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Left-Indigenous Struggles in Bolivia: Searching for Revolutionary Democracy

Jeffery R. Webber studies and teaches political science at the University of Toronto. He currently lives in Bolivia and is a member of the Canadian New Socialist Group.
The author thanks Juan Arbona, David Camfield, Linda Farthing, Dianne Feeley, and Susan Spronk for helpful comments.

The Geography of Struggle

La Paz, the Bolivian capital, rests in a deep valley in the heart of the Andes. The geographical terrain of the city is marked clearly with deep class divisions and the racist legacies of Spanish colonial impositions and ongoing internal colonialism, present since the founding of the republic in 1825. The indigenous peoples—over 60 percent of the population according to the 2001 census—have suffered at the bottom of a wickedly steep social hierarchy that whitens in accordance with class privilege.

Neighboring El Alto rests on the brink of the altiplano, the high-plateau overlooking the valley which cradles La Paz. With seven hundred thousand residents living at four thousand meters above sea level, El Alto is technically a separate city from La Paz, but it acts more as the latter’s massive shantytown, many workers descending each day to look for precarious work in La Paz in construction, sales, or services; the two urban areas are deeply if unevenly interlinked economically, socially, and politically. Eighty-two percent of alteños, the residents of El Alto, identify themselves as indigenous. The class and racial hierarchies between these cities are visually striking. As one descends the mountainside from El Alto, into the downtown of La Paz and through to the southern zone, adobe shacks, indigenous women street vendors, and the absence of basic urban infrastructure, are gradually replaced with whiter faces, taller buildings, sidewalks, and, eventually, mansions and Mercedes.

El Alto was the epicenter of the Gas War of September–October 2003 that rocked the Bolivian political landscape with a force not seen since the national revolution of 1952. The Aymara peasants of the altiplano, the miners of the altiplano community of Huanuni, the poor indigenous residents of El Alto, and eventually the poorer sectors of La Paz threw out hated president Gonzalo “Goni” Sánchez de Lozada. Even some middle-class paceños, as residents of La Paz are called, led hunger strikes in the final days of the revolt, expressing their revulsion in the face of Goni’s massacre of over seventy people.1 Lacking a left political project capable of taking state power, however, popular forces accepted Carlos Mesa Gisbert, then vice president, as Goni’s replacement hoping he would make good on his promise to enact the October Agenda, which included nationalizing the production and distribution of natural gas, bringing Goni to trial, and convening a Constituent Assembly to remake the Bolivian state to serve the interests of the poor indigenous majority.

Of course, Mesa, the former journalist and historian, has not carried through with the October Agenda. Instead, with a rhetoric steeped in soft-neoliberalism, he has advanced the neoliberal political and economic project first set on course in 1985 under the reign of Víctor Paz Estenssoro.

In response to Mesa’s abject failure to fulfill the October Agenda, in 2005 popular social forces have re-emerged to confront state power, first with the El Alto Water War in January and March, and, second, and most importantly, with the Second Gas War of May and June. El Alto–La Paz is once again the center of strikes, marches, exploding dynamite, confrontations with police, and attempts to take the Plaza Murillo, which contains the Presidential Palace. These are met with tear-gas and rubber bullets. We have also witnessed the mobilization of regional right-wing forces under the banner of “autonomy” in the department of Santa Cruz, and rumors of coups and military dissent. In order to understand the complexity of the contemporary conflict, we need first to reach back, if only briefly, to its historical roots.

The Renewal of Popular Forces and the Prolonged Crisis of the Neoliberal State

From 1964 until 1982 Bolivia suffered through a series of coups and primarily right-wing military dictatorships. In 1982, procedural democracy was restored through a valiant popular struggle, and a loose coalition of left-wing forces took state power under the banner of Democratic Popular Unity (UDP). Inheriting the extraordinary debt accrued during the dictatorship of Hugo Bánzer (1971–1978), suffering from innumerable internal divisions, battling extraordinary levels of hyperinflation, and being paralyzed by right-wing obstructionist efforts on a number of fronts, the UDP government was forced to call early elections (1985), and a period of neoliberal hegemony (1985–2000) was installed.

