The Opposition Strikes Back: Bolivia
by Antonio Otsenre
www.opednews.com, October 1, 2008
The tragic events of the past couple of
weeks in Bolivia hopefully mark the end of decades, if not centuries,
of bad government policies; tragic because the traditional ruling
class has literally brought on its own political demise.
The new millennium dragged in with it
the consequences of the aggressive practice of privatizing industry,
cutting government programs and taking on bad loans to patch up
bad business practices. Studies, such as those of the Economic
Policy Institute, show how most of Latin America has come out
worse in the 80s and 90s than the whole period between the 50s
and 70s. The economic decline came in the form of neoliberal reforms
imposed by the dubious ascent of dictators and presidential figures
that responded to the demands of Washington and the International
In Bolivia, when just about everything
was sold off and the country was in complete economic collapse,
General Hugo Banzer promised to suspend further privatizations.
He continued on anyways. On top of that, he cracked down severely
on unions and the indigenous coca sector. As people lost their
jobs and saw everything from gas to water for sale to foreign
interests, they went to the cities, especially La Paz, to campaign
on the streets for a fair distribution of the benefits from their
Those grass root movements were behind
the unusual success of a relatively new MAS (Movement Towards
Socialism) party with an indigenous candidate, Evo Morales, who
came in second place in the 2002 elections. Gonzalo Sanchez de
Lozada won, thanks to an alliance of traditional parties and slick
US campaign managers. Despite the campaign rhetoric about inclusion
and economic reactivation, Sanchez de Lozada was obviously keeping
on track with the Washington consensus for privatization and government
With the lack of change, the disenfranchised
and newly mobilized majority mounted strikes and road blocks,
bringing the country to a standstill. The pivotal issue became
the control of the important gas sector. It's important to note,
however, that gas alone could not have mobilized so many people
if there hadn't been first such a virulent pathology for the monopolization
of practically everything. Native peasants and laborers have virtually
no access to arable lands, decent educational opportunities, or
any social safety net. Resources enriched the few families that
owned the rights to the lands or mines and had some relation to
the multinationals that capitalized on those resources. Government
and the general public saw little to no benefit from the nation's
Once it was Bolivia's gold, silver and
tin mines that attracted capital, now the big ticket item is its
huge natural gas reserves, the second largest in South America.
A big point of contention is how the gas would be transported
to market, being that Bolivia is land locked. Petrobras already
has a pipeline to Brazil and Repsol YPF has one for Argentina.
Plans for a pipeline to the Pacific were underway either through
Chilean or Peruvian territory. The idea was to supply California,
at that time suffering from corruption-laden shortages. All of
this was under the context of exporting the raw material with
only 18% of the profits staying in Bolivia. The reformers wanted
to increase Bolivian stakes in their own resource and begin refining
and liquefying the product. The argument being that value added
plus controlling stakes in gas ventures would provide jobs and
a decent level of income for the country to improve healthcare,
education and employment opportunities for its citizenry.
In 2002 the Quiroga administration wanted
to build the pipeline through Chile to the port of Mejillones.
Geographically that is the most direct line. Historically it is
the most painful. That area on the Pacific coast was Bolivian
territory until Chile wrestled it away in the War of the Pacific
(1879-1884), another resource-driven act of violence involving
bat guano and US and British interests.
Opponents of the plan argued that going
through Peru to the port at Ilo would not be much more expensive
and it would bring in much needed revenue to the impoverished
northern regions of Bolivia. The Peruvian government even sweetened
the deal by offering a special economic zone controlled by Bolivia
for 99 years if it would export through Ilo. This issue was left
to successive administration and is still unresolved. Hunt Oil
and Kellogg, Brown and Root were already involved in the Camisea
Gas pipeline project in the tumultuous southern region of Peru.
Indigenous groups there are fighting for guarantees of their land
rights against the threats of expropriations and pollution that
foreign hydrocarbon interests are bringing to their region.
In September of 2003, protestors paralyzed
much of the country and the Bolivian army got more violent. Sanchez
de Lozada was accused by indigenous groups of pandering to the
US on both issues of hydrocarbons and traditional coca cultivation.
