Mass Movement: Indigenous Turmoil in Bolivia

By Ho, Tin-Yun | Harvard International Review, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Mass Movement: Indigenous Turmoil in Bolivia


Ho, Tin-Yun, Harvard International Review


In October 2003, a coalition of mainly indigenous farmers, students, and union members paralyzed Bolivia in what was dubbed "Bloody October." Protestors dynamited bridges, felled telephone poles, and tore roads apart, preventing the delivery of food, fuel, and medical resources to the capital city of La Paz. They then seiged the capital for six days, forcing the Bolivian President, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, to resign and leave the city by helicopter on October 17, 2003.

When explaining the reason behind "Bloody October," international media highlights the country's natural gas export plan, the US-backed eradication of illegal coca crops, and the economic recession. Although valid from a short-term perspective, these explanations fail to acknowledge the fundamental political changes in the mid-1990s that mobilized and empowered the indigenous masses.

Even after Bolivian democratization began in 1982, poor indigenous or mixed race mestizo persons, who comprise up to 70 percent of Bolivia's population, considered themselves excluded form the political system. Their civic society organizations (CSOs) of churches, unions, and political groups reflected this mentality by frequently rejecting party politics altogether and resorting to methods such as road blockades and city sieges to effect political change. Only recently has CSO mobilization been severe enough to cause a president to resign. In 1993, an advisor to Lozada declared that Bolivia needed "to get away from the rigid centralized system that had been in place ... because it [was] very limited in its capacity to respond to real problems." The government created the Popular Participation Law, which delegated substantial administrative functions and over 20 percent of state resources to local districts. Furthermore, half of the members of the Bolivian National Congress were to be direct representatives elected from the districts, replacing the members previously selected by central political parties.

Within a year, the number of district-level CSOs rose exponentially, nurtured by the devolved state resources. They ran grassroots mobilization campaigns that doubled the rural voting population from 300,000 to 700,000. As a result of the rise in CSOs, 80 percent of indigenous rural populations that previously identified with the rural peasant class now associate themselves with their ethnic identity. These populations began mobilizing along pre-existing ethnic lines within their districts, electing indigenous leaders to a quarter of nationwide district-level positions by 1995.

Harvesting the strengths of ethnic mobilization and empowerment, the Movement to Socialism (MAS), a group of indigenous coca growers led by Evo Morales, began gaining momentum. …

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