New Uprising In Bolivia

by Frederico Fuentes

Green Left Weekly

ZNet, May 23, 2005


In 1967, Che Guevara died at the hands of CIA-backed Bolivian soldiers while attempting to lead a guerrilla struggle in Bolivia. In the small town where his body was uncovered 30 years later, graffiti is scrawled declaring: "Che: Alive as they never wanted you to be."

Almost four decades after Che's murder, Bolivia's poor and indigenous masses are keeping his revolutionary legacy very much alive as they fight to secure their country's resources and future.

Left with no more cards to play, on May 17, Bolivian President Carlos Mesa succumbed to passing the country's controversial new gas bill. As the country enters into a new pre-insurrectional stage - with many of Bolivia's poor once again hitting the streets, clamouring for the nationalisation of gas - many believe it will be game over for Mesa.

Attempting to stop the passage of the new gas bill through parliament over the past eight months, Mesa earlier threatened to resign three times and to push forward elections by two years. He also called for numerous national meetings between government, business and the social movements. However on May 5, when the house of deputies modified and approved the bill that was passed by the senate in March, it was left on the table for Mesa to sign.

The social movements decided to boycott a national summit with government and business leaders set for May 16, the day before Mesa's deadline to sign the bill. Instead, they initiated two marches, from El Alto and Caracollo near Cochabamba, which have become the two organising centres for Bolivia's powerful protest movement. Claiming it would be "suicide" to support the bill, Mesa passed it on to the right-wing president of the parliament, Hormando Vaca Diez, to sign, hoping to quell public protest.

The latest protest marked a radicalisation, adding two further demands to the push for nationalising the gas - for Mesa to resign and for parliament to be shut down. Chanting "Mesa, traitor, we want your resignation", more than 100,000 residents from El Alto marched down the hill to La Paz on May 16, creating a human snake for the entire six kilometres between the edge of El Alto and downtown La Paz. Initiated by the recently formed Commission for the Defence of El Alto's Dignity, which brings together FEJUVE (the body that unites around 600 neighbourhood committees), COR de El Alto (the Regional Workers Central of El Alto) and El Alto's federation of trade unions, the rally was also joined by the COB (Bolivian Workers Central).

Reaching La Paz, the protesters headed for Plaza Murillo, where the presidential palace is located. Protesters and police clashed and tear gas, rubber bullets and rocks left several injured on both sides.

Two days later, 1000 miners from El Alto along with the COB returned, determined to shut down parliament, as clashes once again ensued. Parliament was suspended and the next sitting date set for May 31, although the venue is uncertain. Meanwhile, numerous road blockades were established along main arterial roads from La Paz, and teachers entered the second day of their three-day strike. On May 20, teachers and university students joined miners and the COB in street protests in La Paz, as El Alto staged a 24-hour general strike.

The powerful Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), lead by cocalero (coca farmer) organiser Evo Morales, began a 190km march from Caracollo to La Paz on May 16, aiming to reach the capital by May 23. Under the banner "unity of the Bolivian people for our hydrocarbons, a Constituent Assembly and autonomy for all sectors", the march brought together some 3000 cocaleros, peasants, indigenous Aymara organisations and workers from trade unions associated with MAS, with many more expected to join.

At the heart of the controversy surrounding the new bill is who should control Bolivia's gas reserves - the second largest in South America. Between 1996, when Bolivia's previous gas bill was passed, and 2002, neoliberal presidents Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada and Jorge Quiroga signed 76 contracts favouring 12 transnationals, including Enron, Shell and British Petroleum. The corporations bought the gas at well below market value and sold it back to Bolivians at 12 times the price.

For a country whose population is regarded as the poorest in South America, this was just the latest example of Bolivia's natural wealth, along with its sovereignty, being stolen by rich elites at home and abroad, rather than being used to lift people out of poverty and towards a dignified life.

The bill followed a tumultuous 19 months after a popular uprising ousted president Lozada in October 2003. This "Gas War" between the gas transnationals, the IMF, the World Bank and US and Spanish governments on one side, and Bolivia's poor, indigenous and working-class population on the other, has intensified.

The new law imposes a 32% tax on top of current royalties set at 18%. This falls short of the proposed 50% royalties that a majority supported in the June 2004 gas referendum. The house of deputies also watered down an article forcing the transfer of all current deals onto new contracts in line with some of the new rules, before passing it on May 5.

