For centuries they've been robbed of their natural resources and their labour, and as the silver from Potosi was filling the palaces of the aristocracy and the rich bankers' wallets in Europe, misery, starvation and death in the mines was the reward for Bolivian slaves and workers. But the straw that broke the camel's back came a couple of months ago, when the government lead by Sanchez de Lozada (El Gringo) wanted to sell the natural gas (of which that country has the biggest resources in the world) to the USA at a ludicrous price. Only 18% of the profits were staying in Bolivia. The people were angry because of the fraudulent way the Gas was sold, because the decision was made by the president alone without consultation with the people and because they wouldn't stand for their resources being sold before their own needs were satisfied. Was it logical for the Gas to be sent to the US, while many people in the Bolivian countryside still heat their homes with cattle excrement?
The people's anger was first expressed by the union leadership. Then, on the 15th of November, marches and strikes started to be made by the unionised rank and file. The peasants united with the movement in the cities, and the roads were blocked in protest. That movement soon spread over all the country, but it was especially strong and militant in the Aymara regions, particularly in El Alto (La Paz). The country went on general strike on the 28th of November, and all the voices of Bolivia became one single yell: "Down with the President." They've had enough with the corruption of the ruling class, with their robbery, and with capitalist policies. Now the general demand was to attend to people's needs before serving the market.
The media lied about the real cause of the struggle, and tried to show that the people in the streets simply opposed the Gas being sold through Chilean ports. To oppose this narrow view - useful for capitalist interests - the popular slogan was that the Gas should be sold neither from Chile nor Peru. Instead it should be processed in Bolivia itself and then could be sold and used to bring gas to the households which lacked it. A miner in Potosi told me they (the politicians and the media) say that Bolivia is poor because of Chile; but the rich men from both countries share business. The Bolivian army called experts from the Chilean army to help slaughter Bolivian people protesting in the streets; they all behave like old good friends, while the people of both countries still distrust each other.
El Gringo's government accused the whole mass movement of being infiltrated by a bunch of "evil agitators" and replied in the traditional way to the just demands of the people: repression. The military came on to the streets and shot participants in the people's struggle, leaving in their wake at least 85 victims. The people fought back with courage, consciousness and organisation. Bolivia has a very well organised working class, with high levels of unionisation and it was the unions and indigenous groups who were the leading forces in the struggle. It was a real rank and file mass movement that after many days of strike, direct action and struggle forced the unpopular president to quit and go back to the USA, on the 17th of December.
It is true that changing the president is no real solution to the deep problems of Bolivian society. It remains a country with an enormous concentration of capital and property in the hands of a tiny elite and there has been no change in a system that excludes the majority from the decision-making. But El Gringo's fall from power strengthened the people's awareness of their capacities. And it is also true that the movement continues with growing demands among the people for stopping the looting of their resources and labour, for developing local industry, against the bosses dictatorship, for bottom-up rule, expressed by some through the Constituent Assembly but more clearly expressed in the direct democracy forms of mass organisation and by the Aymara independent movement, which utterly rejects the current system in favour of an egalitarian and non-hierarchical society. As long as exploitation and misery persists, there is going to be struggle.
by Paddy Rua
This edition is No79 published in Jan 2004