Bravado in Bolivia: The Nation Che Failed to Lead to Socialism Finally Seems to Have Caught the Revolutionary Bug

By Hooper, Simon | New Statesman (1996), October 20, 2003 | Go to article overview

Bravado in Bolivia: The Nation Che Failed to Lead to Socialism Finally Seems to Have Caught the Revolutionary Bug


Hooper, Simon, New Statesman (1996)


La Paz is under siege. Three weeks into a national strike and Bolivia s principal city finds itself cut off from the rest of the country by roadblocks and starved of food and fuel.

Meanwhile, in the streets of El Alto, the huge, poverty-stricken sprawl that looks down on La Paz, the police and the military have fought running battles with protesters, leaving at least 20 people dead and countless more injured.

The international airport, La Paz's last connection with the outside world, closed on Monday, leaving pacenos (residents) and tourists alike trapped inside. This is a city where the sight of tanks and tear gas provokes flashbacks in those who remember the era of military rule, which ended almost two decades ago. Yet 36 years after Che Guevara died in a failed attempt to lead Bolivia's peasantry to a socialist utopia, the country seems to have caught a close of the revolutionary bug. A huge iconic image of El Che hangs from a building on the Prado, La Paz's main thoroughfare.

Since 29 September, when trade unions called the indefinite strike, miners, peasant farmers, industrial workers and students have gradually brought Bolivia to a halt. They have blocked all major routes out of La Paz and in other parts of the country.

Buses that have tried to break the blockade have returned to La Paz with their windows smashed. Burnt-out cars, bullet cartridges and toppled streetlights litter the main road out of the city.

The trigger for the current political unrest has been the involvement of President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada's government in plans to export cheap natural gas to the United States via a pipeline through Chile. Bolivians still have painful memories of the loss of their Pacific coastline to Chile in 1879, and the involvement of their traditional enemy in the scheme has reopened old wounds and stirred up nationalist pride.

But the pipeline has also provided a focus for more general grievances among Bolivia's population of 8.5 million. Unlike Argentina, where economic collapse brought the plight of the poverty-stricken people to worldwide attention, Bolivia has not suffered a sudden, catastrophic market meltdown. One of South America's poorest countries, its recent history has just been one long financial catastrophe. Once the world's leading producer of silver, and then tin, and having seen the bottom fall out of both industries, Bolivians are acutely aware of the perils of over-dependency on an international market. Meanwhile a war, led by the US and endorsed by Sanchez de Lozada, is being waged on the country's other major product, the coca leaf.

Having failed to control the flow of cocaine on to its streets, the US has opted instead to tackle the problem at source, providing the financial and logistical backing for the Bolivian army to rip up the crops of peasant farmers. …

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