Bolivia: a mass insurrection overthrows the president

Finally the mass uprising which has shaken Bolivia for nearly a month has managed to overthrow the gringo Goni as he is known. Faced with a mass mobilisation, which was growing stronger despite the brutal repression which caused more than 80 deaths, finally the US embassy withdrew support from their puppet. The masses must not fall for these manoeuvres. No support for the Mesa government. For a workers and peasants government.

“This is the victory of the poor, the workers and the peasants”. This is how Roberto de La Cruz, leader of the El Alto Regional Workers’ Union celebrated the resignation of the hated “people-killer president” Sanchez de Lozada in the afternoon of Friday October 17.


Friday 17 mass demonstration in La Paz

Finally the mass uprising which has shaken Bolivia for nearly a month has managed to overthrow the gringo Goni as he is known. Faced with a mass mobilisation, which was growing stronger despite the brutal repression which caused more than 80 deaths, finally the US embassy withdrew support from their puppet. Ambassador David Greenlee had a meeting with former vice-president Carlos Mesa on Thursday evening to agree on a “constitutional way out to the crisis“, that is a change of façade to try and prevent the whole building from collapsing.

The masses, gathered in the streets of the capital and the main cities of the country, paralysed by the indefinite general strike called by the Bolivian Workers’ Union COB since September 29, celebrated with joy and anger the fleeing of the hated president. Once again a hated bourgeois president has had to escape by helicopter to avoid the fury of the workers and peasants. Sanchez de Lozada has joined an increasingly long list of Latin-American presidents who have fallen as a result of the mass mobilization of the workers and peasants against the capitalist policies of cuts and austerity.

Power could have been taken

The resignation of Sanchez de Lozada came at the last minute. It is not clear what would have happened if he had delayed it even for a few more hours. In fact, since Wednesday it was increasingly clear that all conditions were ripe for the taking of power by the workers and peasants. Only the lack of boldness of the leaders gave the ruling class a small margin to organize a replacement.

The general strike was growing and spreading throughout the country, the first elements of dual power had emerged, the masses were prepared to go right to the end, divisions within the ranks of the army and the police were growing more acute, the middle class was joining in the protests, and the workers had started to organize self-defence committees.

On Thursday for instance, the Federation of Neighbourhood Juntas (FEJUVE) of El Alto, the organisation which represents democratic workers’ and peoples’ power in this city of 1 million inhabitants, instructed its members to form “Armed Self-Defence Brigades”. The resolution of the Political Committee of the FEJUVE instructed the leaders of the 562 Neighbourhood Juntas to set up self-defence brigades to face the constant harassment and murders they have been suffering at the hands of the government forces. “The Brigades will be composed of volunteers and they will make Molotov bombs and explosive bombs”


Huanani miners, armed with sticks of dynamite

On the other hand the arrival of a column of thousands of miners from Huanani, armed with sticks of dynamite, precipitated the manoeuvres of the ruling class and the US embassy. The miners had been stopped by the army at Patacamaya on Thursday in clashes which resulted in three miners being killed. But on Friday, the miners, trade unionists and peasants, blocked at Patacamaya took a firm decision: “Dead or alive we will go through, we are going to La Paz to kick the gringo out”. Many reached La Paz crossing over the hills, and finally, the main body of the column composed of 58 lorries, was allowed to go through by the army.

When the San Francisco Square was already awash with rumours about the resignation of the president, the miners arrived, setting off sticks of dynamite. This is an eyewitness account: “Almost at the same time that the miners were marching La Paz, the city of El Alto was completely empty. Thousands of people had marched down onto the capital, via the motorway. The city was empty, with bridges destroyed, train carriages lying across the motorway forming barricades and with stones all along the way.

“Down below, in La Paz, the Square was packed. The mobilisation was at least as large as the previous day and we arrived at the time when the rumour was announced that Goni was about to resign. As if a bomb had gone off, the mass of the people surged ahead towards Plaza Murillo, [where the presidential Palace was protected by hundreds of policemen and soldiers]. The first police cordon melted away and the policemen ended up shaking hands with the people. But behind them the tanks would not move, and the people, unarmed, could not go through.

“(…) and then, the miners arrived, also crossing through El Alto. These were faces coming from deep down in the mines, with helmets, sticks of dynamite, organized in platoons, and bringing their coca leaves and blankets. ‘Goni, bastard, the miners have arrived’, and the sound of exploding dynamite could be heard even before you could see the miners. The masses gave them an ovation, sang with them, embraced them, gave them something to drink.

“It must have been four in the afternoon and it was almost a triumphal march. ‘We did it!’, and ‘rifles and bullets will not stop the people’. The sticks of dynamite were now not used for defence but to celebrate the fact that the president was about to flee.”

No confidence in Carlos Mesa and his government

However the celebration cannot hide the fact that the movement is aware that the aims of the struggle have not yet been achieved: the cancellation of the sale of gas and oil, the agrarian reform, the respect of the rights of the Indians, an end to the harassment of the coca-growing farmers, etc.

