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International Socialist Review Issue 42, JulyAugust 2005
The new surge in Bolivia’s rebellion
by TOM LEWIS
MASS PROTESTS in Bolivia forced President Carlos Mesa to resign June 6 and stopped two other U.S.-backed free-market conservatives from assuming power.
Demanding the nationalization of Bolivia’s natural gas and oil resources, protesters also called for the speedy convening of a Popular Constituent Assembly in the hope of building a new ethnically plural state opposed to the conservative agenda known to its opponents throughout Latin America as neoliberalism.
Neither Mesa nor Bolivia’s Congress had done anything to satisfy protesters’ demands since the first major struggle against the privatization of natural gas—known as the Gas War of October 2003. In fact, when Bolivia’s elite politicians began to debate the gas question this May, it became obvious that any legislation they came up with would fall short of wresting control of the country’s natural resources from the hands of transnational corporations. A new Hydrocarbon Law, passed by Congress in mid-May and left unsigned by Mesa, became a classic case of “too little, too late.”
Following Mesa’s resignation, there was no vice president to succeed him. Mesa had been vice president under ex-President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, who was driven out of the country at the end of the first Gas War in 2003. Next in the line of succession was Senate leader Hormando Vaca Díez, followed by House Speaker Mario Cossío.
Protesters denounced both Vaca Díez and Cossío as unacceptable because of their ties to the transnationals and to local oil barons in the eastern and southern states of Bolivia who have proposed seceding from the country. Holding huge open meetings to decide what to do, protesters demanded that an interim presidency go to Eduardo Rodríguez, president of Bolivia’s Supreme Court and next in line after Vaca Díez and Cossío. It took another round of determined fighting to win this outcome, but in the end, Rodríguez had been sworn in as president with a mandate to call new elections within six months.
The popular power displayed during the struggle by mobilized neighborhood associations, urban and rural workers, and indigenous groups was incredible.
During a three-week general strike that had its epicenter in El Alto—the poverty-stricken city that stands adjacent to the capital of La Paz—workers laid siege to most major cities, shut down the airports, and blockaded highways. Thousands participated in daily marches and gathered afterwards at mass meetings for strategizing and debate. The protesters also occupied a dozen oil wells and refineries across the country. Because of the roadblocks, the only people allowed to travel on the main highways were groups of protesters moving to strategic locations. Gasoline, food, and water supplies dwindled to next to nothing in La Paz.
In order to escape the mass demonstrations held in front of government buildings, Vaca Díez moved the meeting place of Congress from La Paz to Bolivia’s historic capital, Sucre, following Mesa’s resignation. But demonstrators immediately mobilized toward Sucre, where concentric circles of soldiers awaited columns of protesters arriving from La Paz, other cities, and the countryside.
The climactic moment of the struggle came on June 9. The day before, the son-in-law of Sánchez de Lozada had been spotted on the streets of Sucre—in the company of a high-level adviser to the U.S. embassy. Protesters rightly suspected that the U.S. was maneuvering to have Vaca Díez installed as president. The next morning brought the only fatality of the struggle, when soldiers killed Juan Carlos Coro, the head of a mineworkers’ local. At that point, protesters’ fury overran their leaders’ caution as well as their own fear of the military.
Government authority in Sucre collapsed for several hours as disciplined, peaceful, popular action prevented Congress from holding a scheduled session. In the mid-afternoon, Vaca Díez had himself whisked away and hidden in a military barracks until well into the night. Around 10:30 p.m., Congress finally convened for a ten-minute session. It accepted Mesa’s resignation, listened to Vaca Diéz and Cossío renounce their right to succeed as president—and then bowed to protesters’ demands by appointing Rodríguez as interim president.
On June 11, tens of thousands of people representing all the different groups involved in the struggle for nationalization celebrated their victory by marching through El Alto and La Paz—revisiting the sites they had occupied over the tumultuous course of recent weeks. Although the fight for the nationalization of gas and oil is not yet resolved, the social movements delivered a stunning blow to the Bolivian oligarchy and U.S. imperialism. As a June 10 statement from the Coordinadora, the Coalition for the Defense and Recovery of Gas, explains:
Yesterday, with the efforts of thousands of men and women, and with the life of the miners’ cooperative leader Juan Coro, we stopped the return of Vaca Díez’s mega-coalition to the government, which would have meant a bloodbath for the Bolivian people and the continued sacking of our natural resources. The next six months most likely will look like a kind of limbo—in which a tense surface calm veils the preparations of both sides for the next round of potentially explosive confrontations.
This, comrades, is no small thing: All the power of global capital was brought down against us yesterday, and we have managed to stop it. For that reason, we have achieved much more, although we have not gotten exactly what we proposed as strategic objectives for all of the ordinary and hard-working Bolivian people.
The issue of continuing to advocate for nationalization will take priority for the most radicalized sectors of the social movements. Ongoing discussions held in union halls and town meetings, coupled with efforts to further cement the ties of unity in struggle, dominate present activities.
