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Murderer in Our Midst: Learning from the Legacy of Resistance in Bolivia

Juliette Beck
Date Published: 
November 29, 2007

At 12,000 feet above sea level on the edge of the windswept altiplano and under the eternal watch of the Andean cordillera, a memorial for 67 people fallen in defense of gas stands as a reminder of the cost of resistance. The death toll following the unlawful US invasion of Iraq multiplies daily, reaching more than 75,000 civilians killed as of October. Yet George Bush is preparing to finish his last year in office without so much as a slap on the wrist. Fortunately, other countries take crimes against humanity more seriously. Four years ago in Bolivia, 67 civilians were killed by the military during a popular uprising over control of the country’s natural gas reserves. Then-President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada fled the country for the US and is now facing extradition orders to return to Bolivia for a “Trial of Responsibility.”

October is a month of remembrance when the families of the 67 fallen gather for mass at the mausoleum erected in their loved ones' honor and fortify their ongoing commitment with communal meals, music, marches, press conferences, and heated protests in front of the US embassy. All these events ring with a common refrain for justice. Unfortunately, their call is barely audible in the US, where Goni, as Sanchez de Lozada is commonly known, and two of his ex-ministers have been given safe haven.

The families and the people of Bolivia are requesting help from people of conscience in the United States and throughout the world in their effort to hold Goni accountable for the October massacre. They deserve our utmost solidarity not only because the main culprit is a product of US educational, political, and economic institutions and he is sheltered on US soil, but also because we can learn from the proud tradition of resistance that emboldens these families.

Putting a Stop to Plunder

A gutted Cerro Rico, or “Rich Hill,” rises above Potosi as a present and painful reminder of a legacy of colonial looting.In stark contrast to the amnesia that afflicts US society, a key tenet of Andean culture is the notion of living memory. The past is in the present and the way to see the future is by recollecting history, especially the history of colonialism. Over five hundred years ago, the Spanish combed the South American continent—called “Abaya Yala” by the original inhabitants—looking for gold. In a region populated by Aymara Indians, they laid claim to colossal deposits of silver buried deep inside a mountain in the Southern Altiplano. In less than a century, eight million indigenous and people of African descent died while extracting enough silver to triple the wealth of the Spanish Empire. A gutted Cerro Rico, or “Rich Hill,” rises above Potosi as a present and painful reminder of this legacy of looting.

Fast forward to the year 2003, and the pillage of Bolivia’s natural resources appeared headed for a repeat scenario. Then-president Goni had concocted a plan to sell liquefied natural gas to California and Mexico via a Chilean port. While president from 1993-97, Goni was a chief proponent of World Bank and International Monetary Fund economic policies. He privatized many of Bolivia's state-owned enterprises, including mines and the national oil company, resulting in losses of $40 million per year in government revenues. Companies like Enron cashed in record profits while a large percentage of Bolivians remained without gas for cooking or heating their homes. The hand-over of Cochabamba’s water company to Bechtel Corporation led to a citizen’s rebellion in April 2000 over public discontent not only with an increase in water rates but also the failure of the neoliberal economic model.

After squeaking into office for a second time in 2002 with a mere 22.5% of the votes, Goni, under pressure from the World Bank and other International Financial Institutions, began a new round of controversial economic reforms. He proposed tax increases on the working class which prompted another uprising in February 2003 that left more than thirty dead when military and the police exchanged fire. When soon after that news spread of Goni’s plan to export gas on unfavorable terms for Bolivians, Bolivian social movements began to mobilize.

Since 2000, Aymara communities had been slowly dismantling the presence of the state by removing such institutions as the police, army, and mayors offices as part of their plan to construct and independent Aymara nation. This movement joined forces with thousands of mine workers, students, and indigenous farmers who marched into the city of El Alto in September and October 2003 to demand the nationalization of the country’s natural gas reserves, the second largest reserves in South America.

“In October, the white and mestizo (mixed race) state government died for at least ten days. It didn’t have legitimacy or acceptance,” explained Pablo Mamani, a professor at El Alto’s public university. “The national government had no clout; they were forced to leave. The neighborhood governments were in command and the power of the state was emptied.”

