Bolivian masses on the march

FRFI 176 December 2003 / January 2004

On 17 October the Bolivian masses finally forced their president to resign after a huge uprising in which nearly 80 protesters were murdered by the Bolivian armed forces. Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada presided over the bloodiest 14 months in contemporary Bolivian history. This recent month-long rebellion was the third massive revolt of the Bolivian population this year, the manifestation of the Bolivian people’s opposition to imperialist inspired policies. Fiona Donovan, Juanjo Rivas and Louis Brehony report.

Sánchez de Lozada was chosen by congress to be president in August 2002 following the election in June in which his coalition did not gain a sufficient majority of votes over Evo Morales and the Movement towards Socialism (MAS) (22% to 20.9% respectively) to take office, despite forming a last minute alliance with the opportunist Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR). Sánchez de Lozada is a millionaire businessman who spent much of his life in the US and studied at the University of Chicago. He speaks Spanish with an American accent earning him the popular nickname ‘El Gringo’. He directed the neoliberal policies established in Bolivia in 1985 (devised by the Harvard Professor Jeffrey Sachs), which marked Bolivia’s increasing subjection to the dictates of the World Bank, IMF and the US. This opened the way for the US to impose the eradication of Bolivia’s traditional coca crop, in the ‘War on Drugs’, a blatant excuse for direct military intervention in the Andean countries since the fall of the dictators at the end of the 1980s.

 

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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.

 

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Bolivia: Working class prepares for indefinite strike

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.

 

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Bolivia: Leaders of the mass movement falter

At the beginning of May, indigenous Guarani people began blockading the gas transport systems of multinational companies in the Chaco region to demand the abolition of the 1996 law that sold off Bolivian gas reserves. While a tiny comprador bourgeoisie have been selling off the national water and gas reserves to imperialist multinationals, the vast mass of the working class and peasantry have been impoverished. Bolivia is South America’s poorest country but it also has the largest natural gas reserves after Venezuela and the masses are determined that they are not going to be robbed by the Bolivian elite and the imperialists.

 

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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,

 

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Bolivian people on the march

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.

 

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Bolivia: class showdown postponed

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.

 

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Bolivia: on the march against imperialism

The Bolivian people are on the march again: in their hundreds of thousands they have once more taken on imperialism and the oil and gas multinationals which are plundering their natural resources. The showdown with President Mesa that was postponed in mid-March is now imminent, and the Bolivian ruling class is in turmoil. Robert Clough reports.

FRFI 184 reported on the nationwide demonstrations and blockades that had taken place throughout January and February in support of the demand for the nationalisation of oil and gas resources. These had been suspended when Evo Morales, leader of the Movement towards Socialism (MAS), forced the Unity Pact (which includes many of the trades unions and indigenous movements) to back down in the face of a threat by President Mesa to resign, and to accept a decision by the Chamber of Deputies to tighten the Hydrocarbon Bill that Mesa had presented it in 2004. The Bill added a 32% tax to the 18% royalty payment that gas and oil companies had had to pay since 1997, and required the re-negotiation of 72 contracts with 12 oil and gas multinationals to ensure the law was respected. However, Morales’ decision was not a popular one, and as the bill approached the end of a tortuous journey through the Bolivian parliament, so the organisations that represent the poorest Bolivians started to plan mobilisations in favour of full nationalisation.

 

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Bolivian working class on the march

Cochabamba! Water War in Bolivia, Oscar Olivera, South End Press 2004, ISBN 0-89608-702-6, £10.99

Patterns of protest: politics and social movements in Bolivia, John Crabtree, Latin America Bureau 2005, ISBN 1-899365-71-0, £7.99

The key task facing the Bolivian people is the completion of the national-democratic revolution in conditions where the ruling class – a tiny minority – has taken the country’s resources and handed them over to imperialism, and where the political institutions of the state have become the private clubs of these robbers. The questions that follow are: what are the key demands that express their class interests most clearly, and around which they can unite other social strata? And how will the working class and oppressed exercise their leadership in this process?

 

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Battle for Bolivia

On 6 June, President Mesa was finally obliged to submit his resignation following massive and escalating protests by the Bolivian working class and peasantry. That day, some 400,000 people had participated in a cabildo (open assembly) in the centre of the capital La Paz. Their demands, for nationalisation of the country’s hydrocarbon (gas and oil) reserves and the formation of a transitional government representing workers, peasants and sections of the middle class, were a complete rejection of imperialism and of a local ruling class which had sold their country’s wealth to foreign multinationals. Robert Clough reports.

 

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Bolivia: imperialist alarm grows

Bolivia is the poorest country in South America. GDP per capita has fallen over the last 25 years as imperialism has stripped the country of its wealth. Two-thirds of the population live in absolute poverty. Now they are demanding a fundamental change in their conditions, and the new president Evo Morales, elected on a landslide in December 2005, has promised to deliver this. How has he fared in the two months since his inauguration?