Fifteen years of “pacted democracy”—a series of governments cobbled together by coalitions of right-wing parties with longstanding rivalries—was reinforced by the military, a friendly international environment of imperialist powers and international financial institutions, and an unprecedented unity between the factions of the Bolivian bourgeoisie. This context made it possible to ram down the throat of Bolivian society a “free market” capitalism with devastating social consequences.

With the depressing legacy of the UDP government haunting their party structures and social movement and union bases, the left was in shambles and could project no political, social, or economic alternative to the neoliberal assault. The final nail was driven into the coffin of the popular forces in 1985. That year, the international price of tin collapsed, destroying the tin miners who had been the vanguard of the Bolivian left since the 1952 revolution. They represented the backbone of the extraordinarily radical and militantly independent Bolivian Workers’ Central (COB).

When the price of tin bottomed out, neoliberal protagonists in the state took the opportunity to privatize the mines, forcing nearly thirty thousand miners to “relocate” and find means of survival in the cities (including El Alto) or in the Chapare region growing coca leaves for export. The miners continued their protests, but feebly and without impact. The vanguard of the left moved to the cocaleros, coca growers, who, because of constant harassment and repression from the U.S.-led “drug war,” developed an impressive anti-imperial ideological orientation, imbued with the revolutionary Marxism of the relocated miners and the indigenous resistance politics of Chapare’s peasants. The latter aspect of the cocaleros’ ideological development would be further refined as years passed, epitomized in the sanctified symbol of the coca leaf and the wiphala, the multicolored indigenous flag.

While the cocaleros put up a fierce localized fight against imperialism and the neoliberal project, and while they would come to constitute the basis of the strongest reconstituted left party in Bolivia, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), during the 1980s and 1990s they nonetheless resembled nothing remotely similar to the historic, far-reaching movement of the miners within the Bolivian left. The period of neoliberal hegemony, 1985–2000, clearly represented a historic defeat of the left and seemed to inculcate profound sentiments of loss within popular sectors that otherwise may have been able to mount some resistance. Meanwhile, other prominent figures on the left migrated to work with nongovernmental organizations or converted squarely to the neoliberal project.

Things began to change dramatically in February–April 2000 when the rural-urban and multiclass Cochabamba Water War reversed the privatization of water demanded by the World Bank, and led to the ousting of a multinational consortium led by the American corporation Bechtel. Angry at tariff increases and the government’s water privatization laws, people from distinct social groups, including irrigating peasant farmers, water committees of the urban poor, and urban water users coalesced under the umbrella of the Coordinator for the Defense of Water and Life, from which Oscar Olivera emerged as a leader. This was one of two initial moments in the cycle of rearticulation of left-indigenous forces (2000–2005), the other being a series of road-blockades and protests in 2000 in Aymara communities in the altiplano. The Water War signaled the first rupture in the fifteen-year-old neoliberal fabric exposing the failure of the economic model to produce the wonders promised by a series of governments, and it breathed life and organization into existing societal discontent.

By “rearticulation” of left-indigenous forces I am referring to historical moments when common elements of class exploitation and racial oppression are consciously recognized by the exploited and oppressed and they are able to organize themselves to fight for their interests. They are always exploited and oppressed, but only occasionally capable of organizing and mobilizing themselves.

The 2000–2005 period represents a rearticulation of popular forces in two senses. First, when the miners were crushed in 1985, a certain phase of left struggle for socialism initiated in the revolutionary era of the 1950s was brought to a close. At this point the left, by and large, had failed to recognize racial oppression as a significant component of the Bolivian postcolonial condition. With the new cycle of protest initiated by the Cochabamba Water War, popular forces rearticulated themselves with a new recognition of racial oppression and with indigenous peasants playing a much more advanced role.

