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United Opposition to Neoliberalism in Bolivia?
Posted: Tuesday, January 28, 2003

Left Turns in South America: United Opposition to Neoliberalism in Bolivia?


"Instead of imitating Álvaro Uribe, Sánchez de Lozada should learn from Lula." - Evo Morales

Excepting Colombia, as "traditional" political parties and national economies disintegrate, South America has moved swiftly left in the new millennium: just over a year ago, Argentina witnessed a mass uprising of unprecedented proportions, while neo-populist regimes are now in power in Brazil, Venezuela, and Ecuador. In Bolivia, a country in which Left parties have never obtained more than 3.5% of the vote, Evo Morales, leader of the coca growers' trade union federation and the country's chief opposition party, MAS (Movement Toward Socialism), won 20% of the vote. He lost the presidential elections in June 2002 by a narrow margin, and only because he refused to enter into alliances with any of the neoliberal parties. When Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, who ruled Bolivia from 1993-97, was sworn in as president for a second time this past August, it was clear that neoliberalism was hobbling on its last legs.

Sánchez de Lozada faced a different political scenario than the one he helped create as Senator in 1985 with Decree 21060 and the New Economic Policy, which brought full-blown neoliberalism to Bolivia. The communist tin miners' movement-the core of Latin America's most combative proletariat in the second half of the twentieth century-was broken by President Victor Paz Estenssoro, the very man who had risen to power on the strength of the miner-led national revolution in 1952. The highland Aymara movement, which had resurfaced with force in La Paz and the surrounding countryside during and after the dictatorship of General Hugo Bánzer Suárez (1971-78), degenerated into traditional clientelism and factionalism under the center-left UDP coalition (1982-85). And the coca growers' movement of the eastern lowlands had barely begun to form. The Tupac Katari Guerrilla Army (EGTK), made up almost exclusively of highland Aymara, made its appearance after 1986, but posed no threat to the neoliberal onslaught, and was destroyed by the first Sánchez de Lozada regime in 1993.

Under the advice of Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs, whose "shock treatments" would soon be applied to Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, after 1985 the nationalized tin mines-the basis of the Bolivian economy after 1952-were privatized. In conjunction with his British and American business associates Sánchez de Lozada became Bolivia's leading mining entrepreneur, with an estimated personal fortune of $200 million. 20,000 miners were "relocated" from the highlands, many of them to the Chapare, and as they descended into the eastern lowlands to grow coca, they took with them the traditions of radical trade unionism they had forged in the mines and in mining communities in the previous half century.

In 1988-90, the coca growers' movement, 200,000-strong, established itself as the vanguard of resistance to imperialism in Bolivia, as the U.S. ratcheted up the intensity of the drug war in Andes. In 1989, Bolivia produced enough coca paste to make 286 tons of cocaine, and in 1988, law 1008 made traffickers guilty until proven innocent. Current U.S. ambassador to Bolivia David Greenlee, then an employee of the CIA, overhauled the strategy of coca eradication by integrating military and police efforts. The coca growers, organized in trade union federations, staged massive marches "for life and dignity," in which they exalted the coca leaf, as distinct from cocaine, as part of their millennial cultural tradition. They refused any connection with drug trafficking and with rudimentary self-defense militias, they fought the growing militarization of their region under U.S. auspices. Their collective political strength grew in the early 1990s, and when Sánchez de Lozada took over in 1993, they had become a movement to reckon with. Hence their militants were subject to more frequent torture, detention, and murder than those of any other social movement in recent Bolivian history.

Yet Sánchez de Lozada issued a series of reforms-privatization of pensions, the airline, the telephone company and the oil company; flexibilization of labor; municipal and land reform-that devastated that devastated rural cultivators and urban workers alike. The coca growers, in the absence of organized opposition in the valleys and highlands, remained isolated in the eastern lowlands. Bolivia became a neoliberal model, a laboratory-an IMF "success story." But like those of that other model country, Argentina, Bolivia's triumphs turned out to be costly mirages, and social conflict exploded under former dictator Hugo Bánzer (1998-2001), whose ties to the drug trade were extensive and whose governing program consisted almost exclusively of "zero coca." Bánzer's successor, Manuel "Tuto" Quiroga (2001-2), claimed to have reduced potential cocaine production to 13 tons annually. Both Bánzer and Quiroga killed more people as democratically elected presidents than Bánzer had as dictator.

