Bolivia's Poor Indigenous Population Rises Up
A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
on national and international issues
under-reported in mainstream media
for release June 14, 2005
Bolivia's Poor Indigenous Population Rises Up to Demand Nationalization of their Nation's Energy Resources
- Interview with Jim Schultz, executive director of the Democracy Center, conducted by Scott Harris on June 6, 2005
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After two weeks of militant protests across Bolivia demanding the nationalization of the Latin American country's energy resources, President Carlos Mesa offered his resignation in a televised address on June 6. Mesa's resignation, the second time he's offered to step down in a year, would not take effect until accepted by Bolivia's Congress. Evo Morales, leader of Bolivia's leading opposition party, the Movement Toward Socialism, said that the resignation of President Mesa was not enough and called for the resignation of both the Senate president and speaker of the House. New elections could be called by a caretaker government headed by the chief justice of Bolivia's Supreme Court.
Tens of thousands of protesters made up of miners, labor activists and Bolivia's poor majority indigenous population had converged on Bolivia's capital city of La Paz the night President Mesa resigned. The people of La Paz have experienced food and fuel shortages as a result of road blockades erected by demonstrators in recent weeks.
Although 92 percent of Bolivians had supported a 2004 referendum directing the government to take back control of the nation's oil and gas industries, the International Monetary Fund had threatened to withhold aid if contracts with private energy companies were challenged. Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with Jim Schultz, executive director of the Democracy Center in Cochabamba, Bolivia, who analyzes the roots of the nation's popular resistance to U.S.-backed neoliberal economic policies and their connection to the wider progressive movements across Latin America.
JIM SCHULTZ: Bolivia is the poorest country in South America. It sits atop the second largest gas and oil reserves in all of South America, and Bolivians are very concerned that those resources be developed in a way that average Bolivians are going to see the benefits.
Ten years ago, the gas resources were privatized. The benefits go to foreign corporations like British Petroleum and others. And so there's this huge movement demanding that the oil and gas be taken over again by the government the way it used to be. The government doesn't want to do that, it's under enormous pressure from the International Monetary Fund, from companies like British Petroleum and others to leave the oil and gas in their hands.
So right now the capital of La Paz is shut down, virtually entirely, by tens of thousands of protesters who have come down from the indigenous areas of the highlands above the capital. Here, in Cochabamba where I live and work, the center of the city has been shut down almost every day for the last week. There's no automobile or bus traffic in or out of the city; we're closed down.
BETWEEN THE LINES: Maybe you could speak to a little bit of the history that has brought Bolivia to this point in time.
JIM SCHULTZ: Yeah, a little context, just because I don't think most people think of Bolivia very often except for llamas and ladies in big skirts and bowler hats. First of all, Bolivia is a beautiful country, its highlands, its jungles, its valleys, its got the most indigenous population in the entire Western Hemisphere.
That said, Bolivia has for the last 20 years been the primary lab rat in Latin America for a whole set of economic policies imposed on it from abroad. I mean, if you think about the United States right now, in the U.S. you're having a big debate over what to do with Social Security. The president wants to privatize it, a lot of people are resisting that, I think, for good reason. One of the most fundamental decisions that a democracy makes is: What's public and what's private-- education, health care, social security. Well, in Bolivia that decision was completely taken out of the people's hands, taken really out of the government's hands by the International Monetary Fund, who said, "Look, you're dependent on foreign aid. If you want foreign aid, if you want the assistance from the International Monetary Fund, here's the commandments. First, you have to privatize your national resources including oil and gas."
Bolivia is resisting that. And so what you have actually in this country is two different social movements, or big changes happening in the country at the same time. The first is a very broad popular resistance to these economic policies. The second is, this is a country in which 60 percent of the population are indigenous. They are locked out of power in this country, and they are demanding that they become the stakeholders in the country and in its politics, that they deserve to be.
These two things have come together in the war over gas. Because the indigenous population is especially, I think very sensitive to what it means to have natural resources stolen out from underneath their feet.
BETWEEN THE LINES: Jim Schultz, finally, I'd like to ask you this, how is the current crisis in Bolivia connected to progressive activism and a rejection of neoliberal economic policies pushed by Washington across Latin America?
JIM SCHULTZ: Well, that is a very important question and a good one to end on. I'm an American, I'm from California and when you're from the United States at this time in history, it's easy to be a little depressed because it sure looks like the country is marching toward the right and toward a set of values that most of us don't agree with and it's very hard to see how we're going to pull it back.
Latin America is marching in the exact opposite direction. There are a lot of reporters who come here and they all want to write the story about the "New Left" in South America. And it's much more interesting than to call it the "New Left." This isn't the second coming of Che Guevara. What's happening here is not ideological. What's happening here is a very broad -- Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador -- a very broad reaction against the practical failure of a set of market fundamentalist economic policies imposed on this country from abroad, and other countries as well.
You know, I live here and the poor who live in Latin America really don't have the luxury of ideology. What they want are practical solutions. Can they get water? Can their kids get educated? Can they get access to health care? Can they find a job?
If these economic policies of privatization and the rest had worked, if they had delivered the goods, I think people in this continent would have been embraced them. The fact that not only have they not embraced them, but in country after country, these policies are being rejected -- it's because they are a practical failure. They just don't work. They only make the lives of the poor more miserable, and that's what's happening here.
People take their politics very seriously in a place like Bolivia. They can't afford to just read about it in the newspaper or listen to it on the radio. They have to act. They have to be engaged, because it affects their lives in a direct way.
So I think what's happening in Bolivia is part of something that is happening all over this region and it is really worth people in the United States, especially progressives, to try to understand what it really means.
Contact the Democracy Center by calling their San Francisco office at (415) 564-4767 or visit their website at http://www.democracyctr.org.
Related links on our website at http://www.btlonline.org/btl061705.html#1hed
* The Narco News Bulletin: http://www.narconews.com/
* International Forum on Globalization: http://www.ifg.org
* Council on Hemispheric Affairs: http://www.coha.org
* North American Congress on Latin America: http://www.nacla.org
Scott Harris is executive producer of Between The Lines, which can be heard on more than 35 radio stations and in RealAudio and MP3 on our website at http://www.btlonline.org. This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines for the week ending June 17, 2005. This Between The Lines Q&A was compiled by Scott Harris and Anna Manzo.
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