In Cochabamba and La Paz, 80 thousand people were mobilized against
any pipeline project. The resulting police and army violence provoked
labor strikes and road closures. With Labor Unions and the Indigenous
Movement on one hand and the police and army on the other, major
transportation routs became a virtual battle ground. The government
refused to recognize representatives from the protests, so dialogue
never took root. There were fuel and food shortages. Indigenous
folk figured that either way they were going hungry. They could
neither own productive lands nor work to buy food. They weren't
stopping until the president resigned along with Government Minister
Yerko Kukok and Minister of Defense Sanchez de Berzain for the
massacre of protestors.
Martial law was imposed on October 12
in the indigenous area of El Alto, up the mountain from La Paz,
after 16 more people were shot by police who were opening the
way for a caravan of oil tankers. The next day Sanchez de Lozada
postponed any decision on the pipeline. Vice President Mesa and
others in the administration withdrew, supposedly in disgust over
the more than 80 people killed on the streets by government forces
and the obvious discontent of the majority of the citizens. Change
was in the air and the rats were jumping ship. However the US
department of State delivered a statement in support of Sanchez
de Lozada stating that "The international Community and the
United States will not tolerate any interruption of constitutional
order and will not support any regime that results from undemocratic
means." Sanchez de Lozada still stepped down having virtually
no support from the people or even those fellow oligarchs in the
Mesa took the reigns promising that there
would be no more military or police violence and that he would
call for a referendum on the gas issue. Difficult details and
political wrangling dragged the process on until finally in May
of 2005 congress passed laws to increase taxes on the profits
from hydrocarbons from 18% to 32%. The public, recognizing that
there was still no local control of production budgets on these
raw materials, demanded full nationalization. Again, tens of thousands
of people walked down on a daily basis from El Alto to La Paz
to protest against the government, effectively shutting down everything.
This time, authorities only used tear gas and rubber bullets.
By the end of the month police decided on their own that they
weren't going to repress the protestors. They were reprimanded
Mesa tried to appease the indigenous protestors
while catering to the welltodo by offering elections for a new
constitutional assembly and referendum on autonomy. Neither side
liked it. By June 6th there were half a million people on the
streets protesting. Mesa was forced to resign. Congress could
not convene because politicians couldn't get through the crowds.
Radical farmers occupied oil wells owned by transnational corporations
and blockaded border crossings. Succession was marred by a publicly
unacceptable chain of command which included Mario Cossio (the
current "moderate" head of the opposition). Eventually
Chief Justice Edwardo Rodriguez was chosen for his perceived neutrality
until elections could be held. He upheld the new hydrocarbons
law triggering many foreign companies to invoke bilateral treaty
stipulations that gave some language on which to sue Bolivia for
lost profits by going to the International Centre for Settlement
of Investment Disputes (ICSID), which is dependent on the World
By the end of 2005 there were elections
and Evo Morales was voted into office. On Labor Day, May 1st 2006,
he signed a decree that all gas reserves were to be nationalized.
In the years to come, state revenues would jump six fold from
2002 levels. This increase has benefited the federal government
and more so the coffers of the Departments where the resources
are found and from which the opposition strikes back.
The Morales Administration and Actions
from the Opposition
The thrust of Evo Morales' rise to power
comes from Bolivia's first-hand experience and understanding of
the traditional way the country's business was run. No complicating
magic economic theories, just the hard facts of majorities starved
out of their country's riches. Essentially, Morales says, all
treaties since independence and especially the heavily marketed
Free Trade Area of the Americas are mere arguments meant to legalize
the colonization of the Americas. The stated purpose of the Morales
administration is to get out of stifling relations with multinational
corporations and use the money from their resources to improve
conditions for all Bolivians.
In truth Morales has taken a middle ground
approach to Bolivia's relation to key industries. His hydrocarbons
law guarantees at least 50% of Bolivian actions in the commercialization
of its own resources. Nationalization has meant buying the parts
of the pie traditionally taken by oversees investors. This in
no way excludes foreign capital; it just limits it to a tolerable
level and guarantees that Bolivia can take control and advantage
of its own resources. Companies were given six months to think
about and enter negotiations with the government. Essentially
these are buy outs not expropriations or confiscations, as right
wing groups insist. The latest accomplishment is Shell's agreement
to sell off its 25% stake in Transredes, a natural gas pipeline
In addition to nationalizing hydrocarbons,
Bolivia has moved to buy the lucrative metal processing plant
owned by the Swiss company Glencore International AG. The plant
processes tin, lead, and silver and has not been totally transparent
with its books. There are also discussions on how much land an
individual should be allowed to own when so many peasant farmers
are without land.
