Bolivia: Working class prepares for indefinite strike

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FRFI 178 April / May 2004

Five months into Carlos Mesa’s presidency the patience of Bolivia’s poor majority is wearing thin. Mesa’s slight reforms to address the demands of the different social sectors that overthrew the administration of Sánchez de Lozada last October have failed. Since February there have been several strikes: of transport workers, medical professionals, teachers and students, with support from the national workers’ union, the Bolivian Labour Central (COB). The COB mobilised thousands to march through La Paz on 17 and 25 March demanding increased salaries, the renationalisation of gas and oil, compliance with the promises given in October and rejection of the neo-liberal economic model. The COB will hold a broad ‘emergency’ meeting in the radical mining town of Huanuni on 7 April to prepare for an indefinite national strike if Mesa fails to initiate a dialogue between his cabinet ministers and the COB. The Coordination for the Defence of Gas is calling a national meeting in Cochabamba on 2 April to propose plans for popular action.

The increasing class divide manifested itself on the streets of La Paz on 17 March when employees of the ministries and banks threw tomatoes and water at demonstrating teachers. Later that day the COB’s demonstators were armed with sticks, stones and dynamite, but warnings came from the Church, Assembly of Human Rights and the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) that demonstrations will lead to a military coup.

Bolivia is suffering a severe financial crisis, a lever for the imperialists to exert their power over the country. The World Bank and the IMF have made new loans conditional on the sale and export of gas to the US and Mexico. The so-called Group of Support agreed in Washington on 19 March to award just one third of the financial support urgently needed by Mesa’s administration, conditional on the approval of new taxes.

The oil and gas transnationals (Repsol and Enron) are exerting their power to maintain absolute right of exploitation and sale, keeping all incomes and profits. These transnationals enjoy in Bolivia the highest profit rate in the world oil industry and lowest production costs. Bolivia pays international prices for its own gas reserves. Mesa’s appointment of Antonio Araníbar as Minister of Minerals and Hydrocarbons on 13 March ended attempts to reform this situation. Araníbar oversaw the ‘capitalisations’ of Sánchez de Lozada’s first presidency (1997) that awarded transnationals control over Bolivia’s resources and, in 1994, signed a contract with Enron losing the state at least $130 million.

It is clear that Mesa will not fulfil agreements made with the social organisations. One unanimous demand in October was the rejection of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). On 22 March, Mesa started negotiations with the US for a free market treaty that also includes Peru, Colombia and Ecuador: a ‘mini FTAA’. The Bolivian people’s struggle to break the imperialist grip on their country continues.

Fiona Donovan