Images of an uprising

By Published On: June 8, 2005Categories: Gas & Oil0 Comments on Images of an uprising

A huge boom echoes in the pit of my stomach. Whoosh! A series of smokey flares arch into the sky. The crowd surges up the street.

Then suddenly a tickling in the nose turns acrid and the nose and eyes start running as the tear gas takes over. Crowds of people stand on roofs and walls watching expectantly.

On the next corner, a group of men occupy the crossroads burning a tyre and piling up bricks. A rainbow coloured flag is lit up by the Andean sun. They make way for a march that passes with a big banner announcing their presence as a campesino group from Potosi. They chant noisily.

Shopkeepers, with metal shutters down, look impassively or anxiously on. Every other person carries a radio, with only one item of news: the protests that have paralysed the country and the spluttering attempts of politicians to respond.

An air of tension and expectation rises up from the pavement.

We turn down another street, which only a week ago was full of shops enticing in streams of tourists with colourful textiles and indigenous designs. The street lies deserted. The whole city seems to be on the move by feet, but market stalls lie empty, bandaged up in cloth. Restaurants announce in blunt notices that they are closed due to difficulties in getting food.

But just a block away the Austrian bakery is open. People licking ice-creams wander idly past men sunning themselves on park benches as their shoes are polished by balaclavered street-boys. Streets are strangely devoid of traffic but further on in a prosperous part of town on lies a square full of cafes, people drinking cappucinos and chatting, their 4x4s gleaming in the sun.

Evening comes and all the streets seem strangely peaceful again, an almost festive atmosphere as people fill the traffic-free streets playing volleyball, flirting with friends, buying tickets for "Star Wars".

Perhaps it’s just an illusion?? But then you hear overhear conversations. Talk of difficulties in getting gas as all petrol stations close. Anxious examinations of newspapers. Rumours flying – water has been cut off, a march is coming this way to loot, three more oil fields have been occupied, US is evacuating all its personnel, talk of the need to set up "self defense committees" to protect this neighbourhood from "the troubles up there." In the distance, another explosion booms.

An air of tension and expectation rises up from the chitter-chatter.

Television is not a respite. Every hour, there have been new announcements. La Paz and many other cities lie cut off as more than 100 blockades spring up around the country, fights have taken place in Santa Cruz between local residents and campesinos. Social movements are "radicalising their demands" as politicians fail to listen.  People are going without food as prices shoot up, and as gas disappears that is needed to cook it.

We are well into a third week of protests and the streets are amazingly still full of people marching. I wonder how they keep going, but every day they are still there. Campesinos from outlying parts of Bolivia, miners walking sombrely in their hard hats, teachers chanting noisely, students with Che Guevara flags, indigenous people from El Alto.

Small groups ratchet up the tension further as they attack police. Eight lorries from Oruro full of dynamite are stopped by police as several miners head to apparently try and take Parliament. The President goes on television saying that Bolivia is at the brink of a bloody civil war. Bolivia, largely ignored by international press, is suddenly headline news across the world.

An air of tension and expectation emanates from televisions and radios that transfix the nation.

Where on earth is Bolivia going to go? What are the expectations for a resolution from the conflict? It is impossible to know. Paceños (residents of La Paz) sound exhausted when asked about the troubles. Some are angry with the protests that have caused their businesses to suffer and have paralysed the city. But most put the blame mainly on the politicians.

The trouble is that the crisis needs a political solution, yet there is profound lack of trust in politicians. At times the crisis seems to have taken place in a complete vacuum of power. Announcements by the President or leading politicians sound hollow and had little impact on the unfolding crisis. Almost no politicians have addressed the central demands of protestors for nationalisation.

The almost irrelevance of national politicians seemed to be reflected when both the President’s resignation and the announcement that Congress would meet away from La Paz seem to have no effect on the protests.

It is very hard to imagine what will happen next when fustrations with a political and economic system have reached such a critical point.

Perhaps they will burn out, as protestors and people in Bolivia at large get to an exhaustion point that must be near. Perhaps promise of elections and an assembly to design a new constitution will provide an avenue for people to redirect their political energies into pushing for politicians that will act more in the interests of the majority of Bolivians.

Perhaps Bolivia has reached a critical point in a history that will see a change of political forces: the rise to power of an excluded indigenous majority. Perhaps it will split the nation apart as people are forced to take sides in a struggle that will at times be contradictory and counter-productive. 

Whatever happens, Bolivia is going to need international solidarity if it is to forge a just and peaceful future.

Resources for daily updates:

Open Democracy
Barrio Flores


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