Report from Bolivia

Cochabamba, Bolivia
May 18, 2004

Last October, Bolivians ousted Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada from the presidency. Many issues led to his ouster, but perhaps the most important one was the issue of exporting oil to Chile There was also the attempt to privatize the water supply in
Cochabamba. “Goni,” as he is popularly known awarded the contract to a French company. There was also the organized opposition by the “cocaleros” opposing the US sponsored “crop eradication” program. Coca has a very different meaning to people here (I might add also in Peru and Ecuador. more on this later).

The issue of “the exportation of gas” has once again reared its head and could possibly threaten the presidency of Carlos D. Mesa. The threat increases as other issues converge to make the threat real. These are (not necessarily in the order of importance):

1. The exportation of gas, this time to
Argentina for even a lower price than that offered to the Chileans. Many Bolivians believe that this country will re-export it to Chile. Bolivians remember loosing their access to the Pacific Ocean in a war with Chile in 1879. So there is historical basis for this animosity towards Chile.

But more than the issue of exportation is the issue of whether
Bolivia should export a raw material rather than its processed product. The groups opposed to the exportation would prefer to use set up processing plants here which would help industrialize the country. They cite studies that mention three foreign companies that have offered to do so including the Japanese firm, Mitsubishi. Five transnational corporation have a virtual monopoly of the oil industry in this country.

Uruguay, Argentina and Chile are suffering an energy crisis which will increase as winter approaches. These countries will need the gas to heat their homes, etc. Factor in the increase in price of gas with the killing of Georgie Boy’s man in Iraq)

2. Last week, the Constitutional Tribunal (functional equivalent of your Supreme Court) ruled that military officers involved in the “febrero negro” massacre (Black February) can be tried in civilian courts. Immediately, the military high command opposed this decision and made public their position. ( The military said this decision threatens democratic institutions. Yes, I know this sounds really off the wall but they said it. Last Saturday in the capital
La Paz, soldiers were seen all over the city. Though they were unarmed, some Bolivians interpreted this as a veiled threat). The Bolivian Senate passed a measure siding with the military. The latter would prefer a military court where they may end up with a slap on the wrist.

Yesterday, the Constitutional Tribunal reaffirmed its decision.

3. Last week, the Senate also approved a bill granting immunity to US soldiers for whatever offense they may commit in this country. The measure passed the Senate without debate and only took all of 10 minutes.

US maintains a military detachment in Trinidad in the department of Beni. Ostensibly they are there as part of the drug interdiction/eradication program ( On my first trip to Cochabamba from La Paz, several were on the same commercial flight with me. Apparently they did not think I knew English. Their short military haircut and Danner boots and posture were dead giveaways).

4. Carlos D. Mesa also signed Decreto Supremo 27457 (I hesitate to translate this as Supreme Decree, it sounds more like Presidential Decree) which would effectively transfer responsibility for education, health and road maintenance to the prefectures.

Generally, decentralization is a fine thing. But according to my interviewee, a leader of the teachers’ union in
Sucre, this will effectively put teacher, health workers, road maintenance workers at the mercy of local political bosses who will make “political persuasion” the criteria for job retention.” The Federal government will provide the prefectures the budget but it will be the later that will administer these programs. There is also fear that because of endemic corruption the traditional benefits (e.g. aguinaldo or bonuses, etc) will not reach these government workers.

5. The land issue. Land reform legislations exist but they are not being implemented, especially in the western part of the country. Not surprisingly the Movimiento Sin Tierra or the Movement of the Landless has been engaging in land occupations, the most recent being in the department of
La Paz yesterday.

6. The government’s position on the marketing of coca leaves is that it is legal only in the traditional markets. This makes it legal in just a few places. The cocaleros insist that there are more traditional markets than the government recognizes. De facto, coca leaves are being sold in these unrecognized legal markets.

7. Students want an increase in the education budgets of their universities. As it is the budgets in specific universities are woefully inadequate. Some universities have been closed down by students.

8. Many other issues, about which I do not yet have enough knowledge. Miners, workers, etc.


One would think that the different groups in Bolivian civil society would coalesce and make their demands more forceful. This may yet happen. But as of this writing this is still not the case. But some groups have taken on multiple issues as their cause.

The Central Obrera Boliviana (COB), and its regional ally Central Obrera Regional de El Alto (COR): This is the group that really delivered the knockout punch to Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada last October. El Alto is very near
La Paz and must be the world’s largest slum area. The Maestros Urbanos and the Maestros Rurales have taken on the task of dealing with multiple issues. Apart from these mentioned groups other groups have made the “nationalization of hydrocarbons (i.e. gas), their primary issue while still addressing their particular demands. In the case of teachers, Decreto Supremo 27457.

I was in
Sucre yesterday, but I was able to watch the impressive rally at the main Plaza of the capital, Plaza de San Francisco on television . There was a march to the capital that started last week: Patacamaya called Marcha por la Vida, la Dignidad y la Recuperacion de los Hidrocarburos. As it proceeded, the number of marchers kept growing and when it passed El Alto, it really swelled. The march ended yesterday at the Plaza de San Francisco.

During the end of march rally, the spokesperson of COR asked the crowd what should be done with the petroleum industry. The predictable answer was “Nacionalizar.” This question has reference to the coming referendum on the issue of “gas exportation.” Many Bolivians fear that the referendum will not ask this very important question. But merely ask whether they approve of the way Carlos Mesa is managing the “gas issue.” In fact, a sample question made public indicated that this was going to be one of the several questions asked in the July 18 referendum.

There are still a lot of unanswered questions about this coming referendum. There is opposition from parts of the Senate and from some departments (e.g.
Santa Cruz, Tarifa, Beni). It is still not known whether the referendum will simply be a consultation or will be a determination. Then what questions will be asked. Also will there be enough time for an informational campaign that will present the issues in a way that most citizens will understand?

A couple of political parties (by definition not part of civil society) have sided with civil society groups on certain issues. Movimiento Izquierda Revolucionario (MIR) which has a couple of representatives in the Senate favors the nationalization of the industry. Surprisingly, Evo Morales who heads the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) has not made public the MAS position though he and four others leaders of the party had a private meeting with the president.

(Political parties here have impressive names but do not live up to the meaning of the names of their parties. Just a lot of empty phrase-mongering like
Mexico‘s Partido Revolucionario Institucional which held power for more than 70 years. Institutionalized yes, but Revolutionary? In your dreams Srs. Salinas de Gortari, Zedillo, etc. And so we have the leading Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario which is neither nationalistic nor revolutionary which led the approval of granting immunity to US soldiers).


The different civil society groups employ a variety of tactics which include road blockades (very popular), hunger strikes, demonstrations, marches but still dialogue with the government. Personally, I found the a tactic employed by the teachers called “bloqueo de mil esquinas” (blockade of a thousand corners) truly interesting. It reminded me of the “manifestaciones de tormentas” or the lightning demonstrations of the martial law years in the
Philippines. This consists of small groups in different locations of the city suddenly unfurling banners, placards of protests and before the police can do anything the demonstrators melt into the crowd.

The difference here is that the teachers block intersections, air the issues while the traffic is at a standstill, and they don’t melt into the crowd. They move to another intersection and do the whole thing all over again. Imagine, groups of teachers in
New York City doing this all over the place!


Chibu Lagman teaches sociology and Latin American Studies at Athabasca University in Alberta, Canada.

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