Bolivia: state of emergency to crush anti-privatisation protests

After a week of mass protests, road blockades and a general strike in the city of Cochabamba the Bolivian government of Hugo Banzer declared a state of emergency on Saturday April 8th. The main focus of the protests was the decision to sell Cochacamba's public water system to a private corporation which then doubled water rates. The trade unions, peasant unions and students responded to the state of emergency by calling further protests and a general strike.

After a week of mass protests, road blockades and a general strike in the city of Cochabamba the Bolivian government of Hugo Banzer declared a state of emergency on Saturday April 8th.

The main focus of the protests was the decision to sell Cochacamba's public water system to a private corporation (Aguas del Tunari, a multinational consortium of private companies) which then doubled water rates.

The privatisation of the water system, a move pushed by the World Bank, was taken last year and the protests against it started in January, as the new company announced the rates increase, in some cases as much as $20 a month, in a city where the minimum wage is less than $100. Aguas del Tunari announced as well that water rates would be linked to the dollar!

A new organisation was set up called "Coordinadora de Defensa del Agua" (Coordinating Committee to Defend the Water System), and immediately a four-day general strike closed down the whole of Cochabamba, a city of half a million inhabitants. This forced the government to promise a reversal of the new charges.

At the beginning of February it was clear that the authorities were not prepared to keep its promises and the Coordinadora called a mass meeting in the city's main square. President Banzer replied by sending thousands of heavily armed anti-riot police. A full-scale clash with the demonstrators followed, with violence not seen in the city for years. For two days the demonstrators fought the police which left more than 175 protesters injured and 2 youth blinded by tear-gas. Again, the level of popular anger forced the government and the water company to retreat promising to cancel the rate increase.

Encouraged by the success of the protests, the people of Cochabamba demanded that the contract with Aguas del Tunari be cancelled and the whole privatisation process be reversed. In a survey of about 60,000 residents at the end of March, 90% voted against privatisation.

Meanwhile corruption allegations were made in the local newspapers. It was disclosed that the Aguas del Tunari company had only made an up front payment of $20,000 for a contract which is worth $200 million, and also that one of the companies involved in the project, the Bolivian SOBOCE is owned by Samuel Doria Medina who is a leader of the MIR which is part of the ruling coalition.

Finally on Tuesday April 4th the population of Cochabamba went back to the streets with mass demonstrations and calling a general strike which brought the city to a standstill in what the Coordinadora called the "final battle". By Wednesday they had won the support of the peasants' union fighting a parallel battle against the privatisation of water rights in the countryside and against the Land Reform Law which would mainly benefit the big landowners. Thousands of peasants in six of the country's nine districts started to organise road blockades.

Thursday March 6 arrived with no sign of a solution in sight. The masses of angry residents decided to take direct action, stormed the local town hall and surrounded the building where talks were taking place with the authorities. The government then decided to arrest all the 15 leaders of the Coordinadora.

"We were talking with the mayor, the governor and other civil leaders when the police came in and arrested us" said Olivera, one of the Coordinadora's leaders. "It was a trap by the government to have us all together negotiating, so that we could all be arrested."

The masses again gathered in Cochabamba's central square now joined by thousands of peasants who had come to support them. They were carrying sticks, rocks and were ready to defend themselves from the police if necessary. There were reports of the army arriving at the local airport to put the movement down. The situation was threatening to get completely out of control.

Finally on Friday April 7 the protest leaders were released and after fresh negotiations the archbishop announced to the crowds assembled in the main square that the government had agreed to break the water contract. The mood was one of victory.

But the celebrations were short-lived as the central government quickly reversed this decision saying it had been taken by the regional authorities without their permission. The regional governor resigned and was replaced by an army officer. At the same time, on Saturday morning the Banzer government declared a state of emergency for 90 days, a move which suspends most constitutional rights (strike, demonstration, assembly, etc.), bans gatherings of more than four people and allows the government to use the army to quell the protests. Local radio stations were occupied by the army and in Cochabamba radio and TV stations had the power cut off. The regional authorities in Cochabamba also declared a curfew in the city.

Already on Friday night the army moved to arrest 22 of the most prominent trade union and peasant leaders of the country in house to house searches and confined them to the remote town of San Joaquín in the Amazonian jungle, 1,000 km from La Paz. Amongst them are Felipe Quispe, the national leader of the peasants union (CSUTCB) and Fred Nuñez, the national leader of the rural teachers union.

