[Marxism] Bolivia back to the streets? Natural gas and popular struggle

Tony Tracy tony at tao.ca
Mon May 9 16:23:17 MDT 2005

{from http://www.newsocialist.org}


by Jeffery R. Webber

After about a month and a half of relative dormancy, the beginning of 
last week saw the first interesting signs of renewed life from popular 
forces in Bolivia. On Monday, May 3, three congressmen and one senator 
of the party Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) – Iván Morales, Germán 
Yucra, Félix Santos, and Bonifaz Bellido – wore balaclavas (ski masks) 
to a session of Congress. They were expressing their solidarity with 
Mexico’s Zapatistas, as the special session of Congress was taking 
place to greet right-wing Mexican president Vicente Fox who was in the 
country to secure a deal for natural gas exports from Bolivia to 
Mexico. The mainstream press was suitably disgusted with the utterly 
juvenile behaviour of this party of delinquent Indians and socialists. 
The influential daily La Razon, in a regular news story, expressed its 
horror: “Like this they received an official guest of the state of 
Bolivia, during a session of honour.” The reader’s jaw was expected to 
drop. For the first time in months I was impressed with some members of 
the MAS.

But it was later in the week that the basis was laid for what could 
become Bolivia’s next wave of street protests, marches, and road 
blockades. On Thursday, May 5 the lower house of Congress approved a 
new law on natural gas, after it had travelled through the lower house, 
then to the Senate for amendments, then back to the lower house for the 
past nine months. From Thursday, the president, Carlos Mesa Gisbert, 
has 10 days to approve or veto the law, and he is expected by most to 
do the former.

The flavour of the law is best expressed in the parties that supported 
and opposed it. The neoliberal parties of the ex-megacoalition under 
ousted ex-president Gonzalo (Goni) Sánchez de Lozada – MNR, NFR, MIR, 
and ADN – constituted the 59 votes in favour. The MAS, MIP (both 
indigenous/Left parties), UCS, and some individual congress people from 
the MNR, MIR, and NFR constituted the 48 votes against, while three 
blank votes were cast. According to a whole array of the most important 
popular organizations within radical Bolivian society the law falls far 
short of the nationalization demanded in the massive rebellion of 
October 2003, popularly known as the Gas War. According to Edgar Ramos 
Andrade (in his book Agonía y Rebelión Social: 543 motivos de justicia 
urgente), 73 people died, and over 400 were injured by bullets during 
that insurrection which successfully forced Goni out of the presidency 
and into exile in the United States. The new law, according to many 
social movement leaders, makes a mockery of those dead and wounded. 
According to Roberto de la Cruz, ex-secretary general of the Regional 
Workers Central of El Alto (COR-El Alto), and key leader during the 
October rebellion, “The spilt blood of more than 80 compatriots has 
been in vain. The parliamentarians are making a joke of that blood.”

Country-wide Popular Forces Plan Actions

Last March it seemed briefly that the notoriously divided and 
personalistic Left in Bolivia had come together to fight the Mesa 
regime and neoliberalism with renewed energy. An “anti-oligarchic pact” 
was signed by Evo Morales (leader of the MAS), Jaime Solares (leader of 
the Bolivian Workers Central, COB), Felipe Quispe and Román Loayza 
(leaders of the peasant union, CSUTCB), Roberto de la Cruz, Alejo Véliz 
(leader of the Trópico de Cochabamba, an association of coca growers), 
leaders of the Bolivian Landless Movement (MST), Omar Fernandez (who 
played a key role in the Water War of 2000 in Cochabamba), Óscar 
Olivera (from the Coordinator of Water and Gas, and key leader in the 
Water War of 2000), among others. The pact, though, seemingly had a 
short shelf-life, with leaders renewing their name-calling and 
divisiveness quickly after the historic meeting.

However, this new natural gas law has apparently brought new life to 
the union between social movements, with a big strategizing session of 
many social movement groups planned for today in the city of Santa 
Cruz. In addition to this important development, many social movement 
and workers organizations in different parts of the country have 
already started announcing particular actions.