In April 2000 in the city of Cochabamba (pop. 500,000), a coalition of factory workers, high school and university students, professionals, salaried employees, peasants from the surrounding valley, peasant "irrigators" from the highlands, schoolteachers, neighborhood committees, university professors, non-salaried workers, the unemployed, and street kids blocked the privatization of water through massive civil disobedience. For the first time since the early 1980s, a popular movement from below had scored a substantive victory in Bolivia, defeating a North American multinational and its Bolivian servants in government.

Protest spread in April and May 2000 to the highland Aymara, who shut down the region around La Paz through road blockades, as Felipe Quispe, a former guerrilla leader of the EGTK, breathed new life into the Aymara peasant trade union federation. Though the coca growers-who know the value of solidarity-supported the insurrection in Cochabamba and the blockades around La Paz, they suffered serious setbacks under Bánzer's forced eradication, and were rapidly losing ground to empire. Coca cultivation in Colombia, meanwhile, tripled to 162,000 hectares in 2000, whereas it had never covered more than 46,000 hectares in Bolivia. (We should regard these statistics with caution.) And an estimated $500 million dollars were lost annually because of forced eradication.

The cycle initiated in April 2000 intensified over the next two years and culminated with the resurgence of the coca growers and the near-victory of Evo Morales in June 2002; this after former U.S. ambassador Manuel Rocha warned Bolivians not to vote for Morales. Though the material basis of the coca growers' movement (coca) has been eliminated to a remarkable extent, MAS-which managed, in its discourse of radical nationalism, to capture the disaffected urban middle class and proletarian vote-regained lost territory. So did Felipe Quispe and the highland Aymara, as the Indian Revolution* Party (MIP) obtained five seats in Congress following a year of government incompliance with the Island of the Sun Accords.

Despite the superior quality of its leadership and the radically democratic nature of its organizational structure, however, the Coordination for Life and Water in Cochabamba had all but disintegrated. And while many of Felipe Quispe's supporters voted for Evo Morales, in practical terms the lowland coca growers and the highland Aymara were separated by an abyss that was widened by constant caudillo feuding between Quispe and Morales. No unity appeared on the horizon.

As one might have expected, given the neo-colonial arrangements that have governed Bolivia since it separated from Spain, MAS and MIP have achieved nothing in parliament, other than the diversion of scarce resources away from the organization of the movements. Six months after the beginning of the Sánchez de Lozada regime, the balance is disastrous: several coca growers killed in confrontations with the army; four landless peasants killed by landlord militias; six more killed in the Chaco; five conversations about forced eradication of coca with no results; ongoing incompliance with the Island of the Sun Accords.

Exclusive blame for this depressing panorama cannot be laid at the feet of Sánchez de Lozada, however, since he had been willing to discuss the possibility of a temporary halt to forced eradication and commit to a study of the market for legal consumption of the coca leaf-until Bush's man for Latin America, Cuban-American Otto Reich, arrived in early October.

Ever since, the dialogues between Evo Morales and Sánchez de Lozada have been farcical, as there is nothing left for them to talk about. Under great pressure from the coca growers' assemblies, in late December Morales announced road blockades for January-unless the government was willing to reverse its policies on eradication and include the coca growers' unions in the planning and execution of the study of the market for coca leaf consumption. Morales had not consulted Felipe Quispe, however, and broke a verbal agreement the two had made to blockade in April, after the harvest season had passed in the highlands. Oscar Oliveira, leader of the Coordination for Life and Water, was not consulted either, even though Cochabamba is the gateway to the Chapare.

Undaunted, Morales wasted no time in assembling a list of organizations that would join the January mobilization: debtors, domestics and household servants, teachers, workers without retirement funds, peasant colonizers from the Yungas, mining cooperatives, departmental workers' federations; a range of groups whose demands were being ignored by the Sánchez de Lozada administration. Morales began to focus his discourse on issues that transcended sectoral concerns, such as privatization, the export of Bolivian natural gas to the U.S. via Chile and the FTAA, and he claimed to speak, with more credibility than usual, in the national interest. It seemed as if Morales and MAS would, first, fulfill their promise of consolidating a broad-based Left opposition that brought the spatially and sectorally separate social movements together and, second, get back to extra-parliamentary roots.

