Bolivian Uprising Blow to Corporate Globalization
From the radio newsmagazine
Between The Lines
Between the Lines Q&A
A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
on national and international issues
under-reported in mainstream media
for release Oct. 27, 2003
Bolivian Uprising is Another Blow to Corporate Globalization in Latin America
Interview with Jim Schultz, executive director of the Democracy Center, conducted by Scott Harris
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After weeks of rising popular anger and police violence which killed some 75 protesters, Bolivian President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada resigned from office and fled to Miami. The latest in a series of confrontations between the country's poor majority indigenous population and the government involved widespread opposition to a deal that would have sold Bolivian natural gas to the U.S. and Mexico, via a Chilean port.
The outgoing president, a U.S. ally and staunch supporter of free trade and neoliberal economic policies, was replaced by his vice president, Carlos Mesa, a journalist and historian who is quite new to politics. As he was sworn into office, Mesa pledged to hold a national referendum to gain approval for any future arrangement to export Bolivian natural gas and to discuss limiting his own term in office by scheduling a special election.
Over the last several years, Bolivia's poor have risen up to overturn the privatization of a major city's water system and have derailed the International Monetary Fund's plan to impose harsh budget cuts to social services. Between the Lines' Scott Harris spoke with Jim Schultz, executive director of the Democracy Center in Cochabamba, Bolivia, who analyzes the roots of that nation's popular rebellion and the wider significance for the growing global and regional movement resisting U.S.-backed economic policies of free trade, privatization and concessions to multi-national corporations.
Jim Schultz: To put this in context, this was Bolivia's third war, or civic, uprising in three years over an issue that really is about globalization. In 2000, here in Cochabamba, we had a civic uprising when the Bechtel Corporation was given control of the public water system in Cochabamba and raised people's water rates unbelievably. A civic uprising kicked Bechtel out. In February, there was a civic uprising when the International Monetary Fund sought to impose an austerity package on the country. People did not accept it. There was an uprising in the nation's capital, La Paz. Thirty-three people were killed, but the IMF plans were shelved.
So, this (current) uprising which has been going on for almost a month, is about the sale of this very large reserve of natural gas that Bolivia has to California. People here just said no. They said no for two reasons: First of all, the plan that this company has, Pacific L&G, to sell the gas to California would pipe the gas through Chile. That runs into a deep historical memory here about the fact that in 1879, Chile basically stole Bolivia's last sea coast and made Bolivia a land-locked country. And so that really sparked a lot of opposition, the idea that this resource would go to Chile and that Chile would make as much or more money off it, as Bolivia would. But the other reason is, people understand that this gas deal was very important for the economic future of Bolivia. The level of corruption here is so high and the level of public trust in government is so low that the people said no: "If we have to wait 10 years, 20 years, we don't care, because we want to get a go vernment in place that we have faith in to cut this deal in a way that benefits the people." And so, you had road blockades, you had people coming out on the streets, you had a nationwide rebellion that just took on an energy of its own. The government of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada -- and I should say, in tactics that were absolutely and totally backed by the United States government -- responded not by having any kind of dialogue with the people, but sent out tanks, soldiers, and bullets. At least 75 people were killed here in the last month. Many of them shot at point-blank range by the army.
There's a report that the New York Times reported as well, that a soldier was shot by his superior officer because he refused to fire into a crowd. That buildup finally turned into a demand that the president resign. And the United States insisted for days and days and days that the president should stay. And people died in those days and days and days that didn't need to. And finally it became I think as clear to the U.S. embassy and to the president as it had been to everybody else that there was no way on earth that the president could stay. So on Friday, Oct. 17 he boarded a commercial flight to Miami and he's gone and I don't think he'll ever come back to the country again.
Between The Lines: Tell us a little bit about Carlos Mesa, the vice president and former historian who's now in the hot seat. He's the new president. What kind of challenges does he face in calming down a very angry nation?
Jim Schultz: He's a very interesting man in a very interesting situation. I interviewed him at length before, when he was still the vice president. He is probably the most well-respected historian in the country and more well-known here as a TV journalist. He was on television for years as one of the major journalists and one of his most noted books is actually a history of the presidency in Bolivia. So I think he has a deep historical perspective and we're in a moment of deep historical transition.
To be honest, either Carlos Mesa in this next period is an opportunity for Bolivia to find its way and to bring the various factions together and come up with peaceful solutions to the country's problems or I think that we're in for something much more bloody and violent and desperate than we just had.
(Carlos Mesa) has done a couple of things that are very risky but I think are right. The first thing he did, he stood before the Congress and he said there will be no political parties in my government. He's now going to try to be president of the country with no official base of political support. So he has to appeal directly to the people. At a symbolic level, he's doing all the right things. But we'll see. In my interview with him in May, he was much more of an advocate of the government's economic policies and of U.S. economic policies than he sounds like now.
Between The Lines: The events in Bolivia underscore growing global opposition to corporate-led globalization projects and policies around the world, but particularly in Latin America. What impact do you think the recent events in Bolivia will have on Latin America in particular?
Jim Schultz: I think the repercussions will be huge. A president of a country was kicked out as a result of a political fight over globalization. People are just beginning to tune into something that's been going on for awhile, which is, this pocket of South America is communicating a very powerful message to the world, not just about it wants, but about what it's willing to go through to get it, and its ability to win it.
Contact the Democracy Center by calling (415) 564-4767 or visit their website at http://www.democracyctr.org
Related links on our website at http://www.btlonlineorg.org for the week ending Oct. 31, 2003:
"Poor vs. Profit in Bolivian Revolt"
"Carlos Mesa New Leader in Troubled Bolivia as Former President Quits"
" Bolivia on 'Brink of Catastrophe,' U.S. Urged to Mediate"
" The World Trade Organization, The International Monetary Fund, and World Bank" International Forum on Globalization, www.ifg.org, "Analysis" link
"The IMF Fiddles While La Paz Burns"
Scott Harris is executive producer of Between The Lines, which can be heard on over 35 radio stations. This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines (http://www.btlonline.org), for the week ending Oct. 31, 2003. Between The Lines Q&A is compiled by Scott Harris and Anna Manzo.
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