Abel Mamani, leader of the Federation of United Neighbours of El Alto 
(FEJUVE El Alto, perhaps the most important social movement 
organization in the country at the moment) says, “Our objective is the 
total recuperation of hydrocarbons (the major one being natural gas).” 
A recent manifesto emitted by the Federation says that parliament is a 
group of traitors to the nation and should be shut down. It declares 
further, that FEJUVE-El Alto will now take actions into its own hands. 
There is a general assembly being held this Wednesday May 11, to 
determine exactly what action will be taken. According to Mamani, “We 
would be incoherent, irresponsible, and anti-patriotic if we said that 
this law satisfied everyone. We know that the mission of every patriot 
in the country is the recuperation of what we gave away through the 
irresponsibility of those in government. We don’t recognize the 
approval of this Hydrocarbons Law.”

Jaime Solares, leader of the Bolivian Workers Central (COB) has 
declared, “The only hope we have is that the people take to the 
streets,” to ensure a law is not passed that only favours transnational 
corporations. Óscar Olivera announced that this week measures will be 
taken in Cochabamba, including marches to La Paz, blockades of the 
highways, and even the taking of natural gas wells. Román Loayza of the 
CSUTCB emphasizes the importance of the reunion planned for today in 
Santa Cruz, which he says will include social movements of various 
types in addition to the participation of the political parties, MAS 
and MIP (Indigenous Pachakuti Movement). CSUTCB is planning a march 
from Caracollo on the morning of Tuesday May 10, as well as numerous 
road blockades.

Also, in Cochabamba various groups of peasants, workers and coca 
growers have threatened to convulse the entire country this week, 
demanding the closing of Parliament and the rejection of the new law. 
The indigenous organization CONAMAQ, together with the women’s 
peasant-indigenous organization, the Bartolina Sisa Association, has 
decided to initiate road blockades, especially around the rights of 
indigenous people to veto natural gas development projects in their 
territories, a right earlier considered in Congress, but rejected in 
the law just approved by the lower house. In short, this week should be 
interesting, even if social movements are unable to carry out all of 
their extremely ambitious actions.

Imperial Discontent and the Worried Face of the Local Bourgeoisie

Of course, for transnational petroleum companies with interests in 
Bolivia, as for local bourgeoisies from various sectors, the new law is 
“confiscatory” and the threats by social movements threaten the “legal 
security” needed to attract foreign investment into the country. Since 
becoming Secretary of State of the United States in late January of 
this year, Condoleeza Rice has been highlighting the numerous threats 
posed in the Andean region of Latin America, with Venezuela under 
Chávez and the war in Colombia top priorities, followed thereafter by 
the recent mobilizations and ousting of a president last month in 
Ecuador, and the frightening popularity of the Movement Toward 
Socialism in Bolivia. This new law and the mobilizations it’s inspiring 
are not likely to make the American administration any happier.

US Treasury Department`s Assisant Secretary of International Affairs, 
Randal Quarles – while unwilling to make an “official” statement while 
president Mesa was still deliberating over what action to take – noted 
that if the law goes into effect, “it is a sure thing that the first 
measure would be the suspension of investments, at minimum while 
Bolivia continues this uncertainty.” He further pointed to the 
vulnerability of the Bolivian state in relation to the International 
Monetary fund (IMF), the World Bank, and the Inter-American Development 
Bank, all of which would be monitoring closely Bolivia’s action on 
natural gas, and would be considering their manipulation of lines of 
credit to the Bolivian state. In March, 2005 Mesa signed a Stand By 
loan with the IMF that promised to respect existing contracts and to 
develop an attractive environment for foreign investment.

Meanwhile, the Bolivian House of Hydrocarbons, the peek organization of 
the petroleum companies that operate within Bolivia, has threatened to 
stop their activities and investments in the country if this law is not 
vetoed by the President. The Confederation of Private Businesses of 
Bolivia has likewise come out strongly against the law, and has made 
clear that the social movement threats of mobilization threaten the 
“legal security” necessary for a healthy business environment. In the 
past this has been the not so subtle code-speech for the need for the 
state to bust heads if social movements mobilize and block roads.

The country’s deep injustices of class and racial apartheid are once 
again rising to the surface in a politicized moment. Confrontation and 
conflict seem likely to hold sway over the coming weeks.

Jeffery R. Webber is a PhD Candidate in Political Science at the 
University of Toronto and a member of the New Socialist Group. He is 
currently in Bolivia. With archives from La Razon, La Prensa, Pulso, 
and El Mundo. 

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