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Green Left Weekly: Bolivia On The Brink

Bolivia On The Brink

James Lehrer, La Paz
Green Left Weekly

After three weeks of mobilisations in defence of Bolivia's gas reserves, the country's political crisis continues to deepen. A June 2 attempt to quash the crisis by President Carlos Mesa, by calling elections for a new assembly, and for a referendum on autonomy for the country's wealthier provinces, has done little more than enrage his opponents.

Demanding “nationalisation now”, a seemingly endless series of marches, strikes and blockades have saturated La Paz. In a city where few people normally smoke, people are everywhere drawing on cigarettes, applying the Bolivian antidote to tear gas.

Bolivia, regarded as the poorest nation in South America, is located on top of the second biggest gas reserve in the continent. For Bolivia's poor, this huge natural wealth poses a real way out of their poverty and misery.

This peoples' offensive follows a 19-month long public debate, including a referendum, since the “gas war” uprising in October 2003, which overthrew the previous president, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada. Lozada was responsible for signing gas contracts with transnationals that almost gave away Bolivia's gas.

Lozada's vice-president at the time, Mesa came to power promising to implement the “October Agenda” — nationalisation of the gas, the trial of those responsible for 67 deaths in the uprising, and a Constituent Assembly to rewrite the constitution as a way of refounding a new Bolivia: this time involving the indigenous majority.

The latest protest wave was sparked by Mesa’s May 17 decision to allow a new hydrocarbon bill, increasing taxes on multinationals but falling far short of popular demands, to be signed into effect. In response, tens of thousands protested, most now calling for nationalisation of gas, the resignation of Mesa and the formation of a new Constituent Assembly to replace the National Congress.

Escalating protest

In the days leading up to Mesa’s June 2 announcement, La Paz was host to escalating protest. A general strike initiated

by the powerful Federation of Neighbourhood Committees of El Alto (FEJUVE) has grown in strength since May 23. Traffic has been prevented from entering or leaving la Paz, and travel to and from Chile and Peru has been shut down. El Alto, the city that grew out of a shanty-town suburb of La Paz, has been the site of some of Bolivia’s most radical protests.

On May 30, behind the banner of the El Alto Regional Workers' Federation (COR — El Alto) 10,000 workers and street merchants descended on La Paz, their determined approach announced via dynamite blasts. This contingent was followed by a similarly sized contingent of Aymara indigenous peasant farmers. Thousands more cocaleros (coca farmers) from the Chapare region, aligned with MAS, also reached La Paz to join the 10,000 who had arrived the week before. At midday, an assembly was held to reaffirm the main demands.

On May 31, the National Congress was scheduled to meet in Plaza Murillo, which is in effect a militarised zone. The session was ostensibly held to discuss the demand of the wealthier provinces of Santa Cruz and Tarija for a referendum on autonomy.

This autonomy movement is an attempt by the European-descended elite of the east and the south, where the gas reserves are located, to get greater control over the resources and insulate themselves from the political influence of the western indigenous movements. The gas oligarchy, based predominately in Santa Cruz is also opposed to the new hydrocarbon law — because it claims it breaches the Lozada-signed contracts and amounts to “confiscation”.

To greet the congress, around 50,000 protesters filled the streets, bringing La Paz to a standstill. Given the severe economic insecurity facing most Bolivians, and the huge distances travelled to reach la Paz, this indicated a massive groundswell of opposition. This was, in part, a response to Mesa commenting that nationalisation is demanded by a “minority”, and that those leading the movement were “irresponsible”.

One of the key leaders of the movement, Evo Morales from the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), whose base is in the cocalero movement, asked his supporters to respect the congressional session.

Other sections of the movement including students from the Autonomous Public University of El Alto, tested the police barricades, receiving doses of tear gas for their efforts.

The Aymaras from El Alto and the surrounding rural areas, peasants from the south of La Paz, miners and public school teachers marched to the rich suburbs in the south of the city. Some of the El Alto neighbourhoods, together with the Aymara peasant farmers of the Omasuyos province, shut down Plaza Isabel la Catolica, 50 metres from the United States embassy.

