The Rebellion in Bolivia

Against the Current, No. 116, May/June 2005

Jeffery R. Webber

FROM THE INSPIRING rebellion of the indigenous and popular classes of the Bolivian altiplano (high plateau),(1) the eruption of the 690,000-strong shantytown of El Alto, and the popular neighborhoods in the hillsides of the capital La Paz in the “Gas War” of October 2003, emerged the “October Agenda,” a list of popular demands to remake the country in the name of the poor and the indigenous majority.(2)

A little over a year later, the month of January 2005 witnessed the ongoing struggles of the “October Agenda” in the “Water War” of El Alto, led by the Federación de Juntas Vecinales de El Alto (Federation of Neighbors of El Alto, FEJUVE), and the coca growers’ (cocaleros) 10-day road blockade in the Yungas region of the country, the latter brought to an abrupt end under a volley of tear gas and rubber bullets.(3)

We’ve also seen, however, the first impressive counter-mobilization of the Right in the massive, bourgeois-led demonstrations for “autonomy” in the city of Santa Cruz. As the social movements in the western departments (states or provinces) of the country persist in their commitment to the October Agenda, the departments of Beni, Tarija and most importantly Santa Cruz have fortified the Right’s counter-movement, most recently in the “January Agenda.”

The reformist neoliberal regime of Carlos Diego Mesa Gisbert — put in power by the forces of October after the ousting of former president Gonzálo Sánchez de Lozada — provided enough rhetorical support for the October Agenda to pacify temporarily the radicalized sectors of the altiplano and El Alto without effectively implementing that agenda, and in fact continuing the route of subservience to International Monetary Fund (IMF) dictates, the U.S. “drug war,” and the socially destructive neoliberal model first set in place in 1985.

Meanwhile, the strongest Leftist political party Movimiento Al Socialismo (MAS), led by Evo Morales, has generally opted for passive support of the Mesa administration. The historical window of opportunity forced open by the October rebellion is slowly closing as Mesa follows a “centralist” road, and Morales, with dreams of an electoral path to the presidency in 2007, moderates the demands of his party and moves away from direct action in the streets.

In January, the almost three-week long hunger strikes, occupations of public buildings, the blockade of the airport, and the massive marches in Santa Cruz — at their peak some say more than 300,000 took to the streets — demonstrate the frightening capacity of the Cruceño elite to mobilize students, unions and the popular sectors behind a bourgeois agenda, concealed beneath the opaque banner of “autonomy” (a century-old tradition in Santa Cruz, one that brings to North American minds the right- wing separatist/populist tendencies of Texas or Alberta).

In this case, the region’s people are asked to unite against the “centralism” of La Paz, the seat of the central government.(4) To understand the current conjuncture we need to step back at least 20 years to the beginning of the neoliberal assault, the collapse of the Left, and recently its rearticulation.

Origins of the October Agenda

From the 1952 National Revolution until the neoliberal revolution of 1985, the tin miners, working through the Trotskyist, syndicalist Central Obrera Bolivana (Bolivian Workers Central, COB) represented the vanguard of the Bolivian Left.

With the forced, early departure of the center-Left coalition Unidad Democrática Popular (Democratic Popular Unity, UDP) (1982-1985), in the face of an economic crisis characterized by hyperinflation and incredible debt loads inherited from the preceding dictatorships, the newly neoliberal Movimiento Nacional Revolucionario (the National Revolutionary Movement, MNR) unleashed orthodox shock therapy on the country through the now infamous Decree 21060.

Bolivian radicals refer to this simply as twenty-one, zero, sixty. The neoliberal model, in its different phases, continues to this day, although its ideological underpinning suffered a severe blow under the weight of the October rebellion.

The principal targets in 1985 were the state-owned mines, much more for political reasons than economic rationale. The brutal process of privatization was facilitated by the unlucky coincidence of a crash in the price of tin on the world market. More than twenty-five thousand miners were laid off, out of thirty-two thousand, in a country of around nine million people.

Many miners, taking their Marxist insurrectionary traditions with them, migrated to the cities (especially El Alto), or to the tropical Chapare region, near the city of Cochabamba, where they became coca growers, taking part in the foreseeable emerging comparative advantage of Bolivia — coca to feed the cocaine habits of foreign markets.

