Bolivia: Is this How Civil War Begins?

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The Flower Seller, Cochabamba

First I want you to understand what Cochabamba is like, when it’s not a war zone. It’s midday during the week and in the old colonial city center most of the stores are closed. This includes the man who sells me chocolate and most of the hardware stores on Calle San Martin. People are eating lunches with friends and co-workers. That woman in the picture sells flowers with a cat in her lap. It is a valley eight thousand feet above the sea with the climate of southern California and the same purple jacaranda trees.

But I have seen become a war zone too. In 2000 during the Water Revolt I was gassed along with everyone else when the center became a battle of canisters and rubber bullets from one direction and rocks from another. A seventeen-year-old boy was shot in the face by the army. I knew his mother. In 2007 two rival political mobs in the hundreds collided in the street just below our office. Three people were killed. A co-worker and I got in the front door just as the rocks began to fly. I can describe the scenes but I can’t describe the fear and that is the fear that my friends in Bolivia are living with right now. All of them. But this time is different. This time is what it looks like when a country starts to go to war with itself. It is devastating to think that.

Bolivia’s reality right now is like the story of the three blind men and the elephant. Each is totally convinced that only the part they are touching — the ear, the trunk, the leg — is the true nature of the animal. I can hear it in my exchanges with Bolivians who have responded to my articles:

I was also very disappointed by the article having a “both sides” stance; violence does not come from both sides, from day one any violence has come from MAS and their clash groups.

Imagine being a family in the neighborhood that two weeks ago had the hillside behind it set on fire by Morales supporters from the countryside who had come to confront the questioners of Evo’s reelection. Now they are back in much larger numbers and there has just been three days of bloody battle a ten minute drive from their children. If you are the mother and father in one of those families your first concern is not for the human rights of the cocaleros.

No imagine that you are a supporter of Evo Morales. You live in a small, poor town and Evo is the first President who ever looked like you and cared about you and you are deeply proud of what he had become. After he won an election that you consider to be totally fair, a lot of people who you consider to be racist have shut down the cities to claim that the election is a fraud. First they demand new elections, then they demand Evo’s resignation, then you are staring at your small box of a television as he resigns and flies off to Mexico. Then you get a new president who makes it clear that it is all different now and there are no limits on the military and police to squash all those who protest.

These are the two Bolivian perspectives getting ready to go to war with one another. And the embers of violence are starting to catch fire. The battle of Sacaba has gone on three days and has left five dead from a barrage of police and army fire. On Tuesday in El Alto, Morales backers tried to take over a gas plant and set fire to it. More shooting from the army, three more dead. Also in El Alto, a young policeman is killed by a pro-Morales mob that beat him.

I saw the civil war in Nicaragua when I was in my 20s and met a woman whose toddler daughter was killed in a Contra raid. On mission for UNICEF in Kosovo just after the war there I dove passed stone homes and churches that had been turned to rubble from bombings and listened to the stories of people fleeing. Bolivia is heading much too close to falling into that same abyss.

The question that matters in Bolivia in this moment is this: Do we really want to have a civil war? Do we really want to turn Bolivia into that?

Bolivia needs a ceasefire, now. The multiple opposing factions need to find someone they can all trust as an honest convener of dialog. There needs to be a clear date and acceptable plan for elections to put the deep divisions in the country back into the democratic process where people don’t kill each other. None of this will be easy, but the alternative is truly, truly horrible.

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Jim Shultz is the founder and executive director of The Democracy Center. He and his family lived in Bolivia from 1998 to 2017, where he also served as President of an 80-child orphanage. He is co-author and co-editor of Dignity and Defiance, Stories from Bolivia’s Challenge to Globalization (UC Press) and the forthcoming, My Other Country, Nineteen Years in Bolivia (NFB Publishing).

Previous articles on the current situation in Bolivia

Bolivia in Meltdown November 18, 2019

Bolivia in Crisis November 12, 2019

A political activist for more than 40 years, founder and executive director of the Democracy Center. Back in the US after 19 years in Bolivia. A dad, a grandpa.

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