Bolivia Back to the Streets? Natural Gas and Popular Struggle


After about a month and a half of relative dormancy, the beginning of last week saw the first interesting signs of renewed life from popular forces in Bolivia. On Monday, May 3, three congressmen and one senator of the party Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) – Iván Morales, Germán Yucra, Félix Santos, and Bonifaz Bellido – wore balaclavas (ski masks) to a session of Congress. They were expressing their solidarity with Mexico’s Zapatistas, as the special session of Congress was taking place to greet right-wing Mexican president Vicente Fox who was in the country to secure a deal for natural gas exports from Bolivia to Mexico. The mainstream press was suitably disgusted with the utterly juvenile behaviour of this party of delinquent Indians and socialists. The influential daily La Razon, in a regular news story, expressed its horror: “Like this they received an official guest of the state of Bolivia, during a session of honour.” The reader’s jaw was expected to drop. For the first time in months I was impressed with some members of the MAS.

But it was later in the week that the basis was laid for what could become Bolivia’s next wave of street protests, marches, and road blockades. On Thursday, May 5 the lower house of Congress approved a new law on natural gas, after it had travelled through the lower house, then to the Senate for amendments, then back to the lower house for the past nine months. From Thursday, the president, Carlos Mesa Gisbert, has 10 days to approve or veto the law, and he is expected by most to do the former.

The flavour of the law is best expressed in the parties that supported and opposed it. The neoliberal parties of the ex-megacoalition under ousted ex-president Gonzalo (Goni) Sánchez de Lozada – MNR, NFR, MIR, and ADN – constituted the 59 votes in favour. The MAS, MIP (both indigenous/Left parties), UCS, and some individual congress people from the MNR, MIR, and NFR constituted the 48 votes against, while three blank votes were cast. According to a whole array of the most important popular organizations within radical Bolivian society the law falls far short of the nationalization demanded in the massive rebellion of October 2003, popularly known as the Gas War. According to Edgar Ramos Andrade (in his book Agonía y Rebelión Social: 543 motivos de justicia urgente), 73 people died, and over 400 were injured by bullets during that insurrection which successfully forced Goni out of the presidency and into exile in the United States. The new law, according to many social movement leaders, makes a mockery of those dead and wounded. According to Roberto de la Cruz, ex-secretary general of the Regional Workers Central of El Alto (COR-El Alto), and key leader during the October rebellion, “The spilt blood of more than 80 compatriots has been in vane. The parliamentarians are making a joke of that blood.”

Country-wide Popular Forces Plan Actions

Last March it seemed briefly that the notoriously divided and personalistic Left in Bolivia had come together to fight the Mesa regime and neoliberalism with renewed energy. An “anti-oligarchic pact” was signed by Evo Morales (leader of the MAS), Jaime Solares (leader of the Bolivian Workers Central, COB), Felipe Quispe and Román Loayza (leaders of the peasant union, CSUTCB), Roberto de la Cruz, Alejo Véliz (leader of the Trópico de Cochabamba, an association of coca growers), leaders of the Bolivian Landless Movement (MST), Omar Fernandez (who played a key role in the Water War of 2000 in Cochabamba), Óscar Olivera (from the Coordinator of Water and Gas, and key leader in the Water War of 2000), among others. The pact, though, seemingly had a short shelf-life, with leaders renewing their name-calling and divisiveness quickly after the historic meeting.

However, this new natural gas law has apparently brought new life to the union between social movements, with a big strategizing session of many social movement groups planned for today in the city of Santa Cruz. In addition to this important development, many social movement and workers organizations in different parts of the country have already started announcing particular actions.