The contradictory foreign policy of the United States — in favor of neoliberalism, which preaches comparative advantage, and in favor of the “Drug War” which seeks to destroy Bolivia’s comparative advantage, and in the process the livelihoods of the cocaleros — helped spur to life an anti-imperialist, campesino-indígena movement in the Chapare region.

The cocaleros, mixing as they did the Marxist traditions of the miners and the indigenous traditions of the longer-standing coca growers, emerged as the new vanguard of the Left, although sharing nothing similar to the historic power of the COB.(5) Out of the cocaleros also would emerge the MAS as a Leftist/indigenous force in the national panorama of political parties.

It would not be until 2000, however, that popular forces began to take the offensive against the — by then 15-year-old — neoliberal model. The February-April 2000 Water War in Cochabamba — which struck back at the World Bank and the government of ex-dictator Hugo Banzer, successfully booted out a multinational consortium led by Bechtel and reversed the privatization of water — revitalized Bolivian social movements, bringing a sense of hope back into the struggle after the dark years of retreat.

The Water War also put Bolivia on the map of the global justice movement. This new cycle of contention reached its zenith in the dramatic rural-urban, indígena-popular mobilizations of October, 2003.(6)

The origins of the 2003 revolt are to be found in the Aymara-indigenous high-plateau (altiplano) near Lake Titicaca. Peasants organizing around a complex array of issues, from indigenous autonomy to an end to the neoliberal assault on the agricultural economy, gathered force throughout September.

A military massacre of civilians in the community of Warisata fed the momentum and rage. Alteños (residents of El Alto), largely impoverished and indigenous with strong and continuous familial and cultural links with the altiplano, quickly joined in the rebellion and became the epicenter of the insurrection.

Miners from Huanuni would join the fray after marching to El Alto, and coca growers and others mobilized in solidarity with the El Alto mobilizations in and around Cochabamba. In La Paz itself, working-class neighborhoods also participated in large numbers in the October rebellion.

Thus was born the October Agenda. Raúl Prada Alcoreza(7) argues that the Gas War encompassed a number of themes that won the support from below of social movements across the country. This was a revolt against the neoliberal model and the social consequences of economic restructuring on the popular economy; it was for the recuperation of national sovereignty in the face of external pressure to adapt to a vicious new world order.

It was also to reclaim Bolivia’s natural resources for Bolivia; it was to delineate and strengthen the class struggle; it was to demand that Bolivian natural gas is “for Bolivians, for the workers, for the unemployed, for the humble families…;” and, for him perhaps most importantly, October demanded the revindication of the indigenous majority.

The most important, all-encompassing component of the October Agenda, is the call for a Constituent Assembly that represents a potential threat to the large landowners, the petroleum multinationals, and the business elites who run the show in Santa Cruz, and who used to run the show countrywide. As Forrest Hylton and Sinclair Thomson describe and predict in an article published last year:

“The [Constituent] Assembly could help redraw state-society relations to reflect Bolivia’s new historical conditions. It could recognize the enduring non-liberal forms of collective political, economic and territorial association by which most rural and urban Bolivians organize their lives. It could democratize the political relations that throughout the republican era have limited the participation of indigenous peoples in national political life, forcing them to resort to costly insurrectionary struggles. It could also redirect the future exploitation of the country’s coveted resources in a way that benefits most Bolivians…”

The Rebellion “petrolatifundísta” of Santa Cruz

As Hylton and Thompson conclude: “Political and economic elites will undoubtedly attempt to divert the current process.(8) Indeed they have: To understand the nature of recent events in Santa Cruz, one needs to appreciate what’s at stake for the cruceño elite, what power they’ve lost since October, what powers they hope to regain, and what popular threats they hope to avert.