Congress suspended

By 8pm, the expected session of the National Congress was suspended, leaving the issues of the autonomy referendum and the Constituents' Assembly undecided. MAS parliamentarians had demanded that legislative work begin, but the majority of the right-wing representatives did not attend the session, staying inside their hotels instead.

In the afternoon, the university students and the Movement of Unemployed Workers built barricades in the Plaza of Heroes, with the intention of blockading this key traffic hub for the night. The police responded with a massive dose of tear gas, chasing protesters up the steep cobblestone streets that climb the hills surrounding La Paz. There are also reports of several injuries from low-caliber “crowd-control” bullets.

On June 1, the people again descended on La Paz, though in smaller numbers, while the National Congress was suspended for the second consecutive day. Despite this the leaders of the political parties, including MAS, reached an agreement, dubbed the “National Accord for Bolivia”, to discuss the organisation of a Constituent Assembly and the right wing's demand for regional autonomy.

Cracks in the police?

In another key development, cracks began to appear in the loyalty of the police force. Bolivian police are poorly paid, mainly of indigenous origin, and many live in the shanty town of El Alto. On June 1 the media began reporting news of a mutiny within the police, specifically within Regiment No 1.

While the government denied the reports, an officer from that regiment called Radio Erbol and stated that his regiment had decided by consensus to stop going into the streets “to gas our women and our own children”. He went on to demand “total nationalisation of the hydrocarbons”. The government has in the past shipped in police from other regions to ensure they are prepared to fire on protesters.

Meanwhile, protests have begun to spread to most of the other departments, with an estimated 60% of major highways being blockaded. Large demonstrations were held in Cochabamba, and the Departmental Workers Confederation of Potosi called for an indefinite general strike starting June 2. In Santa Cruz a march of indigenous peoples was violently attacked by fascist Cruzista Youth Union. A 48-hour strike from June 2 of bus drivers cleared the streets of traffic. Many shops didn’t open.

Too little, too late

On the evening of June 2, after three days of deadlock in Congress, Mesa used his executive powers to convoke an election of a new Constituent Assembly and a national referendum for autonomy to be held on October 16. Although he clearly believed this would satisfy both the right-wing and the left-wing, it did neither.

The following morning, the people of El Alto, the altenos, responded to Mesa’s announcement by building ditches around the gas plant to prevent fuel from reaching La Paz. Marches continued in the city, calling for nationalisation and a constitutional assembly. Meatpackers marched down from El Alto — the buses were on strike — and 1000 peasants from the altiplano around El Alto also arrived. According to Luis Gomez from Narconews, the workers were singing “Now there will be civil war”.

Even Morales, who had previously proposed a similar “joint vote” plan to Mesa, has condemned the announcement, arguing it was an illegal attempt to stop the protests, and would not resolve the issues.

Right-wing backlash

Nor is the right-wing happy. Declaring that the president had “decided to oppose the country”, the Santa Cruz Civic Committee has called its own referendum, to be held on August 12. A June 3 statement on the website of the pro-autonomy Camba Nation Movement, announced that Santa Cruz representatives would only attend an assembly “under an agreement where they recognize that Santa Cruz (and other nearby provinces) constitute an ‘associate free state’ with Bolivia, possessing full sovereignty”.

However, the indigenous communities in the region that would be in the “associate free state” do not support the autonomy movement. Responding to the secession threats, the Assembly of the Guarani people, on whose land much of the gas is actually located, announced on June 3 it would join the protests for nationalisation and a constituent assembly.

In other developments, on June 1 the minister of government, Saul Lara, filed conspiracy charges against the two lieutenant colonels who last week called for a military uprising. The two had called for a “civic-military government” of transition, which would be responsible for nationalising Bolivia's gas. Julio Herrera, one the lieutenant colonels, according to a report on the Radio Erbol website, called for the formation of a government with “all sectors of society, not a military government”.

At the same time, two leaders of the upsurge — Jaime Solares, leader of the Bolivian Workers' Federation (COB) and Roberto de la Cruz, an Aymara member of the El Alto city council and a key figure in the October 2003 uprising — were also charged with alleged involvement in the coup, signalling the first serious attempt at criminalising movement leaders.

The streets are daily filled with circles of protesters discussing enthusiastically what to do next, indicating that they have no intention of leaving the streets any time soon.

From Green Left Weekly, June 8, 2005.
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