Revolution in Bolivia
The government's failure to nationalize
its natural gas industry has led to an explosive situation.
by Ryan Grim
In these Times magazine, July
Bolivian legislators abandoned a besieged
La Paz on June 9 to convene in Sucre, nearly 500 miles to the
southeast, in order to select a new president. But demonstrators
had other ideas. Blockades were lifted so that truckloads of protesters
could race to Sucre to prevent parliament from naming right-wing
Senate leader Hormando Vaca Diez as the successor to the ousted
Carlos Mesa. Mayors of La Paz and El Alto announced hunger strikes
to oppose Vaca Diez, who was supported by only 16 percent of Bolivians
in a recent poll.
Parliament's morning session was cancelled
as miners, coca growers and other demonstrators battled police
in the streets, leading to one death, labor leader Juan Coro,
who was shot in the chest by police. According to news reports,
several legislators urged the cancellation of the session so that
they could fly out of Sucre before demonstrators took over the
airport. They didn't move quickly enough. In protest of Vaca Diez,
airport workers went on strike and the airport was shut down.
Now stuck in Sucre, parliament met near midnight and gave in.
Vaca Diez-yes, his name is "Ten Cow"-resigned his constitutional
right to ascend to the throne, as did the next in line, Marlo
Cossio. At 11:47 p.m., the man whom protesters had been demanding
for president, Supreme Court leader Eduardo Rodriguez, was sworn
Since then, blockades have been lifted
along with tensions, and Rodriguez has vowed to call new elections
for president and congress within six months. Bolivia has been
locked in an ideological stalemate for several years now, but
the wind seems to be blowing leftward after the last several weeks.
Although the crisis is simmering for now, the main thrust of the
demonstrators' demand has not yet been met.
The uprising revolved around control of
Bolivia's vast and recently discovered reserves of natural gas,
valued at more than $250 billion-lo times the nation's annual
GDP. On May 16, the Bolivian government raised taxes on foreign
companies who exploit the reserves. Indigenous groups took to
the streets, claiming the bill didn't go far enough and calling
for full nationalization of the industry. Evo Morales, leader
of the strongest indigenous party in the nation-Movement Toward
Socialism, or MAS-initially rejected calls for nationalization,
asking instead for higher taxes. Caught in the middle, he has
since moved to the left, endorsing nationalization but arguing
that it should be done through a national constitutional assembly.
A June 12 poll showed 76 percent support for nationalization.
On June 3, President Mesa capitulated
to the demand of a constitutional assembly, but by that time it
was clear that the demonstrators, two weeks into their stay in
La Paz, were looking for more. Mesa offered his resignation, opening
the door for Vaca Diez and the ensuing drama.
Jim Shultz, director of the Bolivian-based
Democracy Center, reported during the crisis that a "very
reliable source" told him that the United States was working
behind the scenes to pave the way for Vaca Diez. Steve Pike, a
State Department spokesperson, said he had no knowledge of any
US. efforts to propel Vaca Diez, but if true, it's fitting that
the United States would meddle in the crisis. In at least two
significant ways, this is a crisis of U.S. making.
The lynchpin of these demonstrations-and
the ones in October 2003 that drove Mesa's predecessor, Gonzalo
Sanchez de Lozada, from office-is MAS and Evo Morales. Though
the left could surely raise hell in La Paz and El Alto without
Morales, with him the coalition becomes a national force. The
bad news for the United States, though, is that Evo Morales represents
blowback from the U.S. war on drugs.
Morales' base and the roots of his strength
lie in the Chapare region, which at its heyday grew between one
half and two thirds of the world's cocathe plant needed to make
cocaine-that has been the principal focus of U.S.-backed and -funded
Generally speaking, eradication is not
a peaceful affair.
On May 8, 2003, U.S.-funded joint task
force agents raided Hilaria Perez's coca farm. Perez-who lives
with her husband and four children in a two room, dirt floor shack
with splintering wood walls-was shot in the back as she ran to
her field to protect her only source of income. "It hurts
to lift heavy things' she says, baring the jagged scar on her
chest where the bullet exited. "I can't work in the field
anymore." Godofredo Reinicke, the former head of the government's
human rights taskforce, confirmed her story, adding that the soldier
was never identified. Perez and her husband are MAS party members.
Felipe Caceres, a former two-term mayor
of Villa Tunari and a right-hand man of Morales, says that U.S.-funded
repression led to a backlash among the cocaleros, which MAS was
able to channel into the tightly organized movement that exists
today. Over papaya juice in his air conditioned home, a priest
in Villa 14 de Septiembre agreed with Caceres' assessment. "The
strength of the party comes from the unity that has come from
the coca issue:' he says.
The United States created the monster
demonstrations by giving rise to their primary demand. At U.S.
urging, Bolivia sold off majority control of its oil and gas company
to Enron and Shell in December 1996 for $263.5 million, well less
than 1 percent of what the gas alone is worth today. A decade
later, indigenous Bolivians have the receipt and are demanding
a refund. With close to 80 percent backing, nationalization of
the gas industry doesn't seem as radical an idea as it did even
a month ago. The Washington Consensus has left a bad taste in
Bolivia's mouth, and the nation may be ready for an alternative.
The next 6 months will be crucial for
Bolivia. Will the left rally behind Evo Morales and bring about
the rise of another left wing leader in a rapidly unifying South
America? Or will factionalism allow another Harvard-trained economist
to lead South America's poorest nation?
Stay tuned. You can be sure that Shell
RYAN GRIM is a frequent contributor to
the Brooklyn Rail. He is writing a book on the global war on drugs.
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