Unarmed Militants and Irrepressible Uprisings:
Beyond Violence and Nonviolence in Bolivia
Twenty-first century Bolivia is the scene of one of Latin America’s most dramatic revolts against neoliberalism, including two popular overthrows of elected presidents. Compared with classical models of revolution, recent revolts around the world have expanded more quickly, involve enormous numbers of people, and rely far less on armed violence as a means. Anthropologist Carwil Bjork-James conducted in-depth research on Bolivia as an ethnographer of street protest, and an oral historian of the country’s active grassroots movements. In this talk, he looks at urban Bolivian activists who organize road blockades and strike waves as unarmed militants: people who face armed police with little more barricades and the force of will. Unarmed militants fight back in uneven battles in order to hold physical space, obstruct the flows of daily life, and impose social costs, yet claim some of the moral purity of principled nonviolent activists and survivors of military dictatorship.
This talk places these Bolivian experiences in a global conversation among unarmed militant practices and theories from Oaxaca, Argentina, Egypt, and North America. It also questions the way a black-and-white binary between advocates of nonviolence and proponents of armed struggle have hidden successful experience that can’t be defined as either. What options, examples, and strategies are we missing when we are too quick to draw this line?Read More »
Vice Minister Rodolfo Illanes, in charge of Bolivian security forces within the Ministry of Government, was killed Thursday night after being held captive by protesting cooperative miners. Illanes was part of a negotiating team sent arrange talks with a national protest campaign. He went to Panduro, a town on the La Paz–Oruro highway, Thursday morning, where he was taken hostage by members of the Federation of Cooperative Miners (Fencomin). Later in the day, he was brutally beaten to death and then left on the side of the highway. His capture and death came on the second of two deadly days of confrontations between miners and police attempting to disperse their blockades of Bolivia’s principal highways.
Recent confrontations around the government’s effort to clear road blockades by cooperative miners have been unusually violent and intense. Two miners died of gunshot wounds on Wednesday at Sayari (on the Oruro–Cochabamba highway), Fermín Mamani (25 years old) and Severino Ichota (41), according to national government prosecutors who have opened investigations of their deaths. A third, Rubén Aparaya Pillco, was reportedly shot dead on Thursday at Panduro, near where Illanes was being held. At two more miner’s lives were cut short: Freddy Ambrosio Rojas (26) died on Saturday after suffering severe injuries while holding dynamite at the Panduro confrontation. Pedro Mamani Massi (41) suffered a gunshot to the head and suffered brain death in the hospital; he remains on life support without prospect for recovery. he died on September 1 and was mourned by his family in El Alto.
As part of my research, I have been compiling a database of deaths in political conflict in Bolivia during the current (post-1982) democratic period. This work is still in process, but can help to put current events into context. This week’s events make 2016 the deadliest year since 2008, with 13 fatalities. In February, six municipal workers died in the city hall of El Alto (the nation’s second largest city) as the result of an arson attack by protesters. In January, soldiers beat a trucking worker to death during a pressure campaign by that sector.
Deaths in Bolivian protest have been less common under the presidency of Evo Morales than in the past and killings by state security forces (army and police) make up a smaller fraction of deaths than under Morales’ predecessors. We’ve identified 91 deaths during Morales’ ten years in office (including those this week), and fewer than a third of them were carried out by security forces. Meanwhile, at least twenty-one deaths under the Morales administration have come in conflicts among mineworkers or between mineworkers and community members: 16 in 2006, two in 2008; one in 2012; and two in 2015. Two cooperative miners were killed by police during 2014 protests in Cochabamba, during a confrontation in which police were also taken hostage. Altogether, four members of the police or military have died in political conflicts since 2006. Vice Minister Illanes is the first senior official to be killed.
This confrontation does not herald a general confrontation between state and society or among larger political forces. No other sectors have joined Fencomin’s protests and the group is at odds with waged mine workers who play a key role in the national labor movement. Cooperative miners are longtime allies of the MAS government, backed President Morales’ re-election in 2014, and endorsed another term for him as recently as May.
Since 2009, the most intense conflicts in Bolivian society have occurred within the broad grassroots left coalition that backed the rise of Evo Morales to power. The government has routinely alleged that protests from within the grassroots left have an anti-government political agenda, and did so again this week, but these claims are often unsubstantiated. The 2006-08 conflict between the Morales government and secession-oriented right-wing movements has long since concluded, and is unrelated to the current protests.Read More »
On Wednesday, February 17, a local protest in El Alto, Bolivia, became a national tragedy as flames engulfed several rooms of El Alto’s City Hall and six municipal employees died from inhaling the fumes from the blaze.
The protest, sponsored by the Federación de Padres de Familia de El Alto (an association of parents demanding better school facilities), arrived at El Alto’s City Hall at 9:00 am. Aggressive actions by the crowd, including using a rocks and kicks to break the front door lock, began by 10am. As protesters turned aggressive outside El Alto’s City Hall, Mayor Soledad Chapetón repeatedly sent messengers to the Regional Police Command, asking for help. (The police command is less than two blocks away, per La Razón’s graphic.)
