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Issue 47

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Issue 47, May 2000

Bolivian insurrection in progress

    Water rates ignite massive rebellion
    Police mutiny for higher wages
    Army confronts mass demonstration
    Miners announce all-out offensive against Bánzer government

EARLY IN APRIL, massive demonstrations in Cochabamba, Bolivia's second city, rocked the government of General Hugo Bánzer Suárez, a military dictator from 1971-78 who was elected president in 1997 with less than one-third of the vote. The demonstrations were organised against the privatisation of the water system that led to a 40% hike in water rates. Tens of thousands of demonstrators were greeted by army troops who opened fire on the mostly peaceful protests. At least six people were killed. Simultaneously, there was a police mutiny, insurgence of the peasants, student protests, and mass workers' strikes.

All the conditions for a generalised revolutionary uprising are in the making. The only thing lacking is a clear leadership. The movement is being built from the ground up. This is not new in Bolivia. In 1953, armed workers, particularly miners, took power only to be betrayed by their leaders who handed power back to the Revolutionary Nationalist Movement (MNR). Since then, governments have been shaken by revolutions, insurrections and coups d'etat.

Bolivia, one of the poorest countries in the world and populated by an overwhelming majority of Quechua and Aymara Indians, is today leading the struggle against the international powers of the US and Europe and their agencies, the IMF and World Bank.

The following reports, compiled by correspondents on the ground in Bolivia, are edited from exclusive contributions to the San Francisco paper, Frontlines. Frontlines is a community paper, initiated by leaders of the Immigrant Rights Movement (MDI) and run by members of Socialist Alternative.
It can be read online at:


top     Water rates ignite massive rebellion

COCHABAMBA, FRIDAY 7 APRIL - Bánzer's government imposes martial law after the army clashed with thousands of demonstrators organised by the Coordinadora del Agua de la Vida (Coordinator of the Water of Life - CAV). CAV, an organisation of trade unions, peasant and community groups, called the demonstrations to protest a 40% rate increase in water rates - a death threat to the economy of an already impoverished population. In a city where the minimum wage is less than $100 per month, many families were hit with increases of $20 per month and more. Unpolluted water is scarce and considered sacred by Quechua and Aymara Indians. Intestinal infection leading to diarrhoea is Bolivia's number one child killer.

One of the main CAV spokespeople, union leader Oscar Olivera, denounces the army's assault on demonstrators and tells the media: 'Thousands of peasants are marching to Cochabamba to join the protests'. CAV, he says, 'does not want violence, but neither will it retreat'.

The massive protests uncovered a plethora of other issues: the protection of small farmers' coca plots, the collapse of miners' wages due to the US's grip of the international market, the White House's total control of Bolivia's gas reserves, the lack of democracy, and mounting attacks against peasant and indigenous peoples' organisations.

After the invasion of Cochabamba by military forces using tanks, armoured vehicles, helicopters, and thousands of troops in full riot-gear, it appeared that calm had returned to the city. But workers' and peasants' organisations called new demonstrations.


Massive contingents of peasants are already blocking roads in six of Bolivia's nine provinces and the miners have announced a possible general strike. Pamphlets calling the military to revolt against the government are being distributed to soldiers and petty officers. The police have announced that they are going on strike to demand an increase in their poverty wages - some officers live on $65 a month. Minister of the Interior, Walter Guitaras Dennis, said the 'government will not allow the law and constitution to be violated'. The mass organisations are demanding that water rates remain at their current level and that distribution of the precious liquid should be done by community and government institutions, not, as planned, by a private corporation.

During a meeting with the government on Thursday, the movement's leaders were arrested by masked commandos. 'It was a trap by the government to have us all together, negotiating, so that we could be arrested', said Olivera. They were later released under popular pressure.

On Friday evening it is announced that the government has broken-off the water contract. Jubilant CAV leaders proclaim the victory from a third-floor balcony to thousands of people on the street below. Many are waving the red, green and yellow Bolivian flag as the bells of the cathedral echo through the city centre. Olivera tells the ecstatic crowd: 'We have arrived at the moment of an important economic victory'.


top     Police mutiny for higher wages

LA PAZ, SUNDAY 9 APRIL - The economic crisis is affecting everyone, including the military and the police. Well-armed rank-and-file cops have occupied the headquarters of the Special Security Group (GES - elite police mostly employed to repress demonstrators and intervene in social conflicts). They are demanding wage increases and an end to police corruption. The mutiny highlights the crisis of the Bánzer government.