As far as labor practices, the Morales
administration has increased the minimum wage 50% and has been
open to communications with unions and labor organizations. The
military enjoys an increase in pay and more socially relevant
roles such as overseeing customs and the border.
The primary goal is to draft a new constitution
to project into the future a more inclusive and equitable system
of rights for Bolivian citizens, including autonomy clauses for
the nation's departments. This is all presently under negotiation,
with the opposition trying to postpone the referendum.
Morales was elected in 2005 with 54% of
the votes, but in the richer sectors of the country right wing
politicians were elected. Since then the US embassy has been working
with those local governments on their autonomy movements rather
than dealing with the diplomatic work that would correspond with
the federal government. USAid grants totaling some 4.5 million
dollars have been funneled to these opposition groups to "provide
support to fledgling regional governments." There is also
the Millennium Foundation, managing funds from the National Endowment
for Democracy (NED), which has also provided funds for decentralization
efforts through The Center for International Private Enterprise.
There have even been accounts of Fulbright scholars being mobilized
to share with the Embassy if they find Venezuelan or Cuban citizens
The "media luna" (half moon)
departments of the eastern low lands, Santa Cruz, Tarija, Beni,
Chuquisaca and Pando, have mobilized their own protest movements.
There are two parts to this coordinated effort: 1) the Consejo
Nacional Democratico or CONALDE (National Democratic Council)
that provides the political framework for the conservative governors
of the media luna and 2) the youth and foreign street protestors
that have gone from verbally abusing peasants and workers with
racist epitaphs and beatings to shooting people and destroying
public property. The idea is that if these traditional whiter
elites can't control the national government they will secede
in order to continue their control of the most lucrative resources.
Along the way there have been shifts in
the demands of the opposition. First, Jorge Quiroga had the helm
and tried to say that the Morales administration was illegitimate
and called for a referendum, before any stability could be reached.
That plan backfired, resulting in Morales putting forth the referendum
and winning even more support (67% of the vote), while some affluent
provinces slipped. Then came Ruben Costas and Leopoldo Fernandez
with their strong arm tactics that stirred up and armed the proto-fascist
street gangs that killed more than 30 people and drove many into
the mountains. They have also assaulted personnel guarding public
institutions and looted government buildings. They have occupied
and shut down airports and burned or vandalized state offices.
This wave of violence was the worst since the 2003 repression
of the protests that brought Morales to power. This time it was
not by the hands of state forces but by the privateers who are
seeing their grip on the nation's wealth slipping. The consistency
is in the fact that it's the elites who are continuing to summon
violence against indigenous and labor groups.
The images from the last couple of weeks
turned off the bourgeois base Governor Costas pretended to lead.
When he called off the street fighting for the sake of the nation's
largest agro fair, the hypocrisy was unbearable even for many
opposition supporters. The opposition closed down roads so no
food or fuel gets by, but costly new farm equipment to be displayed
and sold at the fair is allowed through. Many supporters saw that
the call for autonomy was more specific than the neopopulist messages
being touted in the media. The exception made for a privileged
sector went against the populist rhetoric that up to that point
strung along some of that razor thin middle class in Bolivia.
Unasur nations (including Colombia and
Peru, still lead by right wing, Washington friendly governments)
were quick to repudiate the violence. The opposition suffered
a debilitating political blow in the eyes of the whole region.
The presidents of most countries have come out individually to
strongly condemn the violence against Bolivian Democracy. United
Nations and Organization of American States representatives have
also called for the opposition to cease the violence. The US was
During the turmoil, Morales showed great
restraint with the military, risking the ire of the victimized
indigenous groups. On September 15, state forces were ordered
to confront the hooligans but not to shoot. Pando Governor Fernandez
(ex-paramilitary officer in the 70s), a major instigator of the
violence, was arrested and the US Ambassador Phil Goldberg (of
Kosovo fame) was sent home for fomenting insurrection instead
of diplomacy. The youth allegedly trained by Fernandez to be a
"citizen's protection force" were essentially a militia
set to carry out the dirty work of the secessionist governorship.
Pando government vehicles were used to chauffer these armed groups
to the sights of peaceful marches.
