An insight to February 2003

Pablo Solón

 The Government House was full of smoke.  In the corners of the main hall, which is as big as a volleyball court, there were small fires with which they were trying to neutralize tear gas.

About thirty soldiers were bending their heads trying to avoid the harmful effects of tear gas.  The Ministry of Defense, Freddy Teodovich, was talking to Waldo Albarracin, President of the Human Rights Assembly: “we do not want to face the police”.  It was 12:30 on 12th February.  Journalists were running here and there while those in charge of security were taking them towards the press room so that they could not continue scenting within the House.  The Ministry of Presidency, Sánchez Berzaín, better known as “the wolf”, came downstairs smiling as he usually did and said:   “The situation is being controlled, there is nothing to be worried about, government is not responsible at all….  Nice to meet you, so long”.  Outside, at Murillo Square there was a rain of tear gas and the first shots could be heard.

Carlos Mesa, Vice-president of Bolivia would say some weeks after to the Struggle against Impunity International Mission that visited Bolivia that, while he was looking at the disturbances through the window, thinking that that must have been the same situation in which President Villarroell (1947) was hanged, the present President Sánchez de Lozada was phoning the American Embassy.

It all begun on 9th February when the government announced the “super tax to salary” in order to reduce the fiscal deficit, following directions of IMF.  It was either a “super tax to salaries or a super gasoline tax” said the President.  The fiscal deficit had grown 8.5% due to the privatization of the service of pensions to retired people, and IMF was demanding the reduction of same to 3.5% as a condition to give new credits.  The government presented this measure as a great idea:  “instead of a super tax to gasoline which would affect everyone, we will only affect salaried people, which are not majoritarian.  And we will do it in a gradual scale that will cover from a discount of 4.2% for those earning more than 880 Bs. (U$S115) up to 12% discount to those earning more than 20 thousand Bs. (U$S2.630).”

The spark that caught the big fire

Why did a decision that theoretically was only directly affecting the salaried people, representing 10% of the population in Bolivia, provoke a generalized rebellion by the whole population?  The reason used by entrepreneurs was that the diminution of salaries was going to diminish consumption, and then it was going to affect the already deteriorated productive area.  This is real, but is not enough to explain the popular rebellion.

The origins of 12th and 13th February and can not be only explained by the cause-effect relation of the conjuncture, but because of an explosive accumulation of 17 years of application of the neo-liberal model.

Bolivia lived in 1952 a great workers and peasants revolution that defeated the army, nationalized mines, conquered the universal right to vote and performed the agricultural reformation.  But this revolution took place within the capitalistic model of state and the tradition of heads of the recently constituted COB  that trusted the MNR[1]  and Paz Estensoro and not in their own potentialities.

During the period 1952-1985 Bolivia lived under capitalism of state, in which the main industries, services and natural sources were ruled by the State.  So it was a period of thirty three years with an almos absolute hegemony by the mining proletariat, which was the vanguard of social struggles.  In spite of the military coup d’états and of the defeats suffered during said period, the structure of capitalism of state and mining vanguard was maintained.  The COB was one of the scarce centrals in the world that included almost all social sectors and that had great discipline and unity.

In 1982 the decay of COB and Mining Movement begun, and it was a time in which democratic and popular unity arrived to government.  UDP was seen by the population as a leftist front.  It included MNR-I, PCB and MIR[2] that by that time had a “Christian guerrilla” past.  The ascension of UDP generated great expectations.  It had won three consecutive national elections in the middle of three coup d’états and three democratic recoveries.  A great proportion of trade unionist leaders of the country integrated  PCB and MIR.

But the UDP government was a total downfall, and what is worst, it constituted a great frustration.  They wanted to satisfy everyone.  They tried to satisfy the increasing demands by workers and peasants without breaking with IMF nor suspending the payment of the external debt.  The result was a tragic one for workers:  there was no period in the history during which the acquisitive power of salaries had fell in such an extreme way as during that one,  as a consequence of hyperinflation.

Workers and peasants achieved important theoretical goals but the reality was that there was no money to fulfill and make real said vindications.  They were making new money without support, inflation was growing and growing.  Instead of stopping the bloody payment of external debt in order to count on fresh sources, UDP “really” favored entrepreneurs, changing their debts from dollars to Bolivian.  In other words, the state assumed private entrepreneurs’ debts.