Over a thousand low-ranking police officers occupied the busy centre of the capital at the end of last week, calling on the rest of the police force to strike in solidarity with their demands. The government immediately sent in the Colorados Regiment and Military Police to surround the building and attack the insurrectionists.

On Saturday hundreds of police officers from other garrisons come out to help their comrades defend themselves against the military attack. Groups of 40 or 50 police officers entrench themselves in different corners and buildings around the GES headquarters. Even high-ranking police officers join the besieged insurgents: 'We know that the army is better equipped and armed than we are. But we will respond to fire with fire', they threaten.

Wives and relatives of the police officers in the GES building demonstrate on the perimeter of the Murillo Park around the military vehicles and troops. About 500 of them break through the military blockade and demonstrate their support for their relatives in the building. They are violently pushed back. Hundreds of Military Police troops promptly clear the park.


By Saturday afternoon the government announces that it would grant a 50% wage increase to the police. Some of the insurgents seem to accept the promise. Others question the honesty of Bánzer and his ministers and want to remain in the building.

The entire area around Murillo Park and downtown La Paz is paralysed. Shops are closed. The streets have been cleared by hundreds of military patrols enforcing the state of siege. It is evident that the military, in spite of the government's concession, is preparing an assault on the GES headquarters. A military officer tells our correspondent: 'The police have failed to fulfil their role of protecting the nation against subversives and communists who are agitating in the rest of the country. Communists have infiltrated the police force itself. That's why they launched this movement now, when there are disturbances in Cochabamba and other cities'.

At 4am on Sunday the inferno explodes. Half-an-hour after an alleged deal was struck between the government and the leaders of the mutiny, the army attacks the GES building. Hundreds of Military Police troops open fire with automatic weapons, launching smoke and tear-gas grenades. Some witnesses say they were also firing with heavy machine guns. I could hear the explosions of grenades and mortars.

Police officers respond with gunfire from the rooftops, with grenades and concussion ammunition. The army is forced to retreat about two blocks from the building. Soon, columns of soldiers in trucks with heavy artillery arrive at Murillo Park. The police inside the building call-up other units to support them. The situation grows tense. We expect a major confrontation.


But government mediators strike a deal with rank-and-file police leaders around 8am. By 10am, the tension starts to ease. More military personnel, this time from infantry divisions, take positions along the avenues that circumvent the park. The government issues a statement, expressing 'satisfaction that the crisis with the police was over, so the Armed Forces and the law agencies could both concentrate on enforcing the law and the constitution against those who were looking for anarchy and disturbances'.

top     Army confronts mass demonstration

COCHABAMBA, MONDAY 10 APRIL - At least three people were killed and more than 50 were wounded when military forces attacked mostly peaceful demonstrations over the weekend. One of the demonstrators killed was 17-year-old Victor Daza Argandona. Victor was killed when a small group of demonstrators, mostly young high-school students, were isolated and attacked at the corner of 25 de Mayor and Uruguay Street by a group of about 100 soldiers. Victor was killed by a shot to the head at point-blank range. A mass of mourners pay homage to him at the 14 of September Park. His body is carried to the main church in the city centre.

Thousands of demonstrators attack government buildings around City Hall. After defeating the guards, the demonstrators burn some of the buildings to the ground. Big businesses are also the target of attacks by the demonstrators. Meanwhile, in several neighbourhoods, young activists and trade unionists erect barricades and fight the police and army with small-calibre weapons and Molotov cocktails.


The government estimates that over 40,000 people took part in the protests over the weekend. Several prisoners burned down the doors to the San Antonio jail and made their escape under the cover of the disturbance on the streets.

In a clear indication of the insurrectionary mood in Cochabamba and other cities, General Felipe Agramont, announces that the 'Armed Forces have orders to shoot and kill anyone who attempts to take over military installations'. The General said that the Cochabamba gun shop, Casa Fefito, has been looted and hundreds of weapons stolen by groups of young demonstrators. According to Agramont, six officers were wounded by demonstrators 'numbering hundreds and hundreds, possibly heavily armed', who attempted to take over the headquarters of the Seventh Army Division in Cochabamba.

