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Waves of Protests by the Poor Keep a Divided Bolivia on Edge

Fueled by poverty and Indian discontent, demonstrations have been turning violent. Many fear the unrest may lead to a civil war.

October 07, 2003|Andres D'Alessandro and Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writers

EL ALTO, Bolivia — Parts of this impoverished, teeming community on the outskirts of La Paz are a kind of liberated territory, patrolled by men in helmets emblazoned with "Workers Police." Their leader is Felipe Quispe, an Aymara Indian leader who has announced that he and his followers might soon carve an "Aymara Republic" out of the western half of Bolivia.

Down the road, in La Paz, the country's biggest labor confederation has gone on strike, demanding the president's resignation. "We can't negotiate with this government," says Jaime Solares, a union leader. "If the president doesn't quit, there will be blood on the streets."

A series of protests has left 64 people dead in Bolivia this year, and many fear that the scattered violence may be the prologue to a more violent and widespread conflict. The words "civil war" are increasingly on people's lips here, with talk of bands of youths arming themselves and training in guerrilla tactics in the Altiplano highlands.

The strife is being fed by this country's rampant poverty, the growing restiveness of its Indian majority and also by a plan to export natural gas through Chile. The gas plan has stirred Bolivian nationalism -- Chile invaded and annexed Bolivia's corridor to the Pacific Ocean in the 19th century.

Food shortages and almost daily demonstrations rock La Paz, the administrative capital, which is occasionally cut off from the rest of the country due to blockades set up by protesting peasants. In recent weeks, the prices of vegetables and other foodstuffs in the city have risen by 50% to 100%.

In the face of so much disorder, President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada has remained defiant.

"Sure, there are problems, but the protests are being created by a radicalized group of society that thinks it can govern from the streets," the president told foreign journalists last week. "There are radical elements who don't want me to finish my term. But I will not resign."

Sanchez de Lozada, a Chicago-educated former film producer who speaks Spanish with a noticeable American accent, took office last year. Under Bolivia's arcane electoral system, he was elected president by Congress after getting just 23% of the vote.

A recent poll put his approval rating at 9%.

Goni, as the president is known here, assembled a loose coalition of centrists and moderate leftists to win the vote in Congress. The election left Evo Morales and his Movement Toward Socialism as the largest opposition party in Congress.

Morales' base of support is among the Quechua Indians and the coca farmers of east-central Bolivia. A strong critic of globalization and neoliberal economics, he has called for the nationalization of Bolivia's gas reserves.

The natural gas fields have been developed by an international consortium, Pacific LNG, which is backing the Chilean pipeline plan. The gas could be shipped, in liquefied form, to electricity plants in California.

"Our demand is the same as that of the majority of Bolivians," Morales said last week. "We don't want to see our wealth usurped by multinationals again."

Morales announced Friday that his supporters would join the growing blockade of the nation's highways, a move that could worsen the shortages in the capital.

Quispe, the Aymara leader whose base is here in El Alto and other towns near La Paz, has promised to step up his own group's protests too. He said his movement is "preparing people, little by little" for a revolutionary war should the government fail to accede to his demands for expanded social services and employment.

"The whites and the mestizos are going to have to respect us in this country," he said.

A week ago, an estimated 60,000 people marched in La Paz carrying red flags, one of a series of demonstrations organized by the Bolivian Workers Central labor federation demanding the government's ouster.

The class and ethnic divisions of Bolivian society were on display, as the demonstrators -- many in traditional Aymara clothes -- taunted passersby in suits and ties with cries of "filthy rich!" and "Chileans!" A few protesters threw rocks and engaged in fistfights with business owners who had declined to close their stores in solidarity with the labor federation's strike.

"The government shouldn't sell the gas like that, at a giveaway price," said one of the protesters, Eleuterio Paudimani. "We're doing this for the future of our children. That's why the people are very mobilized."

The government says it has uncovered evidence of armed guerrillas training in the Altiplano and Chapare regions. Bolivian television broadcast images last week of teenagers training in the use of rifles and submachine guns.

The footage was jolting in a country that hasn't seen a serious guerrilla movement in decades.

In 1967, Che Guevara was killed in Bolivia and his followers crushed. Attempts to revive a resistance movement in the years that followed were also failures.

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