[Marxism] The gas referendum in Bolivia - a dirty trick

Fred Fuentes fuentf01 at tartarus.uwa.edu.au
Wed Jul 21 00:59:38 MDT 2004

From www.marxist.com

The gas referendum in Bolivia - a dirty trick

                                       By Ramon Sanchez

In spite the militarisation of the country, the legal threats and the
desperate calls of the Bolivian media to vote in the
referendum, the majority of the Bolivian people stayed at home and did not
turn up at the polling stations. The Bolivian
workers and peasants expressed in this manner their rejection of Carlos
Mesa's privatisation proposals.
On Sunday July 18, there was a referendum on the privatisation Bolivia's
natural gas resources. The day was very tense with
a heavy presence of troops and police in the polling stations. However it
was also clear that there was a general disinterest in
the referendum and this was confirmed by the massive abstention.
The comment of one street seller can help illustrate the mood of the
majority of ordinary working Bolivians: "I don't think
this is going to improve the situation, there have been so many promises,
and the government always does what it wants.''
(The Guardian, July 18, 2004). We will have the final picture on August 4,
when the official results will be available.
However the partial results that already available indicate that Mesa has
been successful, but in a referendum marked by very
big levels of abstention.
The calling of this referendum was in fact a manoeuvre to legitimise the
selling off of Bolivia's hydrocarbon resources. Mr.
Mesa began his presidential mandate in October of last year with lots of
false promises. The aim was clear. He wanted to find
a means by which to demobilise the workers and peasants who were seriously
threatening the powers that be in Bolivia.

To understand the context in which this referendum was called we need to
remember that what sparked off the revolutionary
movement towards the end of last year were the plans to sell off Bolivia's
natural gas to Chile. However, that was not the
only explanation. Mass opposition to the selling off of the gas reflected
the huge discontent which had built up among the
Bolivian workers and peasants. The Bolivian masses are amongst the poorest
in Latin America.

The cynicism of Mesa was clear to all when on Sunday 11 he stated the
following: "It's easy to play the demagogue. It would
be very easy for me to say, 'Yes we will nationalise through expropriation'
and I would probably be the most popular man
alive. But I don't govern for popularity. I govern for the responsibility
of the state" (Financial Times July 18, 2004). This
statement reflects the real nature of the relatively new puppet of the
local Bolivian oligarchy which in turn does the bidding of
US imperialism.

The main feature of the political and social situation in Bolivia at this
moment is the huge polarisation to the left and to the
right. On the one hand the COB (the Bolivian TUC) stood for a boycott of
the referendum. Correctly, the COB explained
their boycott on the basis that the referendum was simply a dirty trick on
the part of Mesa to "institutionalise" the privatisation
of gas and also that the referendum did not include in any way the
possibility of the re-nationalisation and the development of
gas, as the masses had been demanding during the October uprisings.

On the other hand the MAS leadership, headed by Evo Morales has been trying
to provide a democratic cover for Mesa. They
actively canvassed in favour of the referendum, even after Mesa had made
his statements to the effect that he was going to
export the gas whether there was a YES or NO in the referendum. Mesa has to
fulfil his promises to the class he represents,
but the parliamentary cretinism of Morales seems to have no limits at all!

Background of the struggle

Since the 1980s and specially the 1990s all the governments in Latin
America have been busying themselves privatising and
selling off at knock down prices the state-owned companies and their
natural resources such as natural gas and oil. Bolivia is
one of the countries where this process has gone furthest. The results of
these pro-capitalist measures have been devastating
for the Bolivian masses. For instance, 87% of the land is owned by only 7%
of the landowners. On the other hand 90% of
the rural population live below the poverty line (La Jornada September 25,

The devastating effects of the crisis in the tin industry at the end of the
1980s drove thousands of mineworkers and their
families back to the countryside to cultivate Coca leaves. However,
although this was a step back for the working class and
trade union movement, it did lay the basis for one of the most
revolutionary peasant movements of the whole of Latin

The frustration produced by the lack of decent working and living
conditions have led the Bolivian workers and peasants
onto the road of the struggle. The level of their mobilisation has been so
intense that they have sent several governments
packing and have forced successive representatives of the Bolivian
oligarchy to temporarily retreat and put off their plans to
privatise and sell off the country's natural resources and key industries.
The insurrection of the Bolivian masses in
Cochabamba stopped the privatisation of water. As a result of that massive
uprising, Hugo Banzer (the then Bolivian
president) was actually forced to renationalise the water.

In September and October of last year the Bolivian workers and peasants
mobilised against the attempts of the government to
allow the big hydrocarbon companies to export gas to the USA through the
Chilean seaport of Patillos. This plan of the
government enraged the masses who suddenly and without any clear leadership
set up roadblocks and there were peasant
uprisings in some areas.

The answer of the government was to use the military to put down the
movement. The repression carried out by the
government only helped to complicate the situation for Gonzalez Losada
(also knows as Goni). On September 20 the
Bolivian army attacked the peasants in the Altiplano region killing six
people amongst them an 8-year old child.

