On August 28, a Tuesday, the centre of the city of Cochabamba was unusually quiet, even compared to Sundays. Most shops had their shutters down, and the chaotic combination of small street stalls was replaced by a few women selling orange juice on one corner, another selling nuts. Some young boys played with a ball on the main road — normally alive with trufis, micros and taxis, but on Tuesday almost empty. The quiet was a product of a strike organised by the right wing, targeting the government of Bolivia's indigenous president, Evo Morales.
In Cochabamba there was a mood of resignation and practicality. In the centre, those shops that had opened started to close around 11am. Without transport, there were no customers, and customers clearly didn't expect shops to be open. Green Left Weekly spoke to one man, Rene, a builder, as he was lying in the shade of a small park on the road to Quillacollo. He said simply, "We want to work, we want to eat." And he added, "The Constituent Assembly has to fix the things that have happened". The assembly was instigated by the Morales government to write a new, more inclusive constitution for Bolivia that for the first time will recognise the country's indigenous people.
In the main plaza, where the local government is located, a few hundred people gathered to speak out against the strike. "To work!", one man yelled, gesturing. The crowd chanted "No to the strike", yelled swear words at the prefect offices and marched to the bridge to Quillacollo chanting "There's no strike, dammit!" and "Down with the half moon!" (referring to Bolivia's four eastern states which provide the key social base for the country's oligarchy).
GLW spoke to Juan Marcelo Rojas (nicknamed "Banderas"), national coordinator of the 2000 campaign against the privatisation of Cochabamba's water and union representative at SEMAP (the state-owned water company). Rojas explained that the majority of people in Cochabamba didn't back the civic committees (which called the strikes) because they "are run and financed by traditional parties who are on the right and above all, by the corrupt American embassy and traitors of the people — basically neoliberals".
The civic committees date back to the 1970s military dictatorship. As it became extremely unpopular, the civic committees were created to link the military to civilian society. They were, and are, led by the middle and upper classes.
The strike was preceded by a week of opposition violence and conflict in the Constituent Assembly. On August 22, the assembly was forced to close after acts of vandalism, threats to delegates, attacks on social movement and union headquarters and the destruction of media installations.
On August 25, Bolivia's judiciary announced a 48-hour strike, demanding that the government respect "democratic institutionality" after its decision to put four magistrates on trial. At the same time, the civic committees called strikes in six of Bolivia's nine states — Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando, Tarija, Sucre and Cochabamba — for the same reason, and to reject the Constituent Assembly's decision to end debate over where Bolivia's capital should be (the right is pushing for the capital to remain the current constitutional capital — Sucre — and not be moved to the current administrative capital, La Paz).
On August 26, Morales's government responded by calling for a mobilisation in Sucre on September 10 of at least 100,000 campesinos (peasants), indigenous people and members of social movements, in order to try to end the right's attempts to delay and derail the work of the Constituent Assembly. As well, there have been countless racist attacks against people with dark skin or in indigenous dress in Sucre, and the mobilisation is an opportunity to stand against such actions as well as to support the process of change heralded by Morales's election in December 2005.
Strike a partial 'success'
GLW asked Rojas what the right hoped to achieve with the strike. He explained, "Firstly they want to weaken Bolivia for a confrontation between Bolivians. What they want is to demonstrate that they have the power and that they can move the population. But today it has been seen that this has been a failure, because the people have had a normal day."
Rojas explained that shops were closed because owners believed right-wing thugs would beat them up if they stayed open. "Tuki", who chose to stay home on the day of the strike, said that transport workers had similar fears — that the right would smash their vehicles' windows and puncture their tires.
Within the first few hours of the strike, violence did occur in Santa Cruz, the civic committee of which is a leading light in right-wing opposition. The right-wing Crucenista Youth Union (UJC) attacked shops, punctured tires, smashed windows, beat-up shop owners and looted small stalls. A car with a civic committee number plate ran over a stall owner. According to the ABI news service, the civic committee's president, Branco Marinkovic, described the strike as peaceful and urged people to stay inside and obey the strike in order to avoid confrontation.
According to BolPress, campesino street venders were attacked in the state of Tarija. Degrees of compliance to the strike ranged from 50% in Tarija, to 30% in Cochabamba city, to as low as 10% in rural areas. In the state of Pando, public offices and the market opened as normal, but there were four road blockades and transport operated irregularly. The government calculated participation in the strike at 40%. In Beni, public institutions operated as normal, despite not having electricity, and the most important markets were open in the morning.
"It wasn't a complete strike because everyone continued their everyday activities and they knew that the strike was a manoeuvre of the right to encourage confrontation between the people", Rojas said.
According to Opinion, Vice-President Alvaro Garcia Linera said the strike was really a "dispute between local leaderships to see who will be the head of the future political opposition", and those who called the strike "don't want to defend the national interests ... what they want is resistance or defence of their particular interests, hidden behind local and regional interests". The right-wing has pushed for significant "autonomy" for the states (departments) to weaken attempts by the government to encroach on the oligarchy's power.
A long fight
The left-wing mobilisation called for September 10 will play an important role in getting Bolivia back onto the path of change. However, according the Rojas, it's a very delicate situation, "because of the magnitude and the circumstances that are confronting the country and because of the division that the right wing are looking for".
Referring to a recent controversy — the Morales government accusing the right wing of receiving US$140 million in funding from Washington — Rojas explained that, "The right wing, using the medium of the American embassy, have the financial ability to prevent this government from going ahead, but we as the people won't allow them to do that".
After more than 500 years of suffering and exploitation of the indigenous people, campesinos, miners, rural and urban poor, Morales and his party, the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), have a long road to travel to achieve social and economic justice. The oligarchic business class have a lot to lose and is resisting change, using any tactics — including those traditionally used by the left and the social movements, such as strikes and road blockades.
But according to Rojas, "We will fight until the end, and like Che said, 'Here, no one surrenders', and like I say, 'Here, no-one fucking surrenders!' Only neoliberalism, imperialism and the Yankee transnationals will surrender."
[Visit Tamara Pearson's blog at http://gringadiary.blogspot.com.]