So, in one sense, 2000–2005 is a rearticulation of popular forces in that there had been no serious popular resistance to neoliberalism of any sort for fifteen years. In 2000 a new left emerged from the ashes of the miners’ struggles. In a second, more historical sense, it is a period of left-indigenous rearticulation in that there is at least the beginning of a fruitful exchange between Marxist and indigenist ideologies, something not witnessed in Bolivia since the 1920s.

The Water War politicized the failures of Goni’s privatization program, euphemistically dubbed “capitalization,” which was nothing less than the fire sale of state assets, exacerbating the financial crisis of the state. One crucial component of this capitalization was the Hydrocarbons Law of 1996. With this law the hydrocarbons sector (most importantly natural gas) was privatized, eliminating a key source of state revenue. Accordingly, Bolivia’s borrowing from 1997 to 2002 increased dramatically from 3.3 to 8.6 percent of its Gross Domestic Product.2 International Monetary Fund (IMF) demands for regressive changes to the tax structure and reductions in public expenditures to mitigate the budget deficit set the stage for further political crises.

The 2002 general elections marked the second key sign of a rearticulation of left-indigenous forces and the crisis of the neoliberal state. The era of pacted democracy was seriously eroded as the MAS, led by Evo Morales, won 21 percent of the popular vote, second only to Goni’s right-wing National Revolutionary Movement’s (MNR) 22 percent. Meanwhile, the Pachakuti Indigenous Movement (MIP), led by Aymara radical Felipe Quispe, garnered 6 percent of the popular vote and was able to enter the electoral fray, with a presence rooted in the altiplano. For the first time, left-indigenous forces, with indigenous peasant candidates, established a considerable presence in the electoral arena, despite the fact that Goni came out on top.

February 2003 was the next critical conjuncture in the state crisis, both in terms of finances and the state’s fraying coercive apparatus. The financial woes of the neoliberal state continued apace, and the pandering of Bolivia’s neoliberal elite to the whims of international financial institutions came further to light. The IMF was a key proponent in the “privatization of everything” drive in Bolivia, including the devastating pillage of the country’s hydrocarbons. As Jim Schultz points out, “By complying with the IMF’s demands for privatization, Bolivia ended up reducing its public revenue and started acquiring higher public deficits. Later the IMF would return to Bolivia and pressure it to reduce those deficits, not at the expense of foreign corporations but of Bolivia’s working poor.”3

In early 2003, the IMF announced that the receipt of further loans was contingent on the government reducing its budget deficit from 8.7 to 5.5 percent of its GDP in one year through a combination of budget cuts and tax increases totaling more than $250 million.4 In response, on February 9, 2003, a new tax package, fleecing the working poor, was announced.

At the time, the poorly paid police forces were already engaged in a vicious dispute with the government over unpaid salaries and demands for salary increases. A complex series of events led to a police revolt centered in the Plaza Murillo, which was soon counterattacked by military forces loyal to Goni and the neoliberal state. Alongside the police, popular sectors joined in demonstrations, with a major role being played by young student activists. Thirty-four people were killed in these events.5

The crisis of the state could not have been clearer. Police and soldiers—the two arms of state coercion—exchanged gunfire outside the Presidential Palace, in the midst of ongoing financial crises wrought by neoliberal policies, increasing subservience to IMF dictates, and bloodshed in the streets. Together these factors fanned the fires of discontent and outrage among the progressive social movements that were regrouping their forces once again.

Both left-indigenous rearticulation and the neoliberal state crisis reached their apogee in the September–October 2003 Gas War. The actors in brief include: Aymara peasants from the altiplano with a series of demands linked to indigenous autonomy and vindication of their presence and dignity within the racist Bolivian state; miners from Huanuni; urban protesters from El Alto with strong connections to the struggles of the indigenous Aymara peasants and the relocated former miners; the poorer sectors of La Paz; and middle-class paceños disgusted with the violence of the state under Goni. Eventually, a vast myriad of solidarity marches and other forms of protest in the cities and the countryside took place throughout the Bolivian state.

