One dead as urban opposition battles pro-MAS campesinos in Potosí

Young pro-MAS protester Basilio Titi Tipolo has been identified as the first fatal casualty in renewed partisan confrontations in Bolivia. Titi died amid the yesterday’s most intense street clashes, in the city of Potosí, where the Potosí Civic Committee (Comcipo) was leading the second day of a nationwide strike. In Potosí, as in several other major cities of Bolivia, striking opposition protesters mounted road blockades in protest of Law 1386, an anti-money laundering statute that shopkeepers claim will lead to abusive investigations of their books. But the issue primarily serves as a lightning rod for the civic opposition, which previously led October–November 2019 protests that culminated in the overthrow of President Evo Morales, to coordinate a nationwide challenge to what they call the “authoritarian” rule of Luis Arce, who was elected in October 2020.

During Tuesday’s protests, multiple efforts were on a collision course in urban Potosí:

  • The Potosí Civic movement intended to paralyze economic life through blockades as part of a national strike.
  • Campesinos arrived in town as opponents of the strike and as supporters of President Luis Arce.
  • Bolivia’s National Police were taking a more-hostile-than-usual approach to the blockades, assailed by Arce’s government as economically damaging.
  • The Departmental government, led by Jhonny Mamani (MAS-IPSP), was preparing to hold an honorary parliamentary session on Wednesday to commemorate the department’s anniversary.
  • On Tuesday morning, Comcipo announced that it would not allow President Luis Arce and Vice President David Choquehuanca to attend the anniversary festivities.
  • Once in town, campesinos rallied around and damaged the headquarters of Comcipo.
  • The Potosí Civic movement mounted a sustained effort to push campesinos out of the central Plaza 10 de Noviembre, eventually achieving this objective.

Security forces and pro-government and opposition protesters were thus pursuing objectives that led to confrontation. Unarmed street battles are not rare in Bolivian political life, but most often involve one group of demonstrators and security forces. Tuesday saw clashes between all three groups, as well as prolonged violent attacks upon individuals isolated in crowds of their political opponents. A pall of confusion and self-interested statements hangs over many of the details of yesterday’s events, but some facts are gradually becoming clear.

Potosí’s mayor reports that fifty people were treated in hospitals in clinics following the confrontations, two remain in intensive care, and one protester died. The deceased protester is Basilio Titi Tipolo, a young man just shy of his 22nd birthday. Basilio had residential ties in Surichata and Potosí, where he had worked as a miner. His body lay in state in the Potosí Peasant Confederación headquarters, where he was mourned by his Quechua-speaking mother.

The Defensoría del Pueblo has taken charge of compiling information on Basilio Titi’s death. Defensora Nadia Cruz stated that he died in the context of the confrontations, that he reportedly fell in attempt to reach safety, and that the medical cause of his death was broncoaspiración—the entry of food or other obstruction into the lungs causing suffocation. Separate accounts have been offered by Comcipo and the national government.

Comcipo issued this comment: “We know that a person has died, a 25-year old who had choked on their coca, surely while running away. There were no signs of violence, and I regret very much that there was a death on the side of our campesino brothers.” Further comments alleged that the campesinos were given alcohol, money, and chile pepper (that is, meals) to cajole them into protests. This is a statement so full of hostility and stereotypes that (1) any sincerity to the claimed lament of the death rings hollow; (2) it’s hard to take the claim that the death was accidental rather than caused by violence at face value.

Comcipo was also at pains to declare that Titi was physically unharmed, placing him among the handful of Bolivians who have fled violent confrontations to their deaths over the years.

Álvaro Terrazas, a vice minister of health, presented a more sinister narrative. He alleged that violent groups blocked the passage of an ambulance carrying Titi and that “the lack of medical attention has led to the death of one person.” Terrazas claims that the forensic medical report established that Titi suffered multiple traumatic injuries, including hematomas from the blows that were struck upon him in the street. He did not cast doubt on the medical cause of death, but rather argued that someone who lost consciousness could suffer broncoaspiración from something as mall as a bit of bread. Terrazas also accused blockaders of throwing dirt to attack the ambulance carrying Titi.

Confrontations continue historic patterns

The current scenario in Bolivia recapitulates two patterns that have defined the country’s politics since at least 2006: political crises defined by dueling street mobilizations and, especially from 2006 to 2008 and since 2019, often racialized urban–rural struggles for control over space during protest. In the early years of the Morales administration, the president and his Movement Towards Socialism–Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples party only hesitantly deployed the security forces in response to waves of opposition protests, which first demanded regional autonomy and eventually renounced his legitimacy as president. Instead, the government rallied its social movement base to “defend the process of change.” As I describe in The Sovereign Street, this strategy of countermobilization forced movements to measure their strength in numbers and persistence, as well as in occasional violent confrontations.

The violent confrontations that did occur during this period were brief and episodic, but nonetheless claimed the lives of twenty-one Bolivians: thirteen supporters of the Morales government, six opponents, and one soldier. In three of the deadly arenas for confrontation—Cochabamba, Sucre, and Pando—racialized differences between urbanites and rural Indigenous campesinos were significant features of the clashes. As I explored in the “Race And The Right To Speak For The City: Political Violence In Bolivia’s 2006-2009 Stalemate,” “political polarization largely reflected class and racial divides within departments”; “the civic movement’s perspective draws on deeply felt ideas about creole/mestizo ‘ownership’ of the city, and was thereby able to portray indigenous urbanites and campesinos as ‘invaders’ who threatened it”; and, “In these moments, visceral rejection of indigenous ‘outsiders’ united establishment leaders of the civic movement with their followers on the street.”

Comcipo’s statement convening new protests today recapitulates all of these themes, offering a racially charged description of ”the savage onslaught of Pro-MAS hordes” and stating that the MAS and especially Governor Jhonny Mamani will bear “exclusive responsibility for any injury or death consequent to the mobilization.” These are near-identical echoes of themes raised by anonymous call-to-action in January 2007 in Cochabamba and by Sucre leader Yamil Pillco in May 2008.

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