None of the key social forces are happy with the new bill. The gas transnationals and the US government immediately announced their opposition. Even before the final bill was signed, Randal Quarles, the US Treasury Department's assistant secretary of international affairs, was quoted by Reuters on May 7 saying the US was "worried" by the new law that would surely "inhibit foreign investment". Many of the gas transnationals have begun or threatened legal proceedings against the government, regarding the new law as "confiscatory" and illegal as it threatens the profits guaranteed to them under the previous law.

Ironically, it was those contracts themselves that were ruled illegal on April 8 by the Constitutional Tribune, as they had not been ratified by parliament - a requirement in the constitution. Immediately following this ruling, Morales moved to put on trial Quiroga and Lozada for approving the illegal contracts and the theft of Bolivia's gas.

It is unclear how this crisis will be resolved, but the unity of the left will be a key issue. During the March protests, when the bill was passing through the senate, the left made important advances in reestablishing the Peoples General Staff, which was initially formed during the coca war of January 2002. Rather than resorting to the previous name-calling and abuse, leaders from MAS, COB, the Co-ordinator in Defense of Gas, the different fractions of the peasant union CSUTCB, the Movement of Landless Peasants, FEJUVE and others were able to meet together on March 9 and sign what became known as the "Anti-Oligarchy Pact".

Some former divisions have resurfaced, however. One point of contention played up by the media is the difference between the demand by those from El Alto for nationalisation of gas and the proposals put forward by MAS for 50% of royalties. The weight of the mobilisations in La Paz has had an impact on this debate. Bolpress quoted the more conservative MAS deputy, Gustavo Torrico, as saying on May 16 that the fight for nationalisation is "suicide". The following day, it reported that Roman Loayza, leader of the MAS-aligned section of CSUTCB and a MAS senator said the party had been "bypassed" by its base. "We wanted to march for more royalties, but the people want nationalisation, and for them we are going to fight" said Loayza.

The position of Morales, perhaps the key figure on the Bolivian left, whilst contradictory has seemed to shift as pressure has built up from below over recent months. Morales missed out on being elected president in 2002, by around 1.5%. His popularity was greatly boosted after the then-US ambassador said that the US would not approve of a cocalero running the country.

Although not demanding nationalisation, Morales's proposals and statements lead in this direction. Quoted in Pagina 12 on May 17, Morales said he was against nationalisation, but this was because "according to the constitution, the gas reserves are already the property of the state". Morales also believes the state should set the price of gas. He added that because the contracts had already been declared null, the armed forces and the police should immediately occupy the gas fields.

Morales was quoted in numerous media sources on May 17 as saying "those that are demanding the closure of parliament are looking for a dictatorship, I believe it is a serious political error", referring to the protests originating from El Alto. He has also said that his march would not be enacting blockades such as those that paralysed Bolivia in March, but that he respected them as forms of dissent.

COB leader Jaime Solares was quoted by La Jornada on May 18 commenting, "I hope it all goes well for them [on the march from Caracollo], but when there are other protesters fighting for nationalisation, there can't be people who are on holiday." Solares himself was criticised by a meeting of delegates from various El Alto groups on May 17 for not organising and uniting the pressure that exists across the country.

The two wings of the movement will meet in La Paz on May 23. Morales has called for an open meeting for the people to decide what to do next.

A bulletin by the Centre of Documents and Information in Bolivia asked "Do the social movements have enough clarity, cohesion, organisation, broadness and capacity to give a clear alternative in order to face the 'final battle'? If this is not the case, the radicalisation could lead them towards a new defeat."

On the other hand, unity in action of these two forces could provide a powerful explosion, way beyond that produced by the dynamite traditionally used in street protests. One sign of the potential are the comments by Loayza, quoted by La Patria on May 18 saying "Now we, who are marching, are saying, that they must nationalise, for good or bad, our hydrocarbons. I summons our alteno brothers, the COB, COR and other organisations to prepare for the social convulsion in La Paz" on May 23.

Stating that the government could no longer be trusted, he added, "we need a government of the poor, the type we have dreamed about for many years ... I believe the idea of the workers and peasants taking power is coming closer". El Alto is preparing for an indefinite strike from that day and a march onto La Paz, raising the spectre of October 2003, where similar actions were decisive in the ousting of Lozada.

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