Morales’ government reflects the contradictory pressures he faces. On the one hand, it includes a number of representatives from the anti-imperialist movements, such as Santiago Galvez, a trade unionist who is Minister of Labour, Abel Mamani, the FEJUVE leader from El Alto, who is Minister of Water, Casimira Rodriguez, leader of the Union of Women Cleaners, who has become Minister of Justice and Andres Soliz Rada, Minister of Hydrocarbons, who had opposed the earlier MAS policy which fell short of a call for nationalisation. On the other there are Salvador Ric Riera, a last-minute financial contributor to Morales’ campaign and a Santa Cruz businessman who is Minister of Public Services, Defence Minister Walker Rodriguez, a former director of Lloyd Bolivia Airline, who has been accused of covering up the illegal privatisation of the former state airline, and Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca, a close collaborator of former President Jaime Paz Zamora who led Bolivia down the neo-liberal path in the 1980s.

 

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Bolivia: new dangers ahead

On 2 July, the Bolivian people voted for who would represent them in the Constituent Assembly that will meet on 6 August. The result was a foregone conclusion: President Evo Morales’ Movement Towards Socialism party, MAS, won a majority of the delegates, 137 out of 255, with 54% of the poll. However, constitutional changes require the approval of a two-thirds majority of the Constitutional Assembly, or 170 delegates, and with reactionary organisations such as the neo-liberal Podemos picking up most of the remaining 118, it may well prove to be difficult to make much progress unless there is a strong mobilisation of the anti-imperialist social movements which propelled Morales to power in December last year.

Simultaneously, Bolivians also voted on proposals to implement forms of regional autonomy for each of its nine provinces. Nationally, autonomy was rejected by 54% to 46%. However, in the most affluent provinces of Tarija and Santa Cruz, where most of the country’s oil and gas reserves are located, the vote went the other way: in Santa Cruz, the vote for regional autonomy was 72%, and in Tarija 63%. These majorities reflect the interests of the local ruling class: the Santa Cruz bourgeoisie wants a much larger share of the national cake, and has threatened to secede from Bolivia if it does not get what it wants. Sections are already organising in support of this. On 4 July, the neo-fascist Santa Cruz Youth League attacked a trade union rally, injuring dozens whilst police stood by. When Morales dismissed the police chief, the head of the powerful Santa Cruz Civic Committee declared that ‘Patience can come to an end; we have limits’. The Committee, which represents the local white ruling class, has also threatened to set up militias to oppose Morales’ proposed land reforms which would distribute some state-owned land to the landless, who are overwhelmingly indigenous.

 

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Bolivia: right wing threatens civil war

As Bolivia’s Constituent Assembly, elected on 2 July, faces right-wing sabotage of its deliberations on a new constitution, the ruling class is mobilising opposition to Evo Morales’ government on the streets in the east of the country: class struggle is intensifying. What is at stake is whether or not Bolivia can break from the grip of imperialism that has made it the poorest country in South America. Robert Clough reports.

The Constituent Assembly has been bogged down by procedural wrangling. Evo Morales’ Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) and smaller allies control about 155 votes, short of the 170, a two-thirds majority, needed to guarantee approval of its proposals. The right wing, led by PODEMOS (Democratic and Social Power), insists that every matter the Assembly votes on requires a two-thirds majority. To break the deadlock MAS delegates proposed that only the final document should require a two-thirds majority and all other decisions should be by simple majority. At the vote on 1 September, 96 right-wing delegates walked out whilst 141 supported the MAS proposal.

 

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Bolivia: showdown approaches

On 15 November, Bolivia’s House of Representatives approved President Morales’s land reform bill and sent it to the Senate, where opposition party members hold a majority.

The proposal would distribute some 77,000 square miles of underused state and privately-owned property to the landless. Two days later, the Constituent Assembly resolved an issue which had prevented any progress for three months since its establishment in August: whether every decision it made required a two-thirds majority, or if this was required only for the vote on the final constitution. The reactionary parties favoured the former, Morales’ Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) the latter. On 17 November, Bolivia’s Constitutional Court rejected opposition complaints, allowing the 137 MAS Assembly delegates – a majority – to vote for progress.

 

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Bolivia: Social movements on the march again

On 8 January, tens of thousands of supporters of Bolivia’s social movements fought police on the streets of Cochabamba city as they demanded the resignation of its governor, Manfred Reyes Villa. In December, Reyes Villa had declared his support for opposition ruling class parties which are demanding that every new article that the Constituent Assembly approves must have a two-thirds majority. In addition he called for a re-run of last July’s referendum on departmental autonomy in Cochabamba. Cochabamba had voted by 63% to 37% against greater self-government, along with the majority of the rest of the country. Reyes Villa wants to overturn this result so that Cochabamba joins the four wealthy eastern regions in moving towards a break-up of the country. The ruling class hopes that this Balkanisation strategy will defeat the government of President Evo Morales.

