EL ALTO, BOLIVIA — EL ALTO, Bolivia - On a crisp day in this 13,000-foot-high urban slum, several dozen people squeeze into a cramped classroom, men leaning on wooden crutches, women wrapped in black shawls, young men, taking turns speaking and crying.
One young man asks, in a broken voice, that justice be done for his dead father. A hefty indigenous woman wearing a black bowler hat shouts angry and desperate words in Aymara. A shirtless man, a white bandage where his right arm used to be, sobs uncontrollably.
Some wounded and others mourning, all are casualties of the violence that broke out recently when soldiers opened fire on unarmed crowds blocking roads to protest a government plan to export gas to the United States and Mexico through a Chilean port. Ultimately, they forced the ouster of President Gonzalo "Goni" Sanchez de Lozada on Oct. 17.
The people gathered here in this orange-bricked sprawl on the outskirts of the capital, La Paz, to plead for financial compensation and to demand that Sanchez de Lozada, and his hard-line defense minister, Carlos Sanchez Berzan, be brought to justice.
Many also blame the United States for their suffering.
"They assassinated my son," says Francisco Vargas Mamani, his eyes glazing with tears. "Sanchez de Lozada is a gringo, and he was instructed by the United States. They're the guilty ones. They're the leaders who incited Sanchez de Lozada's government into massacring us."
The days when the U.S. government supported iron-fisted dictatorships in Latin America appear to be over. But some Bolivians say they have hardly noticed the difference.
"More people in Bolivia have been killed during the democratic government than by the dictatorship," says Sarah Gonzalez, of the La Paz-based Permanent Human Rights Assembly, which is leading an investigation into the violence. "It's been totally demoralizing. We're well into the 21st century, globalization and all, and people are still being killed."
According to the assembly, about 70 unarmed protesters were shot dead by police and soldiers during one week last month, and more than 400 people were wounded.
As the violence worsened and the death toll of protesters soared, the U.S. Embassy in Bolivia expressed concern that the protests represented "an attack against democracy and the constitutional order."
The statement went on to offer "full support" for the Sanchez de Lozada administration and to say that "sticks and rocks are not a form of peaceful protest."
The United States continued to back Sanchez de Lozada publicly until Oct. 17, when unremitting demonstrations, whose ranks were swelled by members of the middle class outraged at the killings, drove him out of power.
The United States "supported a government that was killing its own people by the dozens, they kept that government in office probably a week longer than it would have lasted otherwise, and they further alienated the people of this country," says Jim Shultz, executive director of the Cochabamba-based Democracy Center, a nonprofit organization that promotes civic participation and has chronicled recent conflicts in Bolivia.
Sanchez de Lozada fled to Miami after his resignation.
According to U.S. Ambassador David Greenlee, the United States has not censured the government for the killings because "whether the [Bolivian] government in this case went beyond what was necessary, we do not yet have enough information to say."
"A constitutional government has the right to defend itself," Greenlee said in an interview at the fortresslike embassy. "The United States was on the side of being careful about the forms ofdemocracy. This is a country with weak institutions. And these forms are important. When you lose the structures ... when you use demonstrations to threaten a president and throw him out because you don't like him, you risk losing everything."
Anti-imperialist rhetoric has flourished in Bolivia, where the U.S. government is widely seen as the principal power broker, coercing the government into adopting unpopular policies.
Perhaps no Bolivian government policy has been as unpopular as the forced eradication of coca plants, carried out in the subtropical region of Chapare as part of the U.S.-led war on drugs.
Moira Paz Estenssoro, a senator in Sanchez de Lozada's Nationalist Revolutionary Movement party, says the forced eradication of the region's main cash crop, which can be used to make cocaine, slashed the Bolivian economy by a third.
"We were left without 500, 600 million dollars in the economy and 40,000, 50,000 poor families without an activity," says Paz Estenssoro. "If you don't have certain agreements with the U.S., you have its veto in the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the Consultative Group in Paris."
The region of the Chapare has been transformed into a militarized zone with highway checkpoints, a scattering of military bases and temporary camps, and jails overflowing with drug offenders.
Anti-drug efforts have stirred resentment among poor and indigenous Bolivians, who make up a majority of the population, although the government has long been dominated by a white elite. Considered sacred in indigenous cultures, the coca leaf is used in religious ceremonies and has been chewed for centuries in the Andean region as a mild stimulant and hunger suppressant.
The anti-drug policies have also sparked determined resistance from tens of thousands of organized coca-farming families called cocaleros, who block roads in protest and defend their fields with sticks and dynamite.
"The money from the United States is in the name of eradication, but it comes to us as bullets, machine guns, tear gas and deaths," says Leonilda Zurita, 34, a mother of two and leader of an organization of women cocaleros. "We're not fighting against Goni, but against the United States."
Other policies - including deregulation, the privatization of state-owned companies and the reduction of tariffs, usually accompanied by fiscal austerity measures - were embraced by governments throughout Latin America in the past two decades at the urging of the United States and international lending agencies. But growing poverty and unemployment have produced a backlash in recent years, perhaps nowhere so ferociously as in Bolivia, the second-poorest country in the hemisphere.
Two years ago in Cochabamba, neighborhood groups, students, union workers and farmers brought the city to a halt with demonstrations and road blockades in opposition to the privatized water service. Dubbed the "water war," the protests ultimately forced the government to rescind its contract with a subsidiary of Bechtel, a multinational construction firm based in San Francisco.
In February, police mutinied after the government announced a new income tax to satisfy loan conditions set by the International Monetary Fund. The mutiny exploded in a bloody firefight between police and soldiers outside the presidential mansion in which 35 people, most of them civilians, were killed.
"After five years of recession, it's very difficult to ask people to pay more taxes," says Paz Estenssoro. "We have gone through all the recipes of free market, we have gone through democracy, but we haven't been able to improve the standard of living of our countrymen."
Last month's demonstrations were dubbed the "gas war," after a plan to allow a consortium of three multinational companies to export gas primarily to the energy-hungry California market. The organizations that spearheaded the protests have demanded the resource be industrialized in Bolivia, and that laws opening the gas and oil industry to private investment - passed during Sanchez de Lozada's first term as president from 1993 to 1997 - be overhauled.
A multimillionaire who grew up in the United States, Sanchez de Lozada is disparagingly referred to as El Gringo in Bolivia because he speaks Spanish with an accent and was widely viewed here as a puppet of Washington.
The word gringo can be used affectionately, but these days in Bolivia, it is often spat with venom.
"The coca issue is the most visible symbol of the U.S. forcing its will on Bolivia, but it's not the only one," says Shultz. "There's this sense that the U.S. government, multinational companies and international organizations are calling the shots in Bolivia, and Bolivians have no democratic means to influence these decisions. So what you get are protests and anger."
Greenlee denies that the United States influences the policies of the Bolivian government.
"The U.S. is a very big player here, so it is natural for people to look to the U.S. either as the bogey or the savior," says Greenlee. "We have a large embassy and a large aid mission. We are the principal donors. We are perceived to have tremendous influence in the country. That perception is very much overblown. We do not try to run this country."