The motivations of the revolt were multifaceted and complex, but the essential catalyst was a deal with a multinational consortium to export natural gas through Chile on route to the United States. Goni’s killing of indigenous activists in the altiplano, El Alto, and La Paz raised the levels of unity and outrage, and provided a sense of purpose. Goni and his closest cronies fled to exile in the United States on October 17, 2003, allowing Mesa to rise to power through constitutional mechanisms. Out of this wave of mobilization and state repression was born the October Agenda.

The events of October 2003 signaled the profound chasm between popular sentiments and neoliberal ideals within the Bolivian state. They showed Goni’s absolute incapacity to govern through consent and the weakness of the neoliberal state as it turned to extreme coercion, butchering over seventy unarmed protesters. The capacity of the people of the altiplano and El Alto to mobilize themselves, and the power of the unique ideological union of Aymara-rooted indigenous struggle and older left traditions were also revealed. At the same time, Mesa’s assumption of power reflected the weak political organization of the popular forces of October, and the divisions within the left-indigenous camp that all too easily predominated except during episodes of severe crisis.

Mesa’s Post-October Regime: A Map of Social Forces

Although Mesa visited El Alto immediately after assuming power and assured the masses that he would follow through with the October Agenda, he quickly demonstrated his true political orientation. Despite the fact that Mesa’s rhetoric drew sharp distinctions between his politics and Goni’s, there was a deep continuity between his economic and social policies and those of his predecessor.

On every issue—macroeconomic policy, fiscal policy, hydrocarbon politics, the treatment of the unemployed and poor indigenous peasants, bilateral trade negotiations with the United States, and the establishment of the Free Trade Area of the Americas—important to the popular sectors who so courageously rose up and allowed him to assume power—Mesa acted on behalf of the imperial powers and the sections of the Bolivian bourgeoisie with an international capitalist orientation. His cabinet, logically, was stacked with gonista ministers.

Meanwhile MAS, after playing virtually no role in the October insurrection, failed to respond to the historical opportunities that arose in its aftermath. Rather than carrying through with ongoing mobilization and street politics in solidarity with the radical, mobilized popular forces, it opted for cooperation with the Mesa regime, accepting Mesa’s discourse, ignoring his practice, and focusing on its incoherent strategy of seducing the urban middle classes in hopes of winning the presidential elections set for 2007.

The gap between Mesa’s televised sophistry and the reality of his practical agenda could not endure the passage of time. The honeymoon ended in January 2005 with the eruption of Bolivia’s Second Water War, based in El Alto. Alteños organized a seventy-two hour general strike in El Alto through the organizational structure of the Federation of United Neighbors of El Alto (FEJUVE–El Alto), which had been a key institution, along with El Alto’s Regional Workers’ Central (COR–El Alto), in the October insurrection of 2003. The strikers demanded the immediate expulsion of Aguas del Illimani (the private consortium controlled by the French multinational Suez), and its replacement by a new, nonprofit water company under social control. FEJUVE also began to express a politics linking their frustration on this issue to the failure of Mesa to comply with the October Agenda more generally. Wisely, Mesa did not train the guns on the strikers, and instead issued a decree that terminated the contract signed with Aguas del Illimani in 1997.

Mesa’s failure to use violence, together with the protesters’ effective mobilization tactics and their success at placing the issues of nationalizing gas and a Constituent Assembly back into the public sphere, resurrected the social forces on the extreme right. These were based primarily in the department of Santa Cruz, but stretched into the departments of Tarija, Beni, and Pando. Public discourse on this matter pits the east (Santa Cruz) against the west (primarily La Paz) of the country.