Police mutiny

Early on Saturday the government also ordered the security forces to raid the offices of the Bolivian Workers' Central Union (COB) where the wives of 13 police officers were on strike demanding higher wages for their husbands who receive around $60 a month. But in a development which shows the fragility of the state apparatus the special anti-riot police mutinied. The mutiny rapidly spread to Santa Cruz and in other towns police officers announced they were ready to take action "in solidarity with their comrades". In the capital La Paz thousands of students and other demonstrators showed their solidarity with the rebellious police officers which were joined by the congressional guards and the local fire-fighters. The government tried to use the army to put down the nearly 1,000 strong police mutiny but failed after armed clashes between the two corps and was forced to concede a 50% wage increase, and the promise not to take disciplinary action against any of the officers involved.

This shows clearly that there is a limit to the use that governments can make of their forces of repression, specially when they are badly paid and badly treated. During the January revolution in Ecuador we already saw how the soldiers and important sections of the lower and middle rank officers joined the movement. There have also been police strikes in other countries recently, including Mexico and Brazil. In an incident in December last year in the Argentinean province of Corrientes, the local police which was on strike demanding payment of back wages, prevented the national police from breaking up a demonstration of civil servants after two people died in clashes.

The government was also facing separate disputes in Sucre where the university students had gone on hunger strike and in the southern District of Tarija where the president had been declared "persona non-grata".

There were violent clashes all weekend in Cochabamba where a 17 year old youth was shot dead by the security forces, and dozens of other protesters were severely injured. It was later revealed that the army had used FAL assault rifles with live rounds in the clashes with the population. At one point, the commander of the army in the city said he would not allow the soldiers to be used against the population as "the army is also part of the people". This move probably revealed his fear that the soldiers would refuse to fight against the population or even would join them, as happened during the January revolution in Ecuador. In fact, the leaders of the Coordinadora made an appeal to their "brothers police officers and soldiers to join the people to defend their just demands".

The army moved to clear the road blockades all over the country. In Achacachí, 95 km from the capital La Paz, the army attacked 2,000 peasants who were blockading the main road. Two peasants were shot dead on the spot and an army captain was severely injured. The anger of the peasants was such that they stormed the hospital, took the captain out and beat him to death. After that they tried to storm the local army barracks. In the town of Lahuachaca a teacher was killed in clashes with the local peasants in which the army used three armoured vehicles to chase the protesters.

General strike called

The accumulation of anger all over the country was such that the state of emergency failed to stop the protests and instead achieved exactly the opposite. The rural teachers union called for an all-out indefinite strike from Monday 10th, the students also called for strike action and demonstrations and finally the main trade union centre COB called for a national strike and demonstrations on Wednesday 12th.

Finally the international consortium Aguas del Tunarí announced that they were withdrawing from the project. But this was a case of too little too late. The protesters demanded the release of all the arrested trade union leaders and amendments to the law which would privatise the use of water in the countryside. The peasants, to avoid clashes with the army resorted to intermittent road blockades which were set up again as soon as the army cleared them.

Nearly 20,000 peasants, armed with sticks and machetes, marched on Cochabamba asking the population for support for their demands. As a result a visit to the city by government representatives to "explain the results of the negotiations" had to be cancelled "for lack of security guarantees". In other words the government was too afraid of the anger of the people of Cochabamba and the peasants who had joined them.

The government in the meantime said that "the protests are a conspiracy financed by cocaine trafficking looking for pretexts to carry out subversive activities" with the aim of "destabilising the constitutional government democratically elected". But even a leader of the MIR, which is part of the ruling coalition was forced to admit that: "what we are witnessing is not a coup or an act of sedition... the cause of these conflicts is not to be found in groups of conspirators but in the anger and frustration of the whole of the population" (La Razón, 12/4/2000). The vice president of the national trade union COB also replied that: "the real narco-corrupt people are inside the government itself".

The general strike called by the COB and other trade union, peasant and student organisations on Wednesday April12th had an uneven following but this is not surprising taking into account the fact that the country is still under a state of emergency. There were clashes with the police in the main cities with the participation of workers and students. According to a Reuters report: "the strike had a big impact in the widespread informal commerce sector and in the schools, but had little effect on the productive and administrative tasks". The executive secretary of the miners' union (FSTMB) warned that the 24 hour general strike was only the beginning of the struggle against Banzer's government.

On the same day the Coordinadora called off the protests in Cochabamba after it was clear that the privatisation of the water service had failed and there would be no privatisation of the use of water in the countryside which was the main demand of the peasants. Road blockades remained on the access roads to the main cities, but were slowly being lifted.

On Thursday April 13 the peasant unions reached the beginning of an agreement with the government in which the authorities promised to pay compensation to the families of the two peasants killed in Achacachí, the teacher killed in Lahuachaca and the other peasants wounded during the clashes with the army. The peasants are still demanding the immediate release of their leader Felipe Quispe.

