Bolivia: imperialist alarm grows

Bolivia is the poorest country in South America. GDP per capita has fallen over the last 25 years as imperialism has stripped the country of its wealth. Two-thirds of the population live in absolute poverty. Now they are demanding a fundamental change in their conditions, and the new president Evo Morales, elected on a landslide in December 2005, has promised to deliver this. How has he fared in the two months since his inauguration?

Morales’ government reflects the contradictory pressures he faces. On the one hand, it includes a number of representatives from the anti-imperialist movements, such as Santiago Galvez, a trade unionist who is Minister of Labour, Abel Mamani, the FEJUVE leader from El Alto, who is Minister of Water, Casimira Rodriguez, leader of the Union of Women Cleaners, who has become Minister of Justice and Andres Soliz Rada, Minister of Hydrocarbons, who had opposed the earlier MAS policy which fell short of a call for nationalisation. On the other there are Salvador Ric Riera, a last-minute financial contributor to Morales’ campaign and a Santa Cruz businessman who is Minister of Public Services, Defence Minister Walker Rodriguez, a former director of Lloyd Bolivia Airline, who has been accused of covering up the illegal privatisation of the former state airline, and Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca, a close collaborator of former President Jaime Paz Zamora who led Bolivia down the neo-liberal path in the 1980s.

One of Morales’ election pledges was to nationalise the country’s oil and gas resources and he has recently confirmed that this will happen by 12 July. In the meantime, the government has commissioned a complete audit of existing contracts with multi-national oil companies, and after looking at deals reached with foreign oil firms between 1993 and 2003, Attorney-General Pedro Gareca said he had found illegalities in:

  • 39 contracts signed by Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, who governed from 1993 to 1997 and 2002 to 2003;
  • Four contracts agreed by Jorge Quiroga, who served in 2002, and who opposed Morales in the 2005 election;
  • One deal signed by Carlos Mesa who was President between 2003 and 2005

On 14 March, Repsol YPF Bolivian President Julio Gavito and Operations Manager Pedro Sanchez were held for questioning about customs evasion on the export of 230,000 barrels of oil to Argentina and Chile in 2004-05, worth $9.2m. A further smuggling charge involving gas-bottling equipment worth $8m is also being investigated. Spain’s Foreign Minister said the actions against Repsol were sending ‘bad signals’ to foreign investors in Bolivia, to which Morales riposted that it is not a ‘bad signal to follow the law’. Gavito has since resigned.

It is not just oil and gas reserves which the Bolivian people wish to see in common ownership: at Mutun there are huge iron and manganese deposits worth $400 billion, but $30,000 billion if all the processing took place in Bolivia. The outgoing Mesa government had organised a tendering process to sell off these reserves without any requirement for local processing. In December, in a concession to the ruling class, Morales agreed the sale could go ahead. There was huge political opposition from the trade unions and anti-imperialist movements. In early March, Morales announced that: ‘We have taken the decision to postpone for 90 days the [Mutun] tender, after studying the reports from the inter-ministerial commission, the technical commission and the judicial commission. With the new tender and the new contracts we will be able to better the income for the state, construct the first steel industry in Bolivia – through the industrialisation of iron – and preserve the environment with the replacement of carbon for natural gas as the source of energy. I want to thank the social and civic movements of the east for understanding and supporting our decision.’ The lesson is clear: the Morales government is having to respond to the pressure from the mass movement.

Meanwhile the government is coming under pressure from the US. A conference of the coca-growers in Cochabamba passed a resolution demanding that US officials and NGOs should leave Chapare, one of the principal coca-growing areas. On 16 February, following a complaint by the US ambassador, Morales distanced himself from the declaration. At the same time, newly-elected senator Leonilida Zurita Vargas, a human rights leader and a close political associate of Morales from Chapare, was barred from entering the US under the Patriot Act on the grounds that she had links with ‘terrorist activity’. Whilst Senate President Ramirez demanded a detailed report from the US ambassador, Vice President Garcia Linera said ‘we are not worried about a senator not having a visa.’

There are governmental divisions, too, over economic relations with US imperialism. Foreign Minister Choquehuanca has said that Bolivia is open to agreeing a free trade agreement with the US, and has said ‘we do not reject entering the Free Trade Area of the Americas’. However, Morales has made it clear that this will not happen since it ‘would cause more hunger, misery and unemployment in Bolivia’. On 21 March, Claudius Lestat, a US citizen, and his Uruguayan girlfriend set off bombs in two La Paz hotels, killing two people. Morales immediately denounced the attack as an act of terror and to demand assurances that the US was not behind it.

Morales has now presented a Law to Convoke a Constituent Assembly with sufficient powers to change Bolivia’s constitution. On 2 July there will be elections to the Assembly, and it will meet on 6 August. Anyone over 18 can both vote and stand as candidates, 50% of the candidates will be women. Morales needs a two-thirds majority of Congress to support the proposals, but has declared that the force of the people should be employed if it is blocked. Hundreds of thousands of Bolivian poor were disenfranchised in the December election because they were allegedly not properly registered. Now the government intends to address this by issuing free identity cards as part of a registration process using Venezuelan aid.

Alongside this Morales launched a mass literacy campaign on Monday 20 March, declaring that ‘literacy is the decolonisation of our country’. With Cuban and Venezuelan support, the plan is to set up 30,000 literacy centres throughout the country which will serve more than a million Bolivians. The intention is to eradicate illiteracy within 30 months. Imperialist alarm is growing: Latin American unity is posing a serious threat.

Robert Clough

FRFI 190 April / May 2006


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