June 15, 2005


REVOLT ON HIGH: The Indians of Bolivia's El Alto lead a drive for social change that has toppled two presidents. (Héctor Tobar, June 16, 2005, LA Times)

This Indian metropolis on the wind-swept plateau of the Bolivian Altiplano exports two things to the capital city in the rocky valley below: cheap labor and social revolution.

Most mornings, the streets in El Alto's downtown fill with men and boys in modern clothes and women in the bowler hats and wide, silk dresses of the Aymara people. They pass stubby brick office towers, Internet cafes and market stalls, and squeeze into minibuses for the short commute to La Paz.

Other days, at the edge of El Alto, in neighborhoods where children play around muddy pools of water and potato gardens grow between adobe brick homes, people gather to debate where they will build their barricades and bonfires. Within hours, they will have sealed off La Paz.

El Alto is the crucible of Bolivia's Indian uprising, a sometimes explosive, always simmering challenge to this Andean country's centuries-old social order. Last week, an Indian-led rebellion forced President Carlos Mesa to resign and prevented two of his would-be successors from taking office. Just 20 months earlier, Mesa's predecessor was ousted in similar fashion.

"We will triumph because the people of El Alto have willed it, because Bolivia has willed it," Abel Mamani, leader of the Federation of Neighborhood Assemblies of El Alto, told 400 activists at a meeting last week. "The people of El Alto began this mobilization, and they cannot lower their guard."

Democracy doesn't always improve a nation, but it always comes.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 15, 2005 11:15 PM

These people are overthrowing Bolivian democracy. They are led by Communists, funded by Venezuela, and trained in Cuba and Venezuela.

Posted by: pj at June 16, 2005 9:28 AM

For instance: http://www.miami.com/mld/miamiherald/news/breaking_news/11839755.htm notes that Bolivian and Ecuadoran governments complained to Chavez about his support for opposition movements in their countries, and quoted Peter Romero, US under-secretary of state for inter-American affairs: "There are indications of Chavez government support for violent indigenous movements in Bolivia. In the case of Ecuador, it included support for rebellious army officers." Bolivia complained about a meeting Chavez had with a leader of the Only Union Confederation of Bolivian Campesino Workers (CSUTCB) a month before it led some of the most serious nationwide protests Bolivia has seen. It also said that he had given US$500,000 to Colonel Lucio Gutierrez after his role in leading the Ecuadoran coup.

Posted by: pj at June 16, 2005 9:44 AM

And here's a brief discussion from an excellent blog: http://www.publiuspundit.com/?p=1043: Last week, [the Bolivian] Congress approved steep taxes on oil and gas as a compromise between the industrious free marketers of Santa Cruz province, and the Marxist nationalizers of cocalero kingpin Evo Morales, who gets his funding from the drug trade and from Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. Obviously, that was no solution. Santa Cruz province is threatening to secede over this move that is sure to keep Bolivia’s gas in the ground. The province is also angry at the breaking of already signed contracts with investors. The Marxist coca growers, meanwhile, threaten more roadblocks to starve the cities into coming to their point of view, since they can’t win at the ballot box. Today, President Carlos Mesa unexpectedly vetoed the unworkable high taxes. Now, the tension is rising. Read it here.

Posted by: pj at June 16, 2005 9:48 AM

Or even better, here with links to a Bolivian blogger: http://www.publiuspundit.com/?p=1216: Boli-Nica has a couple of amazing posts on the growing evidence against Hugo Chavez in the bankrolling of the blockades against Bolivia’s cities this month, the purpose of which was to starve the citizens into submission until they agreed to nationalize Bolivia’s energy resources.

Seriously good blogging. Read it here and here.

Posted by: pj at June 16, 2005 9:50 AM


Yes, democracy is no panacea.

Posted by: oj at June 16, 2005 10:00 AM

Some interesting reading at http://bolicarreras.blogspot.com/.

Posted by: pj at June 16, 2005 10:00 AM

my understanding of the situation is that the indians will be left with the part of the country that has the fewest resources -- and no oil -- when the breakup comes. in other words, they are cutting their own throats.

Posted by: cjm at June 16, 2005 11:26 AM

There's no inevitable historical dialectic. Democracy needn't come. Saying that democracy is inevitable is different than saying that Hegelian history has ended. It is now clear that liberal democracy and economic freedom (to the extent those are different things) is the best way to organize society, but they aren't compulsory and, as the Iraqis are learning, don't come cheap.