On October 11, 2003, Goni issued an executive order authorizing the military to end the blockades and resume the delivery of gas into La Paz using any mechanisms they deemed necessary. Under the direction of then-defense minister Carlos Sánchez Berzaín, soldiers opened fire, killing 67 people, including pregnant women and young children. A number of people were killed while walking through their neighborhood or even shot in their homes, such as 5-year-old Alex Llusco Mollericona who was shot in the head. Of the 400 wounded, several lost limbs and to this day many struggle daily to provide for their families. Recently one of the wounded passed away from complications from the injuries he sustained in October 2003, and his coffin was carried through La Paz by solemn marchers to the US embassy.

Goni Goes Back to the US

Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada (photo: BBC)As reports of the massacre spread to a horrified nation, a unified call arose for Sanchez de Lozada to resign, and on October 17, 2003, Goni fled to the US. He now resides just outside the nation’s capital in Chevy Chase, Maryland, where he hobnobs at various country clubs and civic organizations. This was a return home for Goni, who was raised in the US. He studied Philosophy and English Literature at the University of Chicago and returned to Bolivia as an entrepreneur, where he made millions from privatized mines. As shown in the documentary film Our Brand is Crisis, Goni barely eked out a victory in the ballot box thanks to the work of US political consultant James Carville (former Clinton advisor), who helped Goni’s campaign “brand crisis” with fear tactics parroted from US elections.

Goni likes to portray himself as the victim who was run out of Bolivia by angry, ungovernable Indian people and continues to evade accountability. A trial to ascertain responsibility for the deaths is widely supported in Bolivia, even by members of Goni’s own political party who were among those who voted by a two-thirds majority to initiate legal proceedings against Goni, members of his cabinet, and the military. The trial against those members of his administration who remain in the country is moving ahead. Goni forgo his right to appear in Bolivian court during the preliminary phase of the trial, so the Supreme Court recently issued an extradition order. The US Justice and State Departments have failed to respond to the Bolivian government’s requests to date, insinuating that they believe the case is “politically motivated” and that Goni will not receive a fair trial in Bolivia. This is a flimsy excuse given that Bolivian courts have historically favored the elite and one which the families of those killed finds intolerable.

Oscar Olivera rings the doorbell during a protest in front of Goni's Chevy Chase, MD, home. (photo: Bolivia Solidarity Network)“Without this trial, it is impossible for my family and all the family members of the dead and the wounded to heal,” said Juan Patricio Mamani Quispe, president of the Association of the Family Members of those Killed in the Gas War, whose brother was shot to death by government troops. “We have been waiting for four years now for the trial, and the ongoing impunity of these men is an assault on our dignity, on our value as human beings. The United States needs to fulfill its promise as a nation which cares about human rights and justice.”

In an effort to seek justice on two continents, ten of the family members sued Goni and former defense minister Jose Carlos Sánchez Berzaín in US courts on September 25, 2007, charging them with crimes against humanity and extrajudicial killings under the Torture Victim Protection Act and Alien Tort Claims Act. In a similar trial, in 1992 a jury found former Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos responsible for extrajudicial killing, torture, and disappearance of thousands of Philippine citizens, although the plaintiffs have yet to recover monetary damages from the Marcos family.

Four years later in El Alto, the families of the victims of people who lost their lives in the “Gas War” of Black October continue to fight for justice and an end to impunity. They are determined to ensure that governments with greater allegiance to transnational investors and free market ideology than the interests of their own citizens never again fire on people who are standing up for a more equal and democratic society. They are, in essence, striving to make this a more just world for all of us.

Now that Pinochet and Fujimori are facing justice, it is time to turn our attention to one of Washington’s most loyal lap dogs in South America. By extending solidarity to Bolivians in their universal fight for justice, we can take a crack the system of impunity that keeps men like Goni and Bush falsely protected.

For more information on the campaign to bring Goni to justice, please see Comite Impulsor (The Committe for a Trial of Responsibility for Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and his Collaborators). The Committee is comprised of more than 130 organizations including the Association of Family Members Fallen in Defense of Gas, The Bolivian Workers Federation, and the Coordinadora for Water and Life, among others.