Bolivia on the Brink: Strikes, Blockades, Mass Marches, Dozens Killed as US-Backed Administration Teeters 10/17/03

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The administration of Bolivian President Gonzalo "Goni" Sanchez de Lozada is on the verge of collapse after a week of social and political chaos that has left dozens of people dead and brought the country to a virtual standstill. Sanchez de Lozada, elected with 22% of the popular vote last year, has seen his popularity plummet to single digits in recent weeks as widespread discontent over government policies grew into a storm.

The primary catalysts for Bolivia's social unrest are starvation-level economic woes and blame for them directed by large segments of Bolivia's population at free market policies directed from Washington, DC; Bolivia is a nation where criticism of free market economics is deep and pervasive and is fueled by deep and longstanding social divides along lines of race and class. But the government's wholehearted embrace of the US approach to coca cultivation -- wipe it out -- also lies at the heart of the crisis; and in the minds of much of the indigenous majority and substantial elements of the mestizo population, the two issues are inextricably linked to each other and to intervention in Bolivian matters by the United States.

The current storm began brewing when the Bolivian government announced plans to privatize and sell off natural gas reserves. The fact that the plan included a pipeline to a port in Chile only made matters worse. That port sits on land Chile won from Bolivia in an 1879 war, leaving the country landlocked and resentful ever since. That the United States would be the destination for much of the gas didn't help either, since the US is widely viewed by Bolivia's indigenous majority as a nation that profits from Bolivia's resources while Bolivians suffer.

Nationalist protests against the plan dovetailed with parallel protests by workers and indigenous peasants demanding better living conditions. By now, hundreds of thousands of Bolivians have joined in the angry, often violent, confrontations with the security forces. And coca-grower leader Evo Morales, who controls the second largest bloc in parliament (Movement Toward Socialism, or MAS), is now sitting atop a huge, rambunctious set of popular movements poised either to force Sanchez de Lozada from power or simply overthrow the government through popular rebellion.

Protests have been building for the past three weeks, but exploded this week as the government replaced police forces whose loyalties were suspect with the Bolivian Army. The immediate result has been an upsurge in deaths, with 14 people reportedly being killed by soldiers in one day in El Alto, an industrial suburb of La Paz that is home to almost a million residents. On Wednesday, Goni backed down from the gas privatization plan, but by then it was too late to quell the rising protests. It was also too late for Morales and labor leader and congressman Felipe Quispe, both of whom are still demanding Sanchez de Lozada's immediate resignation.

By the time of this writing Thursday evening, La Paz, the capital, was in a virtual state of siege, with the international airport closed down by protestors for the third day. Food shortages loom as transport from the rest of the country is blocked. The streets are filled with tens of thousands of farmers, workers, miners, and indigenous people wielding sticks and dynamite demanding Sanchez de Lozada's removal. "Goni, murderer," came the shouts from the streets. Sanchez de Lozada is barricaded in his suburban residence, while only four tanks stand between the protestors and the presidential palace in downtown La Paz.

And the strife is not limited to the capital. Roadblocks are up all across the country, and clashes between police or the military and protestors have spilled blood in the countryside as well as the city. Thousands of cocaleros are pouring into the country's second city, Cochabamba, to add their numbers to the swelling ranks.

"It's actually a little calmer today," the Andean Information Network's Kathy Ledebur told DRCNet earlier Thursday from her office in Cochabamba. "There have been no people killed so far. But yesterday, we saw a lot of efforts to clamp down on the press. Police and soldiers confiscated editions of newspapers and magazines, and hooded men blew up the transmission tower of a progressive radio station."

Sanchez de Lozada's retreat did him no good, said Ledebur. "The government offered a referendum on the gas issue and a constitutional assembly, but at the same time its security forces were illegally entering homes, and they killed two miners yesterday. The government lacks any credibility. The people don't believe their promises."

Or, as Evo Morales put it to the Associated Press Thursday, "There are too many deaths now."

Sanchez de Lozada's effort to save his presidency is taking on an increasingly sinister tone, said Ledebur. "In his speech, he said he was not stepping down, and he said that the darkest international forces were behind this movement. He said that Sendero Luminoso [Peru's Maoist "Shining Path" rebels] was among the coca growers and, oh yes, the Colombian FARC and ELN, too. This is a national movement, the whole country is in chaos and it extends far beyond Evo Morales and the coca growers, but to link protests to a terrorist presence is really scary for us," she explained. "It is clear that Sanchez de Lozada has lost touch with reality when he adopts this 'narco-terrorist' rhetoric. He is even blaming 'well-meaning non-governmental organizations' for funding the protests. I hope he doesn't mean us; we don't have any money."