Posted by: David Cohen at June 16, 2005 12:09 PM


Yes, they are inevitable, they just don't necessarily work.

History is at an End, but that's only a good thing for a very few of us.

Posted by: oj at June 16, 2005 12:27 PM

The Aymara apparently still believe in something for nothing, and that government is the answer to all. Perhaps, that is the result of centuries of slavery under the Spaniards preceded by even more brutal rule by the Incas and other tribes. People who are used to being slaves are used to being taken care of on at least some level. That they should be more afraid of freedom than abject slavery should not surprise anyone. The behavior of Black Americans and that of Europeans where feudalism took deep root i.e. France, Russia and Germany, should show this.

Some folks just have to learn the hard way.

Posted by: bart at June 16, 2005 12:29 PM

They think Europe works

Posted by: oj at June 16, 2005 12:42 PM

cjm has it half right. The Indians live in the mountains, while the farmers in the plains to the east have all the oil. The easterners are seeking autonomy and/or independence, but they won't get it, because they are the people whose property the Marxists want to expropriate, and the Marxists are succeeding in taking over the government.

Posted by: pj at June 16, 2005 1:14 PM

OJ: The trappings of democracy are now a la mode and most governments want to have some vote they can point to. But this is just the tribute that vice pays to virtue. True democracy and freedom are by no means inevitable, and the trappings of democracy are meaningless. As you and Hayek have said, democracy is just a means to an end.

Posted by: David Cohen at June 16, 2005 1:23 PM

The ends differ. The means is universal.

the means doesn't matter much.

Posted by: oj at June 16, 2005 1:30 PM

Bolivia is probably ungovernable, thanks to its inheritance of Spanish incompetence and Catholic brutality.

The social divisions that are wrecking the continent (not just Bolivia) were not inevitable; they were created.

Hard to uncreate them.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at June 16, 2005 2:53 PM

OJ: I have no idea what any of that means.

Harry: Hard to explain, then, why Spain is better off.

Posted by: David Cohen at June 16, 2005 3:41 PM


Spain adopted modern American-style economic policies in the mid-50s. Until that time, it had been a corporatist hellhole hemorrhaging immigrants to the more developed countries in Latin America, including Mexico. Essentially, Franco stopped listening to the Church on economic matters, as they were still peddling the same failed nostrums of statism and corporatism as they had been since the end of the Papal States, and started listening to his American and British educated business community.

The brutality in Latin America preceded the Catholic Spaniards, who were if anything an improvement over what went on before. And that is not meant to say that the conquistadores and their ilk were anything but gangsters and criminals. The 'social divisions' of which Harry rightly speaks were part of the warp and woof of the land in pre-Columbian times. The Spanish conquerors just filled in the shoes.

Posted by: bart at June 16, 2005 5:58 PM

Why do people talk about the Aymara and those from El Alto as if they are a monolithic bloc?

I have no doubt that if an election were held today, and that people were confident that they were voting a secret ballot that Mamani, El Mallku and the rest of the thugs they ally with would get slaughtered (electorally).

The blockades have ruined the fortunes of thousands of poor families. Who do you think owns the trufis and taxis that weren't able to operate, the market stalls and tiendas unable to find goods to sell, and the pensiones and restaurants unable to aquire fuel? Like all good revolutionaries Fejuve victimizes and parasitises the very people they claim to represent.

I hope that Bolivia can pull through this as a nation, but I don't have a lot of confidence. I worry that the military may be the only force able to restore order and (eventually) democracy - but the era for that is probably over. The whole secession thing is probably tempting to some of my old friends in Tarija, but they have to know that they would be asking for a new Chaco war, with Bolivia, Brazil and Argentina competing for control of the gas fields.

Posted by: Jason Johnson at June 17, 2005 1:27 AM

Spain is 'better off' how? It's just about catching up to the western Europe of the 17th century.

Although formally, Spanish Christianity was not racist, the social divisions I mentioned were in large part racist, partly indigenous, partly reinforced by Spanish Catholicism.

The brutality is unbelievable. A friend of mine, who was a missionary there, described common occurences in the Altiplano that would have made a German cringe. Nobody cared.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at June 19, 2005 5:03 PM

It had a much better 20th Century than any other continental power and is doing better in the 21st. But it is dying like the rest.

Posted by: oj at June 19, 2005 5:36 PM