Bolivia's Political Earthquake


Miners shout slogans against the Bolivian government in La Paz, Oct. 17. President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada resigned later the same day. (Photo: AFP/Jaime Razuri)

The most impressive social mobilization in recent times has succeeded in forcing the president of Bolivia to resign. Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada left a letter of resignation that was approved by the Congress on Friday, Oct. 17. His fall from power is sending a warning signal to all countries in the region with a history of unmet social demands.

Atop the Andes mountains, the poorest and proudest peoples of South America, the Aymará and Quechua Indians, coca-producing peasant farmers whose skin is tanned and weathered by the sun, and miners with blackened faces overthrew Sánchez de Lozada, whom they blamed for their poverty and the intense repression that left an estimated 60 to 80 dead in recent days.

The departure of “Goñi” or “the Gringo,” as he is disdainfully called on the street, was decided amid one of the largest mobilizations that this Altiplano country had seen in its history. From the time the protests began in mid-September until their dramatic conclusion, the country’s highways, the streets of La Paz, and the plazas of its main cities had been falling little by little into the hands of the demonstrators. They did not back down in the face of the government’s violent response, which left dozens of people dead. The political and economic life of the country became totally paralyzed.

On Thursday, Oct. 16, hundreds of thousands of people took over La Paz, coming from different corners of the country, descending from the city of El Alto, which had been the focal point of the main protests, until it became impossible for Sánchez de Lozada to remain in power. On Oct. 17, the country witnessed two contrasting scenes: Sánchez de Lozada, with his head bowed, hurried to board a plane headed for Miami, while, on the streets of La Paz, a noisy celebration broke out.

As though obeying an ancestral order, the entire country arose from its routine and set itself into motion to put an end to “El Goñi.” It all began with the protest of the Aymará farmers of the Altiplano, led by Felipe Quispe, against the export of natural gas to the United States and Mexico by multinational companies by way of Chile. The repression of the uprising left seven dead, but instead of intimidating the farmers, it caused the rebellion to spread.

The Bolivian Central Union, or COB, the trade-union federation headed by Jaime Solares, called for an indefinite general strike, and the coca growers from the subtropical valleys, led by Evo Morales, joined the outburst of fury. The focus of the uprising shifted to El Alto, 12 kilometers from the capital, where most of its 700,000 inhabitants are united by their Aymará blood with the farmers who initiated the protest.

The residents of El Alto have a more effective organization than even the labor unions. “A new actor has entered the stage: the neighborhood councils,” said Pablo Solón, coordinator of the committee against the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas. In El Alto, 462 neighborhood councils come together in an assembly whenever conflicts affect the whole city. After the killing of two people, thousands of demonstrators from the councils cut off the highway and threatened to use their weapons if there was even one more victim in the confrontations.

The worst days were Sunday, Oct. 12, and Monday the 13th, when a number of demonstrators died after the government forcibly attempted to regain control over a deposit of 30,000 liters of gasoline in El Alto. From that point on, the rebellion spread throughout the country, especially in Sucre, Oruro, and Cochabamba. The repression of a miners’ march claimed new victims on Wednesday, Oct. 15. On Thursday, multitudinous columns of residents from all El Alto’s neighborhoods began to descend on La Paz to take out the “people-killing gringo,” as he was called in the neighborhoods that had suffered repression by the army. According to eyewitnesses, never had so many people been seen gathered in one place in La Paz.

“What do we want?”—“Goñi’s head!” “When do we want it?”—“Now, damn it!” the demonstrators chanted. In El Alto the people set fire to all the police stations and took the weapons left by the police as they fled. As they entered La Paz, the demonstrators torched the headquarters of the parties that supported Sánchez de Lozada. Toward the end of the week, the paralysis was total; the indefinite general strike called by the COB was being followed, and the country was in a state of insurrection.

All the political and social movements were becoming unified around opposition to the export of natural gas and the demand for the resignation of Sánchez de Lozada. He was president from 1993-97 and was re-elected in 2002 for a new five-year term with a little over 20 percent of the vote. The administration was weak from the start and its isolation became greater day by day. The Gringo—as he was called on account of his education in the United States, his foreign accent, and the privatizations he pushed forward during his previous term—was finding himself increasingly alone.

The opposition parties—the Movement Toward Socialism, or MAS, of Evo Morales, and the Pachacuti Indigenous Movement of the peasant leader Felipe Quispe, which hold one third of the seats in Congress—were adamant in demanding his resignation. During the final week, Sánchez de Lozada lost the support of his vice president, Carlos Mesa, and the head of the armed forces, Gen. Roberto Claros.

In a desperate attempt to hold on to power, the three parties of the ruling coalition announced that a referendum would be held on the export of natural gas, the amendment of the law on hydrocarbons, and the issue of a constitutional assembly, but the proposal was rejected by the opposition.

“Until Goñi resigns, there will be no dialogue,” declared Morales. “We do not need a referendum to make a decision about the gas, and there is no need to revise the law, because it is opposed to the constitution,” said Jaime Solares, the executive secretary of the COB. Quispe emphasized that there had been many deaths and “this blood that has been spilled is something sacred, so that we cannot negotiate it away. We are not going to dialogue.” “Now it is the resignation of the president or nothing,” said Roberto de la Cruz, the leader of the Regional Workers’ Central Union of El Alto.

On Friday, the coalition of three parties that had made possible Sánchez de Lozada’s victory by a narrow margin in 2002 fell apart. The New Republican Force, or NFR, of Manfredo Reyes Villa withdrew its ministers from the Cabinet, and the president had no choice but to resign. At press time, the presidential succession had not been resolved and the Congress was listening as the vice president, Carlos Mesa, was being sworn in as the head of state.

For the U.S. government, the resignation of Sánchez de Lozada is a clear setback, because the U.S. Embassy backed the president almost personally. “They estimate that the fall of Sánchez de Lozada opens up a situation in which any government is going to be confronted by a series of demands that run counter to U.S. interests,” Pablo Solón told El País. Moreover, the prospects that a leader of the coca farmers such as Evo Morales might play a decisive role in Bolivia clearly shows the failure of the policies to eliminate coca cultivation promoted by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Bolivia, which had been in a state of calm in recent years, has been added to the toll of the Latin American whirlwind; the protests that toppled the governments of Fernando de la Rúa in Argentina, Alberto Fujimori in Peru, and Jamil Mahuad in Ecuador; the serious instability and social fracture in Venezuela; the triumph of a labor union leader in Brazil; and the armed conflict in Colombia.

The events of the last days have led many to question the good will of neo-liberal policies and international monetary bodies in poor countries. Often these policies have caused an increase in poverty and misery, and as was seen in Bolivia, when a people’s capacity to suffer runs out, no president, no party, and no political system can stand.