In June 1988, Bolivia’s then-nascent Chapare coca grower’s union movement suffered its greatest single-day loss of life, the Villa Tunari Massacre. The killings came amid their campaign to oppose the passage of Ley 1008, which would eventually criminalize all coca growing in the Cochabamba valley region. The day forged the union and later political career of Evo Morales, Bolivia’s future president, and set Chapare coca growers and the US-backed Bolivian government on a deadly collision course that would claim scores of lives over the twenty-seven years that followed.
Despite the event’s importance, there have been precious few accounts in English. Jo Ann Kawell’s 1989 article in NACLA Report on the Americas is by the far the most complete I’ve found.
Following the forced resignation of Evo Morales last Sunday, El Alto has taken a unique path. The city of one million people maybe the most indigenous large city in the world: 76% Aymara and 9% Quechua in the lastest census. United in by the September and October 2003 protests, it ensured the downfall of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, the last hardline Bolivian president to order deadly repression on a massive scale. Ever since, El Alto has a reputation for ethnic and working-class militancy. And yet this very militancy is often radically skeptical of political parties, prone to division, and adverse to being a pawn in others’ games.
And so, the city’s reaction to Morales’ overthrow has been complicated. Some angry crowds have circulated at night, targeting police installations, infrastructure, and other politically connected targets in self-proclaimed resistance to the coup. (An incendiary text by Ivan Apaza Calle, “They are not Evo supporters! They are Alteños, dammit!,” takes up this position.) As I’ve described on Twitter, these protest cut a wide swath of property destruction, especially on the first night of November 10. These attacks seemed destined to deepen divisions rather than unite Alteños in a common effort.
Other daytime protest events have mobilized “in defense of the wiphala,” but with more ambiguous views on President Morales himself. Judith Apaza wrote “So we can understand each other a bit…” from within this context.
A substantial but not overwhelmingly large cabildo of the mobilized, claiming to represent El Alto’s 14 districts and La Paz department’s 20 provinces met Saturday in El Alto. The gathering, which numbered in the low thousands, made a broad list of national and local demands, including the resignations of both Jeanine Añez and Soledad Chapetón.
The circulating crowds, property destruction and arson, have left other Alteños terrorized and there are many testimonial and interpersonal reports of neighborhoods dwelling in fear of overnight reprisals on them. For an example see, “El Alto overnight: Bolivia seems to be an animal that chases its tail.” This weekend, this perspective emerged into a public current of dissension from the stance of hardline mobilization. Alteños are divided between a pro-MAS-IPSP Federation of Neighborhood Councils (FEJUVE) and an opposition FEJUVE contestaria that organizes separately. Some of these divisions have already proved very costly in human lives, notably in the 2016 protest and arson at El Alto’s city hall, which killed six people.
La Razón reported Saturday:
Since that day [November 9], mobilizations with blockades began and there were actions by groups engaging in vandalism who burned almost all of the police stations.
In opposition, the alternate FEJUVE, led by Néstor Yujra, instructed [its constituents] to raise the wiphala in their homes and asked the neighbors to take actions to safeguard their homes, making it clear that the sector does not support any political party.
The lootings divided many neighborhoods. Hence, in many sectors, it was decided not to march or blockade.
The first to demonstrate their rejection [of the “citywide” blockade] were the neighbors of Villa Esperanza, who resolved not to participate in marches or blockades. They were followed in this determination by the Pacajes-Caluyo zone, whose inhabitants decided to go out and un-block the roadways. A similar decision was undertaken by the October 12 neighborhood. The Túpac Katari neighborhood, who de-recognized their [pro-blockade] leadership and Huayna Potosí zone (Porvenir sector) who rejected “being used by MAS partisans.”
Another sector resisting the mobilization by the FEJUVE leadership is District 3. There, barricades have been put up and every night there are vigils to safeguard the Integral Police Station, which is the only one that has not been burned down.
Each region and city in Bolivia seems to have a different dynamic at the moment. Just as the national situation is reaching its bleakest moment yet, this pivotal city is working out its own longstanding divisions. It remains to be seen whether and how Alteños can claim the political initiative, and participate in an effective struggle to keep the gains they have won and reverse the damage currently being done.
The Bolivian Senate has approved Law 266, which allows for the construction of highways and exploitation of resources within the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS). Their vote came less than six hours after the law was brought to the Senate. In so doing, they set the stage for Bolivian President Evo Morales to abrogate Law 180 of 2011, legislation won by the Eighth National Indigenous March of the same year which declares TIPNIS to be an “intangible zone” and prohibits any highways from crossing it. The government has already secretly contracted with two contractors to build the controversial Segment II of the Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Moxos highway, and journalists and residents have confirmed the presence of building equipment and construction parts inside the park.
Protests occurred throughout the last week in La Paz, Trinidad, Santa Cruz, San Ignacio de Moxos, and Cochabamba, organized by the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia, the Fundación Solón—led by former UN Ambassador Pablo Solón–, environmentalists, feminists, and indigenous solidarity activists. Protests continue today in La Paz, coinciding with the scheduled opening of the Senate session; with vigils in Santa Cruz de la Sierra and Trinidad (Beni Department), and in Cochabamba. Activists will gather for a “direct action” demonstration in Cochabamba at 7 pm local time.
While outgoing Peruvian President Alan García’s government negotiated major concessions to Aymara and Quechua protesters who led a 50-day regional strike against polluting mines, he didn’t back down in his rhetoric attacking the value they place on the land. Here’s an English translation of a widely circulating video of García accusing mining opponents of being absurd, uneducated, and backward:
And thirdly, to defeat the absurd pantheist ideologies that believe that the walls are gods and the air is a god. In the end, to return to such primitive forms of religiosity where one is told, “don’t touch this hill because it is an Apu and is filled with millennia-old spirit,” and who knows what else. Well, if we reach that point, we wouldn’t do anything, much less mining. Don’t touch those fish because they are creatures of god and expressions of the god Poseidon. We would return to this, let’s say, primitive animism. Right? I think that we need more education [of these people], but that is long-term work that just can’t be fixed right away.