And neither do most Bolivians. More than half the population lives on less than $2 a day. That's a big part of Goni's problem. With US backing, he embarked on free market reforms during his first term, from 1993 to 1997, and he promised more of the same when he took office again in August 2002, after barely defeating Morales in the presidential run-off election. His economic programs appear to promise more austerity for the majority. While the conflict over the US-backed coca eradication policy of Goni's government is not center-stage in the current struggle for power, it has helped lay the groundwork. "It is really important to note," said Ledebur, "that during the past five years or so, the government's hard-line approach to the coca issue, which is the US government's approach, has really impeded resolution of this conflict. Even when the government and the coca growers were both willing to make concessions, the US has shut down those dialogues. So now the demands are not only Sanchez de Lozada's resignation and no gas deal to the US, but also no more US-imposed eradication policy. The coca growers are very active in these protests. There are large numbers of them here in Cochabamba today, they have been blockading in the Chapare despite a very strong military presence, and the Yungas has been blockaded for the past three weeks," the on-scene analyst reported. "Now a large contingent of coca growers has arrived in La Paz. The coca growers provide the backbone for these protests on a national level because they've had longer experience fighting the government on issues that affect their existence. They can articulate for other groups that have not experienced this before."

"US policy in Bolivia has utterly failed," said Larry Birns, executive director of the Washington, DC-based Council on Hemispheric Relations (, which Thursday joined the chorus calling for Sanchez de Lozada to resign. "The cause of eradication is not popular in Bolivia," he told DRCNet. "The US wishes to impose this policy but has been chronically unprepared to fund the necessary alternatives to coca. The US has utterly failed to interdict processed drugs coming into the US, and Bolivians resent having to spend their money to solve the US' problems."

With support for Sanchez de Lozada crumbling by the minute, the question now appears to be whether the transition will be constitutional or popular. The US and the European Union have both issued warnings that a regime change that breaks with constitutional norms will not be greeted with open arms. But the forces of mass protest, long repressed, may prove to be unstoppable if Goni refuses to step down soon.

Jaime Solares, head of a big trade union, reflected broad public opinion in the country today when he told reporters: "Let him not just leave the government, but Bolivia as well. And may he take the ambassador from the United States with him."

But Birns warned against moving extra-constitutionally to replace the government. "Evo is not acting prudently," he said. "He is going to have to build a coalition, and he is going to have to moderate his rhetoric to do so. Under the constitution, the vice-president will take over, and it is critical that this follow constitutional means. But Goni will have to go. He is now irrelevant and obsolete. The question is will the US tell him to hang tough? If so, I don't think he'll resign."

That could be a recipe for extended political and social chaos. "Bolivia is the poorest country is South America and the average Bolivian earns about $2.75 per day," explained Sanho Tree, drug policy analyst for the Institute for Policy Studies. "We've been trying to force Bolivians not to grow their most profitable crop in a country that is the size of Texas and California combined. Like our marijuana eradication efforts in California, it hasn't worked. Draconian counternarcotic and economic policies imposed by the US are pushing many Bolivians to the breaking point," he continued. "Imagine how the average US citizen would react in this situation. Americans threw off the yoke of King George III and Bolivians are rebelling against President George II and his lapdog." [Ed: King William (J. Clinton) also did his part to escalate the coca wars; the Bolivia situation is very much a bipartisan disaster. But it is George Bush who is in the driver's seat at the moment.]

Drug reformers are not monolithic in their economic views and include free marketeers, socialists and everything in between -- DRCNet's Latin American "Out from the Shadows" conference in February, for example, included both the aforementioned Bolivian congressman Felipe Quispe and Costa Rica libertarian (Movimiento Libertario) congressman Ronaldo Alfaro. But it seems increasingly clear from Bolivia that the US will not be able to achieve an economic agenda that is free market for gas and other sectors, but violently anti-market (prohibitionist) for coca. The US drug war has served to catapult a socialist coca grower leader to enormous power in Bolivia, perhaps soon the presidency; that may not be inevitable at this point, but then again it may. Perhaps America's political leaders will one day grasp the concept of choosing their battles.

Visit for updates on the situation in Bolivia from a variety of media.

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Issue #307, 10/17/03 Supreme Court Upholds Doctors' Right to Recommend Medical Marijuana | Outgoing California Governor Signs Medical Marijuana Guidelines Bill, But Movement Grumbles Over Plant Limits, Caregiver Provisions, More | Bolivia on the Brink: Strikes, Blockades, Mass Marches, Dozens Killed as US-Backed Administration Teeters | DRCNet Interview: Retired New York Supreme Court Justice Jerome Marks | Newsbrief: California's Proposition 36 Generating Big Increases in Drug Treatment | Newsbrief: Cops Laud "Big Bust" at University of Virginia | Newsbrief: Venezuela Vice-Pres Lashes Out at US Drug Czar, CIA | Newsbrief: Bill to Legalize Coca Prepared in Colombia | Newsbrief: Prosecution of Southwest Virginia Pain Doc Stumbles | Newsbrief: Lame Duck Governor Vetoes Needle Exchange Bill | Newsbrief: This Week's Corrupt Cops Story | Newsbrief: Damages Sought in Mississippi Raid that Destroyed Innocent Plants | Media Scan: Zurita on Bolivia/Coca, Barthwell & Kampia, Boston Phoenix on ONDCP Summit, Clarence Page, Prevention Postcards | Perry Fund Accepting Applications for 2003-2004 and 2004-2005 School Years, Providing Scholarships for Students Losing Aid Because of Drug Convictions | SSDP ED Search Accepting Applications | The Reformer's Calendar

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