalists, Gonzalo S?nchez de Lozada wanted to hold a fire sale of the assets belonging to the poorest country in South America.

Congressman Felipe Quispe, national peasant farmer leader, began, in the first days of September, a hunger strike demanding that the gas not be for sale. The well-known “El Mallku” made it clear: “This is a personal business deal for Gonzalo S?nchez de Lozada.” The national labour union ? Central Obrera Bolivia, or COB in its Spanish initials ? led by Jaime Solares (a miner with 35 years of experience in the union struggle), launched a series of marches in different regions of the country… But the government, that didn?t see any strength in the mobilizations, thought they weren?t important… That was a mistake.

After the first blockades, confrontations, and deaths in the high plains of Sorata and Warisata (the Athens of the Aymara world, because the first indigenous school was built there), the movement from the towns and neighbourhoods snowballed. The leaders of the principle popular organizations began to instruct their bases: radicalize the fight with pressure tactics. On Wednesday, October 8th, in El Alto, with 800,000 residents, the majority indigenous migrants, awoke semi-paralyzed. The neighbourhood councils began to adhere to the COB?s action plan, based on an indefinite General Strike.

A Bolivian on a bicycle rides past burning cars during one of the recent anti-government riots in the capital.

The massacres of the following days brought determination to the people. El Alto resisted, with sticks and stones, the rain of teargas and bullets. And nearly all the cities of Western Bolivia then mobilized. While Goni insisted that he would not go, because the Bolivian people were with him, the general strike hit Cochabamba, Oruro was paralyzed, Potos? too, and Sucre saw 25,000 people take to the streets day after day. In La Paz, the residents came out to receive the marches from El Alto, and, together, they took the Plaza of San Francisco various times, demanding the exit of “the gringo” ? as they called the president, raised in the United States, who spoke Spanish with a North American accent, who had assassinated them.

First it was the gas and the call not to sell it to the multinationals so that they could pump it out through Chile. But when the massacres began, all the leaders joined together under one banner: The resignation of Gonzalo S?nchez de Lozada. The now ex -president called for a dialogue without conditions on Tuesday morning and issued a decree to have a non-binding referendum regarding the gas and hydrocarbons. But it was already too late. The snowball was closing in on his house.

“How can we have talks with an assassin,” said Felipe Quispe. “The people know. The people think. The people decide. There will be no talks until the president resigns,” added Evo Morales on Wednesday afternoon, from the war room of the “Coordinadora” for the Defence of Gas and Sovereignty, in Cochabamba. Via radio, the voice of the people began to be heard, plus the voices of their leaders and some analysis committed to the social movements: NO… he must go.

Whilst cocaine is the drug of choice for decadent westerners, coca is used in dozens of non-drug products in Bolivia.

On Thursday morning, thousands of coca growers from the Yungas region arrived in La Paz, with hundreds of miners from the South. El Alto came down from the hills again, into the city. An open meeting was held to decide what to do, and the popular clamour was to refuse to move one step from the demand that the president resign. Never in the history of the young democracy of Bolivia had there been a demonstration like this one: 200,000 people chanting, marching, deciding, from below, the future of their country.

There had been other factors that ended up placing S?nchez de Lozada off balance. He was already thinking of causing a “self-coup” and maintaining himself in power through the Armed Forces. On Thursday afternoon, intellectuals and artists, journalists, and the middle and upper classes began to join the opposition. The former Public Defender of the nation, Ana Maria Romero, launched a hunger strike, also demanding his resignation, and, together with her, six intellectuals and human rights defenders, and a Catholic priest. Ten hours later, there were already 400 people in the hunger strike from diverse points throughout Bolivia.

When the popular sectors of Bolivia march, there is common call and response: One of the marchers asks the contingent: “What do we want?” The response varies according to the demands of the mobilization. The demonstrators begin to call out, “When?” And then the response, “Now!” On Friday, the “now” of the popular revolt became reality. After killing more than 80 Bolivian citizens, after wounding more than 400, and receiving the rejection of more than 400 hunger strikers, S?nchez de Lozada literally flew out of his post… toward Miami.

It was 9:00 a.m. and the envoys from the Brazil and Argentina governments entered the presidential palace, which had become, since Monday, the office of the entire administration. At 10:00 a.m., the mediators sent by Lula and Kirchner headed from there to the house of Vice President Carlos Mesa, who minutes before had bid Viceroy Greenlee goodbye. “We will not permit that democratic institutionality be violated,” said the viceroy, assuredly terrified at the panorama of Indians that watched him from afar. At 4:00 pm on this day, dozens of soldiers arrived at the United States Embassy to protect it.

An indigenous Bolivian confronts a line of armed police during protests against globalisation in the country.

