Bolivia-The Peasantry and the Coup

September 25, 2007

For the third time in little more than two years, the Bolivian mili- tary has thwarted the will of the people to democratically elect a president. Under the command of Army General Luis Garcia Meza, the military again thrust its way in- to power on July 17, thereby can- celling the June 29 electoral vic- tory of Popular Democratic Unity (UDP) candidate, Hernan Siles Suazo. Claiming that the elections were rigged by "foreign interven- tion," Garcia Meza thi'eatened that the armed forces would re- main in power until the "Marxist cancer is fully removed-be it five, ten or twenty years." Even diplomatic sources, how- ever, questioned the General's ra- tionale for seizing power. Claiming that the military command is noth- ing but a "group of thugs," diplo- mats have consistently pointed to its links to the highly lucrative co- caine trade-and their fear that Siles Suazo would quash it-as the primary reason for the coup. As one U.S. narcotics official put it, "for the first time ever, the drugs mafia has evidently bought itself a government." Coke dealing alone, however, doesn't tell the whole story. The coup disrupted the first movement in many years toward democratic SeptlOct General Luis Garcia Meza rule in a Southern Cone country, an example which neighboring Argentina, among others, greatly feared. For its part, Argentina lent its solid support to the military reb- els and was the first country to re- cognize Garcia Meza's regime. Mexican news sources reported that 50 Argentine army intelli- gence officers entered the coun- try in the early weeks of August to advise the military on rounding up political opponents. While Brazil has been more measured in its support of the coup, the Brazilian generals are undoubtedly relieved that their colleagues' preemptive strike in Bolivia has prevented the installation of a popular, progres- sive government in the heart of the Southern Cone dictatorships. The U.S. government has soundly denounced the coup and has called for a congressional in- vestigation of the military's links to the international drug trade. But this cannot change the fact that, since the mid-1950s, the United States has been the main supplier, trainer and supporter of the Boli- vian military, a role which contin- ued unabated during nearly 15 years of military dictatorships be- ginning in 1964. As of early September, the situ- ation in Bolivia remained highly un- stable. Internationally, only a handful of nations have recog- nized the regime. An international consortium of banks headed by the Bank of America announced on August 23 that they were post- poning further discussions on the renegotiation of Bolivia's whop- ping $3.5 billion debt. Internally, Siles Suazo has es- tablished a clandestine "govern- ment in hiding" and the miners, in- dustrial workers and civil servants have maintained a strong opposi- tion to the military. Even former dictator, General Hugo Banzer- seeking his own return to power which he couldn't find in the elec- toral process-has been barn- storming in neighboring countries, criticizing the "unnecessary" bru- tality of his colleagues. Yet, two months after the coup, little has been reported on how the process has affected the majority of Bolivia's population, the peas- antry. Their actions are all the more important since sectors of the peasantry served as a key so- cial support of the military govern- ments of the late 1960s and early 1970s. This sector is particularly 43update *update *update * update important since the rank and file of the military is conscripted from the peasantry and is often itself sub- ject to the brutal treatment of the officers. To provide a first-hand report on this sector, we are publishing ex- cerpts of an interview with Antonio Quispe (a pseudonym), a peasant who lives with his family of eight in a traditional Aymara community between Lake Titicaca and La Paz. Quispe has been a commun- ity leader, worked in rural educa- tion and agrarian reform and was jailed by the political authorities on various occasions. His comments provide an important insight into the peasants' difficult position: they are brutalized by the military which is itself composed of their sons and brothers. Quispe was in- terviewed in Bolivia by David and Edward Strug one month after the coup. 0: What happened in your community after the coup? A. We suffered in my community. After the coup we were strongly threatened here in Waki, Tiwana- ku and the province of Ingavi. This was because the peasants barri- caded the roads after the coup.