Think of this as the trailer for my ethnography, photography, and the book I’m revising for publication…
On June 23, 2008, three of us ascend an eerily empty highway from the tropical town of Coroico to Bolivia’s capital, La Paz. Foreigners, we stare at the majestic valley below as we pass above the line where the tropical tree cover of the Yungas gives way to pure rock. The so-called Death Highway has been rebuilt on a more secure footing, but it is still marked by hairpin turns, intruded upon by fallen boulders of a terrifying scale, and undermined by landslides. Its predecessor, once calculated as the world’s deadliest roadway, has been preserved as a downhill biking path for tourists seeking “100 percent adrenaline.” Where the road has fallen or washed out, drivers let their wheels dig tracks into the mud and gravel tracks, and peer over the edges of their vehicles to avoid falling off the side.
Today, however, both roads are nearly silent. None of the half dozen minibus unions are operating their vehicles, bike tours are cancelled, and the taxi we found cruises over empty roads and easily steers clear of both the rock faces and the treacherous edges. Once finally inside La Paz however, it comes to a stop at the cause of all the earlier silence: an urban road blockade. Residents of the northeastern District 13, organized through 46 neighborhood councils, have plugged the main arteries through their neighborhood with stones and their collective presence. They are calling on the municipality to meet an eight-point platform of demands concerning crime, public works, and water provision. Taxis like ours can approach the protest zone but only to discharge their passengers. Dozens of men and women walk—their goods stacked on their heads, bundled in fabric on their backs, or dragged along in suitcases—across the vehicle-free stretch of urban pavement, littered with stones and occupied by protesters who gather in the middle.
Every point along the road we have travelled is a potential chokepoint. Since the main road from La Paz to the Yungas passes through this district, a single blockade is enough to cut off all traffic to Coroico, the Yungas, Caranavi, and the northern Bolivian Amazon. Whether accomplished by simply sitting down in the street, dragging in boulders and tree limbs, or coordinating crowds of thousands to take over key thoroughfares, road blockades bring a sudden urgency to political protest. By blocking the circulation of people and goods, they ensure that the impacts of protest ripple across an entire region.
Early on Sunday morning, September 17, over sixteen hundred Bolivian police massed in the high desert plateau east of Lake Titicaca. Perhaps the largest police mobilization under the presidency of Evo Morales, these forces gathered to interrupt an extraordinary local protest that had blockaded roads and interrupted travel by road in the region for an unprecedented 26 days. The operation used its overwhelming numbers, police vehicles, and a substantial amount of tear gas to break up the Achacachi blockade. Over forty-five people were arrested, twenty-one of whom are being held without bail in Patacamaya and San Pedro prisons. The intervention looks to be a decisive turn in the municipality’s protests, which have been ongoing throughout 2017.
The protesters, who have numbered in the thousands, are backing a demand that Édgar Ramos (of the governing MAS-IPSP party) step down as mayor of Achacachi municipality over allegations of corruption. That demand prompted protests in February, in which anti-Ramos demonstrators damaged the mayor’s property and his organizational allies in Achacachi city. In response, Ramos’ rural allies looted the city’s commercial district. In July, the national government advanced an investigation of the anti-Ramos forces, notably Achacachi Neighborhood Federation (Federación de Juntas Vecinales; Fejuve) leader Esnor Condori, but not of pro-Ramos forces. Reversing an earlier decisions to grant house arrest, a judge jailed Condori and two urban teachers affiliated with the movement, Pastor Salas and Gonzalo Laime, in San Pedro. The day after they were jailed, August 22, the blockade began.
In a remarkable month of mobilization, the mostly urban Achacachi protesters who began the blockade (in so far as a town of nine thousand people is considered urban on the Altiplano) both maintained steady control over regional roadways and built a surprising network of alliances. They were joined in protest by Felipe Quispe, the famed, but retired leader of the national peasant confederation CSUTCB, who is a native of Achacachi Municipality. They signed a pact of mutual support with TIPNIS community leaders still reeling from the August law that permits development in their territory. And on August 28, a march of Achacachi women descended from the Altiplano and El Alto to stand before the San Pedro Prison. Their signs read:
Damn those who defend corrupt mayors with their power.
