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Bolivia: The Second Gas War

Bolivia: The Second Gas War

James Lehrer, La Paz
Green Left Weekly

Following over three weeks of social upheaval, now known as the Second Gas War, Bolivians have thrown out their second president in less than two years.

On June 9, after weeks of blockades, marches and strikes that bought Bolivia s economy to a virtual standstill, Congress voted to accept President Carlos Mesa's resignation. In a further victory for the social movements, the next two politicians in line for the presidency — Upper House president Hormando Vaca D¡ez and Lower House president Mario Cossio — declined the presidency, paving the way for early elections. Supreme Court head Eduardo Rodriguez is the interim president, but is constitutionally required to call elections within 150 days.

The May-June unrest was triggered by the longstanding issue of control of the country's 53 trillion square feet of gas reserves, the second largest in the region. The new bill, while increasing taxes on the multinational corporations that exploit Bolivia's gas, fell far short of the popular demand of nationalisation, sparking a mass rebellion of Bolivia's indigenous majority.

The epicentre of the mobilisations were the altenos, those from the poor, predominantly Aymara city of El Alto, situated just above La Paz, along with the peasant Aymaras from the surrounding altiplano highlands region. At the head of these mobilisations were the powerful and well-organised Federation of United Neighbours of El Alto (FEJUVE) and the Regional Workers Central of El Alto (COR).

Second Gas War

On May 16 a FEJUVE-led mass march descended from El Alto to La Paz, along with the simultaneous beginning of a 200-kilometre peasant march from Caracollo to La Paz, behind the banner of the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), whose key leader is Evo Morales.

The two marches — like the tense debate at the May 23 30,000-strong open meeting in the centre of La Paz — reflected the differences among the social movements over demands. Whilst the altenos, along with trade unions and sections of the MAS rally, were demanding outright nationalisation without compensation for the transnationals, Morales put forward a conservative demand of increasing royalties to 50%. That this was out of touch with majority sentiment was noted by MAS senator Roman Loayza, also a leader of peasant federation CSUTCB, who was quoted by BolPress on May 17: “We want to march for more royalties, but the people want nationalisation.” Over time, Morales' position gradually shifted towards that held by the majority of the population.

The daily demonstrations peaked on June 5, with more than 400,000 packing the Plaza of Heroes. While the huge plaza seethed with humanity, thousands more could be seen marching up and down the central streets of La Paz. As has become a daily ritual, the police responded to the protesters unity with tear gas and low-caliber bullets. The increasingly defiant protesters refused to disperse for several hours, regrouping at every opportunity. Many responded by returning the gas canisters and rocks towards police lines. Some groups tore up the cobblestone streets, building barricades against police vehicles.

Despite the police repression, there was no doubt that the city belonged to the protesters. Few shops opened during the week and traffic ground to a halt, from the dual impact of a bus drivers' strike and a fuel shortage caused by the blockades. With arterial roads blockaded, La Paz began to experience inflationary prices on some basic foodstuffs.

Many altenos called for Mesa's resignation and the closing of parliament, while those aligned with MAS argued that Mesa should implement the will of the people. By June 2, Jean Friedsky reported on Narconews that MAS, “Fed up with the stall tactics of the traditional rightist parties in the government …has called for nationwide road blocks and for new elections.”

The right — centred around the Santa Cruz oligarchy in the country's east, which has strong links with the gas transnationals, the US administration and the neoliberal parties — also called for Mesa's resignation, urging Vaca Diez, a right-wing Santa Cruz senator, to take the presidency and forcibly repress the uprising. The Santa Cruz Civic Council also announced that it would hold a referendum for autonomy, hoping to secure its control over the gas reserves predominantly located in that department, in the face of the indigenous revolt.

On June 7, Mesa announced that he would offer his resignation to Congress. After weeks of Congress failing to meet, in part due to right-wing parties' boycotts, Vaca Diez announced that the session would convene on June 9 in Sucre.

Although the move was intended to avoid the protesters, thousands converged on Sucre. In clashes with unarmed mine workers, a combined military-police force shot dead a miner, Juan Coro, president of the March 27 Miners' Cooperative, and injured many others.

Fearing that this was a sign of what would happen if Vaca Diez was elected, resistance intensified. The social movements, particularly those aligned with MAS, which is strong around Sucre, mobilised to stop parliament meeting until Vaca Diez and Cossio agreed to step down. In the end, Bolivia's political elite opted to concede.

While in the week prior, rumours flew, and fears peaked, that the military would be used by the elite for a bloody coup, this option was either not immediately available or considered unreliable. The Bolivian state was faced with the dual difficulties of seriously testing soldier loyalty to the state, and risking that military action would escalate, rather than crush, the revolt. The biggest victory for the popular movements was that Vaca Diez was prevented from taking power, cutting off an attractive option for the neoliberal elite.

Rodriguez's La Paz swearing-in ceremony was so rushed that the official attire was not used — the whole ceremony took less than 10 minutes, with parliament once again having to be suspended, due to protests outside.

What next?

Mesa s resignation met one demand of the movement, but others, such as the nationalisation of the hydrocarbon industry and the formation of a new constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution, remain unresolved. In the days following the resignation, blockades throughout the country were lifted and life on the streets of La Paz returned to relative normalcy. More than 10,000 marchers joined a COR-initiated demonstration on June 14 to reassert their demand for nationalisation of hydrocarbons.

Morales told AAP on June 10 that “One must understand that [Rodriguez] is the new president and he has expressed a commitment to listen to our demands ... His election is easing the tensions and we are going to accept a truce”.

On June 17, Morales presented two bills to parliament, one aimed at recuperating control of Bolivia's gas into the hands of the state and another to set up a council consisting of representatives from social movements, indigenous peoples, peasants, regionalists, academics and political analysts to discuss the framework for a constituent assembly and regional autonomy. MAS reiterated that it would not accept anything short of elections for the entire parliament, which is to be discussed on June 28. Constitutionally, only the president and vice-president must be re-elected.

In response to parliamentarians who do not want to give up their pay by resigning, MAS deputy Gustavo Torrico said “If you don't want to hand in resignations, they will come to Congress and they will hang us from the street post on the corner and the country will go up in flames — I think this makes things clear.”

The Santa Cruz right has announced that it will go ahead with a referendum on August 12 for autonomy.

During more than three weeks of action, tens of thousands of Bolivians have earned little or no income. Many of those who marched in from the countryside left fields and animals untended. A huge burden has been borne by the country's poor to participate in the political process. While many will now take the chance to recoup some of that lost income, most know that the only way out of poverty ultimately means the people must take real control of their country's wealth, and will be prepared to come out onto the streets to win it.

From Green Left Weekly, June 22, 2005.
Visit the Green Left Weekly home page -

Also In The Green Left Weekly This Week
Green Left Weekly #630, June 22, 2005

Latin America challenges Bush's empire

In just one week, another Latin American president fell in the face of a mass anti-imperialist movement, and Washington lost an embarrassing, and important, battle in the Organisation of American States meeting to a campaign spearheaded by Venezuela's left-wing government. Has Bush lost control of his own backyard? Green Left Weekly offers a special look at the continent threatening US global hegemony.

* BOLIVIA: Movement Towards Where?
* LATIN AMERICA: Washington loses ? again
* ECUADOR: President walks a tightrope
* COLOMBIA: Washington's other oil war
* ARGENTINA: South American crisis: Kirchner's path

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