Calls for “autonomy” (historically a demand of the Santa Cruz region, contemporarily imbued with far-right, populist sentiments) began to emerge more forcefully. The bourgeois ideology of the cruceño discontent is characterized by prominent Bolivian left intellectuals, Walter Chávez and Álvaro García Linera, as that of the “free market, foreign investment, racism, etc.,” which pits the “modern,” “whiter” Santa Cruz elite against the short, dark-skinned, backward, and anti-capitalist Aymara and Quechua peoples of the western region of Bolivia, especially within the department of La Paz.

For three weeks the cruceño elite resurrected their calls for autonomy leading a series of popularized right-wing protests against the “centralism” of La Paz, resulting in hunger strikes, occupations of public buildings, and shutting down the international airport in Santa Cruz. Their mobilization culminated in a march that brought 300,000 people into the streets. Their “January Agenda” was thus pitted against to the left-indigenous October Agenda. The January Agenda sought to protect private property rights, private control over petroleum and natural gas deposits in the eastern and southern parts of the country.

For Chávez and García Linera, however, the fact that the cruceño elite has opted to regionalize its current struggles in lieu of taking the state at the national level, points to a paradox: Under the banner of regional autonomy, the cruceño elite demonstrated an organizational capacity and strength not seen since the popular advance of the October rebellion; however, during the period of neoliberal hegemony (1985–2000), the same elite had enjoyed unfettered access to national state power through key positions in all of the main neoliberal parties engaged in pacted democracy. That the elite resorted to calling for “autonomy” only in Santa Cruz shows the far right’s ongoing weakness in the face of the popular movements of the altiplano and El Alto.6

Just as the fervor in Santa Cruz retreated to the background, El Alto began to re-emerge. By the end of February 2005, when a date had yet to be set for the expulsion of Aguas del Illimani, FEJUVE–El Alto announced a general strike, which began on March 2. After a weak start, the general strike gained momentum, paralyzing El Alto and closing key trade routes between La Paz and the rest of the country. Meanwhile, in numerous departments peasants and others started blocking roads to demand the realization of the October Agenda, and, to a lesser extent, expressing their solidarity with the alteño strikers.

With various proposals before Congress for a new hydrocarbons law, the MAS seemingly started to move away from its conciliatory relationship with Mesa, as evidenced by calls made by Evo Morales, in conjunction with Oscar Olivera, for a hydrocarbons law that came closer to meeting the demand for nationalization established by the Gas War of 2003. The country was shutting down, and the feasibility of the neoliberal state was yet again being called into question. Sectors on the right began their calls to “free-up the roads,” to let commerce flow. Decoded from their Orwellian cant, this means, “smash heads and squash the social movements.”

Unable, and apparently unwilling, to use lethal force against the social movements, Mesa opted instead to deliver a televised “resignation” speech to the country on Sunday evening, March 6, 2005. Highlighted in the speech were the innumerable evils of the social movements and the inevitability and desirability of capitulating to global capital and imperialist forces. He submitted his revocable resignation to Congress the following morning, which Congress rejected. Mesa, who had counted on this outcome, reconfigured his coalition, burning the bridge to the left that had been the MAS.

Mesa’s shift to the right led to a brief rearticulation of broad left unity, including the MAS. Mesa turned around and faked another political move, calling for the Congress to move up presidential elections from the scheduled date of 2007. Again, this was rejected by Congress, and Mesa vowed to stay in power until the end of his constitutional mandate. He publicly denigrated all popular forces as “undemocratic.” He failed to note the fact that he was never elected president and that the only reason he assumed the role is because the social movements allowed him to in October 2003. The sole distinguishing feature of any import between Goni and Mesa was their differing attitudes toward using lethal force against unarmed civilians.

Bolivia’s Second Gas War: May–June 2005

In the early days of June 2005, Bolivia was locked in what historian and activist, Forrest Hylton, described as the “agony of stalemate.” This is the latest chapter of what I argue is the divided but real moment of left-indigenous forces that are resurgent but that still lack a political project for seizing state power. They are weakened by their divisions and political incoherence, as they face-off against a neoliberal project in crisis. The popular forces behind the October Agenda are therefore divided and have limited political capacity at the current conjuncture, even as they maintain spectacular levels of continuous and active mobilizations in the streets. This is what the second Bolivian Gas War has demonstrated since it started rolling on May 16, 2005.

