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International Socialist Review Issue 32, November–December 2003


Bolivia: Throwing out a president


BOLIVIAN PRESIDENT Gonzalo Sánchez de Losada fled La Paz in a helicopter October 17 as hundreds of thousands of Bolivians overran the streets of the capital city demanding his resignation and prosecution. Like so many others of Washington’s fallen henchmen, Sánchez de Losada scrambled aboard an airplane and scurried to a safe haven in the U.S.

The ex-president left behind a country in turmoil where the stakes remain high, not only for Bolivia’s neoliberal rulers, but also for U.S. imperialism and its effort to impose the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). The struggle will continue, as opposition forces wait to see if Bolivia’s new president, former Vice President Carlos Mesa, will put into practice the reforms Sánchez de Losada offered at the last minute in a futile bid to stem the tide of revolt.

In the three weeks of mass protests leading up to the president’s ouster, Bolivian troops killed more than 80 protesters and injured hundreds more. At the heart of the struggle lay the popular rejection of the government’s contract with a transnational consortium to export natural gas to the U.S by way of Chile and Mexico. The consortium, Pacific LNG, is comprised of British, Spanish and Argentine corporations. A U.S. company has been awarded the contract to transport Bolivian gas from Chile to Mexico.

The Pacific LNG contract legalizes foreign piracy and pillage of Bolivia’s most important natural resource. Under its provisions, Bolivia would keep only 18 percent of the $1.5 billion in annual income expected to be generated by gas exports to the United States. Many Bolivian economists believe the percentage should be a standard 50 percent. The gas sold to Pacific LNG, moreover, has been fixed at a price well below current market value. The difference means a loss of additional billions of dollars to Bolivia over the life of the Pacific LNG contract.

It was Sánchez de Losada who, two days before his first presidential term expired on August 6, 1997, signed over ownership of Bolivia’s hydrocarbons to the transnationals. Ironically, this October’s explosive protest against gas privatization brought about his political demise less than one year into his second term.

But though gas was the trigger, the revolt has deep roots in the mass poverty faced by the Bolivian workers and peasants, the majority of whom are indigenous Indians. Nearly eight in 10 live in poverty, with many living on only $2 per day, or less. Two decades of neoliberal "shock therapy" has created a massive polarization between the poor, indigenous majority and the small, Spanish-descended elite who were the period’s sole beneficiaries. Bolivian peasant coca-growers, whose livelihood depends on the crop, are also angry at U.S.-sponsored efforts to use military force and toxic chemicals to eradicate coca growing.

A tumultuous victory

Demonstrators wrested significant concessions from the besieged president before his ouster. Sánchez de Losada agreed to hold a national referendum by the end of 2003 in which Bolivians could decide whether to re-nationalize the country’s natural gas. He also agreed to modify existing legislation on hydrocarbons and privatization that would make re-nationalization possible. Finally, Sánchez de Losada said yes to establishing a constituent assembly as a regular component of the Bolivian political system.

These gains had been won by October 15. But the protests did not stop. Indignant over the brutal slayings perpetrated by Sánchez de Losada’s troops, protesters demanded he step down. As Felipe "El Mallku" Quispe remarked, "Spilt blood is sacred. We will not negotiate with a murderer." Quispe is the leader of the Confederation of Bolivian Peasant Workers (CSUTCB) and has his home base in the altiplano.

On October 16 and 17, wave after wave of indigenous protesters cascaded down into La Paz from El Alto, the poverty-stricken satellite city of La Paz situated higher up in the Andes. Miners from the same region, marching under the banner of the Bolivian Labor Confederation (COB), also advanced on the city. From the south and east came workers, peasants and coca growers, all focused on the same goal: "Goni must go!" ("Goni" is the nickname Sánchez de Losada, a millionaire and former mining magnate, uses for himself; many opponents call him the "Gringo," however, since his long U.S. residence and his U.S. higher education cause him to speak Spanish with an English accent.) By the afternoon of October 17, downtown La Paz was overflowing. The workers’ neighborhoods of La Paz had emptied onto the streets as well, and all the demonstrators congregated close to the presidential mansion.

As Goni crept away into the night, the COB called a large meeting at which it proposed five demands to be addressed by the new government: abrogation of the law privatizing hydrocarbons; abrogation of the agricultural privatization law; abrogation of Article 55 of Law 21060, which introduced flexible labor into Bolivia; the rebuilding of Bolivian industry and the repudiation of the FTAA; and the prosecution of those responsible for the deaths among the protesters, with the simultaneous cancellation of the state’s law that criminalizes social protest.

Dynamics of the rebellion

The overthrow of Sánchez de Losada resulted from several ongoing struggles that rapidly coalesced into a mass movement united around a common goal: recovering Bolivian gas.

On September 19, the Coalition for the Defense and Recuperation of Gas–the successor to the Coalition in Defense of Water and Life that successfully turned back water privatization in Cochabamba in April 2000–called a nationwide protest. More than 150,000 turned out in Bolivia’s major cities demanding that Sánchez de Losada break the contract with Pacific LNG.

