Following Massacre, Bolivians Demand Extradition of Former President Residing in the U.S.
Photo Credit: Aldo Orellana
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On the night of October 17, 2003, Bolivians were witness to an extraordinary split-screen spectacle on their televisions. On one side was the image of the nation’s President, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, fleeing by commercial airliner for the United States. On the other was the image of Sánchez de Lozada’s Vice-President, Carlos Mesa, taking the Presidential oath before the Bolivian Congress and asking the nation to observe a minute of silence for the more than 60 people killed during government repression over the previous month. Last week marks the 10th anniversary of Bolivia’s Octubre Negro, or Black October.
The Gas War
The events that would oust a sitting President and alter the course of Bolivian politics in deep and lasting ways began in September 2003 as news spread of Sánchez de Lozada’s plans to export Bolivia’s gas and oil at bargain prices through Chile to the U.S. Soon popular uprisings against the plan exploded across the Bolivian highlands. Sánchez de Lozada – a close ally of the U.S. whose 2002 election was managed by Bill Clinton’s campaign team – had already presided over a wave of repression in February of that year. In his efforts to meet a command for economic belt-tightening from the International Monetary Fund, the President imposed new taxes on people earning as little as $100 per month. The round of protests and repression sparked by that move left 34 people dead. When the new protests over his gas plans erupted, his response with troops, violence and bloodshed was more severe still.
In the end, even his own Vice-President broke with him and Sánchez de Lozada’s only remaining ally was the U.S. Embassy. That U.S. support prolonged the violence for another week until the U.S. finally facilitated the disgraced President safe passage to suburban Maryland where he has lived a decade unaccountable for his massacres.
“Glory to our martyrs fallen in the Gas War!! Long live the city of El Alto.” These were the words this week as mourners in Bolivia’s highlands visited the graves of their family members murdered in September and October 2003.
Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, who had presided over a wave of national privatizations as President in the 1990s, won the divided 2002 elections with barely 22% of the vote and only lost public support further as he governed. When the government announced its insistence to move forward with its gas plans, social and indigenous organizations began blockading roads and highways in protest. On September 20, Sánchez de Lozada sent the first wave of troops out to clear the roads, in the community of Warisata, 60 miles from the Bolivian capital, La Paz. The assault left several people dead including Marlene Nancy Rojas Ramos, an eight year old girl.
As word of the killings spread, the protests by social organizations and repression by the military intensified, with its epicenter in the city El Alto, just above the capital. On October 12 a caravan of trucks (named by protesters, the ´Caravan of Death´) passed through El Alto escorted by troops carrying fuel supplies down to the more affluent capital. As the military sought to move past the protest blockades they opened fire, leaving twenty five people dead in their wake.
The killings sparked outrage across the nation. Union leaders, human rights advocates, prominent academics and intellectuals, and many others joined the protests in large numbers, mounting hunger strikes to demand Sánchez de Lozada’s immediate resignation. When he finally fled via a flight to Miami on the night of October 17th, joined by his despised Defense Minister, Carlos Sánchez Berzain, celebrations broke out across the country.