Morales and the opposition sent Sánchez de Lozada a letter on Christmas Eve outlining fifteen demands for discussion and announcing a blockade for January 6, 2003. They did not receive a reply. Instead, the government and media invested their resources in producing and circulating anti-blockade propaganda throughout the New Year season, proclaiming that the blockades were anti-patriotic, punished the poorest, and threatened "democracy."

Once the blockades began on Monday, January 13, it quickly became evident that of all the groups assembled on Morales' list, only the coca growers had the collective power to blockade; and that the government, backed by the nation's principal newspapers and television stations as well as the U.S. Embassy, would use excessive force to stop them. By Monday morning, with the road from Sacaba (Cochabamba) to Yapacaní (Santa Cruz) shut down, 7,000 troops had descended on the Chapare lowlands, while in the highlands, 3,000 were dispatched to Oruro and La Paz, 1,000 to Sucre and Potosí. 22,000 police were mobilized nationwide and "dalmation" riot police from La Paz were sent to Cochabamba, where they did battle with university students in solidarity with the coca growers. By the end of the day, 160 people, some of them parents registering their children for school, had been detained and sent to air force bases, and a young coca grower received a bullet to the jaw that, miraculously, did not kill him.

Rómulo Gonzales, a 22 year-old coca grower from the Chapare, was not so lucky: on the second day of the blockade he was shot to death from a distance of 500m near Colomi, one of the last towns before the road to Santa Cruz drops thousands of meters into the Chapare. Sánchez de Lozada, pretending that everything was under control, left for the swearing-in ceremony of Lucio Gutierrez in Ecuador, as the media broadcast misleading images of cleared roads that prompted people to travel where they had no business doing so. Felipe Quispe and the highland Aymara peasantry negotiated the provision of 500 tractors stipulated in the Island of the Sun Accords, while senior citizens broke off conversations with the government over law 2434 and the indexation of their retirement benefits to the dollar, declaring that they would march on La Paz in protest.

Under control of media mogul and Vice-President Carlos Mesa, on Wednesday, January 15, Bolivia lived through one of its darkest days in recent memory: 40 km from Cochabamba, Felix Ibarra was murdered by government snipers; Willy Hinojosa, 23, died from bullet wounds in the Villa Tunari hospital in the Chapare; Victor Hinojosa died from bullet wounds in Llavín; and coca growers militias' ambushed and injured eight soldiers in Cristal Mayu. Most tragically, six senior citizens, forced by the "dalmation" police to get on buses the government had rented in order to disperse the march on La Paz in the wee hours of the morning, died in an accident on the road to Oruro, along with seven other passengers. The bus the government rented did not have mandatory insurance and it is not clear who will pay the survivors. Blockades extended partially from the Chapare to Santa Cruz, Potosí and Oruro, while in El Alto, an Aymara city of 500,000 on the upper rim of La Paz, students, market vendors, and parents of conscripted soldiers marched with local senior citizens. U.S. Ambassador David Greenlee arrived in La Paz just as the situation appeared to have slipped out of government control, but he declined to comment until Sánchez de Lozada returned for the ceremony of protocol.

On Thursay and Friday, President Sánchez de Lozada regained the initiative, inviting Evo Morales to dialogue in Cochabamaba, and the senior citizens' leader met with the vice president in La Paz. However, when Morales arrived in Cochabamba, he was told that the president would not meet with him until the blockade was lifted and was given three hours to take action. In return, the government promised to lift what it called "control measures", i.e. repression. The Defender of the People, Ana María Romero, a government official, noted that such short-term time limits could frustrate the chances for dialogue, since it takes the popular movements much longer to arrive at decisions through assembly and consensus.