From State capitalism  to neo-liberal capitalism

Political errors are usually paid.  And workers’ movement “paid the government’s piper”.   UDP had to end its government one year earlier.  In the 1985 elections the historical enemies won, ADN[3] first, that is to say dictator Banzer, who had been defeated a few years earlier, and MNR.  Paz Estensoro, from MNR, made the Congress elect him as the President, supported by almost all political parties, and begun to stabilize the country that was leaded by workers, particularly its miners’ vanguard.   More than 30.000 miners were laid off and 10 thousand industrial workers  had no job any more.  The neo-liberal model begun to be applied and so they stopped hyperinflation with the sacrifice of workers.  The neo-liberal receipt was simple:  you can only waste what you got.  In brief, to waste less it is necessary to let the State apparatus be smaller, laying off workers, ignoring social conquers and selling all the State enterprises.

There were lots of resistance struggles during those 15 years: miners, teachers, health workers, marched  to the streets  to oppose every neo-liberal measures by governments of MNR, MIR and ADN that governed in turns.  Notwithstanding the above, the great majority of said mobilizations ended in defeat or pyrrhic matches, in the form of agreements that were never accomplished.

All these struggles took place within a situation of absolute skepticism.  The failure of UDP  together with the crack of the Soviet Union and the so called “failure of socialism” made that pragmatism and the “every man to himself” slogan impelled corruption and the “let it be”  philosophy for most of leftist people.  The formerly MIR of leftist past crossed the bloody river that separated it from ADN and begun to co-govern with General Banzer.  The critical intellectuals were economically and ideologically co-opted.

The neo-liberal promise was that letting the state be smaller and privatizing its enterprises and sources would bring foreign investments.  The direct foreign investment was to develop the productive apparatus in crisis by those times, and would generate jobs, increasing all the Bolivians incomes.  Jaime Paz Samora stated the slogan “either export or die”.  The whole development of the country was submitted to the market and foreign investment.

Time passed by, the enterprises were privatized, by the announced success turned into a permanent and increased pauperization for the population.

Water is ours, damn!

The expectancy turned into desperation.  The neo-liberal system parties (ADN, MIR and MNR) did not realize the situation the country was passing by and continued as if everything was ok.  This time they were searching the privatizing of water.  They presented at the national Parliament a project for a Law of Water that privatized and commercialized this resource.  The protest marches begun from the countryside.  The rejection was enormous.  Banzer’s government went back and tried to introduce “through the window” what he couldn’t do in the correct way.  He gave in grant to a transnational the city hall’s potable water service in Cochabamba and approved in a record time of 48 hours a law supposedly only for potable water but that in the last article conceded the Basic Sanitation Superintendence for all the uses of the water resource.

The water war begun in January 2000.   It was the first battle that had as protagonists over all the peasants of Cochabamba.  Then the second battle begun in February.  A march in the main Square turned into a virtual war against the police and the army that were avoiding the access of people to 14 de Setiembre Square.  The combat lasted two whole days.  The whole population of the city, the peripheral population and people from the countryside was mobilized.  There was a blockade in every street.  Even at the comfort-living neighborhoods people blocked the streets.  Near by the 14 de Setiembre Square a solidarity net was created for a few hours to support the “water warriors”.  Paper, wood and cartoon were thrown from high buildings to make fire.  In lots of houses refreshments and food were prepared.  All the radios of Cochabamba united against government.  After two days a precarious agreement was signed and the multitude could enter the Square, “their” Square.

The definitive battle in Cochabamba was stated for April 2000.  The Coordinator in Defense of Water and Life had been created about 6 months earlier demanded the revocation of the Aguas del Tunari Contract and the radical modification of the law for potable water and sanitation.  This time the conflict lasted nine days.  The government tried to break the struggle persecuting and putting in jail the directors of the Coordinator in Defense of Water and Life.  They declared martial law and for the first time in 15 years of neo-liberal model it was not in force though people was not afraid anymore.    The struggle was not only in Cochabamba.  In La Paz and the rest of the country there were too blockades of streets and roads.  The country was paralyzed.  Then the mutiny by the police in La Paz took place. That was the greatest mutiny during the neo-liberal period.

At this situation the government had to break the contract and modify the law in record time.  For the first time in 15 years, Bolivian population won, they had new confidence and hope in their own force.  Since then, nothing was the same for neo-liberals in Bolivia.

In September 2000 there was a national blockade that had deep influence in La Paz, and it isolated that city for two weeks.  In 2001 and 2002 the blockades of roads were repeated in the countryside, as well as marches and protests.

