“Gringo, Go Home!” – Youth Activism in Bolivia

“Gringo, Go Home!” – Youth Activism in Bolivia

By Benjamin Dangl, WireTap
Posted on December 15, 2003

On the second floor of an old building shared by worker unions, lawyers and environmental groups, Cochabamba’s main youth activist group gathered for an organizational meeting. The walls of the room were covered with propaganda from Cuba, feminist posters from Sweden, an anti-FTAA banner, a Bolivian flag and news clippings about child soldiers in Colombia.

One person at the table idly strummed a guitar; another kept checking his cell phone while a young woman spoke with a visitor from outside the city about plans to start activism groups in small schools in the mountains.

When asked what they were majoring in, a few students replied, “activism,” referring to the fact that they had put off their studies indefinitely to focus on what they saw as a more pressing issue — Bolivia’s Gas War. A massive grassroots movement against the exportation of the nation’s gas to the US through a Chilean port had been taking place for weeks. The strikes, blockades and protests in the conflict resulted in over 70 dead and 500 wounded. On October 17, the president of Bolivia resigned, marking the beginning of an uncertain peace there.

The activists looked tired. They had been participating in endless protests for weeks, writing articles on Indymedia about the conflicts, making banners, and handing out flyers to gather more recruits for the marches. They began the meeting by discussing plans for a massive march scheduled for the next day, then talked about the costs for the publication of a recent magazine they produced and argued over how they would fund an upcoming trip to a social forum in Santa Cruz. Some students spoke of a series of seminars they had planned with other citizens, students, and professors.

One student pointed out, “We have to inform as many people as possible about these issues, the gas, the FTAA, and the Citizen Security Law. Once they realize what is going on, they will head to the streets to protest with everyone else. It is only a matter of time before the whole city is out there.”

“Police, Who Are You Defending?”

The next morning, the whole city seemed to be marching in the streets, waving banners and chanting, “Our gas is not for sale!” and “Gringo, go home!” referring to their now ex-president, Sanchez de Lozada, who grew up in the US and speaks Spanish with a heavy American accent.

A large group of young people, many from the activist meeting the day before, were waving placards still wet with fresh paint. They marched alongside campesino families who had ridden all night from the nearby Chapare region, a tropical area where much of the country’s coca is produced. Mothers carried babies on their backs in colorful folded blankets which were slung over their shoulders. Members from Bolivia’s Worker’s Union marched behind an enormous red banner. Next to them was a group of miners wearing hard hats and waving signs that said, “The Gas Is For Bolivia.”

Soon, groups that had begun marching from various areas in the city had all congregated in the main plaza and were listening to speeches from opposition leaders such as Oscar Olivera, the leader of the People’s High Command and Evo Morales, coca grower leader, as well as union leaders from the Chapare and teacher unions from within the city. The speakers hollered over the excited crowd from a balcony above the plaza.

Though the protesting sectors had diverse demands, they were gathered in the plaza for a common cause: the rejection of the government’s plans to export the nation’s gas to the US. Many believed the exportation plan would only benefit the US investors and business leaders in Bolivia. Protesters demanded that the gas be nationalized to benefit the neediest social sectors in Bolivia.

After the fiery speeches were over, many protesters marched to major intersections in the city to construct road blockades out of rocks, tires, dumpsters, and bonfires. The students from the youth activist group blockaded an intersection just outside the central plaza. The traffic, which was usually congested day and night in this part of the city, was almost immediately backed up for blocks. Angry taxi drivers pressed on their horns while the activists fueled blockade fires.

Suddenly, a mass of policemen on motorcycles and in trucks appeared towards the end of one street and began speeding towards the blockade. When the cops reached the crowd of students, they fired teargas into them, leapt from their motorcycles and brought their nightsticks crashing onto the bodies and heads of the young activists. Many students were immediately thrown into the backs of the police trucks and handcuffed.

A woman ran into the street, screaming at the policemen, “Who are you defending? Who are you defending?”

US Control Over Political and Economic Identity of Bolivia

Historically, Bolivia’s natural resources such as gold, tin, and coal have been exploited by foreign investors who made enormous profits while most Bolivians remained impoverished. In the Gas War, many Bolivians tried to defend one of the last major natural resources left in the country.

