Bolivia’s Battle of Wills

Bolivia’s Battle of Wills

Despite elections now expected this summer, Bolivia remains locked in a political stalemate, with core issues unresolved and the path forward unclear.


At a roadblock on the Bolivian altiplano, a group of indigenous tin miners in brown fiberglass helmets, their jaws bulging with coca leaves, lounge around on an empty strip of road. Suddenly the thin, high-altitude air shakes with a quick explosion. Everyone laughs. The comrades are killing time by tossing lit dynamite into a field. Tomorrow they will march across these high empty plains, through the sprawling, impoverished, majority Indian city of El Alto and over the edge of a steep canyon down into the capital of La Paz, and there lay siege to the government.

The miners have held this road for the past twenty-four hours. Both main arteries linking La Paz to the outside world are shut down. The Bolivian economy is beginning to sputter and stall; before long the restaurants, hotels and offices of the capital will start to run out of food and fuel; uncollected garbage will pile up in the streets. Soon six major cities will be sealed off by more than eighty blockades.

“The Congress is dominated by the transnational corporations. We are fighting to recover our natural resources. It is our right,” says a stern miner named Miguel Sureta.

The social movements–a host of mostly indigenous organizations representing Aymara and Quechua peasants, miners, teachers, urban community organizations, coca growers and the oldest national labor federation–are demanding nationalization of the country’s massive natural gas reserves, now estimated to be the second-largest in the hemisphere, at 53 trillion cubic feet. Their other plank is a constituent assembly to reformulate Bolivia’s political system and give greater power to the majority indigenous population.

Throughout South America, center-left governments are taking power, with Uruguay and Ecuador being the latest to join the trend. Bolivia, home to some of the most well-organized and radical popular movements on the continent, could be next. But the challenges facing the Bolivian left are enormous: Despite all its strength, it is riven by ideological disputes, pervasive Quechua versus Aymara ethnic factionalism and the constant clash of leadership egos.

Meanwhile, the right is also mobilizing. European-descended elites in the gas-rich lowland provinces of Santa Cruz and Tarija are agitating for autonomy or possible secession. The major oil companies operating in Bolivia are all threatening disinvestment if the industry is restructured. There are also rumors of a possible military coup.

On June 6 the centrist president, Carlos Mesa Gisbert, resigned. For a tense week it seemed the next president would be Hormando Vaca Díez, president of the Senate, a right-wing cattle rancher who warned that continued protest would “end in authoritarian government.” But now Eduardo Rodriguez, head of the Supreme Court, has been sworn in as Bolivia’s president. He is obliged to hold elections within six months.

The recently departed Mesa inherited his job in October 2003, the last time the issue of natural gas exploded. In that conflict his predecessor, then-president Gonzalo “Goni” Sánchez de Lozada, ordered troops to open fire on demonstrators. At least sixty-seven people were killed, and in the outrage that followed, Goni fled to the United States.

Back at the miners’ blockade, three weeks before Mesa’s resignation, nine trucks are sitting before a string of stones laid across the highway. In the center of this is a homemade bomb of dynamite, packed in a bottle full of pebbles. A few of the stranded drivers play soccer next to their vehicles.

“With the blockades we all lose out,” says Fernando Chavez, an Aymaran shepherd from the nearby village of Achica Arriba, where the miners have bivouacked. “The dynamite scares the children,” he says, one eye on his flock of fifty sheep. “President Mesa should talk to all sectors.”

In a truck called Rey de Reyes (“King of Kings”) and painted with evangelical inscriptions sits Johny Miranda. He had dropped off a load of soybeans in Peru and was headed home to Cochabamba when he hit this barrier last night. If he tries to run the blockade, he says, the miners will slash his tires and destroy his truck. He doesn’t support such tactics, but he wants the people to get more of the revenue from natural gas.

“Instead of blockades they should go right for the power, attack the gas fields and the Parliament,” says Miranda. Within hours that’s exactly what happens.

Crucial in all of this is the character of Evo Morales and his party, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS). Morales is of mixed Aymaran and Quechuan descent and got his start as a coca farmer, or cocalero. He lost the last presidential election, in 2002, by only one percentage point. MAS is now the second-largest group in Parliament. But Morales is not the driving force behind Bolivia’s social movements.

