Bolivia for the record: the people speak pt. 2

In the second part of ‘Bolivia for the record,’ activist and historian Cindy Forster brings stories and testimonies from the massive mobilizations organized in August 2020 following the announcement by the coup regime to postpone elections once again

March 03, 2021 by Cindy Forster
For over a week in August, road blockades were organized across the country. People gathered in a meeting held at Parotani blockade on the Cochabamba–Oruro highway. Photo: Kawsachun News

The second part of “Bolivia, The People Speak” aims to create a record in English that allows non-Spanish speakers to understand the dimensions of the popular victory won by the poor in 2020, and to see more clearly what the future may hold. Through the words of the poor captured mostly by Bolivian journalists, it chronicles the escalation of State terror from the second week of the national protests in August, when road blockades demanding elections shut down the country. Part 1 available here.

In the Aymara regions of the northern Andes, the Indigenous authorities from each town, called Ponchos Rojos for their red ponchos, demanded that “this government of a dictator” leave office.  It was Independence Day, August 6. A minute of silence was held for the victims of massacres who were killed in November, 2019 to crush resistance to the coup regime.

Calling for unity, the Indigenous authorities described tens of thousands of men amassed beneath the snow-capped Andes at the Qalachaka Barracks, which is not a physical building. Located near lake Titicaca outside the town of Achakachi, the physical space called Qalachaka consists of two hills, remembered as two youth who gave their lives in ancient times to defend their people. The youth were transformed into a sacred landscape that expresses the will of the people. They are organized to act as they did in 2003 when their numbers from the countryside, together with the organized neighborhoods of the Indigenous city of El Alto, formed the unarmed forces that brought down the neoliberal government of Gonzalo Lozada de Sánchez.

“Long live Tupak Katari!” the people chanted, honoring the Aymara leader of the 1780s who, with his wife Bartolina Sisa, almost drove the Spaniards out of the high Andes. Two hundred and forty years ago, those forces staged two sieges that starved and killed half of their encircled enemies in the city of La Paz. “If they don’t hear our demands, we will encircle the National Palace. We will teach you what it means to be besieged. We will repeat the strategy that brought down the bloodthirsty Sánchez de Lozada,” whose vice president was none other than Carlos Mesa, the runner-up in the elections of 2019 and 2020.

“Brothers and sisters,” said a community leader, “we have experience. I repeat, we have gathered thousands of warriors who are at the ready across the province of Omasuyos and the five provinces of the north.”

Their warriors are deeply principled and have decided this is not the moment for violence.  Most poor and working-class Bolivian male serves in the army, and the social movements have used this training to good effect against the government, but without shedding blood.

Meanwhile in the city of El Alto that stretches across the same high plain at over 13,000 feet, people on the blockades expressed the sentiment: “The Barracks of Qalachaka are our brothers! Long live the people!” Many protesters in the camera’s eye as that was being said held staffs that are the symbol of authority and others held iron rods used in construction.

“The coup government thinks they are the owners of Bolivia,” said a protester.  “They are not.  We demand the immediate resignation of the self-proclaimed one and all her ministers, especially that of Arturo Murillo,” the Minister of the Interior. “They all need to be in prison where they should rot under a sentence of perpetual imprisonment.”

On August 7, Air Force planes were filmed making terrifying low sweeps over protesters in El Alto. At the same time, government-paid infiltrators were accused of trying to spark violence at the protests. Road blockades mounted by the Indigenous and campesinos numbered in the hundreds across the nation.

On the 8th, Luis Arce –the presidential candidate of MAS or the Movement toward Socialism– announced that MAS would accept the postponement of elections on condition that international actors agreed to guarantee the new date.

MAS argued that because of the blockades, it was losing the support of the middle class.

Protesters were furious because they had not been consulted. The Bartolina Sisa Confederation, one of the most powerful organizations in the country that is made up of some 100,000 rural Indigenous women, called MAS traitorous.

Barricades necessarily create scarcity – that is their aim in the vast and complicated contests between the social movements and oligarchic power.

Oxygen had been scarce for 30 days and the urban middle classes were told the blockades were not allowing oxygen to pass through their lines. Individuals who try to save themselves from severe COVID via medical intervention, it is said, must pay private doctors twenty to forty thousand dollars. The well-to-do have been dying in considerable numbers, among them many who are not elderly. The people on the barricades said that they were obeying the directive of their leaders to allow oxygen, medical goods and ambulances to immediately cross the blockades.

In the face of these conflicting versions, the nonpartisan national office that defends human rights investigated. Their personnel visited the oxygen producing plant where they were told that the coup regime had forbidden the exit of vehicles with oxygen. The de facto authorities proceeded to tell the public that those vehicles were being blocked by MAS. The government strategy was one of “psychological warfare.”

At a rural blockade of over 6,000 people closing off one of the country’s main highways, Quechua women insisted their words be documented:  “As women, we will not tire. We are going to march to La Paz and arrive at the National Palace. For thousands and thousands of days, we will not stop these protests.”