Currently, the Bolivian government is significantly influenced by International Monetary Fund (IMF) structural adjustments and the US government’s pressure in their war on drugs. In order to continue receiving development aid, previous Bolivian presidents have readily allowed themselves be controlled by the US ambassador and IMF officials. The US and IMF-backed methods of strengthening the Bolivian economy and eradicating coca has repeatedly created intense backlashes from the Bolivian public.

The production of coca is a fundamental part of the Bolivian economy, as thousands of Bolivian families grow the crop to survive. Coca has been used for centuries by many Bolivians for Andean religious ceremonies and to lessen pain due to high altitude, hard work, and sickness. It is also an ingredient in cocaine. Both ex-president Sanchez de Lozada and the current president, Carlos Mesa, have been forced to maintain harsh coca eradication laws as a part of the US’s war on drugs. If the Bolivian government refuses to comply with the demands regarding coca eradication, they risk losing funding and political backing from the US.

For years, the US-enforced coca eradication campaigns have involved intense militarization of coca growing areas in Bolivia, which has resulted in extensive human rights violations paired with a lack of significant alternative development projects. However, while the US pours millions of dollars into the war on drugs in Bolivia each year, the amount of cocaine consumed in the US remains the same.

Grassroots Movements Govern From the Streets

In spite of economic and political pressure from the US, some grassroots movements in Bolivia have succeeded in overturning unpopular policies.

In April of 2000 in Cochabamba, a conflict took place called the Water War. It originated when foreign companies, including investors from the US, began a deal to privatize the water in the Cochabamba area. The IMF and World Bank would not lend money to Bolivia unless it transferred control of the water system from the government to a private company. Aguas del Tunari, a subsidiary of Bechtel, bought and took over the water system.

This deal drastically raised the price of water to amounts that most people could not afford. The citizens of the area took to the streets to protest and blockade, demanding that the privatization of their water be stopped. After violent confrontations between security forces and protesters paralyzed the city for weeks, the foreign investors pulled out and the water privatization ended.

In February of 2003, riots rocked the capital of Bolivia as protesters rejected an IMF-backed proposal to increase income taxes. By the end of this conflict, nearly 30 people had been killed. After the riots, the president decided to stop moving ahead with the income tax plan.

In Bolivia’s Gas War, which took place during September and October of 2003, hundreds of thousands of people across the country marched, went on strike and constructed extensive road blockades in protest against the government’s plan to export the nation’s gas to the US. After over a month of violent confrontations and blockades, President Sanchez de Lozada resigned and Vice President Carlos Mesa took power. Mesa has pledged to create an effective democratic forum in which the people of Bolivia will be able to control the destiny of the nation’s gas. However, so far, no specific plans regarding such a forum have been made.

Youth Activists in Bolivia and the US

As an American activist who was in Bolivia during the Gas War, I noticed that organizational tactics in both US and Bolivian anti-global activism are similar. In both countries, activists protesting globalization need to work together in order to make group decisions, coordinate their efforts, create signs and banners, practice civil disobedience, get friends out of jail, find funding, and try to work with an often apathetic public.

However, Bolivia is the second poorest country in Latin America, and this alone sets Bolivian youth activists apart from those in the US. Often, people in Bolivia are fighting immediate threats against their livelihood and way of life. Such was the case with the Water War, when people could not afford to drink the privatized water. In the US, many youth anti-globalization activists live comfortably, and protest out of social consciousness or guilt regarding what their country’s government and corporations are doing to the rest of the world.

Edgar Moya, a law student in Cochabamba, comments on American anti-globalization activism by saying, “The marches against the Iraq War in the US were only due to a social consciousness; they were not due to an economic problem that affected the personal livelihoods of the individuals living in their own country.”

In contrast, he notes that, “In Bolivia, there is a huge amount of poverty, which moves people to activism, not just because of social consciousness, but because these foreign powers of imperialism and globalization are affecting our daily life.”

A social movement such as the Gas War in Bolivia probably would not be possible in the US at this time, simply because of the lack of recognition of a common enemy and lack of coordination between youth activists, unions, and other social sectors.

Current social movements in Bolivia have a huge base of support including indigenous groups, unions, coca farmers, miners, bus drivers, shop owners, teachers, middle class citizens, and religious groups, along with student activists. Luis, an economics student in Cochabamba, points out these differences, “I don’t see this huge base of support in the US. I think that there, a lot of the activists are students and I don’t see a big connection within the movements there between, say, worker’s unions and students. Here, this relationship is very important.”