Most grassroots organizations in Bolivia are far more radical than the social democratic MAS. Morales originally called for a 50 percent royalty on foreign oil companies, while most of the movement wants 100 percent nationalization. This has caused Bolivian sociologist Carlos Crespo to describe Morales as “Lula-ized,” and to call MAS “hierarchical” and just “a presidential vehicle.” Antonio Peredo, a senior MAS senator, has a different critique of his party: “If we took power now we wouldn’t last ten weeks. We’re not ready.” But neither is anyone else on the left, and as Alex Contreras, a radical Bolivian journalist, puts it, “MAS is the only organization capable of uniting enough factions to win elections. They’re not corrupt and they’re not fanatics. They’re the only real option.”

To find out what Morales thinks of the unfolding turmoil I track him down at the party offices in Cochabamba. Morales shows up late for the interview, a crowd of campesino activists, cooperative miners and two television crews in tow. He politely locks them out of his office and sits for the interview at a simple desk. Behind him hangs a wiphala, the square, rainbow-checked flag of indigenous self-determination. On other walls are posters bearing pictures of Che Guevara and Evo Morales himself.

How does MAS plan to win elections to be held before the end of this year? “We are the primary political force in the country. If there had been a runoff in 2002 we would have won,” says Morales, as if victory had been almost assured. Not all agree with this assessment–many suspect that the traditional rightist parties would have united to smash MAS in a runoff.

When I press Morales on various issues–such as how to expand his base and reach out to Aymaran organizations that are now openly hostile to MAS, which is seen as heavily Quechuan–Morales is surprisingly reticent. He appears tired and distracted. What would the party do once in power? Morales says they would abolish a few ministries and create a few new ones that would better serve the poor. How will MAS woo the middle classes? “Who knows about the middle class, they are fickle,” says Morales with an evasive grin. “Mesa is damaging the middle class. He can’t walk in the streets now.” Other than pointing out Mesa’s faults, Morales seems to have no real plan for winning and using state power.

As for the famous Aymaran leader Felipe Quispe, who is one of Morales’s main rivals, “sometimes we get along, sometimes we don’t,” says Morales. What are the biggest challenges MAS faces? “Political meddling from the United States.” When I ask him about the difference between his call for 50 percent royalties and the increasingly popular demand for nationalization, he offers a contorted attempt to reconcile the two. “If we renegotiate all of these illegal contracts, and insure local community consultation on the new contracts, that is essentially nationalization.”

A week later, when the airports have not yet been shut down, Morales and I end up on the same flight to La Paz. He can’t remember our recent hourlong interview. I remind him of all the details; he looks at me with earnest, tired eyes but still can’t remember. I am traveling with a colleague, Ryan Grim from Slate. Neither of us can decide whether Morales’s total lack of pretense should be read as reassuring honesty or simple incompetence. After all, glad-handing journalists is Politics 101. As we take our seats in coach and Evo slides into first class, Grim leans over to me: “If you hear a loud bang and see a bright light, you know the CIA has gotten rid of the Evo Morales problem with a ‘mysterious plane crash.'”

The lowland jungle of the Chaparé region, a few hours east and downhill from Cochabamba, is where Morales got his start as a union leader among the cocaleros. Driving into the Chaparé on alternately paved and washed-out dirt roads, the jungle looms up–lush, wet and claustrophobic. The roadside villages are mildewed and feel broken down. The air is soft and full of oxygen, unlike planet La Paz at 13,000 feet.

The first white and mestizo settlers in this area were deserters from the Chaco War with Paraguay in the late 1930s. Disease whipped most of the local Yuki Indians. In the 1980s a new wave of immigrants arrived, pushed out of the highlands by the layoffs and deindustrialization of president Victor Paz Estenssoro’s monetarist “new economic policy.” To survive, the former miners and displaced highland Quechua campesinos turned to growing coca, some of which made its way to the legal market to be chewed as a mild stimulant and hunger suppressant but most of which was, and is, purchased by Colombia-connected drug traffickers who turn it into cocaine.

In many ways the first chapter in Bolivia’s current season of political upheaval began here in the Chaparé during the 1990s, when the US-orchestrated drug war began targeting these new cocaleros and their openly socialist and indígenista trade unions. Known simply as the Six Federations, the cocaleros‘ unions function as a de facto state, mixing traditional Quechuan communitarian custom with more modern forms of political organizing. Though land is formally titled to individuals, it is really the Six Federations that collectively manage it. Cocaleros who do not cultivate their plots and refuse to participate in union and community struggles have their land repossessed and redistributed by the unions.