Jail for this looter
Evo, listen: Your mayor is corrupt “Malditos aquellos que con su poder defiende a alcaldes corruptos”, “Cárcel para este saqueador” “Evo escucha, tu alcalde es un corrupto”
The Achacachi women stayed in the capital of La Paz, staging regular demonstrations and setting up a sit-in blockade in front of the Ministry of Justice. Their mobilization seems to have built more surprising ties to parts of the Paceño population, while the highland traditionalist organization CONAMAQ Orgánica, regional labor federation COD-La Paz, and the traditionally radical teacher’s union all offered their support.
On Friday, September 15, these groups combined to hold a cabildo—a mass public meeting that can issue statements or coordinate protests—in the Plaza San Francisco, the traditional heart of grassroots protest in Bolivia, four blocks below the presidential palace in La Paz.
The cabildo termed itself “Achacachi Somos Todos” (We are all Achacachi) and managed to generalize the demands of the local movement, related to the mayor and the detained protest leaders, into “an Agenda that comes from the Aymara people to the whole country.” The six points of departure raised and approved in the cabildo include (1) the struggle against corruption, (2) the struggle against the politicization of the criminal justice system, (3) the right to dissidence and critique, (4) respect for individual and collective rights, (5) critical debate about the vision for Bolivia’s development based on local demands and perspectives, and (6) rejection of the instrumentalizing of indigenous peoples for political ends.
Achacachi municipality, particularly the smaller town of Warisata and the many Aymara rural communities that make up most of its population, was the point of ignition for the 2003 Gas War, and a key part of the rural mobilizations that preceded it. At that time, a thousand marchers from the Altiplano led by Felipe Quispe implanted themselves in the overwhelmingly indigenous city of El Alto (just above La Paz on the edge of the Altiplano plateau) and became an articulating force for collaborative protest. Today, Achacachi Municipality is divided along partisan lines (which are partially town/village lines), but its mobilization again seems to be bringing other movements together. It is very much an alliance of outsiders, those grassroots social forces that have had the harshest break-ups with the national government. But the process of connection among them should be watched closely as the Achacachi movement regroups from Sunday morning’s police intervention.
Broad Legitimacy for Road Blockades as Protest Tactic in Bolivia
Road blockades are a frequent form of protest in Bolivia, at many different scales. A small demonstration may claim a single roadway, or a coordinated effort can deliberately paralyze transport across an entire region. Sometimes small protests in just the right place can lead to big consequences. Bolivia is one of the most highly mobilized countries in the world in terms of protest: In a 2012 national survey by LAPOP (the Latin American Public Opinion Project), just under 17% of 2,999 people polled said they had taken part in a protest in the last 12 months. The 508 who said yes were asked if they had blockaded a road or other public space, and 229 confirmed that they had. In other words, one out of every 13 adult Bolivians polled had taken part in a road blockade. Asked in the same year whether they approved of different kinds of political action, Bolivians rated blockading a bit lower than simply demonstrating, but ahead of creating a political party.
In 2002 and 2004, LAPOP asked Bolivians a more incisive question about road blockades:
“Sometimes there are protests that provoke difficulties because the streets are closed. In those cases, what should the government do? A veces hay protestas que provocan dificultades porque se cierran las calles. En esos casos, ¿qué debe hacer el gobierno?
The result was overwhelming: Large majorities (76.48% in 2002; 71.89% in 2004) chose “Negotiate with the protesters although this may take days or weeks, affecting the economy of the country” over “Order the police to open the roads.” (Negociar con los manifestantes aunque esto pueda tardar días o semanas, afectando la economía del país vs. Mandar a la policía para abrir los caminos).
Add to this the fact that the ruling political party, the Movement Towards Socialism–Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the People emerged from the Chapare cocalero movement, which frequently used blockades as a protest tool. And that it came to power in 2005 on a wave of unrest that was powered by blockades and sparked into national revolt in Achacachi. And that road blockades were also a frequent tool of the grassroots left in the 2006–09 struggle against a separatist right-wing movement in the east of the country.
