Source: NACLA Report on the Americas
In recent months, Bolivia has witnessed dramatic rebellions in the ranks of its national security forces. Last April, several thousand uniformed sergeants and non-commissioned military officers marched through the streets of La Paz and abandoned their barracks, calling for “decolonization” of the armed forces. In early July, police protesters demanding a salary increase forcibly occupied and shut down command centers in 8 of the 9 departmental capitals.
What is the significance of these protests, and why are they happening now? Given Bolivia’s long history of bloody military coups and anti-government police mutinies, should the events be construed as a threat to the government of President Evo Morales?
Even in this century, protests by Bolivian security forces rooted in basic labor grievances have had profound political consequences. A police strike during the historic Cochabamba “water wars” in 2000 led President Hugo Banzer to deploy the military into the streets, turning the conflict into a popular revolt which led to his resignation in 2001. In February 2003, a police revolt against an unpopular salary tax provoked a shootout with the military outside the Presidential Palace (“Febrero Negro”), killing dozens and sparking a chain of events that ultimately led to the ouster of President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada (Goni) later that year.
Indeed, Vice President Alvaro García Linera, along with the ruling MAS (Movement Towards Socialism) party leadership, has depicted the recent protests as a conspiracy by opposition parties to destabilize the Morales government, possibly with the support of foreign interests. But a closer look reveals yet another example of pragmatic protest politics at work in Bolivia during an election year, as two rival constituencies that have traditionally supported Morales seize the opportunity to advance their sectoral agendas.
The military protest had its origins in a rank-and-file initiative to conform Bolivia’s military code to the new (2009) Constitution. The proposed legislative reforms would allow non-commissioned officers and sergeants, who are primarily indigenous Quechua and Aymará, to advance in rank by enrolling in elite military academies for professional training.
Historically, Bolivia’s 38,000-person military force (including the army, air force, and navy) has been characterized by a pervasive institutional racism, with its top echelons and career officers comprised exclusively of middle and upper class criollo-mestizos, while indigenous troops face significant racial and ethnic barriers to advancement. The Morales government has taken major steps to modernize the military, and to renovate its image—long stigmatized from association with repressive dictatorial regimes—as the guardian of Bolivia’s “process of change.” Still, little has been done to address the deeply-rooted structural problems of racism and inequality of opportunity within the military.