Bolivia: As political tensions rage in Bolivia, protesters wage battle with police

On Monday, November 27, several hundred protesters surrounded the entrance to Cochabamba’s municipal building in what turned out to be a sharp clash with right-wing thugs and provocateurs and the Cochabamba police. 

By late afternoon, Cochabamba’s central plaza and all of its surrounding streets were filled with tear gas as heavily armed police moved in to disperse the crowd by force. 

The protest was organized to disrupt meetings between five right-wing regional state governors (whose administrations recently broke relations with Evo Morales’ government) and ‘civic committees’ representing Bolivia’s large-landowning elite.  The topic of the meetings: how to oppose the planned changes to Bolivia’s agrarian reform law and the new voting procedures for the Constituent Assembly (See "Bolivian Politics Heating Up Once Again", November 27, 2006).

Early on, the protest was marked by periodic scuffles between right-wing thugs (who the local press nonchalantly describes as "the prefecture’s ‘collision groups’") and the demonstrators.  This did not last for long because most of the instigators entered the meetings just about the time a large contingent of organised campesinos joined the demonstration.

For the next few hours, the protesters gathered in front of the government building, face to face with the police (who had created a half circle to guard the building entrance), determined to prevent the prefects and civic committee members from leaving.  Fire-crackers, non-stop chants, and passionate speeches against opposition figures and their treacherous policies filled the air.  Also in the air were countless eggs and types of fruit aimed at civic committee members and media personnel (unabashedly supportive of the right-wing opposition) as they stood behind the protective shield of the police.  Whenever civic committee members were brazen enough to try to leave the protected area, they were quickly chased back by the crowd, some of them wielding sticks.  

The situation intensified when armored vehicles pulled up to provide reinforcement.  As some of the guards began to cock their tear-gas rifles, the protesters retreated a little and a few began hammering at the cobblestone plaza floor with whatever tools they could find, trying to break the stones loose to have something to defend themselves.

Within minutes, the police began firing tear-gas cartridges into the central plaza and the armored vehicles moved down the street spraying their water cannons.  As people ran in order to avoid burning to their lungs and eyes, the police advanced, eventually cordoning off the entire plaza.  Having been pushed back, the people gathered on the blocks surrounding the plaza.  After about half an hour, the order was given to push the crowd back even further.  Once again, the police fired into the crowd, filling the streets with gas, and dispersing the crowd. 

Eventually, groups of people made their way back to the plaza, but by this time the prefects and civic committee members were gone and all that remained was a cluster of police officers hanging around the government building and a bunch of oblivious members of the press, posing for goofy snapshots of each other while a number of us looked on in amazement at their childish indifference to the struggle that had just taken place.

The police were able to force the demonstrators to retreat this time, but no resolution has been reached and the tensions continue to rise.  As a result of their meetings, the right-wing civic committee representatives issued an ultimatum to the Morales-controlled national government to reconsider its position on the agrarian reform modifications and Constituent Assembly voting procedures or else face a 24 hour national boycott on Friday, December 1 and an expansion of the hunger strike currently being carried out by a handful of constitutional assemblypersons, amongst other actions.

The prefects made the same demands but did not specify what consequences Morales’ government would face for non-compliance, stating only that they would be serious.  The prefects are also insisting that Morales abandon his plans to give Congress the power to audit each prefect’s use of department funds. 

As the right issued its ultimatums, the number of indigenous people marching from Santa Cruz to La Paz (851 km/528 miles) to demand the approval of the modifications to the agrarian reform law expanded to over 4,000 and the MAS-controlled Constituent Assembly ratified the vote to allow each article of the new constitution to be written and approved by a simple majority, though the final draft will still require two-thirds support.  

The Morales government has made considerable efforts in the last week to reach a compromise with the right-wing opposition, but all attempts have failed miserably.  Likewise, it is difficult to see how Morales will be able to convince the social movements to further compromise on reforms that were themselves the result of moderated demands and promises for more far-reaching change in the future. 

If neither side backs down, Morales may soon be forced to do something that he has so far refused to do: pick a side.  If he sides with the social movements, he will be forced to confront the Bolivian elite and transnationals, both of whom still control the Bolivian economy and will not hesitate to resort to economic sabotage, or worse, if they think there interests are being threatened.  Already, the Bolivian national police are investigating reports in the Spanish newspaper, El Confidential Digital de Madrid, España, whose recent headline reported, "Bolivian Large-Landowners Contact Spanish Security Consultants to Contract Mercenaries to Carry Out a Coup Against Evo Morales" (Los Tiempos, 11/24/2006).

If Morales chooses to side with the Bolivian elite, he will face the wrath of the social movements and trade unions, and risk being overthrown by a mass movement just like Presidents Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada and Carlos Mesa before him.  Already, sections of the social movements are taking independent action: the indigenous march from Santa Cruz to La Paz went ahead despite Morales’ initial objections and on Monday, November 27, peasant communities from two municipalities in the southern department of Potosí took over four mines by force "with the argument that they are the owners of the land and the renewable and non-renewable resources" (Los Tiempos, 11/27/2006).

But the social movements and trade unions cannot afford to wait for Morales to make a belated decision.  The capitalist class in Bolivia is openly gearing up for a "hard battle".  The social movements and trade unions need to answer this aggression by organizing themselves into democratic defense committees on a local, regional, and national basis so they can overcome the attacks, economic and/or military, which are sure to come.  It is also an important step in laying the groundwork for the eventual takeover and democratic control of Bolivia’s large farms, mines, and factories, which is essential if Bolivia is truly going to create the ‘movement towards socialism’ which Morales purports to lead.

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