Accordingly, the Morales government has often approached blockades with tolerance on the ground. It’s the exceptional application of intensive force to break up a blockade that attracts well-deserved attention: the 2010 police raid on the Caranavi blockade demanding a citrus plant, the 2016 effort to break up blockades by the cooperative miners federation, and this week’s operation in Achacachi. The first two efforts had deadly consequences: two townspeople were killed in Caranavi, and five miners and one Vice Minister died in last years confrontations. While the current operation caused no fatalities, it represents an important break point between the government and a movement that had been a solid part of its broad grassroots base until now.
Taking one more step in the Bolivian government’s slide away from socialism, the Defensor del Pueblo (Human Rights Ombudsman) has successfully petitioned a court to limit the right of Bolivian workers to go on strike. The workers in question are doctors affiliated with the Colegio Médico, who carried out a two-day work stoppage in protest of a government decree turning medicine into “free affiliation” profession, analogous to anti-union right-to-work laws in the United States.
Defensor David Tezanos Pinto filed the suit in the name of the right of the public to health, but the move cuts against the grain of strong pro-labor elements of Bolivian political culture, some of which date back to 1936. The right to strike was reaffirmed in the 2009 Constitution, and the court ruling that resulted is equivocal on the appropriate balance between that right and the public interest in access to medical services. The ruling stipulates “the Colegio Médico’s obligation to guarantee the right to health in normal conditions for all uses of the public health service when they exercise their ight to strike | El deber garantizar el derecho a la salud en condiciones de normalidad en todos los usuarios del servicio de salud público por parte del colegio médico a tiempo de ejercitar su derecho a la huelga.”
After the ruling, Tezanos threatened further lawsuits against future protests on May 30, suggesting that transit drivers on strike and protesters using road blockades could be targeted. Blockade of highways are a central form of protest in the Andes, and many other places across Latin America. The current government owes its existence to extensive social unrest using blockades from the 1980s onward in the Chapare and from 2000 to 2005 across Bolivia. More recently, Tezanos has stepped back from his earlier threats, stating on Twitter that “The Constitution protects health services, limiting medical strikes, guaranteeing the right to strike in other sectors.”
La Constitución protege los servicios de salubridad, limitando los Paros de Salud, garantizando el derecho a la huelga de otros sectores. pic.twitter.com/BOA4QvUPtU
Tezanos is the first Defensor appointed from within the Movement Towards Socialism party, which has governed since 2006. Under Bolivia’s previous political turbulence, the long term of the Defensor and the fractiousness of the National Congress has kept this important role somewhat independent of the ruling party. This lawsuit is the latest action leading some Bolivian’s to question whether that independence will continue under Tezanos’ leadership. For Inter-Union Pact leader José Luis Álvarez, the latest action “criminalizes the strike and social protest.”
This week, the Departmental Workers Center has stepped up a campaign to demand Tezanos renounce his action and back the right to strike. An alliance of workers, doctors, neighborhood councils, rural irrigation users, and others is preparing a march on the matter for June 26.
Image: Bolivian medical workers on strike in Cochabamba, April 2011.
Vice Minister Rodolfo Illanes, in charge of Bolivian security forces within the Ministry of Government, was killed Thursday night after being held captive by protesting cooperative miners. Illanes was part of a negotiating team sent arrange talks with a national protest campaign. He went to Panduro, a town on the La Paz–Oruro highway, Thursday morning, where he was taken hostage by members of the Federation of Cooperative Miners (Fencomin). Later in the day, he was brutally beaten to death and then left on the side of the highway. His capture and death came on the second of two deadly days of confrontations between miners and police attempting to disperse their blockades of Bolivia’s principal highways.