On that Monday, May 16, 2005, I participated in a massive march of tens of thousands of protesters from El Alto, down the mountainsides of La Paz, and toward the Plaza Murillo for the first in what would be weeks of sporadic and then steady confrontations between police and activists.

Organizations participating in the day’s actions included the Federation of United Neighbors of El Alto (FEJUVE–El Alto), the Regional Workers’ Central of El Alto (COR–El Alto), the Public University of El Alto, the Departmental Workers Central, the Confederation of Original Peoples, the Federation of Peasants of La Paz (Tupaj Katari), the Bolivian Workers Central (COB), the teachers’ unions of El Alto and La Paz, among many, many others.

As we marched the seven-mile, three-hour protest trail from El Alto to La Paz, the chants of the mobilized, and a series of conversations and interviews, distilled the key demands of the day in descending order of importance: nationalization of gas, the shutdown of parliament as a show of popular force and determination, and the renunciation of Mesa. As the Second Gas War developed over the following two weeks, the older themes of October—the immediate convocation of a Constituent Assembly, and, less importantly, a trial for Goni and his criminal band of close allies—would be added to the list of demands of May 16. As one worker marching next to me suggested, the common theme of these demands is the following popular quest for dignity: “The governments have been on the side of the transnationals, and the rich. We want a government on the side of the people.” Conversations between marchers made it evident they were already speculating about the possibility of another October.

At 1 p.m. on May 17, 2005, Mesa provided the fuel necessary to set aflame the competing social forces within the Bolivian state, in all their regional, class, and ethnic-based complexities. At this hour, it was publicized that the president would neither promulgate nor veto the contentious hydrocarbons law that Congress had approved ten days earlier. Mesa’s “decision,” in agreement with the constitution, meant that the president of Congress, Hormando Vaca Díez, was forced to promulgate the law, which he did immediately. The new hydrocarbons law provided for 18 percent wellhead royalties and a 32 percent direct hydrocarbon tax, a distant cry from the nationalization demanded by the popular forces of El Alto and the altiplano. At the FEJUVE–El Alto assembly that evening, the fighting spirits were impassioned, and the plans were laid to renew the struggle in a coordinated and dramatic fashion.

Meanwhile, in an expression of the division within radical-popular movements and the role of the MAS in this political conjuncture, another march—200 kilometers and four days long—from Caracollo to La Paz was being planned under the umbrella of MAS. A whole series of organizations involved in the Pact of Unity, planned to march together with MAS, not for nationalization, but for 50 percent royalties in place of the 18 percent specified in the new law. They also called, more forcefully by the day, for a plan to convene the Constituent Assembly.

On May 23, 2005, the MAS-led march arrived in El Alto. The marchers were met by the organized popular sectors of El Alto calling for nationalization. Many of the MAS-led marchers called back to the alteños that they agreed with “nationalization!” Evo Morales, however, would maintain his distance from the sentiments of the base. A massive gathering with speeches and cheering convened in the Plaza of Heroes later that afternoon in the center of La Paz. Divisions within the movements were clear at this stage, most obviously apparent in Evo Morales calling for a Constituent Assembly above all else and rejecting the forced closure of parliament, the resignation of Mesa, and the nationalization of natural gas, while Jaime Solares (leader of the COB), among others, called for the nationalization of gas, the closing of parliament, and the resignation of Mesa. The latter referred to the examples of Venezuela and Cuba to inspire the crowd. The next day was full of increasingly intense confrontations between Aymara peasant and miner activists and the police, as the protesters sought to enter the Plaza Murillo and close down the Presidential Palace. May 30 and 31 were the biggest days of mobilization since October 2003.