This massacre unified the movement of the masses. Workers, students and
shopkeepers joined the massive demonstrations
that were then taking place. It also raised the level of the movement which
led to sharper demands for the re-nationalisation of
natural gas. This was a clear indication that the movement was not going to
be stopped by the repressive measures of the

The participation of the working class in the struggle with their
traditional methods such as the general strike placed the
Bolivian ruling class in a very difficult situation. The answer of the
Bolivian capitalists was more repression against the
movement. However, the slaughter that had taken place in El Alto sparked
off a struggle not only for the defence of the gas
resources, but also against the government and US imperialism.

Karl Marx explained long time ago that the revolution sometimes needs the
whip of the counterrevolution to advance. As we
explained at that time elements of dual power developed in Bolivia
particularly in the city of El Alto where the
Neighbourhood Juntas took over control of all social life for a few days.
The might of the oppressed put the Bolivian
capitalists on the ropes and forced the unpopular Goni to flee the country.

On October 18, Carlos Mesa who was the vice-president of Sanchez Lozada
took over as president of the country. Despite
the growing lack of confidence among the masses towards the new president
some leaders of the leftwing parties in Bolivia
started to ask for time and to have confidence in the new president. The
main supporter of the new government from the left
was Evo Morales who made a big effort to calm down the masses and to
provide a democratic façade for the new
government. At that time we explained that there was no difference at all
between Gonzalez Losada and Carlos Mesa. They
serve the same masters.

On Mayday of this year the COB started another offensive against the Mesa
government. This offensive was undermined by
the fact that the miners, industrial workers and some layers of the peasant
masses were not mobilised. During the whole
month of May and part of June roadblocks, marches and riots took place all
over the country. In spite of the organizational
problems and the lack of coordination, what this movement showed was that
the Bolivian masses were not at all happy with

The referendum on this issue of the export of Bolivian gas was called - and
worded in such a way - to legitimise Gonzalez
Losada's privatisation plans. This is not what the masses were expecting
and it shows how correct masses were not to have
any confidence in Carlos Mesa.

The trap of the referendum

The Bolivian masses have very good reasons for opposing this referendum.
Even if the people voted in favour of the first
question (the question related to the abrogation of the Sanchez Lozada gas
law which was the legal basis for the privatisation
of the gas) the taking back of the gas would take place only in about 30
years time! The official explanation for this is that this
referendum cannot modify the contracts the Bolivian government has signed
with Total Fina, Repsol and other multinational
companies, and these are valid until 2030. This is no accident. Carlos Mesa
was brought into office as the last resort of the
ruling class faced with an enraged working class and peasantry. His task is
to carry through the programme Goni was unable
to complete and do it in the smoothest way possible. Unfortunately for the
Bolivian oligarchy and their imperialist backers,
the patience of the Bolivian people is not going to last so long.

Mesa has also played the card of causing confusion. He has even tried to
present the referendum as part of the "October
Agenda". The October Agenda was an unfinished programme which was simply a
list of some of the demands of the popular
movement that had defeated Sanchez Lozada. Mesa even had the cheek to ask
the Bolivian people to defend the referendum
because it represents a conquest achieved in October.

This referendum is just a manoeuvre on the part of the Bolivian oligarchy.
Its aim is get Mesa's Energy law passed and at the
same time make the voters believe that they have a new law that can allow
them to take back the gas. In reality, Mesa has no
intention whatsoever of taking back the gas for the Bolivian people. This
popular demand comes into direct conflict with the
greedy interests of both the hydrocarbon multinational companies that are
currently operating in Bolivia and the geo-strategic
and economical interests of imperialism.

A representative of the Indigenous Council of South America analysed the
five questions of the referendum and came to the
following conclusions:

"Generally no more than one or two clear questions are asked in a
referendum. In this case we have five long and unclear
questions (...) it shows that the people who elaborated the questions did
not want to come into conflict with the interests of
the majority of the people and at the same time they did not want to go
against the interests of the government"

"The referendum which is going to take place on July 18 has been elaborated
for external consumption. The sponsors of the
referendum want the [foreign] countries and international bodies that have
interventionist aims to use it as a fact. The
important thing does not lie in the questions, even less in the percentage
achieved for each question. The priority is to have
the referendum held to provide some legal basis."
(www.econoticiasbolivia.com July 13, 2004)

At the same time the Bolivian government put pressure on the population to
vote. In fact not to vote in the referendum is
considered illegal and is banned. Despite the threats of the Bolivian
government, 12% of the population that has the right to
vote refused to be listed in the electoral register. This first level of
refusal to take part in the referendum can be explained by
the boycott campaign sponsored by the COB in the cities and by the CSUTCB
(the peasants organization lead by Felipe
Quispe) in the countryside. However, there is also the question of the
geographic isolation of lots of indigenous
communities, which has also played a role.