Morales responded by firing the Cochabamba police chief for the decision to fire teargas at protestors. Since then social movements have continued daily demonstrations and fought Reyes Villa’s overwhelmingly middle class supporters in the streets; two people were killed on 11 January and hundreds injured. Reyes Villa has fled Cochabamba and taken up residence in Santa Cruz; the social movements are now discussing the establishment of an alternative administration in Cochabamba – shades of Oaxaca. Reyes Villa, a very wealthy man, is notorious as the former Cochabamba mayor who signed a contract with Bechtel privatising the water supply, precipitating the 2000 ‘water war’.

 

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Bolivia Ruling class aims for destabilisation to overturn progressive government

On 10 August Evo Morales will face a recall referendum on his Bolivian presidency. Should he fail to get the same level of support as when he was elected in December 2005 (54%), he will stand down for fresh elections. The same will apply to the governors of the nine departments of the country. The referendum follows determined resistance by the Bolivian ruling class to the reforms Morales has introduced since he was elected as the first indigenous president of the country. This came to a head with an ‘autonomy referendum’ in Santa Cruz department on 4 May which the ruling class claimed as a victory since 79% of the votes were in favour of autonomy.  However, the poor of Santa Cruz city rioted in protest and burned ballot boxes, and 39% of the people abstained compared to 16% in the 2005 elections. The Bolivian people face a tremendous challenge, the outcome of which could have a profound effect on progressive developments throughout Latin America. As Hugo Chavez has said: ‘to hit Bolivia is to hit South America’s geopolitical heart’. Robert Clough reports.

 

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Bolivia: Morales faces down ruling class subversion

As 10 August approaches – the date for the referendum to determine whether President Evo Morales and eight departmental governors should continue in office – the ruling class has been trying its best to subvert the whole process, realising that Morales will survive the recall vote.

Initially the ruling class had supported the recall referendum, using its majority in the Senate to ensure that the necessary legislation was passed on 8 May this year. It followed the illegal autonomy vote in the department of Santa Cruz on 4 May, which the rich landowners and their imperialist backers had used to mobilise opposition to Morales. With 80% of those voting supporting autonomy, the ruling class thought it had Morales on the run. In June, three further autonomy referenda, equally illegal, were held in Beni, Pando and Tarija departments. Together with Santa Cruz these departments form the so-called ‘Crescent’ in the east of Bolivia, where almost all Bolivia’s hydrocarbon resources are located, and where there are huge landowner and agribusiness interests. All three votes showed large majorities in favour of autonomy, but were also characterised by high rates of abstention (35-40%) as the poor heeded Morales’ call not to participate.

 

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Bolivia: Mass movements frustrate opposition terror campaign

On 10 August the mass of the Bolivian people gave President Evo Morales a resounding endorsement with a landslide 67.4% victory in a recall referendum which also saw the defeat of two ruling class opposition prefects. Robert Clough reports on the intensifying struggle that followed.

The result was a body blow to the Bolivian opposition and its imperialist supporters, who desperately hoped that Morales had lost support since he won the presidency with 54% of the vote in December 2005. The response of the secessionist bourgeoisie in the country’s four eastern departments was to step up a campaign of terror against government offices and indigenous people and embark on a programme of economic sabotage. On 11 September in the north eastern department of Pando, death squads under the direction of secessionist prefect Leopoldo Fernandez sent mercenaries to massacre 30 peasants as they marched to a meeting in support of Morales. Over a hundred are still missing. The response was an explosion of the masses: 600,000 were mobilised to march on Santa Cruz, the centre of reaction; 20,000 workers and peasants blockaded routes into the city whilst tens of thousands marched in La Paz.

 

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Bolivia: landslide for a new constitution

On Sunday 25 January the people of Bolivia voted by 61.5% to 38.5% for a new constitution that gives greater rights to the indigenous people who make up nearly two-thirds of the population. In a simultaneous vote, they agreed by 79% to 21% to limit landholdings to a maximum of 5,000 hectares, the lower of two options. This will not apply retrospectively however unless the land is left fallow – a significant concession made to the agribusiness sector in the east of the country where there are numerous estates of 100,000 hectares or greater. The constitution also disestablishes the Catholic church in recognition of its colonial character, although it does not legalise abortion. It prohibits the creation of US military bases in the country. Health and education, and basic services, such as water, sewage, gas and electricity, are deemed to be human rights. Indi­genous communities will have their languages and their local forms of community justice recognised, and will also have access to reserved seats in the Senate.

 

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