Bolivia: A Nation Holds Its Breath


As the dust settles from a wave of mobilisations that paralysed a nation, Bolivia finds itself with a president increasingly unable to govern. Once again, the indigenous peoples of Bolivia have shown that real power lies in the streets.

On March 4 the lower house of parliament approved an article that would keep gas royalties at 18%, well short of the 50% that the social movements had been demanding. Although the bill’s legitimacy was successfully challenged in parliament by the New Republican Force (NFR) and the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), MAS leader Evo Morales called on all the social movements to join protests on the streets and “blockade parliament” until a bill more favourable to Bolivia’s poor was passed.

Peasants responded by forcing the shutdown of four oilfields in Bulo Bulo near Cochabamba; coca farmers (cocaleros) from the Chapare region blocked access into five key regions; and the country became engulfed in a series of strikes, marches and vigils.

The battle for Bolivia’s gas Regarded as the poorest nation in South America, Bolivia sits on top of approximately 1.5 trillion cubic metres of gas, worth more than US$1.5 billion at current market prices. Currently, however, transnationals such as British Gas, Repsol and British Petroleum are pocketing the big profits. Their deals with Bolivia’s neoliberal government ensure a profit return of $10 for every dollar invested, while Bolivians pay 12-times the price that the gas is initially sold to the transnationals.

Reclaiming the gas profits has become a touchstone issue for Bolivia’s indigenous and poor, who believe it may offer the country a way out of poverty. “First, they took our silver, then they took our tin, they took everything. The oil and gas is all we’ve got left. We Bolivians have woken up, we won’t let them have it”, Bolivian Carmelo Colque told the March 15 British Guardian.

Bolivia was one of the first Latin American countries to have neoliberal policies imposed upon it. The 1985 privatisation of Bolivia’s mines changed the political landscape of the country. Forty thousand miners — Bolivia’s most militant organised trade unionists and the bedrock of many left movements — lost their jobs.

Since 2000, however, a new militant movement for progressive change has been exploding from the indigenous peoples of the country. The Aymara and Quechua indigenous peoples make up 67% of the Bolivian population and the vast bulk of the poor, including of the sacked miners. As they were forced out of the mines, many turned to growing coca, forming the backbone of the cocalero movement.

Washington has been trying to use the “war on drugs” to justify pushing Bolivia to eliminate coca growing. However, in Bolivia, coca is widely chewed as a stimulant, and viewed as a central part of the country’s culture.

The cocaleros, with militant union experience and a strong sense of national indigenous culture, have thus become the frontline of resistance to US militarised intervention in the country. The coca leaf has come to represent the basic right of the Bolivian people to live a peaceful, dignified life without foreign intervention. Morales is a leader of this struggle,, with which MAS is closely identified.

In 2000, Bechtel, which had just bought the newly privatised water supply contract, raised the price of newly privatised water by 400%, and started charging for collected rainwater. The resulting rebellion forced the re-nationalisation of the water supply.

A leader of the struggle, Oscar Olivera, commented recently on this victory: “The social movements of one of the poorest countries in the continent had dealt the first grand defeat to globalisation”. The Bolivian peoples’ success in reversing the neoliberal trend gave a huge confidence boost to the indigenous movement, which stepped up its struggle to reclaim their culture, territory and country’s wealth.

In 2002, Morales came a close second in an election for the presidency, and MAS and the Pachakuti Indigenous Movement (MIP) captured control of one-third of parliament, marking a rupture in the pro-neoliberal grip on parliamentary power.

By October 2003, the question of control of the gas supply had taken centre stage in the country’s political battles, triggering a mass uprising that forced then-President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada to flee to Miami by helicopter. Carlos Mesa was installed as president, promising to hold a referendum on increasing gas royalties.

However, while Mesa’s 18 months in power have provided a semblance of stability, it was an illusion. Walking a tightrope of trying to pacify the gas company elites, and the left, Mesa has faced more than 800 protests during his term in office. His gas referendum last June, in which his proposals came under fire from both the cocaleros and the gas industry, was only successful because he secured the backing of Morales.

Following the referendum, however, tension began growing between Mesa and Morales as Mesa continued to drift to the right, refusing to push forward with the demands that he had agreed to implement upon coming into power. Mesa proposed a hydrocarbon bill that offered far less than what the poor had thought they voted for.

In January, when Mesa increased taxes on diesel and petrol, Morales referred to him as “the worst enemy of the people”. Within weeks, Mesa was forced by protests, including road blockades and strikes, to partially back down on the increases.

Mesa manoeuvres

Hoping to rally his middle-class support base in La Paz and some of the other bigger cities, Mesa announced on March 6 that he would resign as the country had become “ungovernable”. Mesa was also hoping that the threat of him handing power to the parliamentary president, Hormando Vaca Diez, who is tied closely to the gas transnationals and the US government, would force the left to back off.

Mesa used his speech to condemn protesters, singling out Morales and Abel Mamani, leader of FEJUVE, which groups together around 600 neighbourhood committees in the militant city of El Alto. According to the March 10 Economist, Mamani conceded that the announcement temporarily weakened the blockades. The March 11 Pagina 12 noted that some

sectors like those in Sucre lifted their blockades. Demonstrators outside parliament, predominantly from the urban middle class, pleaded with Mesa to stay, chanting “Down with Evo!”