You can go to whatever place where the population in good faith and in accordance with their education says “No! Don’t touch this here which is our sanctuary,” and one asks of what is this sanctuary, right? If it’s a sanctuary for the environment, fine and good! If it’s a sanctuary because here are the souls of the ancestors, watch out! The souls of the ancestors are surely in paradise; they’re not here! And let them allow you who are alive today to feed yourself and have work through the investment in those hills.
Eighteen months ago, when I was applying for funds to conduct research in Bolivia, one of the criticisms I had to respond to was this: How do you know that mass protest events will be going on while you’re there? In the end, I resorted to putting a table of recent events of large-scale space-claiming protests in my two focus cities in my proposal to make this point: there has not been a 12-month period without such protests since last century.
And here we are again.
On the day after Christmas, the Vice President (then acting president since Bolivian law requires that the office must always be filled by someone physically in the country) announced that the Bolivian government would remove all subsidies on fuel: primarily gasoline and diesel, and let the prices float to international levels. Fuel prices went up 70-80% overnight. This was not the first time that such a drastic move has happened in Bolivia, but it was the first time that the popular movement-linked MAS government had taken the step. In fact, the MAS had led major protests against exactly the same move less than a decade ago.
The politics of subsidies in general and the gasolinazo in particular are fascinating, and fully getting the arguments requires putting aside everything that Westerners are taught about prices, markets, and subsidies, but that’s a whole other post (several pages of which are in my notebook waiting to be typed into an article).
In any case, the social movements that brought the MAS to power, including Evo Morales’ coca grower base, did not hesitate to mobilize against the gasolinazo. (And the transport sector quickly moved to double fares.) Despite some pressure on their leadership, the Neighborhood Councils, Factor Workers, labor confederation, and others mobilized mass protests. The scene in El Alto in particular, especially on December 29 and 30, brought back collective memories of the mobilizations that toppled presidents in 2003 and 2005, even though the numbers were not yet as great. Evo and Álvaro reversed course, and returned fuel prices to their former levels.
However, the price hike genie was out of the bottle. While some in the government promised the gasolinazo was over, others have made it clear that the prices will be raised in smaller doses over the coming year. Several weekends in January and February, there has been panic buying in La Paz over rumors of an imminent price hike.
More pressingly, this year’s extremely late rainy season (normally beginning around November 1, it didn’t really kick in until the New Year) and other factors have led to a national sugar shortage, grain price hikes, and a squeeze on the milk producing industry. The national government’s response was first to use its agricultural production support company, Emapa, to supply sugar directly at low prices to the cities, in an attempt to push the price down. However, Emapa itself abruptly raised prices in late January, and the government has been embarrassed by former ministers and senators illegally wholesaling government sugar out of their homes. Finally this month, the transport sector has moved to increase urban transit fares in a half dozen cities, and began charging the new fares without official approval.
The economic situation has brought multiple sectors into the streets, although without unified demands. Buyers and sellers of the same product are both mobilizing. Ideologies conflict as well: some are demanding the enforcement of the free-market principals of Supreme Decree 21060, while more are calling for it to be revoked. Shopkeepers demand that Emapa be abolished, while neighborhood councils in Oruro demand that it distribute basic goods directly to neighborhood suppliers. And in Cochabamba, drivers demanding higher fares and factory workers and neighborhood council marchers who oppose them have each attacked the property of the other side.
On February 18, the national worker confederation known as the COB (Bolivian Worker’s Central) carried out a 24-hour strike. And when Bolivians strike, they march. That included a 10,000+ worker march down the main highway from El Alto to La Paz. The COB is demanding either wages or wage increases in line with a study it performed on the cost of basic goods in the country. However, this analysis showed that the baseline cost of living is 8,300 Bolivianos per month for a family, about $1200. This is above and beyond the typical Bolivian’s earnings, leading the government to disqualify the study as anything more than a pipe dream for workers.
A second march on the 18th, led by the more radical teachers’ unions of La Paz department brought an harsher indictment of the Evo Morales-led government. Placards, chants and speakers labelled the government “incapable” and committed to neoliberal policies like the gasolinazo. Once again the slogans of seven years ago rang in streets, and a working-class crowd was calling for the indigenous peasant union leader who is president to resign and make way for “a government born of struggle in the streets.” Such a government, radical unionists claim, could guarantee larger wage increases for workers by expropriating transnational corporations in extractive industries and redistributing their wealth to enlarge workers’ salaries.
It is not so much that this rhetoric is new as that it has migrated from the pamphlets of the radicals at sides of the march to the main stage. Like a stopped clock that is right twice a day, those who are always skeptical that the government has sold out the public, and turned against the grassroots are now in sync with at least a large portion of the popular mood. And they can speak to broadly shared concerns about the cost of living, the subcontracting of work, and the lack of sufficient investment in the industries that provide employment and public revenues to Bolivia.
Five years of MAS rule, and two years since its decisive victory over right-wing resistance to the project of a new, plurinational constitution have allowed a lot of tensions, mistrusts, and frustrations to accumulate within the party’s diverse grassroots base. Movements that always knew how to mobilize on their own have frequently been in the streets in the past years. Unfortunately, the first response of the MAS government has often been to accuse those who mobilize of being aligned with, misled by, or even “infiltrated” by the right-wing opposition. If anything, it now seems that independent protest and even independent opposition has been made more likely by these accusations.