The funnelling of state largesse to the region of Santa Cruz, in an effort to dynamize its oil, gas and agroindustrial export economies began, soon after the 1952 revolution. But under the dictatorship of Hugo Banzer (1971-78), this policy reached exaggerated proportions, with the state racking up massive debts in the interest of cruceño elites, and the rich of the region enjoying the massive increases in the market price of petroleum during this period.(9)

Since 1985, the traditionalist parties (Movimiento Nacional Revolucionario, MNR, Acción Democrática Nacionalista, ADN, and the Movimiento de la Izquierda Revolucionaria, MIR), which through “pacted democracy” introduced neoliberalism to Bolivia, have acted as veritable channels of power for the cruceño bourgeoisie. Cruceño elites occupied key ministerial positions that defined the political economy of the last 20 years, while occupying the highest levels of the three key neoliberal parties.(10)

The historic state support for the region’s elite, and its continuation throughout the neoliberal period, has had a considerable impact on Santa Cruz’s role in the national economy. As a proportion of its contribution to the Bolivian Gross Domestic Product (GDP), Santa Cruz leads in agriculture, finance, commerce, industrial manufacturing, electricity, gas and water.

It occupies first place, too, in regional recipients of foreign direct investment (FDI), total exports, non-traditional exports, and imports. The region also has the most cellular telephones and internet users in the country.(11) Exports of natural gas and non-traditional exports such as soya have contributed dramatically to the region’s economy.

As is common with corporate welfare bums, the cruceño bourgeoisie has constructed an elaborate ideological edifice that inverts their historical relationship with the state and the rest of Bolivia. Rubén Costas, one of the prominent leaders in the January Agenda, explains: “[We cruceños] are more than 25 percent of the Bolivian population, we generate almost half of the national taxes, and carry on our backs the major part of the economy.(12)

César Rojas Ríos writes of the dominant cruceño ethos as valorizing business, the benefits of export, competition, wealth and fame, “free market” globalization, ostentatious living, and a social pyramid with the agroindustrial and petroleum (and he might have added, white) bourgeoisie at the pinnacle.(13)

Over the last five years, however, the dominance of this sector has slowly been put in jeopardy through a series of cumulative trends, climaxing in October, 2003. As Alvaro García Linera notes, first came a decline in the ideology of free market capitalism at the outset of the 2000s; second, the considerable collapse in the performance of the traditional neoliberal parties in the 2002 presidential elections; third, the parties fell still further from grace in the municipal elections of last year; finally and most importantly, the October Agenda challenged the fundamental ethos of the cruceño elite and its material basis.(14) The January Agenda, and the mobilizations that demonstrate the power of the Right, is the answer to this threat.

Neoliberal Reformism of Carlos Mesa

Carlos Mesa, vice president under the Sánchez de Lozada (Goni) regime, was brought to power on the crest of the October Rebellion after having disassociated himself from the violent repression of Goni. Instead of taking this historical opportunity to advance the October Agenda, however, he surrounded himself with gonistas and other neoliberal ministers — Antonio Araníbar, Horst Grebe, Xavier Nogales, Javier Cuevas, José Galindo, Alfonso Ferrufino.(15)

Unlike Venezuela’s president Hugo Chávez — who recently delivered one of his more radical speeches at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil — Mesa has never denounced neoliberal orthodoxy when attending international forums. His administration has arrived at agreements with the International Monetary Fund to continue with the neoliberal model, to respect previous privatizations, and to persist in paying the crushing external debt of the country.(16)

Indeed, it was an IMF dictate that sparked the mobilizations that would become the January Agenda. In the beginning of December, 2004 a team of the Bolivian government travelled to Washington to finalize the details of a Stand-By loan, which was to come into effect on January 1, 2005 and to continue until the end of March of this year.

The team and the IMF agreed on a medium term plan called “Growth and Reduction of Poverty” (PRGF) which called for, among other things, macroeconomic measures to improve the precarious fiscal situation of the Bolivian state. On December 29 the newspaper La Razón reported that the IMF was explicitly opposed to existing subsidies for diesel and gasoline in Bolivia.