Everything points to an even bigger abstention. That explains why Mesa
extended the deadline, giving one more week to
register more people. It is also a well-known fact that the Mesa government
used threats and blackmail to get more people to
enrol on the electoral register. Another measure taken by the Bolivian
representatives of the oligarchy has been the
militarisation of the whole country. The government has brought a big
contingent of troops into the cities of La Paz and
Cochabamba. This is one of the reasons that can explain why the boycott
only took place in some areas of the country.

Nevertheless the militarisation of the country is also an expression of
panic on the part of the Bolivian ruling class in the face
of the response of the Bolivian workers and peasants. The COB and CSUTCB
leaders called for a boycott, roadblocks,
rallies, spoiling of the ballot papers, writing the word 'nationalisation'
on the ballot papers and the collection of one million
signatures for a petition for the nationalisation and development of the

It is clear to anyone that the Mesa government is trying to use this
referendum as a way of justifying what he has already
done, i.e. the selling off of Bolivia's natural gas resources. The dirty
tricks and threats merely confirm that the Bolivian
oligarchy and US imperialism are panicking and fear a repetition of the
events that took place in October 2003. They correctly
understand the threat that the Bolivian masses pose to their economic and
political interests, despite the limitations of their

The MAS and the Referendum

Since the beginning of the conflict Carlos Mesa has received the almost
unconditional support of Evo Morales and the
leadership of the MAS. From the very first day the referendum was announced
the MAS leadership has worked hard to
present the referendum as a "popular conquest of October". Also, the MAS
leadership has been spreading the lie that the
referendum was for the nationalisation of gas. Even when president Mesa
publicly announced the referendum was not going
to nationalise nor develop the hydrocarbons, the MAS leadership did not
stop their campaign of legitimisation of the

The reaction of Jaime Solares (COB leader) was the expulsion of Evo Morales
from the COB due to his support for the
referendum and his calls to sabotage the actions of the workers and
peasants against the referendum. Jaime Solares publicly
criticised him using terms such as traitor and scab.

In Santa Cruz, peasant leaders who are backing Evo Morales publicly called
for Jaime Solares and Felipe Quispe (CSUTB)
to be jailed because of their actions against the referendum. The reaction
of Benigno Solares of the MAS is an indication of
how far these so-called leaders have gone. He stated that, "those who burn
the ballot papers will themselves be set on fire"
(www.econoticiasbolivia.com July 12, 2004).

Evo Morales supported the Mesa government in the three of the five
questions in the referendum. However, this has not
surprised anyone. As we have explained, Morales has been promoting
confidence in the Mesa government since the very
beginning of his presidential mandate in October. With these actions the
MAS leadership is dividing the movement and acting
as real blacklegs and traitors.

The COB, the CSTUCB and the referendum

Six days before the referendum the COB called the workers, peasants and
rural and urban poor to defeat the referendum
through a boycott, roadblocks and marches. As we saw back in October 2003,
the revolutionary town of El Alto was once
again in the forefront of the struggle. The people of El Alto decided to
call for a 3-day strike to stop the referendum. Felipe
Quispe, also known as "Mallku", (the CSUTCB leader) also announced that,
"There will be no referendum in the peasant
communities and the polling stations where they [the government] will make
our peasant brothers and sisters vote will burn."
(www.econoticiasbolivia.com July 12, 2004).

However, it must also be said that this boycott action of the revolutionary
workers and peasants was not as generalised
throughout the country as it could have been. The announced boycott of the
referendum was patchy. In some areas the
protest against the referendum was limited to writing the word
'nationalisation' on the ballot papers while in others the
electoral officers had serious difficulties in doing their job, such as in
El Alto, where the OAS international observers were
received by a crowd of people who threw stones at them.

This situation is a consequence of what happened back in October, and how
the movement was demobilised. We must learn
from the mistakes that were committed after the October days. The
hesitations of the trade union leaders gave enough
breathing space to the capitalists to take regain control of the situation.
The "tactical retreat" proposed by the COB leaders
only provided the ground for the installation of Mesa and his government.
Conditions for the taking of power do not arise
everyday and when one is wasted due to the lack of boldness on the part of
the leadership, the initiative is lost and the
moment passes.

The struggle for the nationalisation and development of the energy
resources must therefore be transformed into an offensive
struggle for the nationalisation of the whole of the Bolivian economy. It
is utopian to think that the movement can achieve
control of the gas industry while the rest of the economy remains in the
hands of the oligarchy and its imperialist backers. To
achieve control of the gas industry it is necessary to have control over
the whole economy, with a workers' government in

Such a struggle would find a lot of sympathy among the workers and peasants
of other Latin American countries who are
fighting back against imperialism, such as in Venezuela. Throughout Latin
America we see massive movements of the
workers, the urban poor and the peasantry. There is enormous potential for
revolutionary movements right across the
continent. What is missing is a revolutionary leadership of the working
class. The urgent task is to build it.

July 19, 2004

More information about the Marxism mailing list