Bolivia: battleground against imperialism

FRFI 177 February / March 2004

Millionaire Carlos Mesa has been President of Bolivia for three months, during which time he has broken every promise that he made in his first few days of office following the huge popular uprising in September/October that overthrew the Sanchez de Lozada administration. Mesa swiftly abandoned his declaration that he would call elections rapidly and he has since vowed to stay in post until 2007. The mass movements of Bolivia’s poor and disenfranchised, the majority of the population, did not take long to recognise Mesa’s administration as a continuation of the preceding neoliberal governments they fought so long and hard. A split has occurred, however, in the movement concerning how to eradicate and reverse the neoliberal policies that have afflicted and impoverished most Bolivians since 1985.

The ‘gas war’, the label given to the people’s October insurrection opposing the export of Bolivia’s vast natural gas reserves to the US via Chile, has taken on a new meaning. Mesa is demanding the return of land seized by Chile in 1879, and with it, the restoration of Bolivia’s coastline so that it can export the gas to the US directly. This is in flagrant disregard of the wishes of the majority of the population who want to see Bolivians benefit from their own natural resources. It appears to be an attempt to focus the discontent away from the Bolivian government on to Chile. Patriotic (rightwing) youth organisations have been inspired to call for the dismissal of Mesa’s Chancellor, Juan Ignacio Siles, because he was born in Chile.

Huge tax and price increases are being prepared for the end of January in order to tackle the severe crisis of Bolivia’s economy. They will amount to ‘blood, sweat and tears’ for the people according to the Minister of Economic Development Xavier Nogales. Government ministers failed to secure financial help from the IMF, World Bank, US or other countries to alleviate the fiscal deficit, though assistance was offered in the form of advice to take even harsher measures than those already drawn up. The powerful institutions in Washington have decided that the Bolivian people must pay for the economic crisis, ultimately to service the external debt.

All the organisations involved in the last uprising have been vocal about their opposition to Mesa’s administration and the way it is following the dictates of the US Embassy, but their strategies conflict. The leader of the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), Evo Morales, has given his full backing to the challenge to Chile. Morales is looking to the municipal elections in December to gain more of a stake in the government to influence reforms. He speaks strongly against imperialism and for national sovereignty and dignity, but aims to preserve ‘democracy’ to win the presidency in 2007 and form an alliance with other Latin American leaders, such as Hugo Chavez, to resist US domination and military intervention. For the embattled coca growers, who form the bulk of the MAS rank and file, a peaceful road to participatory democracy on a national level must seem appealing but unlikely. Over the next few weeks, they may well join their Aymara brothers and sisters living on the Altiplano in another uprising, despite the warnings of Morales that this will bring about a military coup.

The majority of the workers and peasant movements are united to take democracy into their own hands. The leader of the national workers’ union the Bolivian Workers Central (COB), miner Jaime Solares, has declared war, backed up by Roberto de la Cruz of the regional workers’ union of El Alto. They are clear that the people must now take the power for themselves by force through revolution. Felipe Quispe, leader of the peasant federation (CSUTCB) and the Indigenous Pachacuti Movement (MIP), has expressed support. Mesa was given 90 days to attend to the people’s demands; his failure has resulted in a determination to close the parliament and set up a Popular Assembly in its place, using the same principles as the one set up by the COB in 1970. On 22 January it was resolved in a mass meeting that if the government fails to implement at least 70% of the demands of a broad-based petition, a general strike will begin within 20 days, accompanied by widespread road blockades. El Alto looks set to lead the way. On 21 January 15,000 parents of El Alto marched on La Paz to demand more teachers and funding for education for their children. They promised greater pressure the next week. The poor neighbourhoods are united once to blockade roads, close the city and cut off vital routes to and from La Paz.

As the social movements prepare to paralyse the country in order to seize power they can be sure that the US is also getting ready to prevent this by any means. Bolivia is rich in natural resources and the US will not surrender those riches to the Bolivian people without a fight. Four US officials practically directed the Bolivian army during the last peoples’ revolt. However, due to the threatened price and tax increases, more groups are pledging to join the uprising. This may also ignite sections of the police and military to rebel, as happened last year. Bolivia could soon become a battleground against imperialism.

Fiona Donovan


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