The next day Mesa ordered an increase in the price of both, sparking wide-scale mobilizations all over the country. These included the business-led demonstrations in Santa Cruz which would, over the following 20 days, metamorphose from a fight to maintain subsidies on diesel and gas to the January Agenda of “autonomy” and the revindication of the ethos of the cruceño elite, directly pitted against those of the October masses.(17)

The Current Impasse

Walter Chávez and Alvaro García Linera offer one informed entry into the current impasse.(18) In one sense the gigantic mobilization of the bases of Santa Cruz demonstrates the first significant counter-reaction to the October Agenda. But for Chávez and García Linera the fact that the cruceño elite have regionalized their struggle, in a sense temporarily forsaking the “national” struggle to control the Bolivian state, is at the same time a sign of their weakness.

It indicates that the bourgeois ideology — in the words of Chávez and García Linera, of “free market, foreign investment, racism, etc.” — has been effectively crushed outside of Santa Cruz (excepting Beni and Tarija) through the October Agenda. Hence the Right is stronger than they were in the days following October, thanks to Mesa’s neoliberal reformism, but their parameter of power is restricted primarily to Santa Cruz proper.

Furthermore, within Santa Cruz itself, in spite of appearances driven by the impressive reunions in the streets, the population is not of one mind. On January 27 university students and indigenous groups marched against the January Agenda. The Coordinator of the Ethnic Peoples of Santa Cruz (CPESC), the Landless Movement (MST), the Eastern Bloc (BO), among other organizations mobilized over 1,000 people.

Workers, some business people, campesinos and others marched on the same day in Sucre against the cruceño rebellion. Simultaneously in San Julián, situated on the road connecting the departments of Santa Cruz and Trinidad, blockades were erected by peasant colonizers. Apparently the influence of the Landless Movement in this blockade was impressive.(19)

The next day, university students, the Civic Committee, market vendors, the Federation of Neighbors of La Paz, and others marched in the capital against the January Agenda.(20) And MAS, led by Evo Morales, appears, haltingly, to be taking to street politics once again. The party and cocalero leader announced plans for a march, concentrated in the city of Cochabamba, of campesinos, cocaleros and others in defence of “dignity and demanding the approval of a new Hydrocarbons Law.”

The march, according to Morales, would also be in defence of the democratic process and against the cruceño revolt, which he said threatened constitutionality and liberty in Bolivia.(21) Marches also took place over these weeks in other cities as well. Finally, the mayors of all major cities, apart from Santa Cruz, came out against the January Agenda.

Bolivia’s time of uncertainty is one of regionalizing class struggle and clearly delineated, conflicting national projects. The hope for the October Agenda lies in the radicalization of the social movements of the Western part of the country, which would pressure Mesa to move to the Left while emboldening the courageous dissidents within the Santa Cruz department.