Peasants, coca producers and indigenous people

The neo-liberal model stroke everybody.  The salaried people received a physical defeat by means of massive lay off.  For peasants and indigenous people, it was different.  They had to go back some times but were never defeated.  The coca producers from Chapare  and Cochabamba were one of the most struck sectors, having more murdered people by the army than any other sector, but they never surrendered.  The eradication of coca plantations achieved important results by the end of the 90’s, but the more the “zero coca” dream was nearer, the bigger was the growth of resistance and new camouflaged  plantations appeared in the middle of the jungle.

The defeat of the historical mining vanguard and of salaried people  brought peasants to the first place, coca producers and indigenous struggles.  The recuperation of their aymara, quechua and guaraní identity that was hidden in other times because of the workers’ class oriented conceptions, begun to be developed.  The peasant-indigenous movements begun to state the struggle not only for land but too for territory.  And “territory” in its multiple dimensions.  On one hand as the right not only to land, but too to natural resources below it and “fly” such as trees, birds and bio-diversity that now government wants to concede to private enterprises.  On the other hand, as a symbol of respect to their original authorities, their ways of self-government, their uses, habits, their customary right.  “Territory” not only as a physical space but as sovereignty, as the right of being and existing, as cultural identity, as the right of being different in a world that is tending each time more to uniform everything  by means of globalization.

In Bolivia peasants are indigenous.  There is almost no peasant or inhabitant of the country side that is not aymara, quechua, guaraní or from any indigenous people.  But the 1952 revolution that gave the agricultural reformation and lands to aymaras and quechuas and not to the oriental indigenous people, considered the first ones only in their economic-social dimension: “peasants”.

In general terms, aymaras and quechuas were called peasants and organized themselves in trade unions or peasants communities, while guaraníes, ayoreos, yukis and more than 30 ethnical groups were considered indigenous, people from the jungle that did not have direct right to property over the earth and that needed the protection of the state or of a boss.

During the last decades this separation between the peasants and indigenous affair has been broken.  The great majority of peasants from the western area vindicate their identity as aymaras or quechuas.  Neo-liberalism and globalization in their effort of equalizing and turning everything into a single merchandize, have strengthened the roots of diversity and cultural identity in Bolivia.

This emergency of peasants, indigenous and coca peasants and the verification that their demands were each time more contrary to the State, took peasants’ trade unions to plan the organization of a “political instrument” to be able to intervene in the national elections and in politics in general.  This proposal begun to be extended within the whole country in occasion of the 500 years of the discovery of America, and it was in Chapare where it was more successful, as well as in the coca area and afterwards in Cochabamba, where they obtained four deputies and dozens of city hall counselors as well as mayoralties.   The Political Instrument is not a political party according to peasants and indigenous organizations, though it is ruled by the community, because the social organization elects its own candidates and define their policy.  “It is an instrument and not a group of professional politicians”.

This Political Instrument, whose original name was the Assembly for the Sovereignty of People, tried in several occasions to obtain  juridical status to be able to participate within national elections.  But the Elections Court never recognized them.  This is why they participated in national elections by means of fronts, or by lending abbreviations, up to the moment they decided adopting the abbreviation MAS (Movement Towards Socialism), that was one of the very few ones that had legal recognition and that their leaders accepted lending them.

On the eve of February

Until the elections of June 2000 took place the phenomenon  of the Political Instrument was mainly rural, based over all in Cochabamba.  In those elections the history was changed.  The increased social discomfort, the crisis of traditional political parties, the exhaustion of the neo-liberal model, the discredit at the democratic system, the fear, impotence and the arrogance of the North American Ambassador, who openly called people to vote against Evo Morales, made MAS to win in four of the nine districts, in two of the three most important districts of the central axe La Paz-Cochabamba-Santa Cruz and that Evo Morales almost could be the first candidate one in the Presidential elections.

Sánchez de Lozada was elected President thanks to the North American Embassy, that made a meeting with MIR and MNR to let them co-govern.  The leaders of MIR, that were before trade unions of narco-traffic and that had lost their visa to enter the United States, could then enter in that country.  Everything was worth to avoid the Evo phenomenon.

All the political analysts and the press could see that the government of Sánchez de Lozada was very weak, that it had to agree, that it could not govern the same way it did before.  On the other hand, MAS  was implementing a kind of opposition never seen before: no connivance at all.  The proposals of MAS were and still are Popular Constitutive Assembly and Assembly of Original Nationalities to refund the country, bring back gas and hydrocarbon from transnationals, rejection to ALCA, sovereignty and defense of coca leaves.  It is a program that could seam not enough for some people  but it constitutes a Chinese wall, though none of these points is acceptable for the system, specially if the North American Embassy keeps on governing Bolivia.