An army communiqué states that numerous officers and troops have been kidnapped in Patacamaya, in the Lahuachaca region. Apparently, the unit was surprised and captured by a large contingent of armed peasants while out on patrol. Lahuachaca has seen peasant organisations taking over lands and blocking roads in protest at extreme poverty and the government's policy of reducing prices for traditional crops.

top     Miners announce all-out offensive against Bánzer government

LA PAZ, MONDAY 10 APRIL - The Comision Politica de la Coalition (CPC - the leadership body of the coalition government) calls for support for the state of siege - the sixth declared by the so-called 'democratic' government since 1985. Some parties in the government disagree, calling for an end to repression. If Bánzer's coalition partners desert him, his government will be forced to call new elections or appeal to the Armed Forces to stage a new coup d'etat.


A climate of insurrection and unrest has settled over the entire country. Members of the governmental coalition are split between supporting the government or joining the opposition. The Catholic Church is seeking to distance itself from Bánzer while issuing bland calls for non-violence. The main opposition party, the Revolutionary Nationalist Movement (MNR), is calling for the resignation of the government and early elections.

The Movimiento de los Sin Miedo (MSM - Movement Without Fear), an umbrella organisation grouping trade union, popular and left organisations, is calling for a 'general mobilisation of the working class, the left, and the communities to organise the resistance struggle of the citizenry'.

Meanwhile, Milton Gomez, the Executive Secretary of the Bolivian Miners Federation (FTMB), condemns the arrest of union leaders in Cochabamba and other cities and announces that the FTMB will participate with 'all our strength in every social movement against the state of siege and the government'. At a general meeting last Saturday, FTMB agreed to support the demands of the water protestors in Cochabamba. 'They won't stop us', declared Gomez, 'nor they will intimidate us with arrest and persecution'.

FTMB contingents occupy the Bolivian Workers Confederation (COB) building but evacuate when army battalions surround the building. Teachers' unions are engaged in a de facto general strike in protest at the arrest of peasant leaders, including Felipe Quispe (El Malku) and Fred Munoz. The teachers' unions call for schools in all provinces and rural areas to be shut down. Work stoppages are spreading like wildfire. Transport workers, copper miners, and agricultural workers are staging strikes. Land seizures in rural areas are multiplying.


The Departmental Workers Central (COD) calls for a 'full mobilisation of all unions, community organisations and political parties', to stop the state of siege, defeat the government and to impose the demands of public employees, peasants and demonstrators in Cochabamba. They lend their full support to the roadblocks, land occupations and strikes, 'to stop Hugo Bánzer's government's economic plans, which only benefit the multinationals'.

COD also calls for a massive demonstration on Friday at 10am at San Francisco Park, in the centre of La Paz. The demands include the call for a minimum wage of B$5,700 linked to inflation, the repeal of anti-union legislation, and the repeal of the draconian Statute of the Public Functionary. COD also demands material and human support for the water campaign in Cochabamba and the peasants' demands, along with repeal of the Customs Law - which benefits multinationals.

Bánzer tries to negotiate a settlement with the peasants to isolate the COB protest but fails to reach agreement with them.

top     Postscript

THE GOVERNMENT IS already trying to put water privatisation back on track. The privatisation programme was instigated by the World Bank. The company involved - International Waters - is a Britain-based subsidiary of the US corporation, Bechtel. Unity of the working class and poor, dramatically demonstrated in Bolivia, is essential to push back the worldwide neo-liberal onslaught.

Giving the struggle a social programme - for land in the hands of indigenous peoples and for production in the hands of workers - would ensure the victories could be sustained. And as part of a programme of socialist change throughout the world, those gains could be made permanent.


This inspirational struggle has scored an important victory against neo-liberal policies and shows us one of the main arenas of future struggles in the 'underdeveloped world'. As Oscar Olivera said: 'We're questioning that others - the World Bank, international business - should be deciding these basic issues for us... For us, that is democracy'.

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