During seven days (4 to April 10) three mobilizations challenged the government of the General Banzer who was forced to impose a state of siege: they were (1) The hunger strikes and mutiny of the Police asking salary increases. (2) The blockade of the city of Cochabamba. (3) The blockade of Roads in the Altiplano.
Mutiny of the Police
Approximately a month ago a group of Police declared a hunger strike in the Plaza 24 of September in the city of Santa Cruz asking for a salary increase. A basic police officer earns less than Bs. 500 ($US 82) a year. To the surprise of the National Command of the Police the group was made to stop the hunger strike and transferred to La Paz, and due to the intervention of Human Rights, the Command could not punish the strikers.
This was followed by a sergeant of police who on April 2 declared a hunger strike for a salary increase, calling also for respect of the human rights of the police (on the part of their superiors), and an increase in life insurance. This strike was built up little by little with support of the wives of police.
Total blockade of Cochabamba
As part of the neoliberal plan of the government handed over to a transnational company (Bechtels) control of Aguas del Tunari and the distribution of the water for the City of Cochabamba and the execution of the Project Misicuni. As with most of these privatised contracts, the water contract signed was disadvantageous for the population besides losing free access to Aguas del Tunari the new owner was interested not in investing a single dollar and the first thing they did was raise the price by 36%.
This contract was made with the complicity of the Civic Committee, that is supposed to defend the interests of Cochabamba. The government planned to approve a "Law of Water" by means of which Aguas del Tunari was now owned absolutely by the new transnational. This move enraged not only the peasants but also the small bourgeoisie of Cochabamba.
Before this happened, a Coordinating Committee (Coordinadora) for the Defense of the Water was formed and called for a blockade of streets and highways on February 3. The government responded with the brutal repression of the demonstrators and blockaders, who held out for for two days of violent confrontations in which many were injured on both sides. Before the gravity of the situation, the Church intervened and the government compromised to revise the contract with Aguas del Tunari.
The Coordinadora was given a time limit of 60 days to negotiate a new contract. However, during the negotiations, the Coordinadora was sold out by the Civic Committee which took over the negotiations with the government.
As a result the Coordinadora called for the blockade of streets and highways in the City of Cochabamba and the bordering provinces on April 4. This time the government did not attempt an outright repression of the mobilization and expected that the action of the Coordinadora would collapse by itself. However, after three days of action by the peasants, working, rural and middle classes, barricades were raised blocking access to all the streets and the highways into the city. Cochabamba was totally paralyzed and with that a great part of the country due to its strategic geographical situation as the link between the east with the altiplano and the South with the North of Bolivia. The government decided to negotiate and the Prefect Hugo Galindo informed that the
government had agreed to break the contract with Aguas del Tunari. The masses celebrated, they danced in the streets, but after a few hours it became known that they had been deceived. Banzer announced that Aguas del Tunari would stay, and that the government was going to respect its agreements with the new foreign investors and required the immediate lifting of the blockades in Cochabamba.
Blockade of Roads in the Altiplano
Responding to a call from the Union Confederation Unica of Industrial Peasants of Bolivia, peasants on Monday 3 began a peaceful blockade of the highways given access to the capital city of La Paz. With each day the blockades went grew in strength succeeding in isolating La Paz on Friday 7. The army intervened to raise the barricades. However, as soon as the soldiers went, the peasants returned to block the highways.
The State of Siege.
The growth of the intensity of these three actions began to challenge the state on the Thursday and Friday. Still without announcing officially the State of Siege, the government began to engage in open repression about midnight on Saturday 8. It entered the residences of leaders of the Coordinadora in Cochabamba, and arrested two leaders.
In La Paz it decided to intervene to stop hunger strike of the police sergeant and of the wives of police.
But it made the mistake of using the Special Group of Security, some of whose own wives were hunger strikers. Thus, this battalion itself mutinied, and decided not to come out of its headquarters and asked also for a 30% of salary increase!
By Saturday 8 the situation was made worse for the government which announced the State of Siege at 9 o'clock of the morning. However, in Cochabamba not a single barricade was removed and the population began to be confront the Police and achieved a victory. The Police had to retreat to its headquarters. The army confronted the protesters wounding 8 persons and killing one.
In La Paz, each hour added more police to the hunger strike. Students and workers supported militantly the strikers: doing guard duty at the doors to avoid an army assault and carrying food. The strikers raised their demands from a 30% to a 50% salary increase. In other cities the police gave their support to the strike. The government had to yield.
At the same time, the government recognised by Saturday afternoon that the mobilization of Cochabamba was massive and that it could not weaken it by accusing it of being financed by the narcotraffic or that it was hurting its own cause. The blockades and spontaneous marches in the city grew everywhere, the solidarity of the population of the central city was strong. They prepared food and drinks for the ones that had come from the provinces and the outskirts of the city. Despite the big economic losses caused by the blockade, no person or institution complained. Finally, the Monday 10 the government capitulated to the Coordinadora and accepted its demands: Abandonment of the contract with Aguas del Tunari, approval of the law 2029 with the amendments made by the Coordinadora, and liberation of the detained leaders confined in San Joaquín (In the east of Bolivia and only accessible by airplane).
Today, six days after the declaration of the State of Siege, it cannot be felt in the country. The blockades of roads, although reduced a great deal in intensity, continue in the Department of La Paz. The University has begun you demand a bigger budget and the presence of the police is repressive mainly in the City of La Paz.
The mobilization of Cochabamba reached levels of a "pre-insurrection". The Coordinadora born in agreement among the meetings of locals, rural and some workers unions, conducted one of the strongest protests since 1985. Workers attended daily the permanent blockades organized in the workers neighborhoods which had some characteristics of proto-soviets. The control of the city was secured and the leaders of the Coordinadora supported the police hunger strikes carried out in the plaza 14 of September. The mobilization against the privatisation of water in Cochabamba was also fortified by the blockades of highways that were made in the remainder of the country.
The Coordinadora achieved what nobody achieved since 1985: to force a retreat by the government in the application of one of its neoliberal laws, and to successfully win total acceptance of its demands. It is clear that the pre-insurrection of Cochabamba, is the result of the economic crisis that is plunging the masses into poverty and marginalised existence. The cost of living increases from day to day and already begins to affect the lives of even the big and small bourgeoisie. This has resulted in an explosion in the number of professionals that have become as never before a small army of idle engineers, lawyers, medical doctors etc.
In protest against the state of siege, the COB (Bolivian Workers Federation) called for a 24 hour national strike for yesterday, Wednesday. This strike passed peacefully. The State of Siege has broken down and most of the protests have almost gone, leaving small blockades and university protests in La Paz. Also challenging the State of Siege are actions in the city of Santa Cruz, and city strikes in Tarija, Oruro and Sucre.
Last night the suspension of the state of siege was being discussed in the parliament. By one a.m Thursday the session had not ratified it. However, there is a general state of tension in the country. The situation is that that the economic crisis can produce more movements as that of Cochabamba and Achacachi.
From Class Struggle No 32, April-May 2000