Bolivia: on the march against imperialism

The Bolivian people are on the march again: in their hundreds of thousands they have once more taken on imperialism and the oil and gas multinationals which are plundering their natural resources. The showdown with President Mesa that was postponed in mid-March is now imminent, and the Bolivian ruling class is in turmoil. Robert Clough reports.

FRFI 184 reported on the nationwide demonstrations and blockades that had taken place throughout January and February in support of the demand for the nationalisation of oil and gas resources. These had been suspended when Evo Morales, leader of the Movement towards Socialism (MAS), forced the Unity Pact (which includes many of the trades unions and indigenous movements) to back down in the face of a threat by President Mesa to resign, and to accept a decision by the Chamber of Deputies to tighten the Hydrocarbon Bill that Mesa had presented it in 2004. The Bill added a 32% tax to the 18% royalty payment that gas and oil companies had had to pay since 1997, and required the re-negotiation of 72 contracts with 12 oil and gas multinationals to ensure the law was respected. However, Morales’ decision was not a popular one, and as the bill approached the end of a tortuous journey through the Bolivian parliament, so the organisations that represent the poorest Bolivians started to plan mobilisations in favour of full nationalisation.

On 5 May the Chamber of Deputies approved the Bill by 59 votes to 48 (MAS deputies voted against) and passed the Bill back the following day to President Mesa; under the constitution he had ten days to give it final approval and sign it into law. His immediate response was to say he would reject it; this served to inflame opposition. Abel Mamani, leader of the Federation of United Neighbours of El Alto (FEJUVE, the most influential social movement in Bolivia) said ‘Our objective is the total recuperation of hydrocarbons, the major one being gas’. He continued ‘We would be incoherent, irresponsible, and anti-patriotic if we said this law satisfied everyone…We don’t recognise the approval of this Hydrocarbon Law’. Bolivian Workers’ Central (COB) leader Jaime Solares declared that ‘the only hope we have is that the people take to the streets’, whilst anti-privatisation leader Oscar Oliveira announced that there would be street blockades in Cochabamba, and even seizures of refineries and oil wells. Other indigenous organisations such as CSUTCB announced a march along with MAS from Caracollo starting on Monday 16 May ending after 200km in La Paz on Monday 23 May.

Mesa prevaricated. The oil and gas multinationals made their position known. BG Group, formerly British Gas, second-largest holder of Bolivian gas reserves, threatened legal action. According to Raul Kieffer, president of the Bolivian Hydrocarbon Chamber, whose affiliates include BG, BP, Shell, Exxon, ChevronTexaco, Spain’s Repsol and Brazil’s Petrobras, there would be no further investment in Bolivia. Brazil’s Energy and Mine Minister Dilma Roussef said that Petrobras would definitely cut back on planned investments. Other investments at risk include a $5bn liquefied natural gas project run as a joint venture between BP, BG and Repsol. Meanwhile the Bolivian daily La Razon reported that before approving Bolivia's annual loan package, the IMF sought and secured a promise from Mesa that the government would not seek to renegotiate any of the contracts with the oil corporations, even though they had been forced through under great secrecy and to the benefit of a handful of corrupt politicians. However, the Chinese ambassador to Bolivia announced that ‘Chinese businesses are interested in negotiating with Bolivia about the future of gas and oil.’

On 16 May, the people of El Alto in their tens of thousands marched down into the centre of La Paz to shut down parliament. Their demands were for the fulfilment of the ‘October Agenda’ – the slogans of the movement which had brought down the previous president Sanchez de Lozada in October 2003. These include the nationalisation of gas, a constituent assembly and the trial of politicians associated with the massacres of that October when 69 people were killed. Led by FEJUVE, participating organisations included COB, peasant organisation Tupaj Katari, teachers’ unions and the Public University of El Alto. The following day, Mesa washed his hands of the bill by refusing either to approve or reject it. As a consequence it fell to Congress president Hormando Vaca Diez, a member of the right-wing Santa Cruz oligarchy to sign it into law.

Meanwhile, the march from Caracollo started its lengthy journey to La Paz. Led by Morales and MAS, it included most of the organisations of the Unity Pact: the CSUTCB, and other indigenous and coca grower organisations. But although the roll-call is impressive, these organisations are being left behind by the revolutionary workers’ movement in El Alto and La Paz. Morales has made it clear he does not want to destabilise Mesa; the march rejects road blockades and the seizure of parliament as tactics, and rather than nationalise hydrocarbon resources wants to see the Hydrocarbon Law changed to raise royalties from 18% to 50%. Already some MAS leaders are recognising that they are being outstripped by the pace of the movement; one, Roman Loayza told La Razon ‘The bases are bypassing us. We want to march for more royalties, but the people want nationalisation. And for that we will struggle.’

Time will tell. In the meantime, miners marched on Parliament on Wednesday 18 May; on Thursday a 48-hour general strike started in the city of Potosi followed by a 24-hour general strike in El Alto on Friday. Blockades spread like wildfire across the country. Congress may relocate to another city, Sucre. The armed forces chief Admiral Luis Aranda has said they will only take orders from Congress, and rejected separatist calls emanating from the Santa Cruz ruling class. On Monday 23 May the march from Caracollo will arrive in La Paz to coincide with the start of a general strike. The Bolivian working class and the mass of the oppressed are throwing down the gauntlet to imperialism.

Victory to the Bolivian people!

FRFI 185 June / July 2005


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