Updates on Situation in Bolivia

vieuxcmaq, Mardi, Octobre 17, 2000 - 11:00

Jim Schultz (

Under pressure from the World Bank, last year Bolivia privatized the water
system of Cochabamba, the countries third largest city. The government
sold the city's water to Agua del Tunari, a subsidiary of the California based Bechtel Corp. In January the company increased the water rates by as much
as 400 percent. In a country where the minimum wage is $100 per month many
families saw their monthly water bill soar past $20.

People of Cochabamba rebelled. A coalition of labor, human rights, and
community activists under the leadership of "La Coordinadora'', brought
city to a halt. They refused to back down despite the government's
declaration of a "state of siege" and the sending in of troops. After
months of protests the Bolivian government was forced to nullify the

The Democracy Center Cochabamba, Bolivia

While Colombia and Peru have been catching more of the world's Andean
attention for the past few weeks, Bolivia suffers one of its worst
political and social crises in decades. Two weeks ago an informal alliance of
teachers, farmers, rural water users and others began a series of national
protest actions aimed at forcing the Bolivian government to the table over
a mix of issues including teacher salaries, eradication of the last remaining
coca crop, and the construction of three new, U.S.-financed
military bases.

A nationwide teachers strike has left virtually the entire Bolivian public
school system idle during the final weeks of the South American school
year. Blockades of the major national highways have brought virtually all
overland travel and commerce to full stop. Bolivia's President, Hugo Banzer, who
ruled the nation as a dictator during much of the 1970s, has deployed more
than 20,000 soldiers and police in an effort to stop the protests by force.


At least ten people have been killed by government fire, more than 100
injured, and an unknown number jailed. Eye witnesses have reported that
much of the shooting is being carried out by army officers, including
long-distance sharp shooters. The current crisis comes just six months
after President Hugo Banzer declared a national "state of emergency" in an
unsuccessful effort to stop a civic uprising over water privatization.
Those protests forced the departure of a subsidiary of the U.S. Bechtel
Corporation which had raised rates as much as 300%.

On Friday in Washington, US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher
declared the U.S.'s support for Banzer's actions, saying, "We share and
fully support President Hugo Banzer's call for communication and
reconciliation." Hours later, just before dawn on Saturday, Banzer's
government sent 1500 troops into the small town of Vinto, in an attempt to
remove a highway blockade there. Soldiers killed a 25 year old taxi
driver, Benito Espinoza Saravia, injured 29 others, including six year old Ximena
Zenteno who had her nose destroyed by an army tear gas canister.


On Saturday, Bolivian government officials sat down for negotiations with
various movement leaders, convened by the Catholic Archbishop. Sources
close to the talks say that the hardest issues deal with the Bolivian
government's US-financed plan to eradicate the last remaining 5% of the
country's illegal coca leaf crop. That plan involves building three new
military bases in the Chapare region, the chief coca growing area. To be
built with $6 million in U.S. assistance, the bases would permanently
deploy 1,500 troops in the area, a move bitterly opposed by local residents
and many human rights groups.

"These bases were never debated in the Bolivian Congress or by the Bolivian
people," says Edwin Claros, Vice President of the Assembly on Human Rights
in Cochabamba. "The role of the military is to protect our borders, not to
wage war with our own people. The bases will definitely mean more use of
the military in the region and more violations of human rights." Late
Saturday the government announced that it would back away from its
hard-line insistence on the bases, but only with the alternative of expanding the
military's presence at an existing base in the area. Arguing for a
permanent military presence in the region in a televised speech to the nation last
Wednesday, Banzer proclaimed, "We can't leave those areas unprotected to be
retaken by the black market of narcotrafficking."

Despite U.S. Ambassador, V. Manuel Rocha's public declaration last week
that the bases were, "not an imposition by the US government but a decision by
the Bolivian government," many here question whether the US is voicing that
same flexibility behind closed doors. An Embassy official, speaking
on condition of anonymity, admitted that if Bolivia should back way from
the US-financed base plan, it could create doubts about the Bolivian
government's much-touted pledge to make the country "free of illegal coca"
by 2002. Said the official, "That would leave open the question: If you
are committed to eradicate coca using the military, how are you going to
continue it without a military presence?"