By the way, in Pando, Morales won 53%
of the votes during the August Referendum, so it's not like Fernandez
was heading a democratically substantiated autonomy movement.
Let's not lose sight that what counts here is who controls the
resources and for what end. Will the state be allowed to fulfill
its electoral mandate of distributing the profits from key industries
in the form of healthcare, education and retirement assistance,
or will a few families handle the contracts with multinational
corporations and get wealthy from pimping resources to overseas
speculators at the expense of the local population?
Morales is now giving a lot of time to
negotiations with the opposition, currently lead by the more diplomatic
Mario Cossio. Some say it's all a waste of time. The opposition
revealed its true colors and is politically hobbled by its own
actions. Regardless, it has retained through violence a seat of
preferential dialogue with a government of unprecedented democratic
backing. Destabilization seems to be the recourse of an opposition
that feels it can't stop the progress of the Morales majority
and the only way to keep their privilege is to seek autonomy.
Negotiations with the Opposition
Again the crux of the matter is the constitution.
Morales and his indigenous and labor base were enjoying the momentum
provided by the referendum and were excited about getting on with
the constitutional reforms. The opposition turned the tables radically
with its violent attacks on fellow citizens and public property.
On one side of the negotiating table sits a popular government.
On the other, the men who still control the sources of wealth
for the country. And, around the table loom observers from the
Catholic Church, Unasur, the OAS and the UN. Morales smiles cynically
as he sees the opposition leaders respectfully calling him Mr.
President for the first time as they are watched by observers.
But, as long as all these people are bogged down in averting more
violence, nothing can be done about improving the constitution
or the situation for the vast majority of Bolivians. In a sense,
the opposition's tactics have worked at stalling the democratic
The opposition was allowed a disproportionate
amount of influence within the constitutional assembly, leading
to a lot of stalling and the eventual inclusion of measures to
respect private property and international investments. The opposition
was allowed to proceed with its own illegitimate departmental
referendums for autonomy, resulting in a huge propaganda piece
for national and international media. Finally, when it comes to
the government's basic duty to protect its citizens, it did not
forcibly put down the violence perpetuated by paramilitary and
gang-type forces on peaceful indigenous and labor protestors.
Despite all these concessions and the
fact that there is clear democratic mandate behind Morales, opposition
groups are demanding all the revenues from hydrocarbons and complete
autonomy from the Federal Republic. In other words--you keep the
Indians and their votes; we'll take the resources and our international
connections. The problem is that there are Indians everywhere
and they are not going away from their ancestral place, much less
when they are so close to being able to share in the benefits
of their national resources.
The Bolivian Government and CONALDE representatives
have been sitting down to dialogue for over a week. The government
asked that a pre-agreement be signed. It stipulates for three
work tables to be established. The first one refers to the direct
tax on hydrocarbons, which the opposition insists is wholly theirs.
The second includes the autonomies within the framework of the
constitutional project. The third corresponds to the election
The agreement allows for the one month
suspension of the constitutional referendum process, with the
possibility of longer suspension depending on the outcome of the
negotiations. It also expresses that the government respects the
departmental right to autonomy and to the tax revenues, as long
as there is a Federal payment of Renta Dignidad from which the
people's retirement is paid.
There is a lot of room for Morales to
give in to these right-wing demands. Maybe Morales at first thought
that there was more muscle behind the attempts at. Perhaps he
didn't know how much support he actually had from the neighboring
governments and the international community. After all, Brazil
and Argentina are now paying a lot more for their gas than they
were before the Morales reforms. For now, perhaps the most important
thing is that both sides agree to stop the street violence while
the negotiations are taking place.
No one is falling asleep while the politicians
are negotiating. Although protestors just agreed to disband,
they were in the streets, plazas, airports, oil wells, pump stations
and major transport routs poised on every word that came out of
the negotiations. The other side has more lethal weapons, but
Morales supporters have the numbers. The government is working
with one hand tied behind its back, not wanting to project its
power in the form of a military show of force. It definitely doesn't
want US troops stationed in Peru or Paraguay to come in to "keep
For not having the democratic, legal or
ethical right to impose its will, the violent opposition has managed
to play a mighty hand from such a weak and almost isolated political
Antonio is a writer and professor currently
living in Florida. He specializes in Latin American issues and
helps present documentaries or foreign films for college or community