Bolivia’s revolution from below

The recent uprising in Bolivia demonstrates another kind of ‘regime change’

The phrase ‘Regime change’ has recently become associated with the aims of the US government in Iraq. But there has always been another form of regime change, change from below. A dramatic example of this was shown in Bolivia last week when massive strikes and demonstrations deposed the Bolivian President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada.

Over the last few years a wave of political radicalisation has swept Latin America. First there was the popular uprising in Argentina in 2001 against the IMF- enforced cuts to public services and wages. Then there was the election this year of Lula Inacio da Silva in Brazil, making him Brazil’s first ever Workers Party (PT) President.

The recent uprising in Bolivia is the latest chapter in this story. The uprising was provoked after demonstrators were shot dead by troops on two occasions, first on 20 September, where seven were killed, then on 12 October where up to 100 were killed. The protestors were calling for a referendum over the neo-liberal governments export of natural gas to the United States.

The climax was reached last week when a general strike was called and protestors surrounded the President’s palace in La Paz. These strikes and protests were an outpouring of the bitterness felt by many of those stuck at the bottom of Bolivian society, the majority of the demonstrators came from the working class neighbourhoods in La Paz, the capital, and El Alto. They have named President Lozada "El Gringo" because of his US upbringing and his inability to speak Spanish without a North American accent.

The protestors have had to confront a high level of intimidation from the Bolivian government, which has met them on the streets with tanks and police armed with machine guns. Due to this level of force the uprising has become incredibly militant. The main chant on the demonstration in La Paz was "Ahora si, guerra civil, ahora si, guerra civil" ("Now yes, civil war"). At the head of the demonstrations were tin miners carrying not placards but the tools of their trade – sticks of dynamite. The radical news agency Econoticias reported from the demonstrations, "In some streets there are clashes, teargas, barricades and burning tyres. There are people suffering from gas attacks and some bleeding. In other streets, coca growers and local people share bread and soft drinks with police".

Interestingly, the US embassy in La Paz condemned the demonstrators, "The government should not be replaced by one based on criminal violence. Sticks and stones are not a form of peaceful protest". And yet the US embassy had stayed silent during the shooting down of demonstrators in the preceding months.

It is clearly intolerable for people who struggle each day to make ends meet, to stand by watching their government work hand in glove with foreign governments and corporations to privatise their natural resources. Until this problem is resolved ordinary people in Latin America will continue to resist.