During the first months of its government, Sánchez de Lozada tried to de-compress the coca struggle by means of studying the possibility of lending them some concessions.  The Embassy reacted immediately stating that it was unacceptable, and Sánchez de Lozada went back.  Over the other points the situation is even less acceptable for the system.  The proposal of a Constitutive Assembly is very resisted,  though, according to what the vice-president said, the possibility that the anti-neo-liberal sectors can win is great, and that it could  be a Political Parties Constitutive Assembly, but never a popular and original nationalities’ one.

The second semester of 2002 was a permanent menace of conflicts between social forces and government.  Either the first ones or the latter knew the crash was unavoidable, and both of them were trying to get ready in its own way.  MAS and Evo Morale were trying to give their electoral success an organic character, by transforming the electoral support into an organized force, over all, out of Cochabamba.  The government wanted to weaken MAS by means of dialogues with no end and researches that came  to no conclusions.

The beginning of the conflict was set to 13th January 2003.  That day different social organizations called to the blockade of roads having as a slogan a group of structural demands.  The coca producers were the vanguard that guaranteed the blockade of roads in spite of the greatest militarization of roads ever seen in Bolivia.  In the rest of the country the mobilization grew slowly.  Sánchez de Lozada, that up to that moment had instructed his Ministries to avoid conflicts, strongly repressed people.  In less than 48 hours there were four murdered peasants.  The repression was savage, but could not break the movement, and it could integrate peasants sectors from Chuquisaca which were decisive to oblige government to a negotiated solution of the conflict.  Government and North American Embassy wanted to physically and militarily defeat the emergent movements, particularly those of  the coca producers.  They wanted to lecture them and to frighten the rest of the country.  The result of these actions was that they had to give up.  January ended with more than one dozen of murdered people and lots of dialogue and  discussion tables to deal with  the subjects related to gas, capitalization-privatizing, ALCA, coca, etc.


We do not know what kind of thoughts passed through the minds of the strategy men of government and the Embassy to begin with the “super tax campaign”. They could probably have thought the movement was weakened after January.  Others think that they really wanted a popular reaction to finish with what they could not implement one month before.  The ones who were closer to government said that they had never imagined such a reaction.  The real point is that they had never calculated a mutiny by the police.

Discomfort within Police had ever been latent, and it had already made Banzer’s government suffer a terrible head ache.  Policemen learned in April 2000, when the war for water took place, that the best moment to make a mutiny is when social conflicts are taking place, though that is the moment in which they have more power to press government.  In April 2000 they achieved the agreement of government to some of their demands.  Now they wanted to do the same with Sánchez de Lozada.

The mutiny begun on 11th February.  That night, the Ministry of Government instead of negotiating with them, pressed them to give up their measures.  Was it stupidity by the Ministry?  Or a policy by the North American Embassy to mark its position?  It is difficult to find out.  The real thing is that the following day the mutiny that begun at the GES[4] in La Paz, one block and a half from the House of Government, spread out through all the police stations of La Paz and the rest of the country.

On 12th February the House of Government begun the day with no police protection.  The students from the Ayacucho School took approach of the opportunity and threw stones at the House of Government.  Sánchez de Lozada ordered the mobilization of the Armed Forces in order to protect his offices.

At 13:30 there was an enormous shooting.  Who ordered shooting the positions of the police placed just almost in front of the House of Government?  Until today no Ministry talks.  The result of that day was eleven policemen and four militaries murdered.  At 16:30 Sánchez de Lozada appeared at the T.V. to announce the “super tax campaign” was off and called for peace.  Nobody obeyed him.  People assaulted and burned the Ministry of Labor, the Ministry of Sustainable Development and the Vice-presidency of the State.  Afterwards they assaulted MNR’s headquarters, MIR, ADN and a series of shops.

At 18:30 Sánchez de Lozada appeared once again accompanied by the Commandants of the Police and the Armed Forces so that they could call their comrades to calm.  The night fell on La Paz without T.V. channels working, though all of them stopped their transmissions because they were afraid of being assaulted by the “vandals” , as they like qualifying them.

In the morning of 13th February the radios announced the government had reached an agreement with the police and that said agreement was being consulted at the different police departments of the country.  There were no policemen in the streets.  Their turn had been taken by the army that surrounded with tanks the Murillo Square.  All the media called the population not to leave their homes.  But the march called by all the social organizations and the opposition was really big.  The unanimous request was the renounce of Sánchez de Lozada and Carlos Meza.

