Bolivians declare ‘nationalisation or death’

On 18 July, the Bolivia people were obliged under threat of fines or imprisonment to vote in a referendum on the sale and export of their country’s valuable hydrocarbon resources, worth more than $100 billion. It took place nine months after Bolivia’s ‘Gas War’ of October 2003, a massive popular uprising, forced millionaire president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada to flee the country. However, his unelected successor, Carlos Mesa, made sure that the popular demand for the nationalisation of these resources was not included amongst the five questions in the referendum. Despite the heavily government-funded media campaign, 60% of the 5.1 million eligible to vote in South America’s poorest country defied their government once again in a boycott of what they termed the ‘tramparendum’ (trampa means ‘trap’).

The national unions of the workers and peasants (COB and CSUTCB) led by Jaime Solares and Felipe Quispe respectively, and supported by the Co-ordination for the Defence of Gas and the Neighbourhood Association of El Alto (FEJUVE) campaigned for a boycott of the referendum. There were protests all over the country; signatures were collected for the Popular Referendum demanding the nationalisation of the gas; and placards hung near voting tables declaring ‘nationalisation or death’. In the end,

  • 640,000 did not register;
  • 1,800,000 or 40% of those registered boycotted the referendum;
  • A further 600,000 voted but spoiled their ballot papers.

Of the five questions, only the second, giving Bolivia formal ownership of its untapped fuels, received a significant majority (72%) of the valid ballots. Those in various forms approving the sale of gas and oil had a bare majority or even less.

Hence a majority of Bolivians rejected the charade despite divisions in the opposition movement. The Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) led by Evo Morales, that had until recently 35 MPs, gave its full support to President Mesa and backed the referendum, believing it would lead to eventual nationalisation of hydrocarbons through ‘democratic’ means. MAS MP Loayza slandered Felipe Quispe by accusing him of receiving back-handers from the government, and peasant leaders loyal to the MAS in relatively more wealthy Santa Cruz demanded that Quispe and Solares be sent to jail for their boycott calls. Not surprisingly, Jaime Solares and other leaders of the genuine opposition accused Evo Morales of treason for his standpoint. Quispe himself resigned as an MP on 26 May because parliament approved an immunity law which means that no US citizen can be taken to national or international court for crimes against humanity in Bolivia’s national territory.

The predictions of Aymara and Guaraní peasant and union leaders that the referendum would strengthen the grip of the foreign oil companies over Bolivia’s resources and destiny are already coming true. Mesa has now started to work jointly with the World Bank to draft a new Law of Hydrocarbons that will guarantee the operation of the petrol companies and open the way for export. The most immediate impact of the referendum is to extend no less than 78 contracts with oil companies. Hence Repsol (Spain) and Petrobras (Brazil) will increase their export of Bolivian gas to Argentina from 4 to 30 million cubic metres per day over the next 20 years. Another 30 million cubic metres of gas have been sold to Mexico and sales of gas to California have now resumed after they were halted during the Gas War. Unsurprisingly the referendum got the full backing of the multinational oil companies, the international trade organisations such as the World Bank and IMF, the neo-liberal parties of Bolivia that shared power with Sánchez de Lozada and maintain a two-thirds majority in the Parliament, and Bolivia’s wealthy elite.

The struggle of the popular anti-imperialist forces within Bolivia will continue. The only popular mandate is for the nationalisation of all Bolivian
hydrocarbon resources.

Fiona Donovan

FRFI 180 August / September 2004


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