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The Bolivian uprising

Print edition : Nov 21, 2003 T+T-
Demonstrators at San Francisco Square in downtown La Paz on September 30.-AIZAR RALDES/AFP

Demonstrators at San Francisco Square in downtown La Paz on September 30.-AIZAR RALDES/AFP

President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada flees the country following protests by workers and peasants against, among other things, the sale of the country's natural gas reserves to the United States.

IN recent years, the former Presidents of Peru and Ecuador have had the dubious distinction of fleeing their countries before completing their terms of office in the face of massive street protests and allegations of corruption. Now it is the turn of President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada of Bolivia to join people like Alberto Fujimori in comfortable exile. In early October, in a last-ditch attempt to stave off the inevitable, the embattled Bolivian President called on the Army to quell the protests by workers and peasants, which began in mid-September and were organised by a coalition of left-wing Opposition parties and trade unions. By early October, even centre-right parties had started calling on the President to resign.

The right-wing coalition government led by Sanchez de Lozada had angered Bolivians by obediently implementing the reforms recommended by Washington and international financial institutions. The latest upheaval in the land-locked Andean nation was triggered by the government's decision to go ahead with the controversial plan to export Bolivia's natural gas to the United States through neighbouring Chile. Other economic issues such as unemployment, low wages and high taxes also fuelled the revolt.

Among the protesters' demands is the re-nationalisation of the key hydrocarbon sector. The oil sector was privatised by an earlier government headed by Sanchez de Lozada. Over the past two decades, successive governments in Bolivia merely implemented the policy prescriptions of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.

More than 70 people, most of them protesters, were killed in the bloody incidents that took place in the second week of October, after the government called in the Army. La Paz was virtually sealed off by Opposition supporters who inhabit the satellite city of El Alto and other areas around the capital. El Alto is being compared to Soweto, the township near Johannesburg in South Africa, which played a key role in the anti-apartheid struggle. El Alto now provides to the movement of the indigenous people of Latin America against the forces of globalisation and neo-liberalism the kind of momentum that Soweto provided to the anti-apartheid movement. Like Soweto, El Alto is also a thickly populated slum, which has now become a centre of activism.

It was obvious from the very outset that the Bolivian people were against the export of gas to the U.S. The gas was to be liquefied in a Chilean port and then shipped to the U.S. Bolivians have been hotly debating the issue of exporting the country's huge reserves of natural gas, and people have pointed out that the country has gone through three major cycles of export of non-renewable commodities - silver in the 19th century, guana in the latter half of the same century, and tin in the 20th century. These exports benefited only the local elite and American capital and exacerbated the social and economic cleavages in Bolivian society. Bolivia remains among the poorest Latin American countries.

The parties and organisations representing the Left wanted the gas to be first used for the benefit of the local people. The decision to route the gas pipeline through Chile had struck a raw nationalist nerve among Bolivians, who have still not reconciled to the annexation of large chunks of their territory by that country. Part of Chile's coastline was Bolivian territory until the late 19th century.

The Opposition described Sanchez de Lozada as a puppet not only of the U.S. but also of Chile. He did enjoy the Bush administration's unstinting support until the very end. There was not one word of condemnation from Washington even after many civilians were shot dead by the Army. When the Cuban government recently condemned a few hijackers to death and when civilians were killed in clashes with security forces in Venezuela, the Bush administration was quick to raise the issues in international forums and demand punitive measures against the two countries.

Bolivian farmers were unhappy with the government in La Paz because of the strong-arm methods used by the security forces at Washington's behest to stop the cultivation of the coca crop; traditionally, they have been dependent on coca cultivation for their livelihood. The Clinton administration and now the Bush administration have tried to showcase Bolivia to other Latin American countries such as Colombia and Peru as an exemplar in the "war against drugs". The Americans have not been very successful in both Colombia and Peru but in Bolivia coca cultivation was reduced by more than 90 per cent, owing to the combined efforts of the Bolivian Army and its American advisers. Washington put tremendous pressure on the Bolivian government to eradicate the remaining 10 per cent of the coca crop.

The peasant families who continue to cultivate coca insist that what remains is not meant for the production of cocaine but for the time-honoured practice among Andean Indians of chewing coca leaves. Growing coca is the only way to keep their families from starving. Besides, as long as there is a huge demand for drugs in the North American market, there is very little incentive for farmers in the Andean region to grow non-remunerative crops. Coca leaf has been a key crop in Bolivia. For centuries, cheap Indian labour was used to exploit the mines. Chewing coca leaves became necessary for the survival of workers in the high altitudes.

That the issue was an emotive one became clear when the last round of elections were held 14 months ago. The candidate who came a close second to Sanchez de Lozada was the firebrand leftist leader of the coca growers' union - Evo Morales. Sanchez de Lozada, a Bolivian of Spanish descent and a millionaire, won only around 22.5 per cent of the vote. He never had the mandate to take the kind of decisions he did. Morales, of Aymara Indian descent, lost by around a percentage point. The Aymaras constitute around a quarter of Bolivia's population. The Quechua (another indigenous group) constitutes around 27 per cent of the population. The indigenous people thus account for a majority of the population of 8.5 million.

Morales was in the forefront of the popular uprising that led to the resignation of the U.S.-backed government and the installation of an interim government led by Carlos Mesa, who was the Vice-President under Sanchez de Lozada. Morales, who was once a coca farmer, heads the Movement for Socialism (MAS) and has so far refused to recognise the interim government led by Mesa. The MAS is a coalition of social movements, including peasants' and workers' unions, with pronounced views against globalisation and privatisation.

One of the first things Mesa did after taking over was to go to El Alto and participate in an Indian religious ceremony. Mesa, a former journalist, promised to give the indigenous community key positions in his new Cabinet and hold elections soon. He has cancelled the controversial $5 billion gas project.

However, from available indications, Mesa does not enjoy the confidence of the people. It is Evo Morales who seems to have emerged with an enhanced reputation. On October 14, Morales led a 40,000-strong demonstration in La Paz, calling for the immediate resignation of the President. It was a courageous gesture as the Army had gone on the rampage.

Morales described Sanchez de Lozada as the people's "assassin" and called for the replacement of his government by "a people's government". Sanchez de Lozada went on national television in the third week of October to tell the people that he would not resign under pressure and belatedly announced the government's decision to suspend the gas deal and hold a referendum on the issue. The Opposition, however, insisted that the President's resign in view of the massacre of civilians by the Army. Soon afterwards, in the stealth of the night, Lozada left the country in a private plane. The events have been described as a "victory" for the indigenous people and could be a trendsetter for the rest of Latin America.

The Aymara Indians, who were in the vanguard of the struggle, used rudimentary instruments like sticks and slingshots to bring the white-dominated Bolivian establishment to heel. In many other Latin American countries too, indigenous groups are rising up to reclaim their destiny. In Venezuela, Ecuador and Peru, the Presidents are no longer from the white Spanish elite. In countries such as Guatemala and Ecuador, the indigenous people are now playing an important role in politics.

Washington has reasons to be unhappy at the turn of events. U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher had said recently that the U.S. "will not tolerate any interruption of constitutional order and will not support any regime that results from undemocratic means" in Bolivia. The same Bush administration warmly welcomed the short-lived military coup against the government of Venezuela last year. Already, right-wing circles in Latin America, in tandem with the Bush administration, are spreading conspiracy theories. The disgraced Sanchez de Lozada had alleged, without offering any proof whatsoever, that help was being extended to Evo Morales by the government of President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela.