Rebellion in Bolivia ousts president

Tens of thousands of Bolivian workers, peasants, indigenous people, and students flooded the streets of La Paz, Bolivia’s capital, last week in celebration of the ouster of former President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada.

They lost no time in serving notice on the newly sworn-in President Carlos Mesa Gilbert that they expected him to improve their lot quickly or meet the same fate as his predecessor.

Sánchez de Lozada, 73, a millionaire businessman closely aligned with the Bush administration, was forced out of office by a massive popular rebellion against his “free trade” policies. He had pushed for the building of pipeline that would have shipped trillions of cubic feet of Bolivian natural gas to the United States with little or no economic benefit to the Bolivian people. Strikes and roadblocks in opposition to his policies resulted in the country’s paralysis for nearly a month.

After brutally repressing the protests against him – resulting in at least 70 deaths and thousands of injured – Sánchez de Lozada finally offered some token concessions. He then defiantly vowed to never step down. The protests continued, and on Oct. 17 the former president packed his bags and fled to Miami.

“We succeeded in throwing out Goni!” peasant leader Juan Tinkuta told the Associated Press, using Sánchez de Lozada’s nickname. “That shows the sleeping pueblo is finally waking up.” Evo Morales, an indigenous union leader from the Cochabamba region, went further and called for Sánchez de Lozada’s arrest and prosecution for crimes of “economic genocide” against the Bolivian people. Morales, a leader of the Movement Toward Socialism, nearly won the presidency in the last election.

Carlos Mesa, 50, the former vice president, immediately stepped into the breach. Upon donning the presidential sash, he quickly traveled to El Alto, the industrial suburb of La Paz that was a stronghold of the rebellion. Mesa promised to hold a national referendum on the pipeline issue, to investigate workers’ claims that various economic laws are unjust, and to create a constitutional assembly to discuss land questions.

Mesa did not address another contentious issue – the U.S.-inspired defoliation campaign against coca farmers that has led to the widespread ruin of Bolivian farmers who grow the crop for non-narcotic uses. Many coca farmers were in the forefront of the protests.

Mesa appointed a new cabinet of 15 members, and created a new ministry of ethnic affairs, which will be headed by an Indian from eastern Bolivia. Only two of the ministers are Indian, although a strong majority of the nation is composed of indigenous Quechua, Aymara, and other Indian peoples. The domination of Bolivia’s government by a European, non-Indian elite has rankled the Bolivian people for decades. An additional minister for mining is supposed to be appointed soon.

One of Mesa’s most troubling appointments was the naming of Juan Ignacio Siles as foreign minister. Siles is the nephew of Jaime del Valle, who served as foreign minister under the fascist Gen. Augusto Pinochet in Chile.

President Mesa is variously described as a “historian and journalist.” But he, too, is a millionaire businessman, having made his fortune in the media industry. According to the BBC, he turned his local PAT television network into a national network, making a tidy sum in the process.

Bolivia is among the poorest nations of Latin America, where 63 percent of the people live below the poverty level. Many workers earn less than $2 per day.

Indigenous leader Felipe Quispe, the head of the Single Trade Union of Campesino Workers, said President Mesa has 90 days to implement radically new policies or “he [too] will be our enemy.”

Gertrudes Abarado, a teacher who helped lead the protests, told Reuters much the same thing: “We’ll give the new government time to do things. If it doesn’t, well, we’ll explode again.”

Ominously, the Pentagon’s U.S. Southern Command is said to be closely monitoring the situation, and has dispatched a special military team to assess “the security situation” in Bolivia, even though reportedly neither the State Department nor the Bolivian government has requested it.

The author can be reached at malmberg@pww.org