Said another Quechua woman, “In this historic land at this very place, we turned back the theft of our natural resources years ago.”

The poor refused to attend “pacification” talks called by Áñez because, they said, they were given false promises when they attended negotiations with the coup government in 2019. The term chosen by Áñez –“pacification”– was a leitmotiv of the Spaniards from the 1500s forward. Commented the local Indigenous leader Segundina Baltaza, “They did not keep a single promise that they made in 2019. Not one. How can they expect us to believe them now?”

Unlike the Bartolina Sisa Confederation led by Segundina Flores, grassroots organizations led by male leaders do not always make decisions by consensus. In November of last year, COB leader Juan Carlos Huarachi was present at the talks with Áñez, walking a tightrope. He was considered a traitor by many because he urged Evo to resign after the president won the 2019 elections. By contrast, thousands of women and men risked their lives in the streets as their comrades were being massacred in the weeks following, and they were demanding Evo’s return.

In August, many protesters suggested to Áñez: “Come to the blockades and debate us here.”

On August 9, it was reported that miners had officially joined the blockades, and they numbered in the tens of thousands.

Paramilitary shock forces attacked campesino protesters.  In Cochabamba, mounted on their motorcycles, they charged into peaceful marchers who are children, women and men, but they only dared attack the weakest links of the bloqueos according to journalist Ollie Vargas. Rightwing aggressors are armed with homemade bazookas (of the sort that can be bought from criminals, explained an organizer). They are sometimes accompanied by police and soldiers.

In a rare instance of blood spilled, “fascist paramilitaries” from the lowland city of Santa Cruz shot various people “in the thorax, abdomen and torso” on August 10. The assassins apparently had traveled hours into the countryside to attack protestors who had set up a peaceful blockade at Samaipata near the ruins of the easternmost outpost of the Inca Empire. The urban paramilitaries were said to have defiled the Inca ruins, then attributed that action to the campesinos on the barricade.

In those parts of the country where thousands resisted at a single roadblock –such as El Alto– simultaneously, other small bloqueos throughout the city would vanish as armed forces bore down on them, only to reappear elsewhere. Marchers informed the public, “We are millions upon millions.”

From the northern region of Omasuyos, hundreds of Indigenous authorities called Ponchos Rojos –they have been fighting the racist republic for the last two centuries– offered a response to the rightwing aggressions by forming their own cavalcade of motorcycles deployed to defend the blockades, peacefully. In this region, the Aymara organized the first rural schools in the 1930s, at a time when landlords threatened peons and their children with having their hands cut off and their eyes torn out if they were discovered writing or reading. Omasuyos is home to the new MAS vice president, David Choquehuanca.

In open assemblies of many thousands on August 11, the poor said, “We are willing to give our lives in this struggle.” And also, “Forget elections: What we want right now is the resignation of the self-proclaimed señora and her Minister of Interior, Arturo Murillo. Leave the National Palace immediately! The people are enraged!”

In the days that followed, the calls for elections faded and the demands that Áñez leave office were deafening. By the 12th, the people of El Alto were preparing to cut off the international airport located in the heart of the city.

Permission to Massacre the People

The relative absence of murderous violence exercised by the police and army during the August protests marks a sharp contrast to the prior behavior of the coup regime. They constantly threatened to employ all necessary force to bring down the blockades. Doubtless, the hesitance of armed actors on the Right reflects the massive strength of the people on the blockades.

At a certain point, the military and police said they would “refuse to repress” the protesters, at least “for now,” in their own ominous phrasing. The commander of the armed forces, Sergio Orellana, was even quoted as saying that they needed a presidential decree “that would permit them to use their weapons to massacre the people” –a curious choice of words from an army commander– and he insisted that any deployment of the army against the blockades must “substitute for the use of the police.”

It was reported that the intermediate cadre of officers was in a virtual state of rebellion against the high command. Their superiors are allegedly awash in dollars from the United States.  What’s more, the armed forces are hard hit by COVID-19 and suffer a disproportionate death toll from the pandemic. The army is created by a draft of campesinos, workers and Indigenous. It was said in August that the high command faced the risk of mass desertions.

Finally, the Áñez regime promised elections with international guarantors, though we now know it never planned to allow MAS to take office.

On August 15, the blockades were lifted by the social movements as a temporary reprieve. In their document reporting that decision, the people decreed they are on an emergency footing.

They said this again when the shock groups of the Right vowed to prevent the swearing-in of the MAS president, elected on October 18. At the inauguration, Ponchos Rojos mobilized to ensure the security of the new government, while many thousands of campesinos and workers celebrated in the victory parade filing past the presidential palace. Leaders Henry Nina of the Pact of Unity and Segundina Flores of the Bartolina Sisa Confederation stood on the balcony alongside president Luis Arce and vice president David Choquehuanca.

Cindy Forster is an activist and is part of the Comité en Pro del Pueblo de Chiapas. She is a historian at Scripps College and chair of the Latin American and Caribbean Studies department.