Bolivian people on the march

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The struggle of the impoverished Bolivian people for control of their lives and resources continues.

On 23 September, tens of thousands commemorated the first eight men, women and children murdered by heavily armed state forces in the Gas War last September/October. The mass uprising was so named because nationalisation of Bolivia’s natural gas, its most lucrative and sizable resource, was central to the people’s demands. No one responsible for the murder of 63 civilians during the three weeks’ uprising has been brought to justice. Ousted millionaire president Sánchez de Lozada resides alongside other Latin American terrorists in the safety of Miami. Other demands of the uprising included

  • An end to neoliberal policies, especially cuts in state welfare and privatisations
  • No free trade agreements with the US
  • An end to forced coca eradication
  • Land reform

Following the Referendum on Gas in July which 60% of the voting population boycotted, President Carlos Mesa has been drawing up a new Law of Hydrocarbons. Repsol, the Spanish oil company that owns 23% of Bolivia’s natural gas reserves, was confident that the new law would not affect its interests. However, as a precaution, it threatened Bolivia’s Congress with sanctions if it did not toe the line. The company also joined Petrobras (Brazilian), British Petroleum, TotalFinaElf, Enron-Shell and British Gas in ensuring the law did not change their existing contracts or increase their taxation. Congress’s Mixed Commission of Economic Development warned that Mesa’s proposed new law will lose the Bolivian state $US 130 million per year.

Huge demonstrations in August and early September paralysed Bolivia’s largest cities. On 25 and 26 August there was a total blockade in La Paz and El Alto as 1.5 million people took to the streets drawn from the poor neighbourhoods, workers and peasant unions, students, small vendors, unemployed, truck drivers and the Landless Movement (MST). Public services maintained a total strike. Cochabamba also saw demonstrations of 100,000. The social organisations leading these protests demanded the complete expropriation of the gas and petroleum from the transnational companies.

On 30 August the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), which had backed Mesa’s referendum called for more protests in order to recover some political credibility with the masses. MAS leader Evo Morales demanded that the government annul the 78 contracts in place with foreign oil companies. However, he has been further compromised by the Mesa government’s renewed onslaught on coca growers. Violent and savage eradication has been officially expanded and new confrontations have occurred, each time more intense. Coca growers, progressive intellectuals and labour organisations have launched the Campaign for Coca and Sovereignty to legalise the production, consumption and the traditional and industrial use of the coca leaf, and to end forced eradication.

On 1 September the unemployed took to the streets of La Paz and elsewhere to demand work. Hundreds of police assaulted protesters, dragging them across the ground, beating them and gassing them. 14% of Bolivia’s urban labour force is unemployed. Small borrowers, mainly family businesses, have also started a hunger strike to urge the government to rein in micro-credit institutions that are charging extortionate interest rates. MST supporters have also started hunger strikes; its members have faced constant harassment since the organisation was criminalised.

In the poorest areas, popular justice is being meted out to corrupt politicians. In Ayo Ayo, after many warnings, the people executed the village’s mayor, Benjamín Altamirano in June. MST members had been occupying unused land belonging to a large landowner in the area since June 2003, supporting themselves from the produce. On 10 August, the Bolivian state regained control of Ayo Ayo, but the movement continues to gain popularity from its policy of land occupation. President Mesa is increasingly isolated, and survives only through the support he gets from Morales. The Bolivian people are on the march.

Fiona Donovan & Robert Clough

FRFI 181 October / November 2004