El Alto, Bolivia
“Gringo dictador, andate a Washington,” was the chant in the streets of tens of thousands of Bolivians. It was directed at their now ex-president, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, who resigned last week under immense pressure from the protesters. Translation: Foreign dictator, go back to Washington.
Known here by his nickname, “Goni,” Sánchez de Lozada was an inviting target. He grew up in the United States and still speaks Spanish with an American accent. A millionaire owner of Bolivia’s largest private mining company, as the former President of the country from 1993-1997 and Planning Minister in the late 1980s, Goni was responsible more than any other Bolivian for installing the neoliberal model in this country.
So it was no surprise that a protest, started in mid-September to oppose the nation’s privatization and export of natural gas, soon transformed into a nationwide rebellion against Goni and the economic and social malaise he did so much to perpetuate.
It was the latest, most important installment in the battle raging over privatization and International Monetary Fund-inspired free-market reforms in Latin America. The resignation of Goni now makes Bolivia the third country in the region (Ecuador and Argentina are the others) in which sitting presidents have been pushed out in as many years by a populace angry over neoliberal policies imposed on their countries by Washington.
In Bolivia, the “gas war” was only the most recent boiling point for resentment over the economic model. Three years ago Bolivians kicked out the San Francisco-based Bechtel corporation after it took over the city of Cochabamba’s water system and raised prices by as much as 200 percent for some residents.
Human rights groups say more than seventy people have been killed and at least 400 have been injured in clashes with Bolivia’s armed forces and police. Started by Bolivia’s indigenous farmers, the nationwide actions mushroomed to include a broad cross-section of this country’s 8.5 million people: Teachers, miners, health workers, butchers, bread makers, taxi and bus drivers, and more participated.
Although Sánchez do Lozada eventually began making concessions, his opposition, well aware that it was during his prior administration that most of Bolivia’s state industries were sold off, was tired of the bloodletting and broken promises and refused to relent from its demand that he be removed from office.