At 11:00 a.m. the leader of the New Republican Force party (NFR, in its Spanish initials), Manfred Reyes Villa, left the house of his ally, the president, and announced to the national press that he was resigning from the governing coalition of S?nchez de Lozada. While these events occurred, the Bolivian people continued marching and breaking all records (there were 350,000 in the streets of La Paz, coming from everywhere).

On Friday, Bolivia celebrated two victories. One, the anniversary of the nationalization of the Gulf Oil Company, and the other: the defeat of the administration of S?nchez de Lozada. At midday, another march began, by the coca growers of Yungas, arriving in La Paz from Calahahuira. Simultaneously, another march, by 10,000 homesteaders, who broke the military barricade and passed, triumphantly, onto the Gualberto Villarroel Plaza.

Under such pressures from the Bolivian people, and in spite of the fact that, hours earlier, Gonzalo S?nchez de Lozada, had declared to Telef? of Argentina and our “dear” CNN, that he would not resign from the presidency, he was already preparing his resignation. However, he did not show his face in the halls of Congress. Instead, he sent a letter and a video.

The airport of the Military College, located in the Southern Zone of La Paz, was utilized to help S?nchez de Lozada and Defence Secretary Carlos S?nchez Berza?n. Two small helicopters transported the ex-president and their suitcases. Each time that someone came down off a helicopter, the soldiers, their chests to the ground, pointed their guns at the tumult of people gathered behind the fence: Some journalists recording the scene, and women with placards that said, in English, “Goni Go Home!”

Evo Marales, son of a poor Bolivian peasant farmer, is regarded by many Bolivians as the Simon Bolivar of the 21st century.

Evo Morales said, after the exit by the ex?president, that this has been a great triumph by the Bolivian people. He asked all the people to avoid confrontations and said that we are beginning to recover democracy, and that, “we are going to defend the Constitution.” He said that Carlos Mesa will have to answer to the Bolivian people. The new president will have to comply in the formation of a Constitutional Convention, education, and health, and amending the hydrocarbons law, now that “we can?t lose so many lives and still not win back our fuel...”

In the same vein, Morales corrected, to CNN, the accusations made by S?nchez de Lozada, in which he was accused of having connections with the Colombian FARC rebels and of being a narco-trafficker. The coca growers? leader denied all of it and said that Goni had always accused the popular movements with words like those. And with the new president, we asked Evo in a telephone interview after he spoke with various members of the Commercial Media: “What about the coca leaf?”

“He will have to accept the fact that there will never be ?zero coca? in this country. We have sat down five times with the ex-president without winning anything, and now we hope that things will change and that Mesa will not subject himself to the imperialist interests of the United States,” was the firm response.

'I am not a drug trafficker. I am a coca grower. I cultivate coca leaf, which is a natural product. Neither cocaine nor drugs have ever been part of the Andean culture.'

“We, of the Six Federations of the Tropic of Cochabamba,” Evo challenged, “will not permit the situation to continue like it has. The issue that the new president will have to analyze comes down to two words: forced eradication. We know that the Ambassador (Greenlee) has been trying, since this morning, to put pressure on Carlos Mesa. But we hope for a new policy, more open, more human, that leaves behind the attacks and assassinations that we have suffered for a long time? If he tries to repeat them, we will go out into the streets again to force Mesa to leave.”

Given that one of the most combative parts of Bolivia is the Chapare, and that the new president, a former leader of the La Paz journalists? union, is, as Miguel Pinto said, the “new prisoner of the palace”, a colleague from Radio Erbol asked Evo if he was thinking of becoming part of the administration. The Congressman and coca grower replied: “The MAS (his “Movement Toward Socialism” party) doesn?t seek jobs in the new government. It will not co-govern with Carlos Mesa or anybody else because we have great differences in culture and ideology.”

At 9:30 pm Friday, the Congress began its session to ratify the resignation of S?nchez de Lozada. The party bosses had agreed, beforehand, that this session would simply read the letter signed by Gonzalo S?nchez de Lozada and transfer power to Carlos Mesa. In the letter, S?nchez de Lozada said that democracy “was being used for the convenience of some.”

At 10:25 pm, Carlos Mesa was sworn in and became the president. In his first words as head-of-state, Mesa said that he would put the gas issue to referendum, a “binding” referendum, so that the will of the people would be respected. “We must be able to understand the country beginning with the ethnic groups like Quechuas, Aymaras, and Guaran?es, who have constructed the history of inequality with their blood, a history that we are obligated to repair,” he said. By10:45 pm, Bolivia had a new president, and from the street the fireworks sounded and the nation celebrated its triumph.

Published Saturday, October 18th, 2003 - 04:24pm GMT


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Andrea Arenas Al?paz and Luis G?mez

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