Shockingly, they asked her to put her request in writing. A letter demanding police intervention “to safeguard the central City Hall … with anti-riot troops” was delivered to the police at 10:20am. A significant police attachment then took over an hour to arrive on scene. Protesters had seized numerous files and computers, set fires inside offices and on the street, and burned out rooms inside the building. Six municipal workers sought refuge in a rear bathroom of the building. The room was unventilated and they asphyxiated from the smoke. By the time the police arrived, the six employees had already lost their lives.
El Alto protests: Militant, destructive, but rarely deadly in the past decade
Neither property destruction nor the use of fire is unusual in El Alto protests, but these tactics have rarely led to deadly casualties. El Alto, Bolivia’s second largest city and the larger if poorer twin to the capital of La Paz, is rightly seen as the most militant place for urban protest in the country. During February 2003, protesters against a suddenly-imposed new income tax broke into government offices and burned files in El Alto and La Paz, including the property records in El Alto’s City Hall. The tax plan was cancelled. Later that year, El Alto saw the fiercest confrontations in the Gas War protests, opposing the export of natural gas by foreign corporations. Alteños’ militancy, however, is typically unarmed and involves the greatest use of force against security forces and property rather than individual opponents. While both of the 2003 events saw dozens of deaths in the city, they were nearly all protesters killed by police or military forces.
Since the 2005 election of President Evo Morales, security forces have been less aggressive in their use of deadly force on protesters. Militant crowds in El Alto have kept the looting of government offices and the setting of fires in their repertoire of tactics, used at occasional moments of public outpouring, such as the December 2010 protests against the removal of subsidies for fuel. As part of a national wave of protest, Alteños sacked and burned the toll booths on the main highway to La Paz. The protest was also marked by dissension as some pro-government organizations tried to dissuade protest. Their offices were looted by angry crowds. However, protest actions had not led to any deaths in El Alto between 2005 and this past week.
Nationally, February 18, 2016, was the deadliest day in Bolivian protest since 2008.
Political implications for Sunday referendum
Evo Morales, who is seeking public backing for constitutional amendment allowing him a fourth term, has had a very bad month. On February 3, an opposition journalist revealed his 2007 affair with Gabriela Zapata, then a young law student who has since become exceptionally wealthy representing a major government contractor. The Vice President’s claims to academic credentials as a mathematician and sociologist have been called into question. But this deadly El Alto protest may have been the worst blow to the president’s image.
Many of the protagonists of Wednesday’s protest were affiliated with the president’s Movement Towards Socialism party, and they seem to have been protecting themselves from charges of local corruption through targeted arson, and killed six government workers in the process. The tragedy was compounded, and perhaps made possible, by government inaction. Once protesters had broken down the front door, they targeted the Investigating Unit (Oficina Sumariante) of the city government’s legal office. The head of that office told the press: “They came directly to attack first the Sumariante office and have burned my filings. What they were trying to cover up was the phantom billings, illegal contracts, and legally certified photocopies concerning the 33 vehicles that were to be sent for the [ongoing] criminal process, filings on illegal land occupations and charges.” The administration of former mayor Edgar Patana, affiliated with the MAS, is now under extensive investigation for corruption. Patana himself faces at least 11 denunciations of corruption and was jailed in San Pedro Prison last December.
Wednesday’s conflict pitted MAS affiliates against a City Hall led by Mayor Soledad Chapetón, affiliated with the center-right Unión Nacional. Two leaders of the protest singled out by the mayor in an emotional speech Wednesday night were Braulio Rocha and Wilmer Sarzuri, both MAS candidates for the El Alto municipal council in 2015. Rocha, leader of the shopkeepers union (Federación de Trabajadores Gremiales de El Alto) had been a close ally of outgoing Mayor Patana, whose administration redirected shopkeepers’ taxes into the control of the union. When Chapetón ended this practice, Rocha declared to Chapetón, “I will be your nightmare for the rest of your life,” reports El Diario. It now seems more likely that Wednesday’s deaths will haunt Braulio Rocha.