* Soon the military began control- ling the road very strictly, day and night. Whenever they saw roads, bridges or railroad tracks blocked, right away they began to abuse us. They threatened to burn our houses and eat our livestock. And to kill people. We weren't allowed to walk around freely-couldn't even play soccer or get together with each other. *The Bolivian peasantry has often blocked the roads to prevent the mili- tary from moving. In the past three years, the workers' general slogan in the face of repression has been "gen- eral strike and blockade." Q: How did they go about controlling the countryside? A: As soon as they saw the roads dug up, barricaded, the first thing they did was to start searching, ur- gently. "Who is barricading the roads?" they wanted to find out. Anybody they saw on the road they took away. Even some people who were grazing their animals near the roadside were threatened. Children, women, men. I saw that happen. Afterwards, I went to the city [La Paz] for awhile. I saw how even pregnant women were being picked up by the soldiers. Women who were carrying their babies on their backs, young people who were walking along the street after 9 pm were stopped, arrested or shot, I think. I saw wounded peo- ple, too. Sometimes people were shot dead, never seen again. Nobody knew where they were. Their relatives went looking for them, tears streaming down their faces. Yes, I saw that. And when I was on the way to La Paz we had to get off the bus nine times to pass through check points. The soldiers wanted to take in anybody who didn't have an identity card-their own brothers and sisters; we peasants who just had to travel from one town to ano- ther. They didn't tell us what they were looking for, they just asked for identity cards. But they must have been searching for political officials, union leaders in particu- lar. And, besides, they were taking money. They were taking money from their own people, and that hurt. I know those soldiers didn't have enough food to eat. I know they were taking the money for themselves. Still, it was too much. Q. Tell us. what happened when you went yesterday to look for your son at the Waki army base, A. These last few days there's been the annual draft, the induction of conscripts. Our children, our young sons from 18-22 are being drafted. I went to see my son, to see how he was being treated. Some of those officers were talking to the conscripts' parents. I listened, too. Some officer said: "Forty cadets are coming here. New instructors. It's going to be different." He said military service in the barracks is going to be very different from other years when soldiers were beaten brutally. Our sons were suffering, but they said that it is go- ing to be changed. After a little while some other major started talking. And, well, you know, with something like this I have a right to find out, to see, listen, see things with my own eyes. That's always important. And the major said: "You sup- ported Siles Suazo. Siles Suazo paid you all 50 pesos. For 50 pesos you had to vote." That's what the major said. "You backed Juan Lechin Oquendo, too.* You're communists. The majority voted for Siles because they were paid," he said. But it's a lie, isn't it? But there was no way to argue about it, was there? Because they were in power, and I was just listening. He spoke to us about many more things. About development, about the peasants. He said that the peasant doesn't have any right to go to the university. The peasant doesn't have the right to go to mili- tary technical schools. "You, you peasants get mixed up in politics. You're the ones who accept any politician who comes along-but *Juan Lechin has been one of Boli- via's most important labor leaders since the late 1940s. NACLA Reportupdate * update * update * update it's not going to be that way any more. Why don't you drive the for- eigners out of the country?" they told us. "But look, sir," I said to him. "Look at how the peasants live in poverty. Their houses need im- provement. The roofs are made. out of straw. The walls are made out of dirt. They don't have any safe water to drink; they have no toilets. The peasants still don't have any farm machinery; they don't have the right training for ag- riculture; they can't increase their livestock." I brought all those things up. I had answered back a little. "The road that goes from La Paz to the Peruvian border is just terrible; it's pure dust, pure mud. There isn't any electric light; there are no telephones; there's no transportation." Then the major answered. "Well, yes, we need roads, schools, we need universities," he said. He talked to us about the Agrarian Technical University that they're planning to establish. They're going to stay in govern- ment for 10 years, more or The summer of 1980 was a bit- ter season for human rights in Latin America, kicked off by a mili- tary coup in Bolivia and capped by a phony plebiscite in Chile. Bodies of Argentine dissidents turned up in Lima and Madrid. Amnesty In- ternational reported a dramatic in- crease in "political arrests and systematic torture" in Chile. And SeptlOct less-he said that, too. "But those workers' and peasant union of- ficials had better start worrying," he said. As for me, in particular, I think those high-ranking officers ought to come and visit, province by province, to find out for themselves how the peasants are living. See how the peasants suf- fer. And stop talking for the sake of talking. It was very sad that afternoon when the peasants didn't know where their sons were going to be sent. They found out at five o'clock; they didn't know before. The conscripts, all of them, went off just wearing light jackets. And at 6:30 or 7:00 pm, they're sending them to Potosi [high in the frigid Andes] in open trucks. It's sad. Without taking their blankets. How they treat our sons! -Edward Strug teaches Spanish at Queens College in New York and David Strug is an anthro- pologist at Rutgers. They have known Antonio Quispe since 1975.

Tags: Bolivia, Gen. Luis Garcia Meza, military coup, campesino organizing, repression

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