Bolivia: A Year in Ten Protests

I returned this week from nearly a full year researching mass protest in Bolivia. As luck would have it, 2010 has seen protests in greater numbers (67 per month!) than any year since 1971 , when the Center for Studies of Economic and Social Reality (Centro de Estudios de la Realidad Económica y Social) began keeping records on the subject. And based on both a comparative look at Bolivian history and pure population growth, it’s safe to extend that title to the most protests in a single year since the beginning of the 19th century, or even Bolivia’s history as an independent country.

Unlike 2003 and 2005, Bolivian protests did not mount into an overarching national wave capable of toppling a sitting government. However, many of the forces involved in those years are showing increasing independence from President Evo Morales and the Movement towards Socialism (MAS) party. Morales was ratified by a 64% majority in the December 2009 presidential elections and his party won the mayor’s office in nearly two-thirds of the country’s 337 municipalities in the April 2010 elections. However, this year many of the voters who backed the MAS in national fights showed their willingness to take to the streets to denounce its policies. Meanwhile, the MAS itself mobilized its base in a spectacular welcome to a global summit of climate change activists and against a 2011 workers’ strike.

Here, then, are the one election and ten mass mobilizations that defined the past year.

0. Campaign season for the April 2010 regional elections

Leading MAS candidates for departmental and municipal office rally in Sucre, March 28

While not strictly a protest, the campaign season had all the physical elements of protests. Bolivians don’t only rally for candidates, they often march. More significantly, the MAS retook the streets in Sucre (where the previous, July 2008, elections of departmental leadership were conducted clandestinely; photo above) and Cobija (where MAS supporters were massacred in a September 2008 confrontation by partisans of the governor). In Chuquisaca department, which includes Sucre, a MAS candidate Esteban Urquizu became the youngest governor in Bolivian history, while an environmentalist who switched parties, Ana Luisa Reis, became the Mayor of Cobija on the MAS ticket. Meanwhile, the Without Fear Movement made its electoral debut after a five-year alliance with the MAS by holding the Mayor’s office in La Paz and winning it in Oruro. Reis is just one of three MAS mayor in major cities, along with those in El Alto and Cochabamba. Full election results here.

Without Fear Movement supporters celebrate at press conference following their win in the La Paz municipal elections

Gallery of photos

1. Celebration of ten years since the Cochabamba Water War, mid-April 2010

Grassroots water committees and social movements celebrate ten years since the Water War in Cochabamba

The Water War, a series of mobilizations that reversed the foreign-owned Aguas de Tunari’s effort to privatize the water supply in the central city of Cochabamba, has become a critical symbol for Bolivia’s left grassroots movements. The MAS party, including President Morales and Vice President Álvaro García Linera, describe it as the moment where the MAS emerged into a national struggle. Meanwhile, numerous community groups remember it as a watershed for their capacity to self-organize. Finally, over 40% of Cochabambans who still lacks public water supply see the anniversary as a reminder of an ongoing struggle to have safe, affordable, and regular access to a vital element of life.

On the tenth anniversary, the MAS and the grassroots groups organized separate events. This is surely a sign of the contest for the memory of this critical event, and of the differences in strategy within the grassroots left coalition.

Gallery of photos

2. World Peoples’ Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, Apri 19-22, 2010

A diverse crowd of 10-20,000 gathers at the opening of the World Peoples' Conference on Climate Change, Tiquipaya, Cochabamba

Following the global impasse at the Copenhagen climate change talks, the Bolivian government held a massive global summit—the World Peoples’ Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth (official website)—to foster an alternative global position rooted in social movements. The gathering of some 30,000 participants produced the Cochabamba Accord, a radical agenda to respond to the challenge of human-caused global warming. Most of those 30,000 came from Bolivian social movements: Bolivian congress member rubbed shoulders with African critics of oil and European street activists in hundreds of small groups and seventeen drafting commissions. Bolivians facing the reality of environmental destruction or the prospect of destructive mega-projects organized an “eighteenth table” to highlight these problems to the world, generating friction with the government for undermining its environmentalist image. More on Carwil without Borders: “Cochabamba hosts the world,” “And here we go” (climate background), “Dignidad and Dinero,” “CMPCC: Root causes of climate change are capitalism and culture.”

3. April-May 2010 Labor protests

Labor unions, dissatisfied with a proposed 5% nominal wage increase organized strikes and marches to influence the size of the annual rise. The backbone of this movement has been education and health care workers as well as unionized miners. A mass march towards La Paz collapsed after the national government offered highly favorable terms on pension reform to miners, allowing underground workers to retire up to five years early. Meanwhile, teachers who held an extended strike did so without the backing of the national labor confederation, and against MAS-affiliated parents’ groups who called for an end to teachers’ union rights.

4. Caranavi citrus plant conflict, April–May 2011

Caranavi residents gather around the coffins of two young protesters killed by National Police. (Source: La Razón)

Farmers in Caranavi demanded a citrus processing plant be built in community, rather than in adjoining Alto Beni, the home of a prominent MAS Senator promoting the project. They began blockades of the region’s roads in support of this demand in late April. The blockades extended as the national government refused to negotiate, urging the peasants’ unions involved to resolve the matter internally. Instead, miners in the region threatened to violently break up the blockade. National police moved in instead, in a large-scale police action on May 7. Despite official orders  to avoid deadly force, the day saw both a firefight (in which police and protesters were wounded) and deadly police shootings. Two young men from Caranavi were killed. The investigations into their deaths continue and their lawyers have seen their homes raided by police and had their reputations attacked by government officials.