In the city hall of Villa Tunari, one of the damp little towns in the Chaparé, MAS party mayor Feliciano Mamani takes a break from meetings to explain the politics of the Chaparé. “The drug war is a political fight. It’s about dismantling our union organizations,” says Mamani, who came up through the ranks with Evo. “First they called us communists, then they called us narco-traffickers, now they call us terrorists.”

To emphasize his point Mamani rolls up his pants to reveal his dented and blackened shin, where he took a canister of police tear gas five years ago. The wound exposed his bone and remained open and weeping until recently. As he explains the story of his injury, a gray Huey helicopter sweeps low and loud overhead.

For the past six years the Chaparé has been in the grip of a very-low-level guerrilla war and counterinsurgency: The military kills unarmed civilians, tortures detainees, uproots the cocaleros‘ crops and occasionally burns down their homesteads, while police and prosecutors jail union leaders and MAS officials on charges of drug trafficking and terrorism. So far, 150 MAS leaders have faced such charges, often based on evidence as flimsy as possession of coca or pamphlets by Che Guevara.

The cocaleros fight back with blockades, protests, roadside sniping, occasional abductions and homemade bombs hidden in the coca fields, set to kill the military eradication teams. According to Kathryn Ledebur of the Andean Information Network, an NGO that monitors human rights conditions in the Chaparé, the violence has claimed the lives of about sixty cocaleros and twenty soldiers since the conflict began, with hundreds more, mostly cocaleros, wounded and maimed. During my trip to the Chaparé two corpses show up: One is a possible snitch, found in the field of a local union leader.

The cocaleros claim that the drug war has only made them stronger, but I can’t help getting the impression that MAS and the Six Federations would be better off if the United States were not giving the Bolivian police and military roughly $90 million every year to harass and prosecute rank-and-file activists.

Off one of the back roads, through some coca fields and up a dirt path lives Hilaria Perez, a Quechuan woman who was shot in the back by the military when they tore up her coca crop in 2003. The bullet went through her right lung, but she survived. She still farms coca and lives in a dark brick shack with her husband and four little children. Since the shooting, the Perezes have drifted from the union.

“I haven’t been to a meeting in two months,” says Hilaria’s husband. To enforce participation, the unions–like all Bolivian social movements–impose fines on members who shirk their political duties such as attending meetings, marches and blockades. The new social movements fit the romantic activist’s vision of a reinvented left in that they are “networked,” highly democratic and rooted in indigenous forms of community decision-making. But politics in Bolivia are deadly serious, and the movements use subtle forms of coercion to bolster consent and to keep the cadre marching.

Despite the drug war and grinding poverty, MAS has run the local governments of the Chaparé remarkably well. Over the past decade they have practiced a type of Third World gas-and-water socialism, investing their meager budgets in an infrastructure of roads, schools and clinics.

To the left of Morales and MAS are myriad other organizations and leaders. One of the most important is the Aymaran nationalist and former guerrilla Felipe Quispe (a k a “El Mallku,” the Condor), who now heads a large peasant union called the CSUTCB.

I meet Quispe in the CSUTCB’s chilly and barren La Paz offices in a brick building with a round facade. He wears a dusty black fedora and a heavy leather jacket. His face is set in a permanent, take-no-crap frown. He begins the interview by offering a small pile of coca leaves and sweet herbs. Throughout the discussion he methodically strips the stems from the small leaves.

Quispe’s worldview is nothing if not radical. Forget the presidency, the Parliament, the squabbles over gas royalties and tax rates. He sees a future indigenous nation run by a council of elders and encompassing Bolivia along with parts of Peru, Argentina and Chile. Quispe tried his hand at liberal democracy; he was a congressman from the indigenous party, MIP, but walked out, dismissing Parliament as a decadent talking shop.

“My mother was a slave,” says Quispe with a blunt stare. Indeed, many indigenous Bolivians were serfs, tied to the land they worked until 1946. “I am accustomed to living dirty. Eating simple food. How much money do those pigs in Congress spend? One deputy could pay the salary of ten or twelve teachers. While I was there my brethren continued to live in poverty. The deputies are supposed to start work at 8 but show up at 11.” He strips and chews more coca.

Quispe insists his vision of an Aymaran nation is not atavistic or fanciful. “We want technology; we will have relations with other countries.” And as for white people?

“The foreigners can stay as long as we get 90 percent of the power. If not, there will be war. But the foreigners will have a hard time here. They don’t own any land. We don’t want to exterminate white people. We just want power.”

