Pubdate: Fri, 17 Oct 2003
Source: Drug War Chronicle (US Web)
Author: Phillip S. Smith, Editor
Note: breaking news Bolivia President Quits After Revolt


Strikes, Blockades, Mass Marches, Dozens Killed as US-Backed
Administration Teeters

The administration of Bolivian President Gonzalo "Goni" Sanchez de
Lozada is on the verge of collapse after a week of social and
political chaos that has left dozens of people dead and brought the
country to a virtual standstill. Sanchez de Lozada, elected with 22%
of the popular vote last year, has seen his popularity plummet to
single digits in recent weeks as widespread discontent over government
policies grew into a storm.

The primary catalysts for Bolivia's social unrest are starvation-level
economic woes and blame for them directed by large segments of
Bolivia's population at free market policies directed from Washington,
DC; Bolivia is a nation where criticism of free market economics is
deep and pervasive and is fueled by deep and longstanding social
divides along lines of race and class. But the government's
wholehearted embrace of the US approach to coca cultivation -- wipe it
out -- also lies at the heart of the crisis; and in the minds of much
of the indigenous majority and substantial elements of the mestizo
population, the two issues are inextricably linked to each other and
to intervention in Bolivian matters by the United States.

The current storm began brewing when the Bolivian government announced
plans to privatize and sell off natural gas reserves.

The fact that the plan included a pipeline to a port in Chile only
made matters worse.

That port sits on land Chile won from Bolivia in an 1879 war, leaving
the country landlocked and resentful ever since.

That the United States would be the destination for much of the gas
didn't help either, since the US is widely viewed by Bolivia's
indigenous majority as a nation that profits from Bolivia's resources
while Bolivians suffer.

Nationalist protests against the plan dovetailed with parallel
protests by workers and indigenous peasants demanding better living
conditions. By now, hundreds of thousands of Bolivians have joined in
the angry, often violent, confrontations with the security forces.

And coca-grower leader Evo Morales, who controls the second largest
bloc in parliament (Movement Toward Socialism, or MAS), is now sitting
atop a huge, rambunctious set of popular movements poised either to
force Sanchez de Lozada from power or simply overthrow the government
through popular rebellion.

Protests have been building for the past three weeks, but exploded
this week as the government replaced police forces whose loyalties
were suspect with the Bolivian Army. The immediate result has been an
upsurge in deaths, with 14 people reportedly being killed by soldiers
in one day in El Alto, an industrial suburb of La Paz that is home to
almost a million residents. On Wednesday, Goni backed down from the
gas privatization plan, but by then it was too late to quell the
rising protests.

It was also too late for Morales and labor leader and congressman
Felipe Quispe, both of whom are still demanding Sanchez de Lozada's
immediate resignation.

By the time of this writing Thursday evening, La Paz, the capital, was
in a virtual state of siege, with the international airport closed
down by protestors for the third day. Food shortages loom as transport
from the rest of the country is blocked.

The streets are filled with tens of thousands of farmers, workers,
miners, and indigenous people wielding sticks and dynamite demanding
Sanchez de Lozada's removal. "Goni, murderer," came the shouts from
the streets.

Sanchez de Lozada is barricaded in his suburban residence, while only
four tanks stand between the protestors and the presidential palace in
downtown La Paz.

And the strife is not limited to the capital.

Roadblocks are up all across the country, and clashes between police
or the military and protestors have spilled blood in the countryside
as well as the city. Thousands of cocaleros are pouring into the
country's second city, Cochabamba, to add their numbers to the
swelling ranks.

"It's actually a little calmer today," the Andean Information
Network's Kathy Ledebur told DRCNet earlier Thursday from her office
in Cochabamba. "There have been no people killed so far. But
yesterday, we saw a lot of efforts to clamp down on the press.

Police and soldiers confiscated editions of newspapers and magazines,
and hooded men blew up the transmission tower of a progressive radio

Sanchez de Lozada's retreat did him no good, said Ledebur. "The
government offered a referendum on the gas issue and a constitutional
assembly, but at the same time its security forces were illegally
entering homes, and they killed two miners yesterday.

The government lacks any credibility. The people don't believe their

Or, as Evo Morales put it to the Associated Press Thursday, "There are
too many deaths now."

Sanchez de Lozada's effort to save his presidency is taking on an
increasingly sinister tone, said Ledebur. "In his speech, he said he
was not stepping down, and he said that the darkest international
forces were behind this movement.

He said that Sendero Luminoso [Peru's Maoist "Shining Path" rebels]
was among the coca growers and, oh yes, the Colombian FARC and ELN,
too. This is a national movement, the whole country is in chaos and it
extends far beyond Evo Morales and the coca growers, but to link
protests to a terrorist presence is really scary for us," she
explained. "It is clear that Sanchez de Lozada has lost touch with
reality when he adopts this 'narco-terrorist' rhetoric.