The left differed on how to respond. Some leaders, including Roberto de la Cruz, a leader of the October 2003 uprising, and Morales rejected Mesa’s resignation outright. Mamani declared in the March 11 Pagina 12 “We have never asked for the president’s resignation.”

Felipe Quispe, leader of the peasant federation CSUTCB, was quoted in the same article calling on indigenous deputies to vote for new elections. Jamie Solares, leader of the Bolivian Workers Central (COB), agreed.

Mesa’s tactic seemed to get him the confidence of the right parties that have previously distanced themselves from him. A pact signed by all the neoliberal parties in parliament, not dissimilar to the “mega-coalition” which supported Sanchez de Lozada, rejected the resignation and promised to pass the hydrocarbon law Mesa had been pushing for. Mesa “agreed” to stay on, claiming a greater mandate.

Left unites

However, Mesa’s attempt to scare Morales back into the fold backfired. Instead, Morales became more radical, and the left began to reunite from its fragmenting state. Earlier this year, Morales was expelled from COB for being a “traitor”. However, on March 16, Morales, Solares, Quispe and Olivera met in COB’s headquarters, with others, to sign a “Unity Pact for Dignity and National Sovereignty” and to re-form the Peoples General Staff to coordinate the nation’s social movements. The meeting called for the extension of the blockades, and key demands, including raising gas royalties to 50%.

Not all MAS leaders agree. On March 11, Bolpress reported that Carlos Sandy, who is part of a pro-Mesa parliamentary bloc involving some MAS MPs, said Morales was aligning himself with “political corpses” who “did not represent the population.”

However, facing more than 100 road blockades, shutting down access to seven of Bolivia’s nine departments (states), and a planned 48-hour strike by COB, Mesa was forced to publicly apologise to Morales in an attempt to get the cocalero leader to meet with him. But the four-hour meeting resolved nothing.

Describing himself as “blockaded in Congress, and blockaded in the streets”, on March 15, the day before the COB strike was due to start, Mesa announced that he would move to push elections forward by two years to August this year, or else he would resign.

However, on March 16, after a marathon debate, parliament’s lower house passed a hydrocarbon law. The new law, seen as a third way betwen Mesa and Morales’ bills, proposed to keep royalties at 18% and impose an immediate tax of 32%, with no possibilities of reductions or compensation. This means that the state will receive an estimate US$500-600 million dollars in revenue, not quite the US$750 million Morales wanted, but well above the US$150 million currently collected.

The law also ggives the companies 180 days before they would be forced to move over to new contracts and hands over greater control of gas at the production stage to the state owned YPFB. Indigenous people would have to be consulted on further gas exploration in their territories, as well as receive compensation.

Cuba’s Prensa Latina news service reported on March 17 that “Oil Minister Guillermo Torres said some transnationals like British Gas, Exxon-Mobil and Spain’s Repsol YFP are threatening to sue the Bolivian government” in response to the passage of the new bill.

On March 18, Technit and Repsol YPF put on hold their project to import 20 million cubic metres of Bolivian gas per day to north Argentina.

Uneasy truce The response from the social movements was mixed. Morales stated that “although it was not a total success, in large part and in the key points, the Bolivian people have won.” At a press conference following a meeting of the Peoples General Staff on March 16, Morales and Solares announced a “truce” in the road blockades, “although marches and other actions” would continue in anticipation of what the Senate would do next.

Quispe, whom the media describe as being unhappy with the latest moves, left the reunion early, whilst Gualberto Choque, leader of the federation of peasants in La Paz noted “the Aymara nation has decided to join in the blockades with all its force, and the new posture of Morales and other leaders leave us disconcerted”.

FEJUVE, which did not join the pact due to its distrust of MAS and MIP, has rejected the law. According to a march 16 report by Claudia Espinoza on Bolivia’s Indymedia, FEJUVE’s resolutions included an acknowledgment of the “need to find mechanisms ourselves for self-government and to do that we need to find unity amongst all the impoverished and marginalized sectors.”

On March 17, a national meeting of COB approved the continuation of the social pact. While La Patria reported that some leaders discussed the possibility of attempting to take power and shutting down parliament, the only agreed upon resolution stated, in part: “The whole world supports the unity pact, now is the time for us to prepare of an indefinite general strike, with blockades across the country…. under the demand of nationalisation of hydrocarbons.”

The bill now has to pass through the Senate before reaching Mesa, who by law can veto it. Mesa has stated several times that the new bill would mean political suicide.

J. Osvaldo Calle Quiñonez commented on Bolpress on March 18, “Mesa has stayed in power, but everything stays the same, perhaps even worse, as the president has begun to lose the sympathy of the middle class.”

He added “political analysis agree on the necessity of Mesa to once again move closer to Morales and the social movements, yet the possibilities seem remote, because now the president is identified as a defender of the interests of the petroleum transnationals”

Leftist political analyst Walter Chavez agreed, being quoted on March 18 by Prensa Latina: “Mesa came out defeated from the crisis, which has its winner… Evo Morales, for being able to recuperate leadership of the social movements.”

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