Bolivia: The Uprising of Miners and Peasants

Revolutionary Worker #1218, November 2, 2003, posted at

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 Bolivia.*

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 $2 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 revolt.

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 as "Goni").

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 bullets."

-- 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 "Goni."

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 arrangement.

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 Bolivia.''

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 drink."

-- 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 Pinochet.

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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