The next day, military police attacked road blockades that had been set up as part of an Aymara indigenous uprising designed to extend a region of de facto autonomy that has existed in the altiplano since the April 2000 "water war." The soldiers claimed to be "rescuing" a group of tourists who could not return to La Paz because of the blockades. But the military’s action resulted in seven deaths and included the killing of an eight-year-old girl. This atrocity led the Coalition in Defense of Gas to announce that it would join forces with the indigenous rebellion. It also prompted the COB to call for a general strike beginning September 29.

The COB’s general strike achieved spotty success at first. Evo Morales, leader of both the Movement Toward Socialism Party (MAS) and the coca growers movement, initially held back the bulk of his forces until the second week in order to see how much support the strike would receive. Morales came in second in the last presidential race, only one percentage point behind Sánchez de Lozado. As the strike became increasingly identified with the fight to reclaim natural gas from the transnationals, and as anger grew at the mounting numbers of indigenous protesters gunned down by the military in the altiplano, the cocaleros (coca farmers) joined in. The struggle then quickly generalized throughout Bolivia’s working class. By October 13, much of the middle class, too, came on board. Not only did the Catholic Church open its doors to middle-class hunger strikers; it also called for Sánchez de Losada to resign.

In the altiplano the main protagonists were the indigenous workers of Quispe’s CSUTCB and the miners of the COB’s regional organization, the Regional Labor Confederation (COR) led by Jaime Solares. In La Paz, the main organizations were the COB, its statewide affiliate (COD-La Paz), the indigenous marchers from El Alto, and a myriad of neighborhood associations. In Cochabamba and the other major cities, the Coalition in Defense of Gas, along with the statewide union confederations and the cocaleros, drove the protests forward. These groups provided an organizational infrastructure in their respective areas but, in the end, they were happily overwhelmed by millions of workers and peasants in motion that assumed responsibility for their own self-organization.

What now?

The motor of the October protests has been the issue of Bolivia’s natural gas. As of this writing, that issue still awaits a definitive resolution. The struggle against neoliberalism in Bolivia still has a long way to go.

Evo Morales’s MAS exerted a tremendous amount of pressure between October 15 and 17 to ensure that the outcome of the protests would be a constitutional succession: the resignation of the president followed by the swearing in of the vice president. The MAS, in fact, threw its weight behind the existing party system and a form of the state based on representative democracy. Thus it remained consistent with its position of supporting the government until the 2007 elections–a position it has held since April 2003–despite the intensity of its anti-neoliberal program. The MAS also left unclear its view of a time frame in which to hold the constituent assembly.

To the left of the MAS, the Coalition in Defense of Gas is pushing for the constituent assembly to be held in six months. The Gas Coalition also favors a speedy transformation of the political system toward more direct democracy. This means leaving the current political parties out of the constituent assembly. And it means understanding the constituent assembly as a mechanism for creating a new form of state rather than as a means of simply reforming the existing one.

A revolutionary way out of the present crisis would entail a provisional workers’ government based on the COB that includes elected leaders of the social movements such as Morales, Quispe, and Gas Coalition spokesperson, Oscar Olivera. The mass movement has not taken up this alternative for the present. The "constitutional exit" from the crisis dominates mass consciousness and is likely to do so until the new government, or even the promised constituent assembly, discredits itself.

Two new realities, however, will make their impact felt over the coming weeks and months. The COB has recovered important legitimacy after years of passivity and kowtowing to the political parties. The former COB leadership was driven out at its last national congress in April. The new leadership has now proven itself under fire through its role in the current revolt. According to the progressive news service Econoticiasbolivia, the COB has been "converted into the undisputed head of the popular uprising."

The second reality concerns timing and reformism. If the mass movement and its component struggles relax, momentum will swing back toward the neoliberalizers. A few reforms, possibly including the constituent assembly, will serve principally to buy Boliva’s rulers time to regroup. Yet re-nationalizing Bolivia’s natural resources will strike at the heart of national and global capitalism. The Bolivian ruling class, and U.S. and European imperialism, will seek to defend their right to plunder by any means necessary. It remains an illusion to think that the return of Bolivia’s wealth to its working majority can take place in any context short of a revolutionary mass movement for socialism.

There are some parallels between Bolivia in 2003 and Argentina in 2001. And if any lessons are to be learned from the truncated Argentine experience, they are these: (1) the importance of unity among the left; (2) the importance of placing the organized urban and rural working class, including the organized unemployed, at the center of the struggle; (3) the importance of workers taking up a wide range of social demands–in this case, the demands of the indigenous groups and the cocaleros; and, finally, the importance of building a conscious movement for socialism, broader than, but also including, explicitly revolutionary parties.

In 2001, neoliberalism suffered a heart attack in Argentina. We can hope that today it lies on its deathbed in Bolivia.

Tom Lewis is on the editorial board of the ISR.

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