He is even blaming 'well-meaning non-governmental organizations' for
funding the protests.

I hope he doesn't mean us; we don't have any money."

And neither do most Bolivians. More than half the population lives on
less than $2 a day. That's a big part of Goni's problem.

With US backing, he embarked on free market reforms during his first
term, from 1993 to 1997, and he promised more of the same when he took
office again in August 2002, after barely defeating Morales in the
presidential run-off election.

His economic programs appear to promise more austerity for the

While the conflict over the US-backed coca eradication policy of
Goni's government is not center-stage in the current struggle for
power, it has helped lay the groundwork. "It is really important to
note," said Ledebur, "that during the past five years or so, the
government's hard-line approach to the coca issue, which is the US
government's approach, has really impeded resolution of this conflict.

Even when the government and the coca growers were both willing to
make concessions, the US has shut down those dialogues. So now the
demands are not only Sanchez de Lozada's resignation and no gas deal
to the US, but also no more US-imposed eradication policy. The coca
growers are very active in these protests.

There are large numbers of them here in Cochabamba today, they have
been blockading in the Chapare despite a very strong military
presence, and the Yungas has been blockaded for the past three weeks,"
the on-scene analyst reported. "Now a large contingent of coca growers
has arrived in La Paz. The coca growers provide the backbone for these
protests on a national level because they've had longer experience
fighting the government on issues that affect their existence. They
can articulate for other groups that have not experienced this before."

"US policy in Bolivia has utterly failed," said Larry Birns, executive
director of the Washington, DC-based Council on Hemispheric Relations
(, which Thursday joined the chorus calling for
Sanchez de Lozada to resign. "The cause of eradication is not popular
in Bolivia," he told DRCNet. "The US wishes to impose this policy but
has been chronically unprepared to fund the necessary alternatives to
coca. The US has utterly failed to interdict processed drugs coming
into the US, and Bolivians resent having to spend their money to solve
the US' problems."

With support for Sanchez de Lozada crumbling by the minute, the
question now appears to be whether the transition will be
constitutional or popular. The US and the European Union have both
issued warnings that a regime change that breaks with constitutional
norms will not be greeted with open arms. But the forces of mass
protest, long repressed, may prove to be unstoppable if Goni refuses
to step down soon.

Jaime Solares, head of a big trade union, reflected broad public
opinion in the country today when he told reporters: "Let him not just
leave the government, but Bolivia as well. And may he take the
ambassador from the United States with him."

But Birns warned against moving extra-constitutionally to replace the
government. "Evo is not acting prudently," he said. "He is going to
have to build a coalition, and he is going to have to moderate his
rhetoric to do so. Under the constitution, the vice-president will
take over, and it is critical that this follow constitutional means.

But Goni will have to go. He is now irrelevant and

The question is will the US tell him to hang tough?

If so, I don't think he'll resign."

That could be a recipe for extended political and social chaos.
"Bolivia is the poorest country is South America and the average
Bolivian earns about $2.75 per day," explained Sanho Tree, drug policy
analyst for the Institute for Policy Studies. "We've been trying to
force Bolivians not to grow their most profitable crop in a country
that is the size of Texas and California combined. Like our marijuana
eradication efforts in California, it hasn't worked. Draconian
counternarcotic and economic policies imposed by the US are pushing
many Bolivians to the breaking point," he continued. "Imagine how the
average US citizen would react in this situation.

Americans threw
off the yoke of King George III and Bolivians are rebelling against
President George II and his lapdog." [Ed: King William (J. Clinton) also
did his part to escalate the coca wars; the Bolivia situation is very much
a bipartisan disaster.

But it is George Bush who is in the driver's seat at the

Drug reformers are not monolithic in their economic views and include
free marketeers, socialists and everything in between -- DRCNet's
Latin American "Out from the Shadows" conference in February, for
example, included both the aforementioned Bolivian congressman Felipe
Quispe and Costa Rica libertarian (Movimiento Libertario) congressman
Ronaldo Alfaro. But it seems increasingly clear from Bolivia that the
US will not be able to achieve an economic agenda that is free market
for gas and other sectors, but violently anti-market (prohibitionist)
for coca. The US drug war has served to catapult a socialist coca
grower leader to enormous power in Bolivia, perhaps soon the
presidency; that may not be inevitable at this point, but then again
it may. Perhaps America's political leaders will one day grasp the
concept of choosing their battles.

Visit for updates on the situation in
Bolivia from a variety of media. 
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