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Penhaul: Why the 'original ones' protest in Bolivia

By Karl Penhaul
A woman is among protesters who jammed La Paz streets on Wednesday.
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Protestors want gas industry be nationalized, constitution rewritten

High taxes, low wages spark protests on streets of La Paz.

LA PAZ, Bolivia (CNN) -- If you're close enough, you can hear their sandals cut from old car tires slapping on the asphalt. If you're several blocks away, the protesters announce their approach with the blast of dynamite.

These men and women have been toughened by years of hard labor harvesting potatoes and herding llamas on the high-altitude plains or toiling deep in Bolivia's veins -- the nearly exhausted tin, gold and silver mines.

Most are Indian -- Aymara or Quechua. Look deep into their dark eyes and you can see their roots stretch back to before Inca times, long before the Spanish invasion some 500 years ago. They call themselves the "original ones."

Indian musicians spur on their fellow marchers with tunes from traditional instruments -- the banjo-like sound of the charango, a small guitar usually made from an armadillo shell, or the zampona, a reed flute that seems to echo the wind blowing across the Andes.

Many walked for seven days from far-flung villages. Their feet, as tough as boot leather they will never be able to afford, have swelled and blistered. Yet they press on.

They say they've covered more than 100 miles. But just two blocks from their target -- the national congress building and the presidential palace -- their way is blocked by riot police - the so-called Special Security Group, or GES in Spanish.

The demonstrators are rallying to a call by leftist labor unions and community organizations for the Bolivian government to nationalize the country's natural gas industry and toss out multinational corporations.

But their fight runs much deeper -- it's a fight against the free-market economic policies and globalization. Two-thirds of Bolivians survive on less than $500 a year, according to independent analysts.

This is a battle between the haves and the have-nots, between the downtrodden and desperately poor Indian and mestizo majority against the political and economic elites -- a fight some analysts say could be contagious across Latin America.

Bolivia, on the advice of Harvard-trained economist Jeffrey Sachs, activated some of the most radical free-market reforms anywhere in Latin America in the 1980s.

And as I look at the wooden sticks and dynamite fuses of demonstrators on one side and the riot shields and helmets of police on the other, it is clear this is the frontline of the fight back.

But thoughts of the wider war are reduced once again to the here and now when demonstrators lob two dynamite charges behind police lines. Police reel momentarily from the deafening blast. Then the battle is on.

Mesmerized by the camera viewfinder as tear gas canisters stream down La Paz's narrow streets, I forget to pull on my gas mask. I'm soon suffering the same pain as hundreds of Indian protesters and some of the police, who have been issued gas but no masks.

CS gas burns so fiercely it blinds you for several minutes. Even in a normal city it seems to make your throat and lungs contract so hard that you heave and wretch to try and suck in enough air to make it to the next second. But La Paz sits at almost 13,000 feet. The effort of climbing the narrow streets on any given day seems like moon walking for beginners.

So suck in as much tear gas as you can, close your eyes, then sprint to try and stay ahead of the stampede. You'll know what it feels like to suffocate.

The ensuing street fight is an uneven contest. It's a fluid confrontation. Clashes erupt in alleys and around corners and are lost and won in seconds.

Protesters rain down rocks and stones from slingshots. Police duck for cover. Then the crack of more rounds being fired into the air and fresh volleys of tear gas drive the mob back.

The demonstrators' most effective weapon is the dynamite charges the miners bring along. But the miners seem to have pulled out of the fray early.

San Francisco Plaza, site of a peaceful protest rally Monday, fills with clouds of tear gas. A handful of street traders are caught in the crossfire and are overcome. They sob as they explain they're just trying to make enough money to feed their family for the day.

The police wrest back control of the plaza and break up into small squads -- some on foot, some on motorcycles. They foray down sidestreets like marauding gangs and disperse small crowds before they can really mass again.

The smell of victory is the acrid stench of tear gas.

The security forces may have won today's battle but according to most political observers, Bolivia's war against globalization is far from over.

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