Bolivian Protests Reflect Growing Discontent all Over Latin America

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The international capitalist offensive has begun to run into explosions in a number of Latin American countries. The outstanding example so far was Ecuador in January, where the army broke in the face of a mass upsurge protesting IMF-dictated price rises, and a radical junta was put in power for a few hours.

Over the past month, massive explosions have shaken both Bolivia and Costa Rica, at opposite ends of the continent and at opposite ends of the social stability index.

Bolivia, one of the poorest countries in Latin America, has a history of chronic instability. But Costa Rica has been the most pacific country in Latin America, so much so that the local bourgeoisie decided long ago it did not need an army.

When strikes and road blockades paralyzed the country in response to a proposal to privatize the state electric company in early April, the Costa Rican rulers were impelled to consider appealing for troops from Panama “to maintain order.”

In Bolivia, protests in one city, Cochabamba, served as a detonator for accumulated social grievances over a large part of the country. Five out of the nine “departments” [provinces] were paralyzed by road blockades. At the height of the conflict, in the capital city, La Paz, there was a fire fight between troops and policemen, who were demanding a 30 percent wage in increase.

The conflict began at the beginning of this year, when the government of the right-wing former general Hugo Banzer approved price increases of from 35 to 400 percent for drinking water in Cochabamba. Banzer is now the elected president. He ruled as a military dictator from 1971 to 1978.

The contract for providing drinking water was in the hands of a private company, Aguas de Tunari, a consortium dominated by International Water Limited (based in London), which is jointly owned by the Italian Edison company and the U.S. Bechtel Corporation.

Drinking water has been a major problem in this inland city of half a million inhabitants. The population is being swelled by an influx of peasants fleeing rural poverty. And the snowcap of the nearby Tunari mountain is being depleted by global warming. The hike in the water rates was supposed to pay for projects to increase the water supply.

In response to the announcement of the rate increases, the population of Cochabamba exploded. On Feb. 4 and 5 it seized control of the city. The insurgent masses set up a democratic organization of their own to represent them, the Coordinadora de Agua, which also included representatives of peasant communities.

The Banzer government was forced to retreat. It promised that it would change the water law by the end of March. But it failed to do so.

At that point, the city boiled over again, and this time the rebellion spread, leading to road blocks over the better part of the country. The peasants of the Chapare region (300,000 families) joined the fight in protest against the U.S.-dictated destruction of the coca plantations without any alternative being offered them to continue to make a living.

Finally, the police themselves began to protest. The wives of eight policemen started a hunger strike outside the headquarters of the main union confederation, the COB, in La Paz. This action touched off a general police strike. The mutinous police refused to repress the protesters and seized the Plaza Murillo.

The police were desperate, since most of them got less than US$80 a month, less than enough to maintain their families. The police forces also suffered from extreme inequalities and corruption of the officers.

On April 8, Banzer ordered the Special Security Group (GES) to drive the police protesters off the street. Even the elite police unit refused to obey orders. Then Banzer ordered the army to attack the GES headquarters. The military unleashed all its fire power, and the police responded with tear-gas grenades and heavy-caliber weapons. The country was on the verge of civil war.

At that point, Banzer began to retreat. He announced a 50 percent raise for the police. But even after most of them returned to service, many cases were reported where police refused orders to repress protesters.

On April 11, Banzer declared a state of siege. The measure provoked the formation of a united front of all the left parties, the Acuerdo Politico Antiliberal (Anti-neoliberal Political Accord). But even many of the bourgeois political forces criticized the state of seige, and none gave it more than lukewarm support. Its only wholehearted supporter was the U.S. embassy.

Obviously fearing to press a repressive offensive with only imperialist support, Banzer withdrew the state of siege on April 21. That has momentarily defused the confrontation. But the country is still seething.

The Bolivian papers are reporting new mobilizations of teachers and students demanding more money for education. And there are a number of cases pending in the courts against the government’s repressive actions.

Still Banzer apparently finds it impossible to accede to the demands of the main groups of protesters. According to the La Paz daily, El Diario, he is refusing in principle to negotiate with the Coordinadora de Agua, since he apparently regards it as a revolutionary body.

After years of attacks on their standard of living and their rights, it seems that masses of working people all over Latin America are losing their patience.

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