Protests Rock Bolivia's Government

by Tom Lewis

Internationalist Socialist Review, April 2003


Demonstrators rocked the government of Bolivian President Gonzalo Sanchez de Losada in an outpouring of rage against the International Monetary Fund February 11-14. Two days earlier Sanchez de Losada had decreed a 12.5 percent hike in the income tax for workers earning more than four times the minimum wage. In a nation ravaged by underemployment, the new tax would have gouged full-time workers by increasing salary deductions to over 30 percent. When Bolivians learned that an International Monetary Fund (IMF) "adjustment" plan lay behind the government's decree, they targeted the national government in protest.

Sanchez de Losada justified the tax as necessary to comply with an IMF requirement that Bolivia reduce its fiscal deficit from 8.6 to 5.5 percent. To many Bolivians, the president appeared as a lackey of international capital. Violent clashes left 33 dead and 170 wounded in the streets of La Paz, Cochabamba and other cities.

After responding with iron repression, Sanchez de Losada sought to save his own skin. He placed the hated tax on hold and vowed to maintain the buying power of workers' wages. He later sought and obtained the resignations of his entire cabinet.

Police mutiny

The conflict broke out on February 11, following a day of fiery criticism of the government. La Paz police walked off the job at nightfall after hearing they would get only a 2.2 percent raise- nowhere near enough to offset the new tax. They demanded repeal of the tax and a 40 percent salary increase. La Paz firemen, as well as police in the cities of Cochabamba and Santa Cruz de la Sierra, joined the job action later that night.

The next day, a march by high school students from the Colegio Fiscal Ayacucho de La Paz set in motion events that brought tens of thousands Bolivians into the streets. As the students shouted outside the presidential palace in La Paz's Plaza Murillo, military police inside the palace used tear gas against them. The students refused to disperse and hurled rocks back at the soldiers.

Bombarded by still more gas canisters, the students withdrew to a street corner controlled by mutinous city police. As the military police advanced in pursuit, the city police sheltered the students and returned fire-first with tear gas, then with live ammunition. Windows in the presidential palace near Sanchez de Losada's office were sprayed with bullets as he hid inside.

The mass of demonstrators jumped into the fray on the side of the students and the city police. Protesters demanded Sanchez de Losada's resignation and those of his vice president and cabinet. They set fire to at least three government buildings in La Paz, as well as to the headquarters of the two political parties that make up Sanchez de Losada's governing coalition. Office buildings, banks, shopping centers and some local businesses were either ransacked or occupied in the city center. In El Alto, the poorest part of La Paz's greater metropolitan area, demonstrators torched City Hall, the Customs Office and the Coca-Cola plant.

Two hundred arrests occurred in Cochabamba, where roadblocks disrupted traffic between the Andean city and the tropical capital of Santa Cruz. Armored vehicles, carrying soldiers with painted faces and fixed bayonets, were mobilized across the country. By 4 PM on February 12, Sanchez de Losada announced that he would withdraw the tax proposal from Congress. A general strike called earlier by the Confederation of Bolivian Workers (COB) went ahead as scheduled the next morning. Even the usually pro-government COB was calling for Sanchez de Losada to leave office.

As the militant protests subsided, Oscar Olivera-head of Cochabamba's Factory Workers Union and chief spokesperson for the Coalition in Defense of Water and Life-explained that the tax rebellion represented "one of those absolutely blind measures taken by the government in the belief that the people are submissive. But instead the population rises up to say 'no!,' to say 'enough' and to take on as its own discussions that used to happen only in the hallways of the palaces of the powerful."

Political momentum

The tax rebellion builds on a series of struggles against the IMF, the World Bank and neoliberalism in Bolivia that date back to the victory against water privatization in Cochabamba during the Spring of 2000. Prior to the February tax revolt, the most recent wave of roadblocks and mass protests had paralyzed the country throughout the second half of January.

January's demonstrators demanded a halt to the government's program of eradicating coca plants. Protesters succeeded in disrupting traffic along Bolivia's main highway connecting Cochabamba with the capital of Santa Cruz. At one point, the army retaliated by completely surrounding Cochabamba before assaulting the blockades. Eighteen died and hundreds were arrested in violent dashes with police between January 13 and 27.

The coca eradication program, imposed by both the Bolivian government and the U.S. military's Andean Regional Initiative, is a centerpiece of corporate globalization in Bolivia. Its aim is to create a stable business environment for U.S. capitalism and to eliminate a possible source of funding for insurrectionary movements. An expansion of Plan Colombia, eradication in Bolivia has ruined the lives of thousands of small farmers.

"The government doesn't want to discuss the coca issue because it has no viable solutions," stated Evo Morales, a member of Congress from the Movimiento al Socialismo Party (MAS), and the main leader of the coca growers (or cocaleros). Many cocaleros are ready to give up coca production in exchange for equal- or better-paying jobs. But neither the government nor the U.S. has put any serious offers on the table. Until a real alternative is found, the cocaleros are demanding an indefinite pause in eradication. Responding to the pressure, the government has taken a small step by agreeing to allow each coca-growing family to legally cultivate about 1.25 acres of the plant.

The struggle of the cocaleros has become a rallying point for Bolivia's social movements. Images of the coca leaf now symbolize the plight of millions of Bolivian workers and peasants who have suffered as a result of the extensive privatization of the economy during the 1 990s. According to Morales, "the coca issue is not the [only] central one [in the current struggle], but rather the exporting of [Bolivian] natural gas by way of Chile and the opposition to the Free Trade Area of the Americas."

The cocaleros actively support-and receive active support from-peasant organizations, the main state and local factory workers' unions, sections of the COB and the irrigation associations. As part of the broad mobilization in January, moreover, some 10,000 retirees trekked 68 miles before entering La Paz on January 17 to press their demands on the government. The protesters forced the government to adjust the value of the pensions in their favor and to peg them to the dollar.

Leadership and direction

Perhaps the most important development to emerge from the recent protests is the creation of an Estado Mayor del Pueblo (EMP, People's General Staff; or, literally, People's Joint Chiefs of Staff). The lack of centralization in Bolivia's social struggles has weakened the movement in the past. The formation of the EMP is meant to bring greater unity to the movement and to allow antigovernment actions to pack a greater punch.

In its second official communique on January 22, for example, the EMP called for intensifying the campaign of roadblocks and mobilizations. It also demanded the resignation of President Sanchez de Losada for his incompetence and acts of repression. The EMP vowed to topple the Sanchez de Losada government if it refuses to stop coca eradication and to embark on serious negotiations around such issues as the re-nationalization of industries, indigenous rights and the government's acceptance of the Free Trade Area of the Americas and U.S. militarization of the region.

But the February tax revolt caught the EMP by surprise. It was a spontaneous uprising without any organized leadership, according to EMP leaders Morales and Olivera, as well as Estanislao Aliaga of the urban teachers' union and Genaro Torrico of the Confederation of State Unions. The EMP was simply not "up to the challenge" posed by the February events, they acknowledged.

Since the start of 2003, there have been 53 dead, 233 wounded and almost 500 arrests as the result of government repression. The momentum of struggle, however, belongs to the EMP and to Bolivia's workers and social movements. The IMF has been forced to soften its demand for deficit reduction in an effort to make it easier on the government to "move in the right direction" without sparking new protests. Sanchez de Losada is fighting for his political life, and deep divisions exist in the armed forces.

As the government and the IMF bargain for time to lick their wounds and to regroup, the time to press the struggle against them is now.


Tom Lewis is a frequent contributor to the International Socialist Review on Latin American issues.

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