As the first week of June comes to a close, La Paz is virtually devoid of tourists as foreign embassies advise their citizens to avoid travel to Bolivia, rumors of military coups enter daily conversations, natural gas supplies are running out in La Paz due to the ongoing general strike in El Alto and various road blockades, and a tension-ridden, uncertain stalemate characterizes the political situation of the country.

Two military officials appeared on television calling for a left-wing civilian-military government to fulfill the October Agenda and replace the Mesa regime. They apparently have very little support within the military or the social movements, however. Sectors of the police forces have begun to suggest publicly through telephone calls to popular radio stations that they will refuse to continue to gas women and children in the streets. It is presently unclear how deeply this sentiment runs in the police forces. Peak business associations in Santa Cruz and La Paz have called for Mesa to move elections forward given the ungovernability of the country. The autonomy movement within Santa Cruz is gaining strength once again. At the same time, a fascist youth group, which the MAS describes as the military wing of the Civic Committee of Santa Cruz, has violently assaulted indigenous peasant marchers in that department.

Mesa continues to avoid the use of lethal force, even as the Plaza Murillo is perpetually barricaded with hundreds of military police, and the exchange of dynamite, tear gas, and rubber bullets between police forces and protesters continues to permeate daily life. The resolution of the current stalemate is far from clear. What is evident, however, is that the unresolved issues of October 2003 are resurfacing in powerful ways, issues unlikely to disappear until the racist internal colonialism and fierce capitalist and imperialist exploitation that characterize contemporary Bolivia are abolished. In the current conjuncture, unfortunately, the popular forces—despite their capacity to mobilize themselves—remain divided and without a coherent political project to replace the ancien regime.


During the May–June mobilizations, roadblocks took place in each of the nine departments of Bolivia. El Alto, led by FEJUVE–El Alto, successfully launched and sustained a three-week-long general strike throughout the shantytown, blocking access roads to La Paz. Prices of basic food stuffs rose, and gasoline and natural gas supplies effectively dried up in the capital. For good measure, the Senkata gasoline plant in El Alto was barricaded and kept under vigil by strikers twenty-four hours a day during the period of mobilization.

Indigenous groups in the eastern part of the country—historically less radical and independent than those in the altiplano—occupied oil and gas wellhead sites to cut the flow of these resources, an act of solidarity with the struggles that eventually became nationwide.

On June 6, 2005, protesters numbered between three and five hundred thousand in La Paz, an extraordinary occupation of the city with a decidedly revolutionary spirit in the air. Mesa could no longer ignore the voices of the “minorities” pestering him and inhibiting his regulation of neoliberal capitalism in Bolivia. That evening, he announced his resignation, which according to the constitution would have to be approved by Congress. It was at this stage of partial popular victory that the absence of a strategy for popular power among left-indigenous forces came to light most forcefully. Mesa was gone. What would come next?

The conservative factions of the party system—the MNR, the Democratic Action Party (ADN), the Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR), and the New Republican Force (NFR)—had been scheming for some time to fill the vacuum of power that was sure to arise from an increasingly weak Mesa government. According to the constitution, after Mesa announced his revocable resignation on June 6, Congress could decide to allow the president of the Senate, Hormando Vaca Díez of the MIR, to assume the presidency. If he was not accepted or declined the invitation, next in line would be president of the lower house of Congress, Mario Cossío of the MNR. Finally, if the first two were passed by, president of the Supreme Court of Justice, Eduardo Rodríguez, would become president.

A special session of Congress was quickly scheduled for June 9 in Sucre rather than La Paz, in an effort to avoid protesters. A second stage of the drama began. It was obvious to all that the right was uniting around Vaca Díez. The left responded by demanding that Vaca Díez and Cossío be bypassed and called instead for Rodríguez to assume the presidency, though he would be expected to call general elections immediately.

Thousands of popular forces—most importantly peasants and miners—spontaneously set off for Sucre to stop the Vaca Díez grab for power. Within Congress, the MAS and the MIP were also pitted against the plan of Vaca Díez and were therefore momentarily united with the popular forces in the streets and countryside.

