Bolivia: class showdown postponed

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Bolivia is in a deep political and social crisis. The mass of the impoverished indigenous people who make up 70% of the population are demanding an end to the old political order and the establishment of their basic rights. They are standing up to a ruling class that allows the plunder of the country’s hydrocarbon reserves; that excludes the mass of the people from any significant political process, and which is completely in hock to imperialism. ROBERT CLOUGH reports.

The challenge has been led by a plethora of social movements: FEJUVE, which organises in the neighbourhoods of El Alto, the poorest city in Bolivia; indigenous organisations such as the CSUTCB led by Felipe Quispe, organisations involved in the campaign against privatisation, and the trade union federation COB. These movements have established a Unity Pact demanding the nationalisation of all hydrocarbon reserves, the establishment of a Constituent Assembly, and the prosecution of former President de Lozada for the deaths of 69 protestors in the October 2003 Gas War.

Bolivia is the poorest nation in South America, and, with nine million people, one of the smallest populations. Yet in the last five years, the indigenous population has inflicted a series of defeats on the comprador ruling class which have made the country, according to current President Mesa, ungovernable. In 2000, mass mobilisations in Cochabamba, forced the government to backtrack on privatising the local water supply and terminate a contract with Bechtel. In October 2003, nationwide worker and peasant mobilisations protested at proposals to export gas at cut prices to the US through Chile. The police and army murdered 69 peasants and workers, but were unable to crush the protests. The people were victorious. President de Lozada resigned and fled the country.

Carlos Mesa replaced him as president, promising a referendum on the future of the country’s hydrocarbon resources – second largest in South America after Venezuela’s – and a Constituent Assembly to rewrite the country’s racist constitution. Despite mass support for nationalisation, Mesa refused to include it as an option in the referendum when it took place in July 2004. The hydrocarbon bill he presented to Congress sought an increase in taxation on gas exports from 18% to 32%. However, this minor proposal immediately met with virulent opposition from the oil and gas multinationals, including BP, British Gas, Spain’s Repsol and Brazil’s Petrobras. They brought pressure on Mesa to abandon the proposal. Energy Minister Guillermo Torres described the bill as ‘economic suicide’ for Bolivia.

After a year of governmental inaction on the prosecution of de Lozada, further protests took place in October 2004 demanding his arrest and trial. Faced with a mass blockade in the capital La Paz, Congress deputies had no choice but to accede, voting for the arrest of de Lozada and 14 of his cabinet colleagues. De Lozada refuses to return from Miami. In late December, protests broke out in El Alto against another private water supply contractor, Aguas de Illimani, owned by the French Suez Lyonnaise de Eaux, the world’s second largest water company. Water supply connection charges amounted to six months’ wages. On 10 January the city, with its overwhelmingly indigenous working class population of 800,000, was brought to a complete standstill by a general strike. On 14 January, the government capitulated and cancelled the contract with Suez.

New protests took place in January when Mesa announced petrol and diesel price increases. Blockades continued in the south of Bolivia in support of demands for a new university. On 21 February, the Unity Pact called for further blockades and protests in pursuit of its demand for nationalisation of hydrocarbons. Whole areas of the country came to a complete standstill. On 4 March, Mesa submitted his resignation to Congress, complaining that he could not continue to rule. The 15 months of his presidency had seen over 800 different protests.

Mesa has survived by balancing between the rich and the poor, making concessions to one or other dependent on the pressure. He has been able to continue because of the tacit support of Evo Morales, leader of the coca growers, and of the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS). Morales supported the referendum on hydrocarbons though it did not present nationalisation as an option. For this he was criticised by the indigenous movements’ leaders, who also opposed his evident desire to pursue a parliamentary course and downgrade the mass movement, particularly during the Gas War. Leader of the Cochabamba water struggle Oscar Olivera warned in 2004, ‘Today in Bolivia there are two currents within the social movements. The first current is a reformist current looking for changes within the political structure. Others in the social movements are going toward the transformation of political and economic systems that aren’t working. I think the concept of power is important. Some movements and leaders seem to think that power is in the parliament and the office of the president. And some think that, as in the water war and the coca war and the gas war, power comes from below.’

Although MAS emerged as the largest party in December’s municipal elections, it received only 20% of the vote, no more than in the 2002 presidential elections when Morales came second to de Lozada. Morales was now in danger of losing credibility in advance of the 2007 presidential elections. Under pressure from the radical wing of MAS, he joined the Unity Pact and endorsed the mass action against the hydrocarbon bill whilst continuing to call in Congress for a 50% taxation rate.

Mesa’s submitted his resignation to force Morales’ hand. On 6 March, Congress rejected his resignation. However, the Chamber of Deputies gave initial approval to the hydrocarbon bill, and, in response, the Unity Pact called a two-day general strike starting on 15 March, which Morales endorsed. That evening, Mesa proposed to Congress that the 2007 presidential elections be brought forward to August 2005 and take place at the same time as elections to the Constituent Assembly. Meanwhile, the Chamber of Deputies agreed a minor revision to the hydrocarbon bill removing some exemptions to the 32% taxation rate and passed it to the Senate for approval. The following day, Morales met with other leaders of the Unity Pact and proposed the strike be called off. The Pact was split: Quispe walked out of the meeting before it had ended, and Amayra leader Gualberto Choque denounced the decision. On 17 March, Congress rejected Mesa’s call for early elections, leaving Morales with little to show for ending the mass protest. Mesa’s manoeuvre had succeeded.

Divisions in the social movements could have serious consequences. Recently, the Chamber of Commerce in Santa Cruz, always in the vanguard of racist reaction, called for greater autonomy for this most affluent region in Bolivia, declaring that it would no longer subsidise the poorer regions where the indigenous population predominates. Repsol and Petrobras are on the Board of Directors of the Chamber of Commerce. The US has endorsed this move, one that could lead to the break up of the country, or even the secession of Santa Cruz to Brazil. A war in the 1930s led to Brazil and Argentina seizing parts of Bolivia where there was thought to be oil. A repetition of this is not a fanciful notion.

The social movements have suffered a setback. It is now vital that they recover their unity if the current crisis is to be resolved in favour of the mass of the Bolivian people.

FRFI 184 April / May 2005