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May 2004 • Vol 4, No. 5 •

Fed Up, Peasants Take Over

By Hector Tobar

The police won’t return to this village in the Andes unless the peasants promise not to throw rocks at them.

The peasants rose up and chased the police out months ago, along with the local representative of the provincial government, the judges and even the army. The authorities fled Sept. 20 in the face of a crowd of Aymara Indians armed with little more than sticks and stones and moved by centuries of pent-up frustration.

Since the uprising, this corner of Bolivia, where the dry altiplano, a high plateau, around Lake Titicaca meets lush tropical mountains, has become a kind of an Indian liberated zone.

“Before, they were the bosses. They made us work, they would run everything,” said Felix Puna Mamani, a resident of the neighboring village of Viacha, referring to the people of European descent who have dominated Bolivia since the 16th century Spanish conquest. “But people realize what’s going on now. It’s not like it was before.”

As many as 1.5 million people, almost a fifth of the nation’s population, live in areas where indigenous authorities have replaced some government functions, said Alvaro García Linera, a university professor in La Paz who has studied the popular movements of the two main indigenous groups, the Aymara and the Quechua.

“Since 2000, we have seen an enormous, continual uprising of indigenous people, with a strong element of Indian nationalism,” García Linera said. “In many places, the institutions of the Republic of Bolivia have begun to fade away.”

The new president, Carlos Mesa, is attempting to lead a sharply divided country and a democracy teetering on the brink of collapse a generation after the last military dictator stepped down. His government has shown little inclination to confront the peasants.

Guido Arandia, the chief of police for La Paz department, says his officers won’t go back to Sorata and the other towns in rebellion unless they are welcomed.

“It’s not that we don’t want to return,” Arandia said. “But as long as there are no guarantees from the community and its leaders, we cannot place our people at risk.”

In Sorata as in other towns of the region, the locally elected mayor and city council remain in office and most of them are Aymara speakers and appear to have the support of the town’s non-Indian minority. But Sorata’s connection to the federal and provincial governments in La Paz remains tenuous at best. The City Council recently considered a hunger strike to force provincial authorities to free up education funds.

With the police gone, “peasant union police” are the only forces of order.

The Aymara are redistributing land in communal assemblies called Open Councils that issue edicts in the mode of government pronouncements. At some public schools, the rainbow-colored Indian wipata flag flies in place of the Bolivian flag.

People in villages such as Sorata feel that the highly centralized government has failed them. In the face of the central government’s broken promises, city council members and Indian leaders in Sorata and elsewhere routinely organize “methods of pressure,” such as blocking roads. Since 2000, such tactics have become commonplace throughout a wide swath of South America, from Lima, Peru, to the northern Argentine provinces of Jujuy and Salta.

In September, two Aymara leaders, Felipe Quispeand Evo Morales, announced a nationwide campaign of protests and roadblocks to block a plan to export Bolivia’s natural gas reserves, which they saw as a sellout to multinational interests.

Los Angeles Times, April 20 2004

The masters, being fewer in number, can combine much more easily; and the law, besides, authorizes, or at least does not prohibit their combinations, while it prohibits those of the workmen.

—Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, 1776





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