The government betrayed its utter ignorance of the participatory mechanisms through which popular democracy works in Bolivia. Or perhaps the 3-hour time limit was designed to make dialogue impossible. In any event, through the magic of the media, Morales came off as intransigent and the government as reasonable. Shrewdly, the government and media played the senior citizens off against the coca-growers. Whereas the former operated exclusively within the parameters of the constitution, we were told, the latter were violent, human rights violators seeking to destabilize the country at the expense of the impoverished peasantry and urban proletariat.

On Friday, the senior citizens' march arrived in La Paz with great media fanfare and received an astonishing display of material solidarity and moral support from all sectors of the urban population. Vice President Carlos Mesa sought to redeem himself with the help of the cameras and the music. By Friday's end, though, there were 700 people detained on various air force bases throughout the country, government forces had killed five people and were responsible for the deaths of six more. Ana María Romero, Defender of the People, reported that the prisoners were abused with racial epithets, and that detained women were being raped and threatened with rape. Blockades continued in the Chapare, Santa Cruz, and the semi-tropical Yungas north of La Paz, but the highlands were firmly under government control. Even though pressure from within the Aymara trade union federation was mounting to join the mobilization, Felipe Quispe announced blockades for February. On Saturday, 1500 miners marched from Huanuni, surrounded by tanks and under surveillance from the air, toward Oruro, but in Machamarquita 500 of them clashed with government forces, and miner Adrían Martínez was shot and killed.

In what looks to be the most significant development since the rise of MAS, Evo Morales convened the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the People in Cochabamba on Sunday, January 19. Only Felipe Quispe and Saturnino Mallku, the bankrupt leader of the moribund Bolivian Workers' Central (COB), were left out. What makes the group so important is that it could succeed in cementing the unity that the miners lent to the COB in the golden years of struggle before the 1980s. In those days, the COB formed a solid wall of opposition to dictatorial military governments and occasionally exercised dual power.

If the new COB that Morales is calling for comes together, the popular movements might be exercising dual power again in the not-too-distant future. The government will almost surely declare a State of Siege, which makes opposition politics illegal, the moment signs of such a development appear. Cochabamba is already under a de facto state of siege, and the industrialists and agro-exporters have called for the government to implement one nationwide. Foreign NGOS have come in for criticism for their alleged support for the mobilization, and their members could be detained and/or deported as things go from bad to worse. A key variable will be the morale of the army. Already parents of conscripts have complained that their sons, who should have returned home at the end of 2002, "are being used to kill their coca-growing brothers." Food for the conscripts is scarce and poor quality, and some of the parents do not know the whereabouts of their sons.

After a two-day pause in which the Chapare was cleared for traffic, the government still refused to discuss popular demands under the pressure of direct action, and it looked like the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the People was going to be another case of unrealized possibility. But on Wednesday, January 23, Felipe Quispe became part of the leadership. Thus through their trade union confederation, the highland Aymara peasants have joined the departmental trade union federations (CODs); a federation of Aymara and Quechua communities (CONAMAQ); factory workers, the Coordination for Life and Water, peasant irrigators, and university students in Cochabamba; peasant colonizers in the Yungas; peasant federations from Sucre, Potosí, Cochabamba, Oruro, and part of La Paz; the Bartolina Sisa women's peasant federation; as well as the unemployed and miners' cooperatives.

In all likelihood, the flow of people and goods will be paralyzed in Bolivia in the coming days, and it is doubtful that the government will make concessions without first raising the level of repression dramatically through State of Siege legislation. If the opposition can maintain its fragile unity, there is reason to hope that it will obtain the renunciation of Sánchez de Lozada and Carlos Mesa-which would be a popular victory of historic proportions. Rather than a carbon copy replacement president, a Constituent Assembly, first put on the table during the water wars of April 2000, might begin to outline a new social order in Bolivia. Though it is impossible to say how such complex processes will work themselves out, further radicalization of the anti-neoliberal opposition seems inevitable for the time being. Let us hope that Lula realizes that the Bolivian conflict can be another staging ground for Brazilian diplomacy as, under the umbrella of the World Social Forum, left turns continue to reverberate throughout South America.

*The P in MIP is for Pachakutic, from pacha, or space-time, and kutic means turning around-revolution, in the sense of a world turned right side up.

Forrest Hylton is conducting doctoral research in history in Bolivia

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