  1. Thanks to Forrest Hylton and editors of Against the Current for helpful comments on an earlier version.I’m exclusively responsible for what weaknesses remain.
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  2. The October Agenda would come to encompass three concrete demands: (a) a referendum over the extraction, production, export, uses, etc. of the country’s natural gas resources; (b) a new Hydrocarbons Law that would reverse the regressive nature of the law installed by Gonzálo Sánchez de Lozada; and (c) a Constituent Assembly to elaborate a new constitution. See, for example, “Las Agendas de octubre y enero enfrentan a los parlamentarios,” La Prensa, 2 de febrero de 2005.
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  3. For basic data on the aftermath of the Water War that pitted FEJUVE against the consortium Aguas del Illimani (the largest player in which is the French multinational Suez-Layonnaise des Eaux), see “La Sed de El Alto,” La Prensa 23 de enero de 2005. The Bolivian state promised to end the contract with Aguas del Illimani after a two-day citywide strike. On the cocaleros’ blockade in the Yungas see, “El Gobierno no dialogo y el bloqueo continúa,” La Prensa 19 de enero de 2005, and “La fuerza se impuso al diálogo para desbloquear los Yungas,” La Razon 27 de enero de 2005.
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  4. For a summary of the mobilizations see “El ‘poder’ de la autonomía,” La Prensa 30 de enero de 2005; for a sense of the high tensions that would among other things have President Carlos Mesa pondering resignation, while rumors of coups and/or a “state of emergency” circulated throughout the country, see “En Santa Cruz se radicalizan y el Gobierno controla con militares,” La Razon 19 de enero de 2005.
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  5. For the social impact of neoliberal restructuring see Carlos Arze and Tom Kruse (2004) “The Consequences of Neoliberal Reform,” NACLA Report on the Americas Vol 38, No 3; for the political targeting of the state- owned mines and the migration of miners to El Alto see Lesley Gill, Teetering on the Rim: The Armed Retreat of the Bolivian State (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000); for one account of the shifting of the Left vanguard from the miners to the cocaleros see Harry Sanabria (1999) “Consolidating States, Restructuring Economies, and Confronting Workers and Peasants: The Antinomies of Bolivian Neoliberalism,” Comparative Studies in Society and History Vol 41, No 3; on the mixing of Marxist and indigenous ideologies of resistance see James Petras (1997) “Latin America: The Resurgence of the Left,” New Left Review I/223; on the general decline of Leftist political parties and the COB during the mid-to-late 1980s see James Dunkerley (1993), “The Crisis of Bolivian Radicalism,” in Barr Carr and Steve Ellner, eds., The Latin American Left: From the Fall of Allende to Perestroika (Boulder: Westview Press).
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  6. For excellent, on-the-scene reportage see Forrest Hylton (2003) “People`s Insurrection in Bolivia,” New Socialist No. 44; for an argument that October represents the convergence of two traditions of struggle — indigenous and national-popular — see Forrest Hylton and Sinclair Thomson (2004), “Insurgent Bolivia,” NACLA Report on the Americas Vol 38, No 3. For a good detailed summary of the rebellion from a perspective that emphasizes indigenous identity see Pablo Mamani Ramirez, “El rugir de la multitud: levantamiento de la ciudad de El Alto y caída del gobierno de Sánchez de Lozada,” Observatorio Social de América Latina Año IV, No 12, septiembre-diciembre 2003.
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  7. Raúl Prada Alcoreza, “Perfiles del movimiento social contemporáneo, El conflicto social y politico en Bolivia: Las jornadas de septiembre-octubre de 2003,” Observatorio Social de América Latina Año IV, No 12, septiembre-diciembre 2003.
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  8. Hylton and Thomson, “Insurgent Bolivia.
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  9. On the Banzer period see Chapter 6 of James Dunkerley (1984), Rebellion in the Veins: Political Struggle in Bolivia, 1952-1982. London: Verso Books.
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  10. Walter Chávez and Alvaro García Linera, “Rebelión Camba: Del dieselazo a la lucha por la autonomía,” El Juguete Rabioso 23 de enero de 2005.
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  11. From the Instituto Nacional de Estadísticas de Bolivia (INE), cited in Ada Vania Sandóval Arenas, “El problema agrario en el oriente boliviano,” Le Monde Diplomatique, edición boliviana, enero 2005.
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  12. Quoted in Chávez and García Linera, “Rebelión Camba.
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  13. César Rojas Ríos, “La Sociedad Ambidextra,” La Prensa 23 de enero de 2005.
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  14. García Linera’s analysis is cited in “El ‘poder’ de la autonomía.
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  15. The list is from Sergio Cáceres, “El Disurseador: Carlos Mesa,” El Juguete Rabioso enero 23 de 2005.
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  16. Cáceres, “El Discurseador;” and Miguel Lora, “Y ahora… ¿Quién podrá ayudarle?” El Juguete Rabioso enero 9 de 2005.
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  17. For details on the Bolivian mission to meet the IMF in Washington see Cáceres, “El Discurseador.” On the popular reaction of working-class organizations to the increase in prices of diesel and gasoline see among others, “COB definirá hoy estrategias de protesta por ‘gasolinazo’” and “Miles de trabajadores alteños y gremials provocaron caos con marchas en La Paz,” El Diario 18 de enero de 2005.
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  18. Chávez and García Linera, “Rebelión Camba.
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  19. “Marchas, vigilantes y un bloqueo se estrellan contra los cívicos,” La Razon 28 de enero de 2005.
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  20. “Tres sectores marchan por la unidad y en favor de Mesa,” La Razon 29 de enero de 2005.
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  21. “El Chapare anuncia bloqueos y critica elección de prefecto,” La Razon 29 de enero de 2005.
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ATC 116, May-June 2005