Tear Gas in the Andes

Tear Gas in the Andes

Unwilling to suffer through another generation of brutal poverty, the indigenous people of Bolivia have taken to the streets in La Paz.


La Paz

Bolivia is again in the grip of a major political crisis, marked by parliamentary deadlock and street fighting. Huge marches, thousands strong, have descended on La Paz all week. In the ensuing battles indigenous protesters throw dynamite, stones and bottles, while paramilitary police shoot tear gas and rubber bullets.

The basic question is this: Who will control the nation’s massive natural gas reserves, which has jumped to 53.3 trillion cubic feet from just 5.6 trillion cubic feet in 1999? The deeper issue, of course, is the unwillingness of the highly organized and politicized majority indigenous population to suffer through another generation of brutal high-altitude poverty.

The rolling protests and road blockades around La Paz come a week after Congress passed a law raising taxes on the foreign oil companies that have controlled Bolivia’s petroleum wealth since a sweeping privatization in 1996. The companies cast the new law as far too severe, while the largely indigenous left decry the law as too weak.

Part of the opposition, led by MAS (the Movement Toward Socialism) and its leader, Evo Morales, is calling for 50 percent wellhead royalties rather than the new law’s combination of 18 percent royalties and a 32 percent tax on more easily hidden company profits. MAS also wants an aggressive renegotiation of all contracts with foreign companies, as well as four other major amendments to the new law. But many more sectors in the popular movement are calling for outright nationalization and an overthrow of the government.

As I write, for the third day in a row the city of La Paz is under siege–the two major highways linking it to the world are closed by a series of peasant roadblocks. No supplies are getting in or out. The international airport is functioning only sporadically; it has been closed by a strike. And for the third day running, tens of thousands of protesters–peasants, teachers, miners, shopkeepers, factory workers and unemployed people–have marched on La Paz. A smaller subset of this force has repeatedly tried to take Plaza Murillo, location of both the Parliament and presidential palace, a space rarely occupied by protesters since the populist revolution of 1952.

The vanguard sector in this struggle is the well-organized Aymara peasants, who have descended en masse from the altiplano, above the capital. Joining them are 800 miners. In heavy jackets, fedoras, bowlers and wool hats, their faces lined and buffed by years of wind and cold, the Aymara columns march fast and hard, carrying sticks, pipes, shepherds’ whips and wiphalas, the rainbow-colored banner of indigenous self-determination.

All week I have had a front-row seat to the action. On Tuesday, as the columns circled around the police, who had barricaded Plaza Murillo, marchers smashed minibuses and cars that they found in their path, tossed rocks at journalists and then threw dynamite into police lines. The frightened, penned-in cops responded with volleys of rubber bullets, tear gas and sometimes water cannons.

As the canisters popped around us the and rubber pellets ricocheted off the walls we ran, protesters and press alike, sucking in the burning fumes as we sprinted through the curtains of gas that floated like thick walls of stage smoke. At times the narrow hillside streets of old La Paz became so choked with accumulated vapors that you felt your lungs would burst. In the chaos, the lines between protesters and cops seemed to overlap in an increasingly claustrophobic and panicky game of cat and mouse.

Wednesday was more of the same, with protesters rolling several very large dynamite bombs toward the police, who, on at least one occasion, broke ranks and ran in fear only to return the favor immediately with rubber bullets from shotguns and more gas–always more gas.

The skirmishes will probably last all week and into the next, with some possible respite during two local holidays. So far about a dozen protesters have been injured, and a handful, including at least one important popular leader, have been arrested.

Meanwhile, above La Paz on the rim of the altiplano in the city of El Alto, neighborhood groups are maintaining a general strike. Throughout the country unions, community groups, peasant federations and all manner of popular organizations are meeting to plan their next moves.

In short, angry Indians have La Paz surrounded. The capital’s banks, hotels, offices, restaurants and middle-class neighborhoods are running on limited supplies, and the popular movements have all transportation routes on lockdown. The situation feels untenable. But despite the drama, there remains a strange political stasis here.

The president, Carlos Mesa Gisbert, a former historian and journalist, has vowed to stay in office until elections in 2007. Furthermore, he has pledged, or perhaps bragged, that he will not kill protesters. His former boss and predecessor, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, ordered the military to kill scores in October 2003, when the gas issue first erupted. Officially sixty-seven people died, but the social movements say as many as eighty were killed. In response to the repression, the left united and sectors of the equivocating middle classes joined them. In the end, Sánchez de Lozada was forced to flee to the United States. Mesa wants to avoid that fate.

The far right doesn’t like Mesa’s stance but seems too divided to oppose him effectively. The military is also divided, with a few officers openly taking the side of protesters. Likewise, the left is at odds with itself and most importantly is, by the admission of MAS and most other social movements, not ready to take power.

If Mesa lets loose the forces of order, the entire political equation will change. But if the government does not overreact, it is not clear how the left will proceed. Can the popular movements hold on longer than the government? And, most of all, can they unite and force nationalization? Or will their own tactics exhaust them before the government and business sector capitulate to their demands?

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