<i>"The Name of Our Country is América" - Simon Bolivar</i> The Narco News Bulletin<br><small>Reporting on the War on Drugs and Democracy from Latin America
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La Paz Paralyzed; Strikes and Blockades Return to Bolivia

Post-October, Bolivia's Social Movements Reorganize


By Claudia Espinoza
Special to The Narco News Bulletin

August 26, 2004

LA PAZ, BOLIVIA: The transport strike continues: the workers demand that the price of fuel be frozen and that the country’s gas be nationalized.

Strikes, marches, blockades and demonstrations marked Wednesday, August 25th, in several Bolivian cities. A “moving blockade” by the transport workers totally paralyzed the capital city of La Paz. Residents of the city of El Alto marched en masse toward the highway. The families of the dead and wounded from the “Gas War” last October demanded that former president Gonzalo “Goni” Sánchez de Lozada be brought to trial. The landless peasant’s movement marched from Collana and Batatallas: the marchers arrived in La Paz where police attacked them, and some members of “Sin Tierra” were arrested. In Cochabamba, thousands of people demanded the nationalization of gas in a large rally held in the city’s central plaza.

Around midday, a National Police vehicle was captured and set afire on 14 de Septiembre Avenue, in the Obrajes neighborhood, in the city’s south end.

According to the women who sell candy, soft drinks, and food at that place, near the Union of Transport Workers – one of the largest in the area – the drivers decided to burn the car because, nearby, police tried to break up the blockades along the avenues that connect the south end with downtown, where a large number of mini-and-micro-buses were blocking any automobile from passing.

The women said that the drivers were protesting, also, because the police had an order to break up the blockade so that President Carlos Mesa would be able to pass from his house that is located in this residential neighborhood toward the National Palace.

Also, around midday, above La Paz, the march headed by the Federation of Neighborhood Councils (FEJUVE, in its Spanish initials) of El Alto arrived chanting “Up! Down! We want the head of Goni, dammit!” and “Nationalization Now!”

The FEJUVE president, in Plaza San Francisco, warned President Mesa and Congress that the neighborhood councils of El Alto will not wait any longer for them to put Sanchez de Lozada and his collaborators on trial for the massacre of October 2003. “Once more, we remind the president not to forget his promise made to the people of El Alto on October 18. He said, ‘neither forget, nor revenge, but justice.”

Together with him marched the families of the dead and wounded and mutilated during the massacre. According to the family organizations, 70 people died, and more than 400 were wounded, tortured, or disappeared during “Black October.”


Gabriel Pinto
Photo: Manuela Aldabe D.R. 2004
Meanwhile, men, women, children, and elders marched to demand nationalization as the only option to control the wealth provided by natural gas. And, they said, the government must freeze the price of fuel “because when it rises it affects the economy of our homes.”

The Sin Tierra Movement led the other march that invaded the streets of La Paz. The march, which began last week, had left from the towns of El Tholar and Batallas. The landless peasants arrived with two demands: Freedom for its leader Gabriel Pinto, a prisoner in the San Pedro Penitentiary, and the nationalization of gas.

When the march attempted to get near the prison, where there are nine others accused in the Ayo Ayo case, the police used tear gas recklessly to disperse the marchers. Next, the police arrested 14 people (eight women and six men) and brought them to the Judicial Police station.

The New Battles

After all that occurred in the so-called Gas War last October, the social movements are now carrying out actions to express their discontent with the policies of Carlos Mesa’s administration pertaining to land, water, electricity, fuel, justice and the all-out criminalization of social protest.

One of the main issues that caused the transport workers strike in La Paz, El Alto, and Cochabamba, is the constant raising of fuel prices – subject to changes in the international price – which, in turn, raises the cost of transportation and basic products like bread.

Fuel: What Was the Referendum Good For?

The transport workers demand that fuel prices be frozen because any alteration affects the lives of workers from the farms to the cities, worsening the crisis in every Bolivian home. Many neighbors who went out to march called on the government to comply with the mandate of the July 18th gas referendum, which the public interprets as “the recuperation of the property that is used in fuel production,” immediately, to be able to control the domestic prices and not subject them to the international price of oil. The bad decisions by the government in complying with the referendum’s results are considered “a mockery toward the people.”

Evidence of that is the noncompliance with the installation of gas lines in homes, which was harshly criticized by the marchers, especially in El Alto. “Instead of installing gas lines, the government is selling it to Brazil and Argentina at the price of a dead chicken,” said one lady.

To this popular outrage are added declarations by the president’s minister, José Galindo, who said that the transport workers’ leadership – now a week into its hunger strike – is receiving money from “some sectors interested in creating chaos in the country.” This provoked rage and determination to the point where the strike in El Alto has now been extended indefinitely.

The attitude by the government is nothing new. On the one hand, it has made it clear that it will not abandon a policy that benefits foreign businesses, which manage not only trade in fuels, but also in water, electricity, telecommunications and other services. On the other hand, it dedicates itself, instead of offering solutions to these urgent needs, to smearing social movements that raise demands that are not new.

Criminalization of the Protests

This campaign finds an echo in some news reports that have analyzed the case of landless peasant movement leader Gabriel Pinto, who was arrested two weeks ago, accused of having participated in the lynching of the mayor of the rural town of Ayo Ayo.

The facts that, in that moment, were declared “community justice” by the people of the town were not investigated nor clarified. However, nine people are now held prisoner, under suspicion. Demanding the liberation of Gabrial Pinto and the other prisoners in the case, the Sin Tierra Movement (MST) mobilized from the towns of El Tholar and Batallas, and marched toward the capital city.


Felipe Quispe
Photo: Jeremy Bigwood D.R. 2004
The march was joined by Angel Duran, national leader of the MST, and Felipe Quispe, of the Farmworkers Federation of Bolivia, and was teargassed when it came near the San Pedro Penitentiary, where 14 of the marchers were arrested. Duran said that the government is trying to decapitate the MST movement to stop the land occupations that have occurred in different parts of the country. Quispe, for his part, threatened to capture and detain government ministers and other officials until the prisoners are released.

The Long March for Nationalization

Finally, Cochabamba marked a new stage in the “long march for Nationalization of Gas,” a campaign launched by the Coordinator for the Defense of Gas, prior to the July referendum. Continuing its work plan, the group conducted a march with thousands of people, including the participation by urban and rural sectors. The water workers joined the demonstration and called for regulation of electricity prices since its rise is affecting the use of the pumps that provide water to farmlands.

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The Narco News Bulletin: Reporting on the Drug War and Democracy from Latin America