These elements of political dispute implicate the governing MAS party, at least on a local level. It might all look like a local crisis were it not for police inaction and the words of Marcelo Elío, the Vice Minister in charge of policing. Within hours of the fire, he blamed SOL.Bo for “provoking” the fire and described it as a self-directed attack (“auto-atentado”) and “a plan orchestrated from within City Hall.” Other national government figures initially emphasized the need for investigation and clarification of events. State-run media passed on allegations that vandals had “infiltrated” the protest causing the destruction, and the state-aligned Venezuelan channel Telesur even mis-captioned the event as an act by anti-Morales protesters opposed to the Sunday referendum. But by Friday prosecutors had accepted Chapetón’s version and arrested Rocha and Sarzuri, as well as two young MAS activists and charged them with homicide and other crimes. Even with these moves, death, corruption, and state complicity with both hang in air ahead of Sunday’s referendum on the future of President Evo Morales
On Sunday, February 21, Bolivians will vote in a constitutional referendum. A yes vote would authorize incumbent President Evo Morales to run for a fourth term in 2019, and to rule the country for an unprecedented twenty years, ending in 2025. Morales and his Movement Towards Socialism party (MAS-IPSP) have a long streak of national victories stretching back to his election in 2005 (with 54% of the vote), through a special vote of confidence in 2008 (67%), and two re-elections in 2009 (64%) and 2014 (61%). All of these contests involved face-offs against right-wing politicians associated with two decades of neoliberal economic policies from 1985 to 2005.
On the other hand, regional and local government elections in 2010 and 2015 showed more mixed results for the MAS-IPSP. Independent center-left parties like the Without Fear Movement (MSM) and its successor SOL.bo have gained important ground in these elections, while right wing forces have maintained a base in the country’s eastern departments. In the 2011 judicial elections a MAS-IPSP-backed slate of nominees was elected amid heavy abstention and massive numbers of blank or voided ballots. Likewise, five western departments rejected regional autonomy statutes in a September 2015 poll. While Vice President Álvaro García Linera tried to spin the result as validation of a strong central state, all of the statutes had been drafted by MAS-IPSP legislators.
Enter the present referendum. In 2008, Evo Morales agreed to a constitutional limit of two terms. In the run-up to the 2014 vote, he re-interpreted this limit as beginning with the 2009 constitution. During the 2014 political campaign, rumors of a constitutional amendment to extend his office began to circulate. While MAS-IPSP party activists backed the campaign from the beginning, it has been framed as an initiative arising from the Pact of Unity organizations—principally the CSUTCB peasant confederation and the “intercultural” federation of agrarian colonists—as well as the COB labor confederation, whose national leadership aligned with the MAS in 2013. While his party campaigned for it to happen, Evo only “agreed to the grassroots demand” that he run again four years from now.
The present campaign has the first effective collaboration between Evo Morales’ critics on the left and his long-time opponents on the right. With no political offices at stake, these two sides have been free to collaborate for the first time. Recent polls show the race to be a toss-up. You can read more about the vote here:
Peter Buffett’s “The Charitable-Industrial Complex” op-ed is notable because only rarely do wealthy people admit there’s something deeply morally wrong about accumulating wealth and the widespread existence of poverty:
As more lives and communities are destroyed by the system that creates vast amounts of wealth for the few, the more heroic it sounds to “give back.” It’s what I would call “conscience laundering” — feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity.
But this just keeps the existing structure of inequality in place. The rich sleep better at night, while others get just enough to keep the pot from boiling over. Nearly every time someone feels better by doing good, on the other side of the world (or street), someone else is further locked into a system that will not allow the true flourishing of his or her nature or the opportunity to live a joyful and fulfilled life.
While I’m happy to hear this critique and glad that it’s passed into the mainstream media so that elites are paying attention, I wish there was more of a direction here about where to go next.
What I like about it: Pointing out big problems: the classist misimpression that the wealthy know best about how to improve the lives of the poor, the idea that managerial and capitalist logic can easily be applied to problems that are essentially about public goods, the unwillingness of donors to give up control when they give their money, the notion that unconscionable gathering of wealth can be laundered by “giving back.”
What I worry about, especially among US-based radicals: The idea that simply abandoning or destroying these institutions or the flow of wealth they represent will solve things. This is why I’m resistant to naming this an “industrial complex”—something that must be destroyed.
The reality is that resources are wrongly distributed from the global South to a rich few every day, leaving behind both injustice and unmet needs. We can, and should, attack the injustice head-on, and fight the looting of the world by corporations and their corrupt associates in governments. But, we also need to build an infrastructure that provides public goods, like the eradication of polio, equitable titling of land, ambulances in rural communities, and emergency food assistance. The struggle is not to stop the institutions that distribute resources from northern donors to such ends, but to make them functional and to make them accountable to the people they serve.
Frankly, both liberals and radicals in the US are bad at putting their money where their heart is in challenging third world poverty. When I visited the Zapatistas, I saw desperately needed ambulances funded by Italian squatters. In Bolivia, left parties from Scandinavia run their own alternatives to the official aid system, while US Americans just complain about USAID without building alternatives. Indigenous and small farmer titles under agrarian reform there happened through official development assistance funds paired with a radical government.
Bottom line: change can cost money, and we need to think seriously about how to insist that it flows where its most needed.
Fernando Vargas, president of the Subcentral TIPNIS, speaks alongside Adolfo Chávez, president of the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB) in Washington, DC. The two leaders were on a five-day trip to draw attention to human rights violations in the Isiboro Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park in Cochabamba and Beni departments of Bolivia.