There is a history of solidarity between students and other protesting sectors in Bolivia, with close connections between youth activists and indigenous groups like the Aymara and Quechua, as well as campesinos, unions and coca growers. For example, activists in Tinku, a Bolivian youth activist group, attend cocalero meetings and each December travel to the Chapare for a three day meeting during which the cocaleros discuss their politics, demands, coca eradication issues, union organizing, and so on. Ramiro Saravia, a member of Tinku, explains, “When the campesino activists arrive in Cochabamba for marches and strikes, we always receive them, support them with food, help out with banners, share coca, and participate in their meetings.”

History and Variety in Bolivian Youth Activism

Youth activism in Bolivia was very strong from the 1960s to the 1980s, during the time of the military dictatorships of Hugo Banzer and Garcia Mesa. The Local University Federation and the Federation of High School Students were very active at this time as well. Marielle Cauthin, a communications student in Bolivia whose father was exiled to Sweden under Bolivia’s dictatorship for his participation in youth activism, speaks about the history of student activism in Bolivia. She explains that socialism inspired many young people, who in turn wanted to support Che Guevara when he arrived in Bolivia. However, an enormous number of students were exiled, imprisoned, tortured and killed. “By the time of the recuperation of democracy in Bolivia,” Cauthin says, “the leftist movement had been greatly reduced because many of the leaders had been killed, or were exiled to other countries.”

Currently, there are a variety of youth activist groups in Bolivia. There are youth groups deeply involved with political parties such as the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), which is a party led by Evo Morales. Anarchist, environmentalist, Trotskyist and religious groups are also present across the country. For example, a nationwide Trostkyist group works successfully each year to lower registration costs for classes in universities.

Tinku, another nationwide youth activist group, focuses on political and cultural issues. Besides organizing regular marches and seminars on political issues, they organize a movie screening every Wednesday that usually has to do with politics and Latin American history. Every Sunday, on the outskirts of the city of Cochabamba, Tinku hosts a community gathering where families, students and musicians gather to eat, drink and dance. Throughout the gathering, which goes on from the afternoon into the night, people of all ages arrive from across the city to dance and play Bolivian folk music.


Not all students and youth in Bolivia are interested in activism and preserving Bolivian culture. The apathy that affects activism on campuses and towns across the world is just as present in Bolivia as anywhere. For example, in Cochabamba, at one of the larger marches during the Gas War, nearly 4,000 students gathered to protest. Yet Cochabamba has five universities in it, the largest with 50,000 students.

According to Ramiro, a member of Tinku, “Many young people just show up to the big marches, such as in the gas and water wars, and then you never see them again. There needs to be constant organization for these movements to be successful.”

One engineering student, who says he never goes to protests, is critical of the marches and blockades that rocked Bolivia for nearly two months in the Gas War. “The people in the countryside who make the blockades are uneducated and don’t understand the political issues. They just blockade and march because they like violence and social turmoil. The blockades hurt the economy more than the gas exportation ever would. When the roads are blockaded, business owners who rely on the transportation of goods for their jobs go hungry because they have no income.”

Class issues play a role in this lack of participation as well. Youth from the poorest sectors of society often do not have time for activism, as they have to work constantly to support themselves and their families. Many young people from the richest sectors of Bolivian society often do not care about activism and choose to ignore the policies that negatively affect the rest of the nation.

The Struggle is Global

All over the world, youth are participating in movements against the same systems of power that threaten to manipulate the economic and social identities of whole nations. Across Latin America, young people are taking to the streets in rejection of the FTAA. In Bolivia, thousands of young activists played vital roles in the Gas War. Recently, youth activists in Cancun, Mexico helped cause the collapse of the WTO talks, and each day young people participate in worldwide protests against the US involvement in Iraq. A month ago in Miami, activists demonstrated against the FTAA.

Luis speaks about the importance of this international solidarity. “It gives me hope to know that there are other people in the world that support our struggle. Because we are fighting against a common enemy, which is international capitalism, globalization, US imperialism and war, and we all must keep moving ahead, because the struggle isn’t just in Bolivia, it is in the US, it is in Chiapas, it is in Europe, it is in Palestine‚Ķthe struggle is global.”

Because international cries of protest against US economic and political policy in countries such as Bolivia, Iraq, Cuba and Palestine may not be heard in the White House, there is a need for US citizens themselves to work internally to make political and corporate changes.