In September the Bolivian government's coca eradication efforts were cited
by President Clinton as his main reason for proposing that the U.S. and
other lenders forgive the nation's multi-million dollar foreign debt. U.S.
officials would very much like to use Bolivia as a model of a successful
eradication effort, especially with the Clinton Administration's new $1.3
billion military-led coca eradication plan in Colombia.

Even with the apparent government concession on the bases, it is unclear
how long the conflict may continue between the government and coca farmers in
the Chapare region. Blockades there have cut off highway passage between
the nation's second and third largest cities, Cochabamba and Santa
Cruz. Representatives of farmers are demanding that they be allowed to
continue growing small plots of the plant (less than 1/2 an acre). With
nearly 95% of the crop already eradicated in the region, they argue, the
small crops that remain would be for traditional uses, including the
wide-spread Bolivian practice of chewing coca leaves. Talking about the
eradication program this week, a top Bolivian official admitted, "We've
also wiped out the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands, maybe one million

While the coca leaf is the base ingredient for cocaine, it only takes on
the drug's effects after being substantially processed with powerful chemicals.
Unprocessed coca leaves are legal, sold and chewed widely and also used for
commercial production of coca tea, popular as a treatment for stomach and
altitude ailments. Coca farmers also note that small plantings are allowed
under the nation's coca-eradication law approved under U.S. pressure in


Meanwhile, food shortages caused by the blockades have started to take
effect in some cities and many Bolivians are growing weary of the protest,
lobbing criticisms and more at both sides. A collection of children's
drawings pasted to the wall of one Cochabamba school shows images of
soldiers opening fire on people and trucks stopped at blockades, along with
writings such as: "I want peace; Don't throw rocks; and Don't kill people."
A week ago, angry chicken producers dumped a pile of 1000 dead and rotting
birds on the front steps of the Cochabamba state governor and of one
protest group. The birds died when their food supplies were cutoff by the
blockades. An informal poll by a daily newspaper here of 1440 readers
voiced a 51% level of support for the protesters and their demands.

Following the end of negotiations Saturday, representatives of the various
groups returned home to their local bases to consult on possible accords.
Over the weekend some coca farmers announced that they were prepared to
take up firearms if needed to protect their land if the government did not reach
an acceptable agreement. The highway blockades, public mobilizations, and
military deployments continue throughout the nation, creating a palatable
air of tension and with no immediate end in site.

1. National Uprising Rocks Bolivia.
2. Bolivia: Oil and Gas Fields Seized.
3. Bolivia: Government Attacks, Negotiates, Attacks.
4. US "Concerned" About Bolivia Uprising

National Uprising Rocks Bolivia

Campesino coca growers (cocaleros), public school teachers and other labor
sectors joined in Bolivia during the week of Sept. 18 to press demands with
a coordinated series of strikes, protests and roadblocks that had the country
virtually shut down by Sept. 23. Cocaleros and other campesinos are
demanding land rights, as well as protesting the forced eradication of coca
crops and the planned construction of three new US-financed "anti-drug"
military bases in the Chapare region. Bolivia's rural public school
teachers have been on an open-ended strike since Sept. 13, pushing for a 50% wage
increase among other demands; the strike was joined on Sept. 18 by the urban
public school teachers.

The Coordinating Committee for Water and Life, which organized a protest
movement in the city of Cochabamba last spring against the privatization of
the municipal drinking water system [see Updates #523, 532, 533], is also
backing the new protests. On Sept. 20, some 20,000 people demonstrated in
Cochabamba to demand that the government discuss implementation of a new
water law. On Sept. 22 more than 5,000 teachers, campesinos and workers
marched from Quillacollo to Cochabamba. Speakers at the subsequent rally
called for the resignation of President Hugo Banzer Suarez. While the
Committee was able to resolve some water law issues through talks with
local authorities during the week, it is continuing a civic strike and roadblocks
in solidarity with the teachers and campesinos.

The other groups involved in the actions are following the same solidarity
policy, insisting that all demands must be resolved before any protests
will be lifted. The coordination was formally laid out in an inter-union pact
between the different sectors. The Bolivian Workers Central (COB), the
country's main labor federation, is backing the protests with a call for an
open-ended general strike to begin on Sept. 25.

