Gringo Go Home
A report from Bolivia
by Sebastian Hacher
February 14, 2003
[translated by Justin Podur]Znet
At this time the count is 21 dead in the past two days and hundreds of wounded and arrested all over the country. All day, workers, campesinos, and youth mobilized in La Paz, Cochabamba, and Santa Cruz. In Potosi, workers in the mine that is owned by the president blocked roads. So did the campesinos of Chapare, where according to the latest reports there were confrontations leading to another death and three wounded.
If yesterday we saw the collapse of the state with confrontations between police and the military and the mobilizations that arose in the afternoon, today in the streets there is a feeling very similar to the one that toppled De la Rua's government in Argentina: !Que se vaya el gringo, carajo (gringo go home)!' (the Bolivian President Sanchez de Lozado is famous for speaking with a strong North American accent) is Bolivia's expression of 'que se vayan todos!' (everybody must go!) from our own country.
In every city, the organized mobilizations have been peaceful and disciplined. In La Paz, the organizers wanted only to march to the Plaza Murillo (the scene of yesterday's bloody fighting, today under the custody of hundreds of soldiers and tanks).
It was only after the demonstration was near its end that the looting of buildings and banks, confrontations and arrests of demonstrators occurred. The situation was similar in Cochabamba and Santa Cruz. These are the three most important cities in the country.
The feeling in the streets was one of rage. While a media campaign tried to generate fear of the phantasm of vandalism, the government decreed a national holiday and revoked the original economic measures (translator's note-these were a tax increase and a cut in social service spending) that triggered the protest. Despite all this, thousands of people came out into the streets, and their demands are no longer partial-that the government step down and the parliament close were two of the most-heard slogans today.
From the beginning of the demonstrations the government's behaviour has been a mystery. Yesterday the government said: "Mobilize if you want, but peacefully" and today the city awoke to find itself completely militarized. It was as if we were in the second round of a war that will not end when the day ends.
El Prado (the city's main street), from which small groups tried to advance, was a scene of urban warfare-with snipers on ceilings aiming to shoot out legs of or to simply assassinate demonstrators. As a sign of what the government is prepared to do: a reporter was shot (and injured), as were two paramedics-one of whom was killed by a rifle shot in the chest when he tried to rescue a wounded demonstrator.
The other element of uncertainty is how the police will act. If it's true that as of 5am the police's leaders have come to an agreement with the government, there are still units in the interior that do not recognize the agreement and are in the riot.
A crowd surrounded the transit police station and linked arms in indignation. At first, the attitude of the police was not hostile: "Look, all we have is whistles" they said. But when the crowd threatened to advance, some of the police drew their weapons.
The problem of weapons seems a central one, discussed all day yesterday and today. The classic chant of "arms to the people, the people won't be silent" and "the people armed will never be crushed" was repeated over and over. One woman explained that "we cannot confront the army with only stones." Dynamite, traditionally used by the miners in protests, was also heard in force. Each time one was thrown towards the military or detonated in the street, everyone was dazed.
After noon a new element was introduced: the police slowly returned to 'normalcy', and in La Paz began to work with the very army it had confronted yesterday. The military left their snipers and guarded the public buildings and the Plaza Murillo while groups of police took to the streets, repressing looters and arresting youth. The same thing occurred in Santa Cruz, where attacks on the offices of the official political parties and public buildings as well as looting were the norm.
Some of the preferred targets of the demonstrators were the offices of the MNR and the MIR, the main parties in the governing coalition.
Throughout, the media alternatingly showed images of the looters and of Juan Pablo II asking for peace in Bolivia. The media also showed constant messages of concern and support of the government from Washington, the presidents of Mercosur, the churches, and the business confederations. One could feel the ghost of an Argentina II.
Bolivia and the Argentinazo
Yesterday, while we toured buildings that popular fury was destroying and burning, some students joked: "Let's go to the Plaza de Mayo!" In Santa Cruz, today's demonstration was called a 'cacerolazo' and all the international media recalled Argentina. The comparison with Argentina, the image of the president fleeing the country, was present over the past two days.
Still, to equate the two processes would be to oversimplify the situation.
The biggest difference is the division in the forces of repression, the fundamental pillars of this or any state. The police joining the riot, the battle in the Plaza Murillo, the dead and wounded on both sides, are a graphic representation of the collapse-not yet of a government, but of the state. The police, without meaning to, acted as the catalyst of the crisis, making it possible for the hardest-hit in society to go out into the streets.
Maybe the greatest similarity to the Argentinazo is the sentiment of 'que se vayan todos', expressed in today's chants and, less massively yesterday afternoon. Still, the situation here is different: in today's mobilization the unions joined in and, Evo Morales was applauded by the multitude.
Some parliamentarians were booed by cries of "Close the Parliament!", but various political sectors capitalized on the popular sentiment and, within limits, still have the capacity to control and direct the mobilization.
The dynamics of the situation and the social sectors participating is also different from the Argentinazo. Yesterday, near the Plaza Murillo, one could see men in suits along with workers and youth. But at night, the generalized looting, the official campaign of the media, and the great number of killed and wounded had the opposite effect as all these elements had on the Argentinazo, working to separate the middle class from the workers and campesinos. Today's mobilization was mostly workers, students, and campesinos.
Finally, in argentina De la Rua escaped with the support of no one but his own family. Today, Sanchez de Losada-- despite having backed down-- received the embrace of the US and various Latin American presidents who know that an electoral solution would probably catapult the MAS (Movimiento al Socialismo) to the presidency and open up an uncertain situation for their economic plans to continue looting the country's natural resources.
Bolivia, my beloved
What we are living in Bolivia will surely take its place in history's intricate labyrinth. The blood in the streets, the furious screams, and the regime's fear, are images that will sear their way into our eyes as a giant step in the monumental work that none of our countries can escape.
The smell of gas, the destruction of the old system before a new one can be born, the calls to struggle on the streets and in the barricades, are the first steps of a people who have decided that destiny is something that can be changed.
Bolivia is a beautiful country, full of life. Today, when we saw the miners march without rest, together with young workers and students throwing dynamite and singing "!Que se vaya el asesino! (The murderer must go!)" we couldn't but be affected. They were part of an incredible tradition of struggle with its origins in the gigantic mobilizations of the COB (Central Obrera Boliviana, Bolivian Worker's Central) in the 1980s and the revolutionary struggles of 1952. It is these struggles to which the current government is both heir and traitor, while the protagonists of the future march together, writing their own history once again.
A history that is written in blood, as histories of the people always are. A history that we cannot merely sit and watch from the comfortable seat of the spectator.