Bolivia’s Gas War Protests


In
September and early October, road blockades, protests, and strikes
gained momentum across Bolivia as new sectors entered the movement
against the exportation of the country’s gas to the U.S. 

On
Monday, September 29, Bolivia’s labor union, COB, called a
national strike against the exportation of the country’s gas.
COB leaders also demanded President Sánchez de Lozada’s
resignation. Though extensive protests and strikes in La Paz and,
to a lesser degree, in other cities, the demands from various sectors
differed as much as their methods of protest. Some marched demanding
better wages; others went on hunger strikes until local political
leaders were released from jail. Some blockaded roads to end coca
eradication laws, while others protested against the ALCA free trade
agreement. One chant was present everywhere, “el gas no se
vende” (the gas is not for sale). 

Solving
Economic Problems? 

Historically,
Bolivia has been rich in natural resources such as gold, tin, and
coal, all of which were exported out of the country by foreign companies
that made enormous profits while Bolivia struggled on. In the recent
gas war, many Bolivians are trying to make sure that history does
not repeat itself. 

However,
many U.S. energy companies are pressuring Bolivia with trade agreements
for the gas. Furthermore, the Bolivian government is more anxious
for the deal to go through than the U.S. investors are; they see
it as the solution to all the country’s economic problems.
Yet, the agreement with the U.S. investors states that only 18 percent
of the future profits from the exportation of the gas will go to
Bolivia. Instead of creating solutions for the country, so far,
the gas issue has only created greater conflict. 

When
commenting on the social unrest dividing Bolivia, President de Lozada
said to reporters, “These problems and difficulties are born
of what I consider a very radical group in Bolivian society that
believes they can govern from the streets and not from Congress
or the institutions” (BBC, 10/1/03). 

But
the Bolivian government leaves the people no other choice. The traditional
political parties in the government are more concerned with conserving
their own power than representing the views of the opposition and
citizens in the country. In a recent meeting over congressional
appointments, traditional party members fought over key posts in
the state house while opposition parties, such as MAS and MIP, were
left waiting in Congress for over 12 hours without being able to
take part in the meeting. Although social unrest increased daily,
legislators spent months bickering over party control of appointments,
such as that of the Human Rights Ombudsperson. Protesting sectors,
such as coca growers and campesinos, as well as the political parties
that represent them, have stated that if the previous Ombudsperson,
Ana Maria Romero de Campero is not re-elected, mobilizations will
multiply. 

These procedures
have pushed a discontented populace to direct action. The government
appears unable and unwilling to address this social unrest, creating
the possibility for renewed military and police excessive use of force,
which provoked six deaths in Warisata on September 20. 

But
after the violent events in Warisata, confrontations between security
forces and people blockading roads and urban protestors have not
resulted in any further deaths. There have been numerous deten-
tions, mistreatment of protesters, and some injuries. 

Divisions
Deepen 

The
conflict in Warisata caused campesinos and government officials
to become even more entrenched in their positions. Felipe Quispe,
campesino leader, has stated that he will not participate in dialogue
with the government until the military withdraws from blockaded
areas. The government refuses to negotiate with Quispe because they
believe he is not representative of the campesino movement, although
he is leading the most intense road blockade campaign in the country. 

In
the meantime, coca farmers in the Yungas region began blockading
roads on October 2. Coca grower representatives from the Chapare
region, including Evo Morales, have suggested that there may be
more blockades. So far, this group and the Movement Towards Socialism
Party (MAS) have focused on demanding the re-election of Romero
de Campero. Chapare coca growers also protest the persecution of
their leaders, most recently the terrorism charges against MAS councilperson,
Juana Quispe. 

During
the September 29 protests in La Paz, Jorge Alvarado, a MAS representative,
said, “The gas should be used for the progress of the country,
to benefit Bolivians and not simply be sold in favor to other countries.
Now is the time for the current government to listen to great majority
of the country, to wake up from their lethargy and begin to realize
that the gas should be used for national development” (El
Diario
, 10/1/03). However, sectors in favor of the exportation
maintain that even if the gas remains in Bolivia, there is not enough
money to industrialize it and that the only way to profit from the
natural resource is to export it now. 

A
History of Protest 

In
the water wars of 2000 and the riots against a proposed income tax
in February 2003, grassroots protests overturned unpopular policy
in Bolivia. Three years ago, opposition groups in Cochabamba kicked
out foreign investors that had privatized the region’s water.
In February 2003, during a series of riots and national protests,
the Bolivian public rejected an income tax that was proposed by
the government and recommended by the IMF. 

The
pressing question in Bolivia now is will the movement against the
exportation of Bolivia’s gas be similarly successful? The Interim
Human Rights Ombudsperson, Carmen Beatriz Ruiz, warned that “If
the parties in conflict do not begin dialogue, the situation will
spin of control at any moment” (La Prensa, 10/3/03).
Meanwhile, the largest natural gas reserves in Latin America sit,
waiting.
 


Benjamin Dangl
works for the Andean Information Network in Cochabamba, Bolivia. To
receive updates contact: [email protected]