As of Sept. 24, some 60,000 cocalero families grouped in the six campesino
federations of the Chapare region had barricaded 300 kilometers of the main
road that crosses Bolivia from east to west; members of the Only Union
Confederation of Campesino Workers of Bolivia (CSUTCB) are also blocking
roads in La Paz department and other areas of the country, including
important trade routes linking landlocked Bolivia to ports in Peru and
Chile. As of Sept. 24, some 5,000 military and police troops had failed to
clear the roads--as soon as the troops manage to break up a roadblock and
move on, the protesters return to reblock the road. [La Republica (Lima,
Peru) 9/19/00, 9/21/00, 9/22/00, 9/24/00, all from AFP; El Nuevo Herald
(Miami) 9/24/00 from Reuters; Los Tiempos (Cochabamba) 9/19/00 & 9/24/00;
Diario (La Paz) 9/23/00]

Oscar Olivera, leader of the Coordinating Committee for Water and Life,
said on Sept. 23 that the roadblocks around Cochabamba were intensifying, and
would soon extend to the city's bridges. The same day, campesinos in Oruro
department announced they will join the protests by blocking major highways
in Oruro on Sept. 25 to press their own list of 11 demands, primarily
concerning land and environmental issues. Urban and rural teachers have
also threatened to step up their protests on Sept. 25. [ED 9/24/00]

Confrontation in Parotani Leaves Dead and Wounded
Tom Kruse ~ 24 September, 2000

At least two people were killed and over 10 wounded today in confrontation
between Bolivian military and protesters near the community of Parotani,
about 350 km from La Paz, Bolivia's capital, when government troops, under
civilian cover, fired tear gas and live ammunition on protesters.

For more than a week Bolivia has been convulsed by waves of protests by
peasants, coca growers, public school teachers and others. One key form of
protest has been the blocking of major highways, effectively cutting off
regions one from the other, and Bolivia from neighboring countries.

In April of this year Cochabamba, Bolivia was the site of fierce protests
that succeeded in reverting privatization of the local water system by a
Bechtel Corporation affiliate, and forced substantive changes to water
legislation that local communities felt would cause them to lose control of
their indigenous water systems. In the current protests, local groups are
demanding approval of those legislative changes and final termination of
the contract with the Bechtel affiliate. Those protests were joined by rural
and urban public school demanding wage increases, and coca growers
demanding an end to US financed coca leaf eradication and military base construction
in Cochabamba's Chapare region.

At 1:30am this morning, the Bolivian Permanent Human Rights Assembly
mediated negotiations between Prefect José Orías of Cochabamba and protest
leaders, to allow a small number of trucks carrying chickens and buses
carrying travelers, stranded for various day in Cochabamba. Protest
leaders indicated they would make efforts to ensure safe passage of the caravan,
but indicated that blockade leaders would be hard to reach until morning.

At about 2:00am the caravan left, and, unbeknownst to the protest leaders,
accompanied by about 100 heavily armed regular army troops. Protest
leaders indicate that at no time during the negotiations did the Governor indicate
the caravan would be militarized, and hand they known, they never would
have approved it's departure.

At 4:00am the first reports of confrontations between the military
accompanying the convoy and protesters were reported. At just after 4:00pm
the first confirmed reports of dead and wounded came in. Sacha Llorentti,
representative of the Bolivian Permanent Human Rights Assembly, and member
of the National council of Human Rights in Bolivia, and who mediated the
negotiations that led to the caravan's departure, feels the Prefect Orías
lied to him. Llorentti commented, "We feel betrayed. At no time did the
Prefect suggest that he would send dozens of well armed soldiers with the
civilian convoy. Had we known, the [Human Rights] Assembly would never
have played a role in negotiating the convoy's departure. We feel the Prefect
deliberately used the Assembly and innocent travelers and truckers as cover
for military operations."

Protest leaders have called for a mass public assembly to consult with
local organizations regarding the next steps to be taken. What is certain is
that with the recent government violence, protests are destined to continue.
To read more on Bolivia please visit:

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