The Day Mesa Resigned


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Hundreds of thousands of Bolivians flooded La Paz today to demand the nationalization of the country’s energy resources as we begin week three of this phase of Bolivia’s Gas War.  Though it could have been the largest single march in this country’s recent history, this mass mobilization really was only the icing on the cake.  Because as La Paz streets turned into rivers of people, wiphalas, placards and banners, the strikes and blockades across the nation continued to work their tactical magic: El Alto, paralyzed for days; La Paz, a virtual island, with blockades at all entrances, lacking gasoline and certain food supplies; Cochabamba and Potosi, shut down by protesters; the nation’s highway system, over 70 impenetrable road blocks halting shipping and transport. From all angles, it was a day unlike the others.

By noon, people had filled San Francisco for a cabildo abierto (open public meeting) that demonstrated a growing unity and confidence. Within minutes of adjourning the cabildo to encircle the Plaza Murillo, the thousands of protesters were besieged by gas and rubber bullets.  The police were relentless, raining gas and rubber bullets upon crowds in all directions.  For the next hour, people were pushed block by block away from both San Francisco and the Plaza Murillo by the pursuant police.  As we made our way up and over from San Francisco, we could hear the alternating explosions of dynamite (protesters) and gas canisters (police) in the distance.

Everyone’s eyes were red; noses were running despite the coca leaves or pink toilet paper stuffed in nostrils for protection. And, it was then – before eyes had a chance to clear, before explosions had even subsided – that I was again reminded of the remarkable strength and will of the Bolivian people.  “Bajaremos!,” (Let’s go down!) people started calling. And within moments, the people on our corner were heading back down into the increasingly hazy area below.  Knowing that our companeros descending next to us were making history, Luis Gomez and I returned as well.  The next few hours were wave-like: people would fill a corner by the Plaza Murillo, or congregate in San Francisco, but at the first sign of critical mass, police would disperse the crowd.

The streets had calmed by dusk, but the rumor-mill hadn’t.  All day, there was speculation about how the government and/or military would respond to the events of today and the growing pressure of the strikes and blockades. It was unclear from one moment to the next whether Mesa was going to resign, whether there would be a right-wing military coup, or whether we would have to wait until tomorrow for any decisive action to be taken.  True clarity came at 9:45 pm when Mesa handed his resignation to Congress in a live speech from the Palace.

Though an action of sorts, Mesa’s resignation creates more questions than it answers because though many people in the streets are burning Mesa dolls in effigy, his action does nothing to address their primary demand of nationalization. Here are the complications: First, Mesa’s actual release of power is contingent on Congressional approval and we don’t know when the Congress is going to meet next, let alone how they will vote on this. Second, the next in line, President of the Senate Hormando Vaca Diez is a right-winger and supporter of regional autonomy who has minimal support outside of Santa Cruz and is hated by the social movements.  His ascension to power would only bring on a fierce leftist opposition. Third, should Vaca Diez be pressured to step down, new elections would be called within three months. This is theoretically, the best option on the table and it is what MAS and others are calling for. However, new elections do nothing – in and of themselves – to attain the nationalization of Bolivia’s natural resources. Leftist groups would have to transfer the momentum of the streets to a momentum of the ballot box if they wanted the outcome of this battle to have an effect on their primary goal.  In a country where the people have little faith in their elected officials (for perhaps good reason…), this is a risky and difficult task.

Fourth – and of immediate importance – is the question of tomorrow. Congress will not convene despite its promise and so the questions above will most likely, remain unanswered. Based on immediate reactions by movement leaders, Mesa’s resignation only strengthens the people’s resolve. The ongoing road blocks and strikes remain in effect. La Paz workers have announced for the first time in these few weeks, a general and indefinitely long strike starting tomorrow. On the streets, everyone that was present today is planning to return in the morning, plus some. The miners and the bulk of the Altiplano campesinos – the two most notoriously fierce social movement groups – will be in attendence. With the addition of these two and the increasing intolerance the police demonstrated today, tomorrow could be unlike anything we have seen yet.

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