ONE OF George Bush's staunchest allies in Latin America had to flee his presidential palace in the Bolivian capital, La Paz, last week. Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, the multimillionaire businessman president, escaped hidden in the back of an ambulance as government buildings in the capital burned.
Outside the palace people and police were fighting - on the same side against troops sent to quell a mass rebellion against poverty. There were mass demonstrations and riots in La Paz and other key cities. A 48-hour general strike was called by the Bolivian Labour Federation. Even the police went on strike.
'The crisis has reached such a point that the guard dogs of the state have turned against it,' said Puca Wara, a socialist in the Bolivian city of Santa Cruz. In La Paz striking police and ordinary people fought running battles against troops, who shot at least 32 people dead. Sanchez de Lozada has, for now, survived in office.
But he has had to withdraw the tax rises and cuts that sparked the protests, promise wage rises to many groups, and sack his entire cabinet. The tax rises had been demanded by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and its backers in the US White House. They wanted ordinary Bolivians to pay so international bankers would continue to get interest on Bolivia's crushing debt burden.
The rebellion in Bolivia is a severe blow to the US. The US Washington Post paper reports, 'The country has become Washington's virtual standard bearer' in Latin America.
'Prior to last week's events, the Bolivian government had been the true believer of Washington's free market gospel.' The spark for rebellion was a government plan to freeze workers' salaries and impose a 12.5 increase in income tax. The Associated Press agency reported how in the capital, 'Word of the new tax spread quickly. Labourers and peasants expressed outrage. Shop owners simmered with anger.
'Soon, students in school uniform and taxi drivers took to the streets. Furious policemen then walked off their jobs to join demonstrators.'
People targeted, and set fire to, government buildings. The rebellion quickly spread to other key cities such as Santa Cruz and Cochabamba. An eyewitness in Cochabamba described how 'the city is shut down. The television blares images of police tear-gassing blockades on street corners only a few blocks away. You can hear the chants of protesters demanding their rights.
'Yesterday in the main square speakers with microphones called for all segments of Bolivian society to join together in the fight against government-induced poverty. The majority of the people support the mobilisation to protest against the efforts of their government and outside forces to deepen the devastating economic crisis that has left Bolivia the poorest country in South America. 'The decision to take to the streets is the only choice that many have left.'
The government measures threatened to plunge even more Bolivians into poverty. Years of IMF-backed neo-liberal policies have left over 60 percent of Bolivia's eight million people living on less than $2 a day. And, despite slavishly following IMF plans, the debt burden is crushing Bolivia's poor.
Sanchez de Lozada was economy minister in the 1980s when Bolivia's crucial tin industry was all but wiped out. That and the devastation of other industries has pushed more and more people to try and scratch a living in the countryside.
Many have turned to growing coca plants. Coca leaves are a traditional mild stimulant chewed by many people in the high altitudes of Bolivia. Some coca production has been used as the raw material for production of the drug cocaine.
But the government, backed by the US, has been waging war on all coca production, threatening to reduce even more people to destitution. This has fuelled mass protests by coca growers. One of the growers' leaders, Evo Morales, has become a key opposition figure and was at the centre of last week's protests. Morales only narrowly lost the presidential election last year.
The US has poured military aid into Bolivia under the cover of a 'war on drugs'. George Bush hopes to establish three major new military bases in Bolivia to project US power in a strategically vital region. The region is home to vital oil and gas supplies, above all in Venezuela and Colombia. Bolivia itself has some of the world's biggest reserves of natural gas.
President Sanchez de Lozada has made deals to exploit these reserves with companies including the now discredited Enron corporation as well as BP, Shell, British Gas, France's TotalFinaElf and Spain's Repsol. The rebellion in Bolivia has left Sanchez de Lozada hugely weakened, has terrified global corporations and badly rattled George Bush.
It shows how popular anger can explode and challenge the priorities of those at the top of the global system.
Spanish axis also hit by mass protests
SPAIN'S RIGHT wing prime minister was rocked by another huge demonstration in the capital, Madrid, on Sunday. At least half a million people marched angrily through the streets condemning the government for its handling of the Prestige oil tanker disaster. The demonstration came a week after one in ten of Spain's population joined huge anti-war marches.
The different issues are coming together into a general revolt against prime minister Jose Maria Aznar. The Prestige oil tanker sank off the coast of the Spanish province Galicia last November. It broke in two and spilled oil onto the coast, devastating the local coastline and fishing industry.
The Spanish authorities told the tanker to go out to sea, denying that there was any risk. When disaster struck, the government did little to combat it. Some have accused the government of sabotaging those who tried to contain the damage.
The wreck of the tanker still continues to leak oil. Sunday's protest came on the very day that Aznar was meeting George Bush to discuss plans for war on Iraq. Many on Sunday's march wore anti-war badges and stickers. One popular slogan was, 'Aznar, If you want oil go to Galicia!'