Recent confrontations around the government’s effort to clear road blockades by cooperative miners have been unusually violent and intense. Two miners died of gunshot wounds on Wednesday at Sayari (on the Oruro–Cochabamba highway), Fermín Mamani (25 years old) and Severino Ichota (41), according to national government prosecutors who have opened investigations of their deaths. A third, Rubén Aparaya Pillco, was reportedly shot dead on Thursday at Panduro, near where Illanes was being held. At two more miner’s lives were cut short: Freddy Ambrosio Rojas (26) died on Saturday after suffering severe injuries while holding dynamite at the Panduro confrontation. Pedro Mamani Massi (41) suffered a gunshot to the head and suffered brain death in the hospital; he remains on life support without prospect for recovery. he died on September 1 and was mourned by his family in El Alto.
As part of my research, I have been compiling a database of deaths in political conflict in Bolivia during the current (post-1982) democratic period. This work is still in process, but can help to put current events into context. This week’s events make 2016 the deadliest year since 2008, with 13 fatalities. In February, six municipal workers died in the city hall of El Alto (the nation’s second largest city) as the result of an arson attack by protesters. In January, soldiers beat a trucking worker to death during a pressure campaign by that sector.
Deaths in Bolivian protest have been less common under the presidency of Evo Morales than in the past and killings by state security forces (army and police) make up a smaller fraction of deaths than under Morales’ predecessors. We’ve identified 91 deaths during Morales’ ten years in office (including those this week), and fewer than a third of them were carried out by security forces. Meanwhile, at least twenty-one deaths under the Morales administration have come in conflicts among mineworkers or between mineworkers and community members: 16 in 2006, two in 2008; one in 2012; and two in 2015. Two cooperative miners were killed by police during 2014 protests in Cochabamba, during a confrontation in which police were also taken hostage. Altogether, four members of the police or military have died in political conflicts since 2006. Vice Minister Illanes is the first senior official to be killed.
This confrontation does not herald a general confrontation between state and society or among larger political forces. No other sectors have joined Fencomin’s protests and the group is at odds with waged mine workers who play a key role in the national labor movement. Cooperative miners are longtime allies of the MAS government, backed President Morales’ re-election in 2014, and endorsed another term for him as recently as May.
Since 2009, the most intense conflicts in Bolivian society have occurred within the broad grassroots left coalition that backed the rise of Evo Morales to power. The government has routinely alleged that protests from within the grassroots left have an anti-government political agenda, and did so again this week, but these claims are often unsubstantiated. The 2006-08 conflict between the Morales government and secession-oriented right-wing movements has long since concluded, and is unrelated to the current protests.Read More »
The wave of anti-mining protests in the Puno Region of Peru reached day 50 today. Yesterday, June 24, was a particularly dramatic day, however: the Peruvian government announced that it will annul the mining concession for the proposed Santa Ana silver mine in Huacullani District, near the Bolivian border southeast of Puno; other protesters took over the Manco Capac airport in Juliaca, north of Puno, only to be shot with live ammunition by police. These were both very important events in the seven-week-long protests. But they were also the two kinds of events that the English-language press steps in to cover: economic loss to Western corporations and deadly violence. If it bleeds, it leads is a key phrase for journalism, but if it bites the bottom line, it makes the business pages is just as important.
Unfortunately, the coincidence of these two newsworthy events led a string of English-language outlets to treat one as causing the other. In fact, there is quite a bit of separation: the Santa Ana mine was the lead issue for the primarily Natural Resources Defense Front of the Southern Zone of Puno (Frente de Defensa de los Recursos Naturales de la Zona Sur de Puno), which joined forces with National Confederation of Peruvian Communities Affeted by Mining (Spanish: Confederación Nacional de Comunidades del Perú Afectadas por la Minería; Conami). The Defense Front, a predominantly Aymara organization, is based near the border and had organized an earlier regional general strike against the Santa Ana Mine in April. It joined forces with the largely Quechua Conami for a larger regional protest from May 7 to June 1. When protests resumed after the victory of Ollanta Humala, new forces got involved, many but not all also concerned with mining elsewhere in the Puno Region. These include protests in Carabaya province [the Puno region has 13 provinces, divided in 107 districts] against mining concessions and the Inambari hydroelectric power plant; protests in Melgar, Juli, and Sandia over local mines; and Azángaro (whose capital is Juliaca) demanding decontamination of the Ramis river from pollution caused by small-scale mining. Outside of the Defense Front, most peasants in these regions are Quechua-speakers, not Aymaras.