5. Seventh National March by CIDOB, July 2010

Marchers from the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia arrive at nightly stop in Santa Cruz department

The Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (wikipedia; homepage), which unites primarily smaller lowland peoples, continued two decades of pressure for autonomy, legal recognition and control over territory in a cross-country march. Beginning in Trinidad, the marchers travelled across Beni and Santa Cruz demanding dialogue over the autonomy law, natural resource control, and funding for indigenous projects (the march’s full demands). After a visit by representatives of the Plurinational Legislative Assembly, the Framework Law on Autonomies was revised to make more independent indigenous municipalities possible in smaller communities. Three days of negotiations with government ministers produced a nearly complete accord, but a tumultuous signing ceremony blocked formal agreement between marchers and the government. Gallery of photos

6. Potosí regional strike

Hunger striker at one of dozens of strike "pickets" nationwide in solidarity with Potosí's regional strike, this one in Cochabamba

In the longest and most broadly based mobilization of the year, hundreds of thousands of Potosí residents joined a regional general strike for increased development opportunities. A six-point agenda was backed by road blockades, strikes, business closures, and by hundreds of hunger strikers including the department’s Governor and several national legislators. Hunger strike pickets were set up by Potosí migrants in all major cities (interviews with strikers). Negotiations in Sucre discussed all of the issues raised, but offered vaguely worded outcomes, many of which still await full implementation.

7. Mainstream press rejects Law Against Racism over freedom of expression issues

Journalists mobilized in rejection of the draft Law Against Racism and All Forms of Discrimination in August and September. Their concerns focused on the refusal of immunity for media workers and a provision banning the “dissemination of racist ideas.” Journalists marched, held a one-day strike, coordinated full-cover statements reading “There is no democracy without freedom of expression,” declared journalism in a state of mourning following the passage of the law, and collected signatures for a referendum on the law. Meanwhile, some community and MAS-affiliated journalists countermobilized in defense of the law. The law’s passage was followed by a regulation-writing process (boycotted by the commercial press). The resulting rules were favorably received by international human rights groups. Meanwhile, the referendum process has yet to be formalized by new electoral authorities. (past coverage on Carwil without Borders)

Bulletin board showing vigorous debate on the Law Against Racism, opposed by the mainstream press but passed by the Plurinational Legislative Assembly with the endorsement of grassroots and indigenous movements. The protest cover of opinion has been modified from saying "Without freedom of expression there is no democracy" to say "There is no democracy if the press lies and is racist."

8. Mass protests reverse December 26 gasolinazo

Undoubtedly the most political consequential of the past year’s protests was the uproar that followed the sudden day-after-Christmas announcement that Bolivia would end all subsidies on buying fuel. The move sent prices of gasoline, diesel, and kerosene skyrocketing by around 80% overnight. Within hours, transit drivers mobilized to raise their own prices, which are a basic element of family budgets. Nearly every other seller of basic goods argued that higher fuel costs would lead to higher prices for their products.

Shocked by the consequences for their pocketbooks, outraged to be paying more for products considered to be a collective asset after the 2003 and 2005 Gas Wars, and decrying the hypocrisy of the Movement for Socialism, which blasted smaller gasolinazos in the past, the Bolivian public hit the streets. The strongest protests came in El Alto, where protest actions revived memories of the expulsion of Presidents Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and Carlos Mesa.

The government beat a quick retreat on the policy by December 31, but not in time to stop the wave of inflation that would follow. Price crisis-related protests occupied much of the following months. While government officials have floated the idea of a series of smaller price increases for fuel (often called mini-gasolinazos), they have promised greater public consultation in advance of such moves.

9. Public chew-ins of coca leaves demand the international legalization of the practice: January 26, 2011

One of thousands of growers demanding the international de-penalization of the coca leaf hands out some of her leaves in Cochabamba's main square

A signature position of the Morales government has been defending growing of the coca leaf and reminding the world that “Coca is not cocaine.” Unfortunately, coca leaf chewing—a widespread practice throughout the Andes with practical, medicinal, and cultural importance—is treated as an illegitimate vestige of the past by international drug laws. Bolivia moved to amend away this notion through international negotiations. With the threat of a U.S.-led veto effort looming, Bolivians across the country participated in massive public chewing of coca leaves in defense of the tradition and demanding the end of the formal international ban on the practice. Major events occurred in Cochabamba’s central square (which was filled with coca growers, sellers, and chewers and millions of leaves) and in front of the American Embassy in La Paz. The US made a diplomatic statement “respecting” the practice and proceeded to veto Bolivia’s effort. Gallery of photos

10. Striking workers paralyze La Paz, other major cities

Thousands of labor protesters gather in Cochabamba's September 14 Plaza at the peak of April 2011 labor protests

The annual debate over wage increases got an early start this year in February. But it wasn’t until April that protests gathered widespread adherence (led by the health and education sectors). La Paz was paralyzed for nearly two weeks by protesting workers, while road blockades spread nationwide towards their end. Talks concluded with minor increases from the government’s initial 10% wage hike proposal (inflation was 7 to 11% from 2010 to 2011, depending on which month you start counting in), but the rhetoric was heated. On the day after the agreement, Vice President García Linera denounced the strike leaders as bent on a coup and a threat to the “process of change” in Bolivia before a major anti-strike march in Cochabamba.

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