La Paz is under siege. Three weeks into a national strike and Bolivia’s principal city finds itself cut off from the rest of the country by roadblocks and starved of food and fuel.
Meanwhile, in the streets of El Alto, the huge, poverty-stricken sprawl that looks down on La Paz, the police and the military have fought running battles with protesters, leaving at least 20 people dead and countless more injured.
The international airport, La Paz’s last connection with the outside world, closed on Monday, leaving pacenos (residents) and tourists alike trapped inside. This is a city where the sight of tanks and tear gas provokes flashbacks in those who remember the era of military rule, which ended almost two decades ago. Yet 36 years after Che Guevara died in a failed attempt to lead Bolivia’s peasantry to a socialist utopia, the country seems to have caught a dose of the revolutionary bug. A huge iconic image of El Che hangs from a building on the Prado, La Paz’s main thoroughfare.
Since 29 September, when trade unions called the indefinite strike, miners, peasant farmers, industrial workers and students have gradually brought Bolivia to a halt. They have blocked all major routes out of La Paz and in other parts of the country.
Buses that have tried to break the blockade have returned to La Paz with their windows smashed. Burnt-out cars, bullet cartridges and toppled streetlights litter the main road out of the city.
The trigger for the current political unrest has been the involvement of President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada’s government in plans to export cheap natural gas to the United States via a pipeline through Chile. Bolivians still have painful memories of the loss of their Pacific coastline to Chile in 1879, and the involvement of their traditional enemy in the scheme has reopened old wounds and stirred up nationalist pride.
But the pipeline has also provided a focus for more general grievances among Bolivia’s population of 8.5 million. Unlike Argentina, where economic collapse brought the plight of the poverty-stricken people to worldwide attention, Bolivia has not suffered a sudden, catastrophic market meltdown. One of South America’s poorest countries, its recent history has just been one long financial catastrophe. Once the world’s leading producer of silver, and then tin, and having seen the bottom fall out of both industries, Bolivians are acutely aware of the perils of over-dependency on an international market. Meanwhile a war, led by the US and endorsed by Sanchez de Lozada, is being waged on the country’s other major product, the coca leaf.
Having failed to control the flow of cocaine on to its streets, the US has opted instead to tackle the problem at source, providing the financial and logistical backing for the Bolivian army to rip up the crops of peasant farmers. Many of those farmers grow the leaf for more innocent Andean pleasures – such as chewing, or drinking as mate de coca – and have no alternative means of subsistence.
For them, this is merely the latest instance of harassment in a campaign that dates back to 1950, when a United Nations report called for the eradication of the coca plant, blaming it for the “mental retardation” of the Andean people. The figure of the persecuted coca farmer has long been a cause celebre in Bolivian society. It has been around the current favourite cocalerothat the new wave of discontent has crystallised.
Evo Morales, head of the opposition Movement for Socialism and a native of the coca-farming heartland of Cochabamba, has already come close to power after narrowly losing to Sanchez de Lozada in last year’s presidential election.
Now Morales has thrown his political weight behind the strikers’ main demand for the nationalisation of the gas industry, and painted a vision in which Bolivia’s natural resources – gas, coca or otherwise – are channelled into healthcare, education and social security for the millions who live from hand to mouth.
“I am sensing a growing feeling among all Bolivians for the recovery of our natural resources,” says Morales. “The president has lost all legitimate support.”
For his part, Sanchez de Lozada accuses Morales of trying to exploit the strike for personal gain, and of wanting to destroy democracy. Yet the government has also announced that there will be no gas exports without further discussions, a major climbdown as the president seeks to maintain his weakening grip on power. Whether it will be enough to assuage Bolivians’ other grievances or halt Morales’s momentum remains to be seen.
Perhaps the worst-hit victims of the strike have been among business owners in Bolivia’s previously booming tourism industry. Spectacular scenery and budget prices have elevated the country to the A-list of adventurous travel, but even the hardiest backpackers have been driven out by the prospect of civil war.
“It hasn’t been possible to send any- one anywhere in these conditions,” says EvelIn Rodriguez de Ortiz of Eco Jungle Tours in La Paz. “It is too dangerous. We stopped our tours a month ago because we didn’t know when the strikes would start. It’s been very bad for business.”
Among those lucky enough to have escaped on the last flight out of La Paz to Cochabamba – after five days trapped in the city, a five-mile hike through the blockades and almost 24 hours inside the airport – were Alan McBryan and Emma Creed, honeymooners from London.
“We are fed up, frightened and we’re just relieved to be getting out,” said McBryan. “We’ve had enough of Bolivia. We’ll come back when things have calmed down and there’s a new government.”
This article was originally published in the New Statesman on 20 October 2003