The story is the strike wave, which has rippled across the region. And the other surprising story is the willingness of the government to deal openly with the strikers: even in May, substantial concessions were granted to the protests (including a 12-month delay in the Santa Ana mine and a regional commission to study all mining in southern Puno Region). The possibilities of protest and the limits of resource extraction are being rewritten in Peru. However, it didn’t bleed, so it didn’t lead. Indeed, for English-reading outsiders, it didn’t even get covered. Blame this on editors and the priorities of understaffed media organizations.
However, when things got interesting for the newswires, they assigned the story, apparently to reporters far from the scene. And the results juxtaposed the shootings in Juliaca and the victory in Chuquito Province in ways that distort the truth:
Agence France-Presse, “Peru halts Canada mining operations amid protests“: “Peru suspended a Canadian company’s mining project in the south of the country on Saturday following intense negotiations in the wake of deadly protests by mostly indigenous anti-mining activists, authorities said.” “In the wake of” is fuzzy talk for afterwards without committing to a connection. In fact, the negotiations preceded the deadly violence, with a commitment to annul the Santa Ana mine being made verbally to the Defense Front on Wednesday and Thursday, with confirmation on Saturday. As discussed above, anti-mining protesters in Juliaca have other demands. Later in the article, “Protests have since spread to the provinces of Azangaro, Melgar and now the city of Juliaca.” Juliaca is the capital of Azangaro, and protests occurred there in late May, as well as early June. Nonetheless, AFP did some homework; this is spot on: “They then expanded to include opposition to other area mines, and now include opposition to the Inambari project, an ambitious plan to damn several Andean rivers and build what would become one of the largest hydroelectric power plants in South America.”
Voice of America, “3 Killed in Peru Airport Clash“: Contributes one fact: the result of a hospital phone call to Juliaca (“A doctor said the three people killed died from gunshot wounds Friday at Manco Capac airport in the city of Juliaca in Puno state.”), but mis-identifies the protesters as Aymara Indians—0.28% of Azángaro Province is Aymara. The hospital workers, through no fault of their own, understated the death toll by half.
Reporting like this is far less effective than paying translators to read the local press (Los Andesin Puno has been among the most comprehensive; see their chronology) and fact-check one against the other. If you’re reporting on these issues, I’d really like to know your process and point you in the direction of reliable background information. Seriously, where are you and what do you read?
Credit where credit is due: Reuters got the story right, noting “On Friday, hours before the deadly clash at the airport, Garcia’s cabinet revoked the license of Canadian mining firm Bear Creek in a bid to persuade locals residents to end protests that have dragged on for more than a month.”
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.
On Sunday, Egypt held parliamentary elections which are widely known to be neither free nor fair (denunciation by the Carnegie Endowment for international peace). The elections were a demonstration of the government’s plans in advance of the 2011 elections, when long-time president Hosni Mubarak may make way for his son to rise as a successor. Unlike the media frenzy over the selection of Kim Jong-Il’s son to receive a special title, little mainstream outrage has been directed at Mubarak’s machinations. Egypt remains under its third decade of emergency rule (which ban demonstrations and some opposition parties), and is the largest non-democratic recipient of United States’ foreign aid by far. It’s also the largest undemocratic country in the Middle East, helped to remain so by our tax dollars, and military and diplomatic support. It’s the clearest sign that the alleged US policy to support democracy in the region is a joke.
In the absence of outside support, people in Egypt have made a number of challenges to this situation. One of the latest was the mid-day peaceful uprising on Sunday by residents of Balteem and Hamoul against voter fraud. Their actions were in defense of independent candidate Hamdeen Sabahy (profile). Since 1995, three of Sabahy’s voters have been killed by Egyptian riot police, while he won office in 2000 and 2005.
