In the past three days, in the city of El Alto, a prolonged confrontation between security forces and protesters resulted in thirty dead over one hundred wounded, the great majority from bullet wounds. Protesters in El Alto have been maintaining the most intense road blockades in the country for weeks, cutting off the main route to La Paz. As a result, La Paz has been experiencing a severe shortage of gasoline, food and other supplies.
The worst of the confrontations took place on Sunday, October 12, when heavily armed military and police, escorting gasoline tankers tried to pass through the blockades in Alto to get to La Paz, where the shortage of gasoline, paired with blockades, brought transportation to a standstill. The protesters in El Alto would not permit the trucks to pass through the blockades and at 10 am, the confrontation with security forces began.
The security forces, armed with high caliber weapons, indiscriminately fired on the protesters and into homes, as they circled the city in helicopters and shot into the crowds from the ground. Some protesters carried sticks and slingshots, and some of the people killed and injured were children. Of the twenty-eight people killed that day, one was a soldier, from the Charagua Regiment, indicating that army reinforcements had been shipped in from distant regions. Press coverage of the sustained violence included desperate pleas from local hospitals for blood donors and medical supplies, as they were unable to tend to the constantly growing numbers of wounded. Health care professionals begged protestors to let ambulances through the blockades. Security forces frequently transport troops, ammunition and tear gas in ambulances, creating the suspicion of the crowds.
This past weekend’s massacre puts the number of people killed in the recent Gas War to thirty-eight within the last month. In the past fourteen months, nearly one hundred people have been killed as a result of confrontations with security forces; the largest number of deaths in that period of time in recent history, including the years that military dictatorship’s ruled the country.
Presidential Promise to Consult the Public on Sale of Gas to Chile Falls on Deaf Ears
Faced with mounting discontent and growing violence, the administration announced late on October 12, that it would freeze negotiations for the sale of gas to Chile and consult the Bolivian public. If the proposal had been made when protesting sectors originally announced their opposition to the proposed exportation, violence and loss of human life could have been avoided. At the peak of government repression in El Alto, the announcement was not viewed as credible by protesting sectors.
Vice President Distances Himself from the Administration
Bolivian Vice President Carlos Mesa publicly stated the morning of October 13 that he disagreed with the actions of the government. He stated, "The repression let loose in El Alto during the weekend, and what the city of La Paz has been suffering since this morning, has caused me to come out against this attitude." (Red Ada) Mesa did not resign as vice president, though. Political analysts speculate that his public rejection of the executive’s repressive methods, while maintaining his post, keeps the door open for his rise to president, as stipulated by the country’s constitution, if Sánchez de Lozada does resign
Broad-Based Sectors Demand President’s Resignation
Though many protesters across the country, including those in El Alto, are protesting the exportation of the nation’s gas to the US through a Chilean port, the demands of various sectors remain diverse. Since the El Alto massacre, all protesting sectors began focusing on the resignation of the president as a condition for dialogue on any other point. Groups such as the Catholic Church and the Permanent Human Rights Assembly, which had been attempting to initiate dialogue between protesting groups and the government, stated that it is impossible to hold negotiations with the high level of military and police violence in El Alto and La Paz.
The Government Coalition and the Country Fall Apart
Not only are angry citizens across the country demanding the president’s resignation, but so are leading figures in the government and media. Although government spokesperson, Mauricio Antezana sustained that the coalition remains solid. Jaime Paz Zamora, leader of the MIR (Leftist Revolutionary Party) has disappeared from the public light. El Alto Mayor, Jose Luis Paredes, from the same party, denounced the violence in his city, and began to lead a crowd of angry protestors toward the government palace, stating that they would force Sánchez de Lozada to resign. One MIR government minister also resigned today. The New Republican Force (NFR) has presented diverse positions. One sector announced its withdrawal from the coalition. Other party representatives have publicly stated their continued support. Government sources suggest that coalition parties intend to continue to distance themselves from the coalition to attempt to maintain some semblance of legitimacy with the public. These
efforts will most likely prove to be fruitless, as the great bulk of the Bolivian population has rejected the coalition as a whole.
Infuriated Protesters Intensify Marching and Blockading Campaigns
The recent deaths in El Alto have only infuriated protesters even more, intensifying protests as new groups join the movement against the president and the exportation of the country’s gas. Currently huge masses of people are marching in and to La Paz, and fierce blockades, protests and strikes continue across the country. Security forces continue to fire tear gas, rubber pellets and live ammunition into protesting crowds. By noon today, there were already 45 more citizens injured. The recent death of two people injured on October 12, have caused tensions to increase as well.
Presidential Statement Further Enrages the Public
In an attempt to quell the spiraling conflict, Sánchez de Lozada made a public statement at around 2:00 p.m. on October 13. The president stated that he would not resign because he had been democratically elected and has to stay in office to "protect the public." He added that "Bolivia is in danger and is being stalked by a huge subversive project from outside the nation, which is attempting to destroy Bolivian democracy." He made further reference to a "union dictatorship" that is attempting to destroy the nation and promised to "repress seditious sectors" such as groups led by Felipe Quispe and Evo Morales. Sanchez de Lozada stated that the movement against him is "an attempted coup funded by the darkest interests in the world." As the forces he commands continued to shoot and beat protestors, he added that "dialogue is the answer and that there will be no violence." The statements infuriated the protesting sectors and the general public and led one angry citizen to observe that
"the president is out to lunch!" Furthermore, it indicated how far removed Sánchez de Lozada appears to be from the harsh reality of the dire present conflict.
A public appearance by the first lady on October 12 further reflected the president’s desperation. As security forces continued to fire heavy ammunition into crowds of protestors and innocent bystanders, the First Lady read the bible aloud on the government television station, begging the public to pray for Bolivia. This ironic broadcast was to be one of the last for the station, which had consistently downplayed the severity of the conflict.
That same day, seven journalists from the station resigned. In a public statement, the reporters denounced that they faced constant pressure from the government press office to manipulate and misrepresent events in the confrontations from the government press office. They added that, "you can’t be deceitful and lie when people are murdered in El Alto." (El Diario 10/13/03). The next day, the station went off the air.
Desperate last ditch efforts to restore the credibility and legitimacy of the flailing administration have done nothing to stem the conflict. Instead their acts further eroded public faith in its capacity to rule. After the massacre in El Alto and continued violent repression, many believe these symbolic concessions are too little too late. Most Bolivians remain glued to their television sets or out on the streets protesting. The events of the next few days may radically reshape the Bolivian political landscape.
Benjamin Dangl and Kathryn Ledebur work at The Andean Information Network in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Dangl can be reached at: Ben@upsideodnworld.org To contact Ledebur or to receive AIN updates write: firstname.lastname@example.org