Abel Mamani, leader of the Federation of United Neighbours of El Alto (FEJUVE El Alto, perhaps the most important social movement organization in the country at the moment) says, “Our objective is the total recuperation of hydrocarbons (the major one being natural gas).” A recent manifesto emitted by the Federation says that parliament is a group of traitors to the nation and should be shut down. It declares further, that FEJUVE-El Alto will now take actions into its own hands. There is a general assembly being held this Wednesday May 11, to determine exactly what action will be taken. According to Mamani, “We would be incoherent, irresponsible, and anti-patriotic if we said that this law satisfied everyone. We know that the mission of every patriot in the country is the recuperation of what we gave away through the irresponsibility of those in government. We don’t recognize the approval of this Hydrocarbons Law.”

Jaime Solares, leader of the Bolivian Workers Central (COB) has declared, “The only hope we have is that the people take to the streets,” to ensure a law is not passed that only favours transnational corporations. Óscar Olivera announced that this week measures will be taken in Cochabamba, including marches to La Paz, blockades of the highways, and even the taking of natural gas wells. Román Loayza of the CSUTCB emphasizes the importance of the reunion planned for today in Santa Cruz, which he says will include social movements of various types in addition to the participation of the political parties, MAS and MIP (Indigenous Pachakuti Movement). CSUTCB is planning a march from Caracollo on the morning of Tuesday May 10, as well as numerous road blockades.

Also, in Cochabamba various groups of peasants, workers and coca growers have threatened to convulse the entire country this week, demanding the closing of Parliament and the rejection of the new law. The indigenous organization CONAMAQ, together with the women’s peasant-indigenous organization, the Bartolina Sisa Association, has decided to initiate road blockades, especially around the rights of indigenous people to veto natural gas development projects in their territories, a right earlier considered in Congress, but rejected in the law just approved by the lower house. In short, this week should be interesting, even if social movements are unable to carry out all of their extremely ambitious actions.

Imperial Discontent and the Worried Face of the Local Bourgeoisie

Of course, for transnational petroleum companies with interests in Bolivia, as for local bourgeoisies from various sectors, the new law is “confiscatory” and the threats by social movements threaten the “legal security” needed to attract foreign investment into the country. Since becoming Secretary of State of the United States in late January of this year, Condoleeza Rice has been highlighting the numerous threats posed in the Andean region of Latin America, with Venezuela under Chávez and the war in Colombia top priorities, followed thereafter by the recent mobilizations and ousting of a president last month in Ecuador, and the frightening popularity of the Movement Toward Socialism in Bolivia. This new law and the mobilizations it’s inspiring are not likely to make the American administration any happier.

US Treasury Department`s Assisant Secretary of International Affairs, Randal Quarles – while unwilling to make an “official” statement while president Mesa was still deliberating over what action to take – noted that if the law goes into effect, “it is a sure thing that the first measure would be the suspension of investments, at minimum while Bolivia continues this uncertainty.” He further pointed to the vulnerability of the Bolivian state in relation to the International Monetary fund (IMF), the World Bank, and the Inter-American Development Bank, all of which would be monitoring closely Bolivia’s action on natural gas, and would be considering their manipulation of lines of credit to the Bolivian state. In March, 2005 Mesa signed a Stand By loan with the IMF that promised to respect existing contracts and to develop an attractive environment for foreign investment.

Meanwhile, the Bolivian House of Hydrocarbons, the peek organization of the petroleum companies that operate within Bolivia, has threatened to stop their activities and investments in the country if this law is not vetoed by the President. The Confederation of Private Businesses of Bolivia has likewise come out strongly against the law, and has made clear that the social movement threats of mobilization threaten the “legal security” necessary for a healthy business environment. In the past this has been the not so subtle code-speech for the need for the state to bust heads if social movements mobilize and block roads.

The country’s deep injustices of class and racial apartheid are once again rising to the surface in a politicized moment. Confrontation and conflict seem likely to hold sway over the coming weeks.

Jeffery R. Webber is a PhD Candidate in Political Science at the University of Toronto and a member of the Canadian New Socialist Group.He is currently in Bolivia. With archives from La Razon, La Prensa, Pulso, and El Mundo.

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