That day more than ten civil citizens were shot and died.  Government said that snipers were the ones who shot them and that they did not belong to the police or the army.  They were snipers from the army that shot a nurse and a female medicine doctor of the Red Cross, as it is demonstrated in a video shown by the Permanent Assembly of Human Rights.  In El Alto too several persons died when a helicopter was over-flying the Coca-Cola factory.

The marches and mobilizations took place too in Cochabamba, Santa Cruz, Oruro and Trinidad.  At the beginning the TV speakers greeted the Santa Cruz march because of its peaceful character; they had to shut up afterwards, when they begun assaulting the MNR headquarters.  By the end of the day the police had to act and the situation begun to be calmed.

What Bolivia lived during 12th and 13th February was not a consequence of excitement:  33 dead people and 189 hurt people can not happen casually or  because no authority ordered it.  And if we add those murdered during the blockade of roads during January, we can conclude that in Bolivia, in less than two months, more than 50 people were murdered by the army.

So many victims are not a casual fact, they are the result of a policy of repression and militarization implemented from the North and that is expressed in the policy of war in Iraq, the attempt of coup d’état against Chávez and the attempt of destroying the social and peasants’ movements in Bolivia.  There was and there is a clear and conscious policy to physically break and abort the popular ascend in Bolivia.

But in this battle the government was the great looser.  Many people say it is already a political cadaver.  It may be true, but in politics a cadaver can still kill you.  Three months have passed and no one has been taken to prison in spite of the images and evidences already presented.  The reason why this did not happen is obvious:  if you take to prison a policeman or a member of the Army, the Institution to which they belong will defend them.  How?  It will be better not to try to know how.

Government on one hand is asking for money to foreign cooperators in order to be able to re-structure the police, and on the other hand they appeal to the Church so that it can propitiate a social pact, a meeting, marriage or whatever among the opposite forces leaded by the MAS and the parties of government.  The strategy is clear: try to win time while institutions of order are re-constructed in order to guarantee the continuity of capitalistic system.  Spain has already offered money to Bolivian government to “institutionalize” the police.

March was marked by rumors of coup d’état.  The North American Embassy delivered a report from the CIA stating that Evo Morales was promoting a coup d’état in which he was going to die due to a sector of his own party, MAS.  The signs of the Embassy were clear: to frighten and prepare an attack not to install a military dictatorship, but to eliminate the main leaders of social movements.

Several intellectuals from the opposition said that in order to save democracy and avoid the exterminating coup d’état it was necessary to accept the social pact with government.  Others said that the social pact was necessary to let the medium class, frightened because of the violence of February, could join the movement.  But the proposal was not accepted by the leaders and bases of the social organizations that do not want to have any pacts or agreements with the assassins of February.  In case there is a coup d’état, it will be promoted by the Embassy and sectors of government.  Pretend avoiding this danger by means of alliances with them is stupid.

Bolivian society is polarized after February.  Middle class -that before could accept a progressive speech, is now strongly defending its menaced privileges by the “furious crowd”.  It is impossible to pretend that middle class can join people.

The key to future is the development of low middle class from the urban popular sectors.  February was a surprise not only for government, but to the forces of MAS, that were overpassed in the cities.  Those who were in the streets on 12th and 13th February were not organized within a political force or social organization.  Evo Morales was no doubt an important referent in the rebellion, but he was not the real leader of same.

February has demonstrated that leadership and a program are not enough, but that it is too fundamental the existence of an organization capable of organizing those new sectors that emerged as a consequence of seventeen years of neo-liberal model and that are not organized within a social or trade unionist structure.  The organization of broad sectors can not be covered from night to day.  The social emergency in Bolivia demands time, proposals and a lot of work to find the adequate path.

The economic situation of the country is serious and urgent.  Government cannot give populist concessions.  The Embassy shouts once and again “hard policy” is necessary, as it is shown in the last message by the White House alerting against the “coca Mafia”.  Social conflicts are taking place everyday.  La Paz is a place in which marches are institutionalized.  The economical situation lived by broad sectors of the population is desperate.  The members of the governing coalition quarrel every day.  Social movements have a leadership and an organization in the countryside but there is plenty of work to be done within the cities.

And all this is taking place within an international situation that is extremely complex, in which there is a rebellion against the neo-liberal movement in Latin America that has generated the establishment of government that smiles to the left but walks towards the right.  In this framework we can appreciate imperialism haughtiness because of the invasion to Iraq in spite of the multitudes marching against them.  Within this context of polarization, crisis, emergency and militarization, there is a people hoping to change history.



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