As for Evo Morales’s more mundane quest to be president, Quispe is dismissive. “Evo is like [President Alejandro] Toledo in Peru. Nothing will change for the Indians if he is president.” Getting back to the big picture, he sums up: “We will rewrite history with our own blood. There will be a new sun, and even the rocks and the trees will be happy.”

Another radical, but pragmatic, vision comes out of the Cochabamba Water War of 2000, in which Bechtel’s privatization bid was defeated. Oscar Olivera is one of the most respected local leaders in this region, known for his humility, honesty and hard work. Like many others he sees elections and the quest for state power as distractions.

“We need self-management,” says Olivera. “That is what we are trying to do with the water company here.” Later I tour the outlying self-managed water districts. As in the Chaparé, the movements here function as a de facto government and do so with remarkable efficiency.

But what about Bolivian elections in a hemispheric context–doesn’t Olivera think adding another country to Latin America’s new left bloc is important? He pauses, then almost apologetically says, “It’s true. We become very regionalized and localized here in Bolivia and do not think about the wider context much. Maybe we should.”

And how would self-management work in relation to a highly complex oil and gas industry? In El Alto, some activists with the powerful neighborhood organization FEJUVE tell me of plans to occupy and “self-manage” the gas fields. But later the head of the engineering and technicians’ organization supporting them says that such occupations would not involve pumping and selling gas.

It’s late May, and week two of protests is under way. A general strike has been called. At a huge march descending from El Alto to La Paz I meet a young street vendor named Ricardo. He supports nationalization, but adds: “If I didn’t march I would be fined by the union. The union controls everything–where you can sell, if you can sell.”

When some of his fellow merchants find a few street stalls still active in La Paz, they knock down the offending merchants’ umbrellas. The laggards quickly close up. “We are fighting for everyone’s rights,” says one of the stick-wielding women merchants. “They have to respect that.”

The next day the cadre of the CSUTCB, along with miners, teachers and landless peasants from the Movimiento Sin Tierra, march down from El Alto. In typical highland dress of heavy jackets, bowlers and felt hats and bearing sticks, pipes, shepherds’ whips and the colorful wiphalas, the weather-beaten columns of Aymara farmers move fast through the narrow streets of old La Paz, occasionally tossing dynamite down empty streets for effect. Their destination is Plaza Murillo, where the Congress and the presidential palace sit. Nervous police in riot gear have blockaded all the key entry points.

The marchers smash in the windows of the few minibuses that have ignored the strike. A journalist appears on a balcony with a camera. Rocks are let loose and just miss his head as he ducks back inside. These rugged peasants are furious–it’s been 500 years, and the bill is due.

At a standoff with police there is some yelling in Aymaran, and people back away. Someone tosses a small charge of dynamite in front of the cops, who fall back and block the blast with their Plexiglas shields. The police answer with volleys of tear gas and shotguns firing rubber bullets. Ryan Grim and I sprint with the crowd up a narrow colonial side lane, sucking in the harsh gas as we go. Rubber bullets ricochet through the toxic clouds. One catches Grim in the back and we get separated in the mayhem. Hours later the police and protesters clash again. This time the gas is extremely thick. It’s like drowning on dry land. The streets are cramped and chaotic.

The next day brings more of the same. Protesters and journalists rely on the Bolivian remedy for tear gas: smoking cigarettes. Strangely, this actually cuts the effect of mild gassing. At one point, when we are standing among cops with a few other journalists, a man uphill tosses what looks like a potato down toward the police lines. The cops scatter. The potato detonates in the biggest dynamite blast yet. The collision of air is deafening; windows shatter up and down the block. The cops regroup and fire more gas and rubber bullets.

The battle goes on like this for three weeks, with La Paz and most of Bolivia’s other major cities blockaded, with food and fuel running low, the buses and taxis idled. Seven gas fields and a pipeline station are seized. Before bowing out, Mesa agreed to take the first steps toward a constituent assembly; the new president, Eduardo Rodriguez, will have to organize emergency elections. The blockades have just now started to lift but Bolivia is still locked in stalemate; the core issues are unresolved and the path forward unclear.

Many in the social movements dismiss elections as a trap; they attempt to go around the machinery of government by turning protest into what Oscar Olivera calls self-management, and they critique Evo Morales and MAS for being fixated on the presidency. But making radical demands on the old political class is insufficient. Nationalization and a reconstruction of the political order are projects so massive that they may require the left to take power, ready or not.

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