A Time of War for Bolivia

Gualberto Choque, leader of the peasant farmers of the Department of La Paz and, as such, leader of the rural Aymara people, said it yesterday: “This is a time of war.” Although nobody listened to him, it was a warning. This morning at 9:30 more than 10,000 Aymara peasant farmers, from the twenty highland provinces, came down from El Alto’s Ceja neighborhood into La Paz. “This is not about demonstrations or speeches, brother,” Choque told Narco News. “Now we are going to take the Palace of Government.” In front of the human wave came the most battle-tested veteran leaders. Genaro Flores Jr. was there; Flores comes from a long line of struggle and sits on the staff of the Single Departmental Federation of Peasant Farmers of La Paz, which Choque leads. A few meters behind him, leading the Omasuyos province, came Eugenio Rojas, mayor of Achacachi, Eulogio Quito of the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST), and dozens of youth from the province, many of them students at the Warisata Rural School. The Plan K’isk’i (ant) was now in motion: the people spread out through the streets, filling them and leaving no room for other pedestrians, cars, or street vendors. An hour later, they approached Plaza Murillo, where the Bolivian Palace of Government and the National Congress are located.

The police then covered every street leading to the center of power. At one block from the plaza, at least fifty riot police – armed with gas grenades and low-caliber guns – took up position at each intersection and installed metal barricades to stop the marchers. At the intersection of Comercio Street (a busy pedestrian corridor) and Yanacocha Street, the peasant farmer leadership stopped at one meter from the repressive forces and demanded to pass. Some leaders began minor scuffles to provoke police and advance further. But the march turned north and began to look for other crossings… in each one, the same scene was repeated: the people, shouting “nationalization” and demanding the resignation of Mesa and all public officials, tried to enter the Plaza Murillo.

It was almost noon, under a scorching sun, when we arrived with our Aymara brothers to the southern intersection of Comercio and Colon Streets, twenty meters from the wall of the Congress building. There the battle really began. The people decided to push towards the building where so many laws against them have been passed. And the police, who could barely resist them, began shooting at the leaders. In the fight, they were unable to take Eugenio Rojas, who managed to get loose with the help of his comrades. But in one of the nearby buildings, the headquarters of various legislative committees, snipers’ guns appeared, infuriating the people, who threw sticks of dynamite at the building’s windows. Then the first tear gas grenades appeared, and the shots from the low-caliber (“non-lethal”) bullets began to embed themselves in the clothes and bodies of the most powerful war machine in the Andes. At this point, kind readers, we can establish a difference between yesterday’s march and today’s: the Aymara did not come to demonstrate, they came to fight to reclaim that which rightly belongs to them, and, tired of promises and lies, to take control of their own lives.

The Arrests Begin and the Struggle Continues

Then, just across from where the confrontations began, in the intersection of Comercio and Yanacocha once again, the miners’ cooperatives from Caracoles appeared, who were now expected according to the plan. They repelled the police with dynamite and reached the Plaza Murillo along with the Aymara. In the plaza were two tanks and an emergency military guard… and the first entrance could be repelled with gas and rubber bullets. A small contingent of coca growers from the Chapare, without instructions but touched by the courage of the miners and peasants, joined the fray.

At almost 1:00 in the afternoon, tired and our lungs full of teargas, this correspondent and Copublisher Jean Friedman-Rudovsky could see that, little by little, the Aymara were regrouping at various intersections, maintaining the total siege of the plaza. A little lower, in the Plaza de los Héroes, where the open council of the social movements was organized yesterday, another council was born out of the rage and courage of the Aymara people. There they waited for more groups to join them. At this time, there were more than 15,000 Aymara farmers, plus the miners, completely paralyzing the historic center of La Paz. What’s more, a march of the communities in the south of the city, almost at the foot of the colossal Illimani volcano, also arrived to reinforce the marchers from the highlands.

At the moment, while President Carlos Mesa hides and hopes to fly to the country’s nominal capital, the city of Sucre, they have come back to gas the Aymara and give him a path to the El Alto airport. Many have been poisoned by the gas, some injured by bullets, and the leaders are being arrested. Just a minute ago, they took Roberto de la Cruz, the El Alto city councilor. But the people are not going away and keep trying to take the main plaza. The coca growers from the Yungas, with their own regional demands, are now in one of the intersections leading to the palace. El Alto is partially paralyzed and this afternoon there will be an assembly of neighborhood committee presidents to see whether they decide to radicalize the general shut-down. The war seems to have started, as Gualberto Choque said… sticks, stones, and dynamite fly through the air… stay with us.

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