Revolution in Bolivia

The government’s failure to nationalize its natural gas industry has led to an explosive situation

Ryan Grim

Tension is on the rise.

Boli­vian leg­is­la­tors aban­doned a besieged La Paz on June 9 to con­vene in Sucre, near­ly 500 miles to the south­east, in order to select a new pres­i­dent. But demon­stra­tors had oth­er ideas. Block­ades were lift­ed so that truck­loads of pro­test­ers could race to Sucre to pre­vent par­lia­ment from nam­ing right-wing Sen­ate leader Hor­man­do Vaca Diez as the suc­ces­sor to the oust­ed Car­los Mesa. May­ors of La Paz and El Alto announced hunger strikes to oppose Vaca Diez, who was sup­port­ed by only 16 per­cent of Boli­vians in a recent poll. 

Parliament’s morn­ing ses­sion was can­celled as min­ers, coca grow­ers and oth­er demon­stra­tors bat­tled police in the streets, lead­ing to one death, labor leader Juan Coro, who was shot in the chest by police. Accord­ing to news reports, sev­er­al leg­is­la­tors urged the can­cel­la­tion of the ses­sion so that they could fly out of Sucre before demon­stra­tors took over the air­port. They didn’t move quick­ly enough. In protest of Vaca Diez, air­port work­ers went on strike and the air­port was shut down. Now stuck in Sucre, par­lia­ment met near mid­night and gave in. Vaca Diez – yes, his name is Ten Cow” – resigned his con­sti­tu­tion­al right to ascend to the throne, as did the next in line, Mar­lo Cos­sio. At 11:47 p.m., the man whom pro­test­ers had been demand­ing for pres­i­dent, Supreme Court leader Eduar­do Rodriguez, was sworn in.

Since then, block­ades have been lift­ed along with ten­sions, and Rodriguez has vowed to call new elec­tions for pres­i­dent and con­gress with­in six months. Bolivia has been locked in an ide­o­log­i­cal stale­mate for sev­er­al years now, but the wind seems to be blow­ing left­ward after the last sev­er­al weeks. Although the cri­sis is sim­mer­ing for now, the main thrust of the demon­stra­tors’ demand has not yet been met. 

The upris­ing revolved around con­trol of Bolivia’s vast and recent­ly dis­cov­ered reserves of nat­ur­al gas, val­ued at more than $250 bil­lion – 10 times the nation’s annu­al GDP. On May 16, the Boli­vian gov­ern­ment raised tax­es on for­eign com­pa­nies who exploit the reserves. Indige­nous groups took to the streets, claim­ing the bill didn’t go far enough and call­ing for full nation­al­iza­tion of the indus­try. Evo Morales, leader of the strongest indige­nous par­ty in the nation – Move­ment Toward Social­ism, or MAS – ini­tial­ly reject­ed calls for nation­al­iza­tion, ask­ing instead for high­er tax­es. Caught in the mid­dle, he has since moved to the left, endors­ing nation­al­iza­tion but argu­ing that it should be done through a nation­al con­sti­tu­tion­al assem­bly. A June 12 poll showed 76 per­cent sup­port for nationalization.

On June 3, Pres­i­dent Mesa capit­u­lat­ed to the demand of a con­sti­tu­tion­al assem­bly, but by that time it was clear that the demon­stra­tors, two weeks into their stay in La Paz, were look­ing for more. Mesa offered his res­ig­na­tion, open­ing the door for Vaca Diez and the ensu­ing drama.

Jim Shultz, direc­tor of the Boli­vian-based Democ­ra­cy Cen­ter, report­ed dur­ing the cri­sis that a very reli­able source” told him that the Unit­ed States was work­ing behind the scenes to pave the way for Vaca Diez. Steve Pike, a State Depart­ment spokesper­son, said he had no knowl­edge of any U.S. efforts to pro­pel Vaca Diez, but if true, it’s fit­ting that the Unit­ed States would med­dle in the cri­sis. In at least two sig­nif­i­cant ways, this is a cri­sis of U.S. making.

The lynch­pin of these demon­stra­tions – and the ones in Octo­ber 2003 that drove Mesa’s pre­de­ces­sor, Gon­za­lo Sanchez de Loza­da, from office – is MAS and Evo Morales. Though the left could sure­ly raise hell in La Paz and El Alto with­out Morales, with him the coali­tion becomes a nation­al force. The bad news for the Unit­ed States, though, is that Evo Morales rep­re­sents blow­back from the U.S. war on drugs.

Morales’ base and the roots of his strength lie in the Cha­pare region, which at its hey­day grew between one half and two thirds of the world’s coca – the plant need­ed to make cocaine – that has been the prin­ci­pal focus of U.S.-backed and ‑fund­ed erad­i­ca­tion efforts. Gen­er­al­ly speak­ing, erad­i­ca­tion is not a peace­ful affair.

On May 8, 2003, U.S.-funded joint task force agents raid­ed Hilar­ia Perez’s coca farm. Perez – who lives with her hus­band and four chil­dren in a two room, dirt floor shack with splin­ter­ing wood walls – was shot in the back as she ran to her field to pro­tect her only source of income. It hurts to lift heavy things,” she says, bar­ing the jagged scar on her chest where the bul­let exit­ed. I can’t work in the field any­more.” God­ofre­do Reinicke, the for­mer head of the government’s human rights task­force, con­firmed her sto­ry, adding that the sol­dier was nev­er iden­ti­fied. Perez and her hus­band are MAS par­ty members.

Felipe Cac­eres, a for­mer two-term may­or of Vil­la Tunari and a right-hand man of Morales, says that U.S.-funded repres­sion led to a back­lash among the cocaleros, which MAS was able to chan­nel into the tight­ly orga­nized move­ment that exists today. Over papaya juice in his air con­di­tioned home, a priest in Vil­la 14 de Sep­tiem­bre agreed with Cac­eres’ assess­ment. The strength of the par­ty comes from the uni­ty that has come from the coca issue,” he says.

The Unit­ed States cre­at­ed the mon­ster demon­stra­tions by giv­ing rise to their pri­ma­ry demand. At U.S. urg­ing, Bolivia sold off major­i­ty con­trol of its oil and gas com­pa­ny to Enron and Shell in Decem­ber 1996 for $263.5 mil­lion, well less than 1 per­cent of what the gas alone is worth today. A decade lat­er, indige­nous Boli­vians have the receipt and are demand­ing a refund.

With close to 80 per­cent back­ing, nation­al­iza­tion of the gas indus­try doesn’t seem as rad­i­cal an idea as it did even a month ago. The Wash­ing­ton Con­sen­sus has left a bad taste in Bolivia’s mouth, and the nation may be ready for an alternative. 

The next 6 months will be cru­cial for Bolivia. Will the left ral­ly behind Evo Morales and bring about the rise of anoth­er left wing leader in a rapid­ly uni­fy­ing South Amer­i­ca? Or will fac­tion­al­ism allow anoth­er Har­vard-trained econ­o­mist to lead South America’s poor­est nation?

Stay tuned. You can be sure that Shell is.

Ryan Grim writes for True​Blue​Lib​er​al​.com. He can be reached at ryanwgrim@​yahoo.​com.
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