8:30 am. Sabahy’s representatives rush to photocopy the new certification papers required to gain access to polling stations. Early that morning at 12:30 am, Sabahy’s campaign was dumbfounded to learn of sudden new regulations for the papers, requiring that they be stamped from police precincts rather than notary publics as had been announced earlier. Certain that this is an 11th hour rule manipulation to bar Sabahy’s agents from accessing polling stations, campaign workers spend all night driving to police stations to get the necessary stamps.
9:10 am. The first reports of foul play trickle in. Candidate agents from 12 polling stations phone in that they have been kicked out of polling stations, and one says her certification papers were ripped up despite having the necessary police stamp.
1:00 pm. Sabahy’s representatives sent to Hamoul and agents of other candidates who are sympathetic to Sabahy begin to phone in reports of ballot-stuffing in favor of Abdel Ghaffar in villages surrounding Hamoul.
1:50 pm. Balteem’s main streets are lined with men congregating and sitting on the sidewalks, expressions somber and nerves frayed. A procession of cars and pickup trucks loaded with youth speed past in the direction of the highway. “They’re blockading the highway!” Spontaneously, Balteem and Borg youth decide to blockade the highway to protest what is now a certain sense of election rigging. The news travels like wildfire and some cars change route and head for the highway rather than Sabahy’s house. Frantic calls to campaign cars instructs them to make sure no women are headed to the highway, in anticipation of violence between protestors and riot police.
2-4 pm. Town youth blockade the highway with burning tires and clumps of tree branches and wooden sticks. Highway traffic comes to a standstill, with freight trucks backed up as far as the eye can see. A campaign worker says to no one in particular, “Didn’t I say that this morning was the quiet before the storm?”
4 pm. Townspeople converge on Sabahy’s courtyard and the candidate comes out to speak, standing on a pick-up truck. Livid, fiery youth and men climb on the pick-up truck and demand revenge. Sabahy struggles to control the crowd’s emotions, saying he’d rather withdraw and give up his seat than join this scandalously handpicked parliament. A fully veiled woman in black climbs on the truck and pulls the microphone from his hand, screaming, “Don’t you dare withdraw, Sabahy! Don’t you dare withdraw!”
The crowd chants, “Balteem boxes won’t leave! Balteem boxes won’t leave!” By law, counting stations for the entire district are located in Hamoul but since Hamoul was experiencing rigging, residents feared their ballots would be destroyed or disappeared en route to the counting station.
Ultimately, these efforts appear not to have saved the day. Instead it was the threat of further government violence that won. Al Ahram reported at 4:35 pm, “Police armored vehicles have stormed Balteem, in Kafr El-Sheikh, firing tear gas and live ammunition into the air.” Later, Sabahy himself convinced his supporters to stand down (again, the full day is here):
7:00 pm. Sabahy comes out and is immediately mobbed by the crowd, lifting him on their shoulders and giving him a hero’s welcome. He gives a rousing speech in which he denounces the government and several Amn al-Dawla officers by name for fixing the elections in Hamoul, and reiterates his position of withdrawing from the elections. The crowd presses him to authorize and lead a peaceful protest march to the police station to protest the rigging, but Sabahy fears security forces’ violent response and does not want injuries and casualties among his supporters, as in the past. The back-and-forth goes on for an hour that feels like an eternity, but in the end Sabahy prevails and the people are dejected, though none take matters into their own hands as some did that afternoon.
Somewhat obnoxiously, a government spokesman claimed, “The [governing] party’s careful selection of its candidates was a factor in defeating big opposition names such as Hamdeen Sabahi.” Sabahy withdrew from the race, and made these comments later: “The rigging proves that the [governing] NDP wants no opposition in parliament. With the new parliament, we will see increased restrictions on freedom of expression, including new restrictions on the media.” Whatever the wisdom of backing down (and no one should be too eager to second guess such moves when lives are at stake), residents’ willingness to take their anger to the streets are remarkable under so much pressure.