Our tear-gassed vacation in Bolivia

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Riot cops attacked dozens of students.

Explosions through the night, tear gas and protecting twoyoung student teachers from riot police were not exactly what we expectedof our holiday in Bolivia. Still, my partner and I will remember the firstten hours of Wednesday long after we have forgotten every other vacation.

University students in La Paz have been demonstrating since Monday, callingfor the government to increase education funding. About 25,000 of them,along with professors and support workers marched through downtown and thengathered in the rain at Plaza San Francisco. With my limited Spanish, Ilistened to a half dozen speakers call for the government to use Bolivia'smassive natural gas resources to fund education instead of allowing foreigncorporations to capture most of the benefits.

The biggest difference betweenthis demonstration and those I have attended in Canada was the use offireworks, which seemed to be launched every few minutes during the marchto punctuate agreement or disagreement with rally speakers.

Explosions through the night

On Tuesday, students at a campus of the Universidad Major San Andreas a fewblocks from our hotel sat in the normally busy street causing huge trafficjams throughout downtown La Paz. Lines of riot police stood by watching.Then Tuesday night and early Wednesday morning there were huge explosionsevery few hours, plus a constant roar of chanting from in front of thegovernment building next door to our hotel.

Just before seven as we went downstairs for breakfast, we heard the cracks ofgunfire and we rushed onto the street to see riot cops attacking dozens ofstudents, including one who was being carried, naked, into a police vehicle.

Tear gas hung in the air as we watched groups of black-clad cops arrestingstudents one by one. As I was standing on the sidewalk watching what wasgoing on, my partner called me over to where she was standing about tenfeet away. Two young women were hiding behind her, huddled against the wallin front of the hotel.

“They've been hit by rubber bullets and are scared of being arrested,” mypartner said.

Staring down riot police

So, we stood in front of them for about 15 minutes, until the cops hadarrested everyone in sight who looked remotely like a student. One came tous and asked us to leave, but we refused. Then a couple of minutes later,the head cop came and again asked us to leave. This time he told my partnerthat they would leave the girls alone, if we left and took them with us. So,in the front door of one of the fanciest hotels in La Paz we went, much tothe chagrin of certain officious staff, and up to our 11th floor room with astunning view of Mount Illimani.

The two young women stayed with us for about an hour. My partner talked tothem and tried to calm them down as well as get a sense of their politics.One was 25 and the other 20 years old. They were from a small town on thealtiplano, about two hours from La Paz and were student teachers whoseeducation faculty had been shut down part way through their term because ofa lack of funds. We learned that the loud noises during the night werestudents from mining areas setting off small dynamite charges. Seems it's aBolivian tradition, along with fireworks at a demo.

The younger student criedpretty much the whole time she was in our room. The older one, who had beenhit in the face by a plastic bullet, was more calm and more political. Butneither had heard of the anti-globalization movement or the World SocialForum. They had been in the streets since Monday and were very tired butsaid the demonstrations would continue until the government promises themoney necessary to restart programs in all public universities acrossBolivia.

We fed them and helped them clean up. I went down to the hotellobby to see if the cops had left, which they had, then we walked the youngwomen back towards the university so they could meet up with theircomrades. We gave them a little money for food and said good-bye.

Bolivian odyssey

Funny how an experience like this changes your vacation priorities. A fewhours spent on the Internet brought me up to speed on recent events in thepoorest South American country.

Bolivia, despite a tradition of popular protest and strong unions since thecountry's 1952 revolution, has suffered through decades of military coups,International Monetary Fund mandated “structural adjustments” and since themid-1980s a neo-liberal economic strategy. This has resulted in the creationof millions of “independent businesspersons” who wander the streets sellingchewing gum, a few minutes on cellular telephones, candy apples and almostanything else that can be made at home or costs less than a few dollars.They can't make a living but at least they demonstrate the right“entrepreneurial spirit” and don't have “wasteful” government jobs.

The only booming industry was coca cultivation, more than half of which wasbeing ground into paste for making cocaine. This, and unexploited petroleumresources, got the attention of certain U.S. interests. The result has beenincreased U.S. military presence, supposedly to “advise” on cocaeradication, an unpopular activity in a country where the plant has beengrown for millennia.

President resigns

Last October, the right-wing president resigned after massive protests andblockades by workers, campesinos and students. At the core of those protestsin this landlocked country where 70 per cent of the population of 8.5million are indigenous, was a plan by the government to allow natural gasexports to Chile and the United States. Protesters were incensed that Chile,Bolivia's historic enemy would benefit from the exports and demanded thatthe entire petroleum industry be re-nationalized so that profits could beused to build new industries and pay for badly needed infrastructure.

Protesters announced they would give the new president (the formervice-president) six months to meet their demands for a nationalizedpetroleum industry and for progress towards a constituent assembly to writea new constitution that truly reflects the multi-cultural reality of Boliviaand that gives real political and economic power for the first time in thecountry's history to the indigenous majority.

New round of protest

The six months are up and, other than replacing a few ministers blamed fordozens of deaths during last year's protests, little has changed. This weekthe government announced natural gas would be sold to Argentina (if theypromised not to resell any of it to Chile) and that a pipeline would bebuilt through Peru to ship gas to the U.S.

As a result, last week the largest union federation (COB) said strikes wouldbegin May 1. Two weeks ago, coca growers and their supporters in the Yungasregion near La Paz blockaded roads to successfully stop the building of anU.S. military base. Three weeks ago a jobless tin miner, EustaquioPicachuri, who spent years fruitlessly seeking a pension blew himself up inthe halls of Bolivia's congress, killing himself and two police officers andwounding 10. Police said the 47-year-old man was demanding early retirementbenefits. (Thousands of poor miners in Bolivia lost their jobs in recentyears when the government privatized mines.) This week student protestsbegan and, as I write this, continue just down the street.

Rumours of a coup

Most ominously, rumours of planned coups are circulating. One report hadChilean troops massed on the border to support a coup by elements of theBolivian military, aided by U.S. intelligence and other interests. Whilethat coup attempt supposedly failed, opposition sources claim U.S. andChilean interests are intent on blocking or manipulating the constituentassembly, or if that fails, supporting another coup. Right wing papers havebegun to circulate rumours of a union federation-led coup, likely as a way ofjustifying military intervention.

What will happen next? Almost certainly more strikes and protests. Afterthat, who knows. Unfortunately we will be heading home soon, our interestingvacation over.

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