It nonetheless remained a distinct possibility that Vaca Díez would pull through and take over with the support of the majority of Congress. This possibility ended abruptly, however, when clashes between miners and police in Yotala—eighteen kilometers outside of Sucre—created the first and only martyr of the days of May and June, miner Carlos Coro.

The entire mood around Sucre was irrevocably altered, and it was clear that the country would be burned to the ground if Vaca Díez took power. On June 9, therefore, the NFR removed its support for Vaca Díez in the Congress, making it impossible for the right’s plan to come to fruition. Rodríguez was inaugurated as president of the republic.

The Current Context

Without a doubt, the days of May and June were an impressive display of radical politics from below that wiped out the embarrassing spectacle that was the Mesa government, and subsequently stalled the counterrevolutionary project embodied in the Vaca Díez attempt on the presidency.

However, the nationalization of gas, the demand around which a wide array of diverse struggles united, has fallen off the foreseeable political agenda. This is a major popular defeat, at least for the moment. Rodríguez, probably more reactionary than Mesa, is now the president until elections are held on December 4, 2005. The right is trying to rearticulate itself through electoral politics, most visibly in the form of former president Jorge Quiroga and his Alliance for the Twenty-First Century. Despite the incompetence of the right generally, and the lack of legitimacy of the old right parties—MNR, ADN, MIR—within the Bolivian population, the right has much on its side: the entire system of imperial states, the international financial systems, and the transnational corporations operating within Bolivia all favor neoliberal stability. If the left doesn’t take power, in other words, the right wins almost by default.

Meanwhile, Evo Morales is committing political suicide and attempting to take the lives of all left cadres with him. In the last general reunion of the MAS, on June 17 in Cochabamba, the party bases demanded that the leaders organize a front with the mobilized social forces of the country. Instead of this principled and strategically wise course of action, Evo Morales announced—roughly a week after the meeting with the bases—that he had reached a preliminary agreement for a united electoral front with the Movement Without Fear (MSM) party, led by the mayor of La Paz, Juan del Granado.

The MSM is a party that came out against the nationalization of gas, reigned as a neoliberal force in the municipal politics of La Paz, engaged in hostilities against the movement in El Alto earlier this year to kick out transnational water company Aguas del Illimani and to establish a public water system under social control, and, finally, allied itself with the Mesa regime. Indeed, Granado has stated publicly that the front, which is allegedly against neoliberalism, cannot rule out bringing Mesa back into the political fold as a member of its team.

Thus far, the social movement left has only been able to express its frustration with Morales’s degeneration into a “traditional” politician. FEJUVE–El Alto has been vaguely discussing the possibility of an autonomous political instrument, as has the Bolivian Workers’ Central. So far, however, the right is betting on a default victory in December, and Morales and the MAS are making this more rather than less probable by abandoning ties and direction from the radicalized population and their own party bases.


  1. Estimates of the dead and injured in the events of September–October 2003 vary. Edgar Ramos Andrade argues that 73 were killed and 470 injured in Agonía y Rebelión Social (La Paz and Cambridge: Capitulo Boliviano de Derechos Humanos, Democracia y Desarrollo, 2004).
  2. Jim Schultz, Deadly Consequences: The International Monetary Fund and Bolivia’s “Black February” (Cochabamba: The Democracy Center, 2005).
  3. Schultz, Deadly Consequences, 16.
  4. Schultz, Deadly Consequences, 18.
  5. Schultz, Deadly Consequences, 18.
  6. Walter Chávez & Álvaro García Linera, “Rebelión Camba: Del dieselazo a la lucha por la autonomía,” El Juguete Rabioso 23 de enero de 2005.
  7. Forrest Hylton, “Bolivia: The Agony of Stalemate,”, June 2, 2005.
2005, Volume 57, Issue 04 (September)
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