Thus, the COB has decided not to give any confidence to the government of Carlos Mesa and has agreed to maintain the indefinite strike until the new government makes a clear commitment “not to export gas, neither via Chile nor via Peru, and to withdraw the gas and oil law.” A National Enlarged meeting of the COB, gathering under the vigilance of the tens of thousands of demonstrators outside, agreed to present a programme of basic demands that the new president must implement. This is how bolpress.com reported it:

The Workers’ Union decided not to support the new government because they consider that the resignation of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada is just a change of persons and not a change in the economic model. Also it prefers to maintain its “class independence”, that is, not to “make agreements with a government which does not represent the working class”

The COB programme of demands includes the following points: “the investigation in Congress of all the contracts concerning privatization and part privatization of oil, mines and state owned companies”, “the cancellation of the Land Law and the distribution of Land to the Peasants. Respect of the property of the Indians over the land”, “the recall of all the laws against the rights of the workers”, “the immediate withdrawal of the right to hire and fire”, “the recovery of the national industry, rejecting free trade as established in the Free Trade of the Americas Agreement”. Finally it also demands “trial for genocide of the Bolivian population of those responsible”.

The statement of the National Enlarged Meeting of the COB ends with a warning that: “whatever government there may be, it has to apply the demands of the people. If that is not the case, the streets and roads of our country will be our barricades again”. The Workers’ Union also called for another mass meeting on Saturday 18 to decide what steps to take.

The new government therefore has come into being extremely weakened. The new president had to ask permission to the workers’ leaders for the MPs to be allowed to go to the Congress session. This confirms once again what we have said before: power was in the streets, in the hands of mobilized workers and peasants, and if the situation did not go further this was because their own leaders did not take that last step.

The government of Mesa has made all sorts of promises. It cannot do otherwise if it wants to buy some time in order to establish some sort of social basis. At the moment it only has the precarious support of the army, the US embassy and a handful of capitalists and landowners. Thus the new government has promised to put the sale of gas to a popular referendum, as well as economic support for the city of El Alto (the most radical center of the protests), and the calling of a Constituent Assembly or early elections.

The workers’ and peasants’ organizations should give no support or room for manoeuvre to this new government. Mesa at the end of the day was Sanchez de Lozada’s president only a week ago, and is therefore also responsible for all his policies of privatization and attacks on the workers and peasants. The same can be said of all the previous government coalition parties which only abandoned the “people-killer president” in order to save their own skin.


Miners' anger in La Paz

But leaders like Evo Morales, on Thursday night were proposing as a solution the formation of a provisional government headed by Mesa, that is to say, the same proposal the US embassy was putting forward in order to save capitalism in Bolivia. Evo Morales himself, as the main leader of the MAS, has already said of the new government: “we will give Carlos Mesa some breathing space, a truce, so that he can get organized and fulfill his promises to the country”

The tactics of the ruling class will be to try to buy time, delay the calling of a referendum and of a possible constituent assembly, and at the same time intensify the appeals to the people to remain calm, for national unity, to “rebuild the country all together”, with the aim of demobilizing the masses and then, when the situation becomes more favourable, go on the offensive again. Unfortunately in this task they can count on the collaboration of some of the mass leaders like Evo Morales who think that the country can be fundamentally changed through constitutional means.

However, Bolivia has already experienced 21 years of democracy under capitalism, with all sorts of governments, and the results are clear for everyone to see: 70% of the people live below the poverty line and 30% are extremely poor, and the natural resources and the wealth of the country have been sold off to the best bidder. This is the only future that capitalism can offer the masses of workers and peasants in Bolivia, and these are precisely the unbearable conditions they have risen up against.

No amount of changes in the political power structure will solve the most pressing needs of the masses. Only the democratic control of the economy in the hands of workers and peasants can offer a way out. The renationalisation of gas, the expropriation without compensation of the mines (starting with those which are owned by Lozada himself), a thorough agrarian reform which puts an end to landlordism, these are the kind of measures which can put in the hands of the many the necessary resources to start improving their living conditions. The struggle must be a struggle for socialism, for a genuine democracy of workers and peasants. Instinctively, in these glorious revolutionary days, the factory workers, the miners, the coca-growing peasants, the people of El Alto, the working people of Bolivia as a whole have moved in that direction.

It is possible that because of the lack of a genuinely revolutionary leadership armed with a clear programme for the taking of power by the workers and peasants, the revolutionary movement may temporarily ebb faced with the parliamentary manoeuvres of the ruling class. However, the masses are undefeated, they feel strong, in these days they have became aware of their own power, and it will be very difficult for the government to reestablish bourgeois legality.

The COB statement made this point clearly: “140 lives have been lost on the streets, giving their blood for the country, showing that with our strength we are able to overthrow dictatorships, even if they use the robes of democracy. Governments, even the most vicious and bloodthirsty ones, can be overthrown by the targeted aims of the people. Now we know that with our organization and our struggle we can and we must defeat neoliberalism.”

Once again, the main task is the building of a genuine Marxist leadership which can guarantee victory.

October 18, 2003


See the original in Spanish.

You can find more photos on the events in La Paz on Friday 17 here: 1 - 2.