On Friday April 14 most of the road blockades had been lifted and there were signs of a final agreement being reached with the peasant organisations. The government released some of the confined leaders. But the students were still on the streets and there were serious clashes with the army in La Paz and Oruro and a peaceful demonstration in Santa Cruz. The army was still on the streets of La Paz and Cochabamba.

But the problems for the government are far from over. In the last few days there were rumours of a mutiny amongst lower rank and non-commanding officers in the army against the unfair wage inequality between lower and higher rankink officers. Encouraged by the concessions made to police officers over the weekend they demanded the "democratisation of the wage structure in the army". This is a further indication of the weakness of the state apparatus in a country decimated by decades of IMF austerity.

It is clear that the battle against water privatisation has a deeper meaning in a country which has already suffered 15 years of Structural Adjustment plans and the wholesale privatisation of all public utilities (electricity, airlines, railways, oil, telecoms, etc.). In the words of Olivera, one of the leaders of the Coordinadora "We are questioning that others, the World Bank, international businesses, should be deciding these basic issues for us".

Bolivia's history of militancy

Workers and peasants in Bolivia have organised many general strikes and mass mobilisations against privatisation almost on a yearly basis. In March 1996 the previous government of Sanchez Losada faced a massive general strike against the privatisation of the oil company YPFB which had been nationalised during the 1952 revolution. The year before, in April 1995, the government arrested more than 1,000 trade union, peasant and student leaders and confined them to the remotest places of the country and declared the state of emergency in order to crush a wave of protests against privatisations which had led to a general strike. In fact when Banzer came to power in 1997 he did so on the basis of a populist programme which promised a "war on poverty" and the "taking back" of all privatised companies. Despite that he only got around 24% of the votes and had to rely on a coalition with three other bourgeois parties. The extreme fragmentation of the political scene (as in Ecuador) shows the weakness of the Bolivian bourgeoisie, which is completely dependent on the IMF and the World Bank.

The movement of last week in Cochabamba and the speed with which it spread to other sectors (peasants, teachers, students) shows us that the masses are prepared to fight and they have now seen for the first time in years that the mass joint mobilisation of workers and peasants can achieve important concessions. Some commentators compared this movement with the revolution in Ecuador in January. The situation has not yet gone as far as it went in Ecuador, where the masses actually took power for a few hours and replaced the government by a Salvation Junta. But all the elements are there: a mass movement of the workers in the cities with insurrectional features, a mass movement of the peasants in the countryside, splits in the army and the police, the willingness of the masses to face repression,...

The factors which have provoked the uprising in Cochabamba and the movement of the peasants last week will not go away. The country, the poorest in Latin America, has been devastated by years of privatisations, deregulation, mass lay-offs, etc. Its peasants are amongst the poorest in the world. The overwhelming majority of the labour force is either unemployed or underemployed. There will be many other movements like this, specially since this time the struggle has achieved a victory (however partial this might prove to be).

But, as in the case of Ecuador the most pressing task for working class and youth activists in Bolivia is the building of a genuine revolutionary leadership with a clear understanding that militancy in itself is not enough. A socialist programme is needed which is able to link up the struggles of the different sectors of society and focus them against their root cause: capitalism itself. Bourgeois politicians of all shades are completely discredited, as the population has already seen them in power, all applying the same policies. This provides a fertile ground for a programme of independent action of workers and peasants fighting for socialism.

Social turmoil is not limited to Bolivia. In neighbouring Peru, after mass mobilisations against bonapartist president Fujimori, the social discontent expressed itself in a massive vote for opposition candidate Toledo which was only prevented from winning by large scale fraud. But tens of thousands came to the streets this week, clashed with the police and forced a second round of the presidential elections.

In Ecuador, nearly 3 months after the betrayal of the January revolution, the government has finally managed to introduce the dollarisation of the economy, but social tensions are still high. On March 21st, two months after the failed revolution, there were mass demonstrations all over the country and on Monday April 10th, tens of thousands of peasants organised road blockades in 19 of the country's 22 provinces in protest against the privatisation of the social security system. In an unprecedented move, on Thursday April 13, President Noboa asked for an amnesty for those army officers who had joined the revolution in January, clearly showing that he is still very much afraid of them and the support they have amongst the majority of the population.

The winds of revolution are blowing very strongly all over Latin America. The revolution in Ecuador and the uprising in Bolivia are just an indication of what is coming and are part of a massive backlash against capitalism which is gathering momentum all over the world.

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