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Africa And Aboriginal Tuesdays: Bolivia - Anti-Neoliberal Insurrection

They are not an image of terrorism, those weather-beaten faces of Bolivian miners and campesinos creased with premature yet ancient wrinkles who flooded the steep streets of La Paz in their rivers of rebellion.

On the contrary, they are the features and fortunes shared with indigenous Ecuadorans, the Chiapas native Indian population and those on Argentine picket lines.

The popular insurrection in Bolivia that resulted in the resignation of President Gustavo Sánchez de Lozada is not an isolated incident in Latin America, where general causes, as well as logical national differences, are common.

A savage neoliberalism, strictly imposed and applied within the continent, includes amongst its victims thousands who died in Caracazo in 1989 - when a lethal oppression ordered by Carlos Andres Pérez to crush the rage sweeping across the hills surrounding the Venezuelan capital.

The current uprisings in La Paz, El Alto and other settlements in that Andean nation have resulted in more than 70 deaths and 200 injuries. But this time, armed tactics against the people could not contain the demands of diverse sectors of society.

Because this system that privileges the market, bleeding public wealth dry and restricting the state’s social responsibilities also digs the graves of its political exponents.

In addition to Sánchez de Lozada himself, this has been confirmed by the fate of Ecuadorans Yarnil Mahuad and Abdalá Bucaram, Alberto Fujimori of Peru and Argentine Fernando de la Rúa.

And I mention the above who were removed due by the street vote of popular mobilizations, although such experiences might well be on the mind of other leaders, including Peruvian Alejandro Toledo, whom the indigenous community of his own country are reproaching for having forgotten his roots.

The significance of recent events in Bolivia for the region as a whole has been widely expressed in the Latin American press. There is an agreement that the lesson lies in the failure of the neo-liberal model, on account of which Lozada’s government “never tuned in to the problems or demands of the population,” according to Peruvian economist Enrique Cornejo.

Augusto Rodríguez Rodrich, editor of the daily Perú 12, listed three factors that have recently brought down presidents: political parties’ lack of representation, economic arrears and extreme poverty and loss of faith in the future.

He was of the view that “it would be erroneous to surmise that events specific to one country are taking take place within certain similar trends that could propitiate similar results.” And he noted that that would place Ecuadoran leader Lucio Gutiérrez in check after his break with the indigenous movements that took him to the presidency.


Despite possessing great natural resources, the centuries-long plunder of its minerals has left Bolivia one of the poorest nations in Latin America.

According the World Bank, 62.7% of Bolivians live below the poverty level and 20% of its population has higher infant mortality levels than Haiti or Kenya.

As a continent, Latin America has the worst distribution of wealth, but that situation is emblematic in the Andean nation, where the fifth poorest section receives 4% of the national income and the fifth richest 55%.

Although the country experienced severe economic stagnation in the 1980s, neoliberal recipes imposed managed to come up with certain macroeconomic indicators. Those results were sufficient for the good conduct certification granted by the International Monetary Fund, but in the backdrop of the exacerbation of social conflicts.

During the first Sánchez de Lozada administration (1993-1997), he accentuated the privatization process initiated during the Banzer-Quiroga government, which saw the passing of an Act leading to the denationalization of the state-owned Bolivian Oilfields (YPFB).

In that period the government boasted of an increase in foreign investment, a euphemism for the process of selling off the public heritage, including telephone services and railroads.

Thus, while the GDP grew in government reports and those of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), acute poverty in the rural areas continued approaching the urban centers.

However, that bubble rapidly burst and with that, new players and social movements appeared on the country’s political stage, where the alternating of spent traditional parties confirmed the model’s failure.

Even in the midst of divisions, the leadership role of figures like Evo Morales, of Guaraní origin, and leader of the Cochabamba coca growers and the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), and Felipe Quispe, representative of the Aymara peoples and leader of the Single Trade Union of Campesino Workers (CSUTCB), are placing the large sector of the majorities forgotten by so-called representative democracy in the forefront of the political struggle.


La Paz has returned to calm after Vice President Carlos Mesa Gisbert received the presidential sash from Congress. The human rivers are receding, but awaiting the new government’s definition.

Although the issue of the sale of natural gas to the transnationals was the trigger for the social explosion, it is a fact that demands for the nationalization of that resource go hand-in-hand with many other claims.

The new head of state, an eminent journalist and historian, is banking on an executive team composed of figures that do not represent any of the parties in Congress, but in his condition as a fellow supporter of the previous leader’s formula, he shares with him the repudiated government policies.

Without any real time for evaluation his announcement of consulting the population over the sale of gas is a positive one, although the form and intention of the referendum remains unclear.

Evidently Bolivia needs to sell that resource, which could well become its main source of income. But what MAS, for example, is demanding, is that the exploitation of natural gas should become a process of national industrialization to promote employment and development and give added value to the product.

Demands for modifying the above-mentioned Hydrocarbons Act have already prompted U.S. concern. David Greenlee, its ambassador to La Paz, has already invoked the specter of cold feet on the part of foreign investors in a project within which the transnationals are bearing off the largest portion.

Washington has also been the promoter of the eradication of the coca crop, a traditional cultivation that sustains thousands of campesino families who have not been offered any alternatives by the U.S. imposition. That has resulted in the slaughter at Chapare and a virtual uprising by the Cochabambo cultivators.

The campesinos that blocked access roads to La Paz for a number of weeks were not only defending natural gas. Felipe Quispe has made it clear that the new government’s future depends on it responding to a document of former demands shared by the grass roots of the CSUTCB in conjunction with other sectors.

That will put Carlos Mesa’s leadership to the test and moreover, he has promised to bring to justice those responsible for the violent repression that converted the locality of El Alto into an unequal battlefield.

Mesa had announced that he will not be an orthodox follower of neoliberal economic policies, but he will have to choose and maneuver between responding to popular demands on the one hand and commitments with Washington and international creditors on the other.

There is another lesson to be learnt from the Bolivian crisis, which exposed the discredited and inoperable Organization of American States. The Inter-American Democratic Charter has overlooked something fundamental: non-governability in Latin America has a name. It is called anti-neoliberal insurrection.

Note:This article first appeared at Granma Internacional

© Copyright. 1996-2003. All rights reserved. GRANMA INTERNATIONAL/ONLINE EDITION. Cuba.

Tuesday, October 21, 2003

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