Pushing to hold elections for Congress simultaneously with elections for the presidency will be a second priority. Few militants in groups such as the FEJUVE (El Alto’s Federation of Neighborhood Associations), the Coordinadora, the COR (El Alto Regional Workers Confederation), or the COB (Bolivian Workers Confederation) consider that elections are the real road to nationalization. But some do believe that having as many progressive members in Congress is important when legislators eventually decide the composition of the Constituent Assembly.
Meanwhile, Evo Morales and his Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party will concentrate on electioneering. Morales may well be elected as Bolivia’s next president. And, given his reluctance to join in the chorus of protesters calling for the nationalization of gas and oil, and given the moderating and sometimes divisive role he played during the events of the past two months, the U.S. may agree to let him have a shot at controlling the mass movement.
Ideally, the U.S. would rather see former president, former Texas oilman, and Harvard-educated neoliberal Jorge “Tuto” Quiroga come to power. Quiroga is also known for being willing to use oppressive measures freely. But if the U.S. cannot have him, the thinking is that Morales and the MAS might make a good “B team.”
Morales only agreed to raise the slogan of nationalization in the fourth week of the protest, and he was the last popular leader to do so. For the first three weeks, he held off and defended his former position of 50 percent royalties. Later, he sought to preserve Mesa in office by supporting a demobilization urged by the Catholic Church.
Today, after seeing the mass movement pass him by, Morales says he is for nationalization, at least in the abstract, pointing out that it is allowed under the current constitution. But Morales clearly has a different understanding of nationalization than the one put forward by the core of the social movements—for whom nationalization means not only paper-ownership but also the democratic control of natural resources by society, and the self-management of the gas and oil industry by workers.
The demand for nationalization will not go away, despite any electoral hiatus. A recent poll taken by one of Bolivia’s most conservative newspapers, El Deber, shows that 75 percent of Bolivians favor the nationalization of gas and oil. And as the Democracy Center’s Jim Schulz recently wrote in his “Blog from Bolivia”: “What happens after a few days or a few weeks of talking? I tell you, I don’t see the social movements backing down on this one—not in the face of requests, or international pressure, or arrests, or tear gas and guns.”
Does the MAS represent an alternative?
MANY PEOPLE outside of Bolivia think that Evo Morales’s Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) represents the country’s salvation from neoliberalism’s chokehold. But a glance at the MAS’s actions during and after the Gas War of 2003 shows this is not the case.
The MAS could have led or formed part of a new anti-neoliberal government in the wake of October 2003. Instead, it lobbied for the succession of Carlos Mesa, knowing full well that Mesa differed not one whit from ex-President Sánchez de Lozada on economic policy. During the Mesa administration, the MAS acted as a pillar of support for the government at key moments.
Unlike the rest of the Left, for example, Morales campaigned in favor of Mesa’s July 2004 gas referendum, telling people that to vote yes on the two key questions would mean imposing 50 percent royalties on transnational oil companies. Of course, Morales was wrong, and it is hard to believe he did not know so beforehand.
The only thing that explains the behavior of Morales and the MAS is their slide into electoralism. Ever since Morales garnered second place and 22 percent of the vote in the 2002 presidential election, the MAS has directed almost all of its energies into Morales’s upcoming bid for the presidency in 2007.
The MAS has repeatedly worked to contain Bolivia’s social rebellion. If the MAS were thrust into power on the wave of popular revolt, it would risk a confrontation with U.S. imperialism. The MAS wants to be voted into office instead.
But it is paying a high price for this strategy in terms of the weakening of its ties to the social movements and its growing moderation in order to appear respectable to international capital. Morales’s support for Mesa and Bolivia’s existing political system cost the MAS significantly in the fall 2004 municipal elections. The 2004 results became a wakeup call for the MAS, since, despite two years of electoral focus, it polled only 11 percent nationwide—half of its 2002 total.
Morales has had to shift left in order to recover at least part of his base among anti-neoliberal activists. He sought to jump to the forefront of the gas struggle in the early months of this year, defending the position of 50 percent royalties over a softer position of Congress. But the social movements quickly progressed beyond Morales and called for outright nationalization.
Indeed, Morales refused to sign on to the slogan of “nationalization” until the very end of the Gas War of 2005. Why did he resist until forced into doing so by the mass mobilization? Nationalization flies too much in the face of U.S. and transnational corporate interests. As Jean Friedsky wrote in a column that appeared on the influential Narco News Bulletin following the May–June events,
The feeling among Evo’s theoretical base (the poor and the indigenous) is that he cares more about international approval and the long-term viability of his political party than about the life of the average Bolivian. His actions in the past month only fueled this criticism because he acted like a temperature-sensitive politician.
Morales claims today that he is for nationalization. But he cannot be trusted. That is why the social movements must continue to place their hopes in mass mobilization rather than elections.
Tom Lewis on the ISR editorial board