For over 90 days prior to the occupation, thousands of small debtors had been coming to La Paz from all over Bolivia to join the protest movement of over 12,000 workers, farmers and unemployed who had borrowed small sums of money from private banks, and were now suffering from the banks extortionate practices. The amounts borrowed ranged from 100 to 5,000 dollars each.
The recent droughts in Bolivia, the country's worsening economic crisis, and the merciless usury practiced by the banks, combined to make it impossible for people to meet their bank repayments. In many cases the banks filed suits against the debtors and requistioned their meager belongings. Many of the debtors were reduced to living on the street. For some the misery and desperation caused by the banks' actions proved too much and since the protests began at least 6 of the small debtors have committed suicide.
After the first group of activists entered the bank, unnoticed by security guards, others followed carrying sticks of dynamite, molotovs and gasoline. From the top floor of the building dynamite was thrown into the Isabel la Catolica plaza below, preventing police from entering. To stop police intervention, the top-level bank officials were tied up and attached to bundles of dynamite. Several debtors then proceeded to the balconies of the 5th floor of the building and using bullhorns gave speeches explaining their protest. They demanded a total cancellation of their debt and an end to the banks' actions against them.
At this point negotiations began between government officials, top banking authorities, leading church figures, representatives of human rights groups and members of the anarchist-feminist organisation, Mujeres Creando, who were representing the small debtors. The anarcha-feminists had helped to organise the small debtors and had been active in the small debtors' organisation during the 90 days of protest. Initial reports of the bank occupation claimed that members of Mujeres Creando were involved. Mujeres Creando, however, have denied any participation in the bank occupation itself, insisting they are a strictly peaceful organisation. Negotiations led to the release of the hostages and the activists left the bank building. The agreements reached included reconciliation of accounts with debts of less than 5,000 dollars, investigations of cases of usury, recognition of the anarchists as facilitators in the negotiations and government payments to the banks for suspension of legal proceedings against the debtors.
The debtors forced the banks and government to listen to their demands and won important concessions. However many people fear that the banks will renege on their promises once the pressure has been eased. Despite assurances from the goverment that once the occupation ended the activists would not face government repression, at least 70 activists were arrested soon after they left the bank building. Other small debtors, fearful of government repression, took refuge in the University of La Paz and refused to leave.
The stance taken by Mujeres Creando is not shared by most other anarchist groups in the region who have, in general, applauded the combative spirit of the small debtors and who recognise that it is only through direct action that the workers will succeed in their struggle for justice.
Workers Solidarity Movement