In 2003, after several weeks of massive protests and violent state repression, Bolivian President Gonzalo “Goni” Sánchez de Lozada signed his resignation and fled to Miami. It was October 17. The day is etched in the collective memory of Bolivians as the victorious culmination of a hard-fought battle—a war, in fact, or the “Gas War” as most Bolivians still call it.
Protests over a government plan to export Bolivia’s vast natural gas reserves to the United States through a Chilean port intensified in early October. In response, Goni signed Supreme Decree 27209, which militarized El Alto, the largely indigenous city neighboring La Paz where protests were fiercest. Despite the suspension of constitutional guarantees under the pretense of a state of siege, El Alto’s residents were squeezing La Paz with a total blockade of roads leading into the capital, causing food and fuel shortages.
Only three days into the president’s El Alto decree, Bolivian security forces had already killed 50 people, and by the end of the protests 17 more lost their lives. Even Carlos Mesa, the vice president at the time, publicly denounced the murders, but Goni refused to de-militarize.
A graduate of the University of Chicago and nicknamed “El Gringo” for his North American-accented Spanish, Goni currently resides in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Despite repeated extradition requests by Bolivian President Evo Morales and his ruling party, the Bush Administration has repeatedly refused to extradite Goni. Bolivian activists fear he may never be brought to justice.
Last fall, North American activists living in Bolivia organized the Bolivia Solidarity Network (BSN) and declared October 17 the International Day of Solidarity with Bolivia. One of the BSN’s central goals is to support the extradition of Goni and two of his cabinet members, who also live comfortably in the United States, to Bolivia to face trial for the El Alto massacre.
The BSN made its debut November 1, 2005, when two activists, Sara Grusky and Doug Hertzler, surprised Sánchez de Lozada by personally serving him with extradition papers at a Princeton Alumni Association event in Washington, D.C., where he had been invited to speak.
“He was startled, baffled, perplexed, offended and hopefully a little bit frightened by what happened,” Gruski says.
More recently, a delegation of Bolivian activists and BSN members traveled last month to the United States, where they stayed for two weeks to help expose Sánchez de Lozada in an Argentine-style escrache, or public denunciation used by Argentina’s human rights movement. They deluged Sánchez de Lozada’s neighbors, the Chevy Chase Country Club and local universities with postcards detailing his involvement in the 2003 El Alto deaths.
The BSN is not working alone. A coalition of Bolivian organizations called the Comité Impulsor has been instrumental in pressuring the government to pursue the case against Sánchez de Lozada. In 2004, after collecting over 700,000 signatures, the group exhumed a few bodies of the El Alto massacre to gather evidence. The group brought this and other evidence to the Bolivian Congress, demanding that the government acknowledge Sánchez de Lozada’s role in the massacre, which it later did.
“Bringing Goni back for trial and punishment is a symbol that the [Bolivian] government and military cannot treat Bolivian citizens like dogs, like they did during October 2003,” says Monica Mendizabal, coordinator of the Comité Impulsor’s international campaign. “Our attempt to extradite Goni is about a process of dignity. His punishment would show that killing Bolivia’s poor is not allowed.”
“The U.S. has no right to obstruct or prevent this trial,” she adds
Hoping to spark an international movement demanding Goni’s extradition, an independent group of activists associated with the BSN have invited foreigners living in Bolivia to a “gringo march” on the U.S. Embassy in La Paz. Marchers will meet in the morning of October 17 at the Plaza Isabel Católica, where relatives of the massacre victims congregate every Thursday morning before they proceed to the U.S. Embassy in hopes of attracting media attention.
Supporters abroad are planning to hold simultaneous events in Australia (Sydney), Britain (Bristol, Leeds and London), Canada (Toronto and Vancouver, B.C.), France (Paris), Ireland (Rossport, Galway and Dublin) and the United States (San Francisco; Portland, Oregon; Washington; Tampa, Florida and Boone, North Carolina). The BSN is calling on the international community to create local Bolivia Solidarity Networks, and the group’s Web site even suggests actions local groups can take.
Although the theme of the International Day of Solidarity will be bringing Goni to justice, the BSN emphasizes a broader message for October 17. As Nick Buxton, a BSN activist who lives in La Paz, explains, “Whilst the focus is on Goni, the Day of Action is also about a bigger fight for justice. Goni’s leadership and his systematic application of policies pushed by the IMF and the World Bank reflect many of the reasons why Bolivia has such high levels of poverty. The message is really that there is a huge international community in and outside Bolivia who support the fight for social justice that has been led by Bolivian social movements.”
In the past, a variety of international groups have staged actions in solidarity with Bolivian social movements. For example, in 2000, during Cochabamba’s Water War, in which residents sought the reversal of the privatized waterworks under contract at the time with the Bechtel Corporation, the New Zealand Water Pressure Group drove a fire truck to the Bolivian Embassy in Auckland and unleashed the truck’s water cannons on the building. The action was in protest of then-President Hugo Banzer’s use of military force to put down the Cochabamba uprising. Since then, sporadic actions in support of Bolivian social movements have occurred in the United States, Britain, Italy and Spain.
Although the country has yet to attract the type of sustained international solidarity received by other Latin American revolutionary hotbeds like Mexico and Venezuela, the BSN is hoping to change that.
Caitlin Esch and Wes Enzinna live in Cochabamba, Bolivia. They welcome comments by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.