By Pablo Velasco
The barricades in the Bolivian uprising have come down for now, but the struggle is far from over.
For the past month Bolivia has been rocked by strikes, road blockades and street demonstrations, which forced president Carlos Mesa to resign on 6 June. Mesa had been in power since October 2003, when the previous president Sanchez de Lozada resigned after similar mobilisations. The new President, Eduardo Rodriguez, a supreme court judge, is likely to call new elections for later this year.
The current crisis began on May 16 when the right-wing dominated Congress approved Mesa’s plans for an increase in taxes on foreign gas companies. However millions of Bolivians believed that this would not stop oil and gas wealth flowing out of the country.
The protests began with symbolic takeover of a gas refinery near Cochabamba and the encirclement of the capital La Paz with road blockades. The mobilisations in La Paz were coordinated by the El Alto Federation of Neighbourhood Associations (FEJUVE).
The El Alto Regional Labour Confederation (COR) called an indefinite general strike, backed by organisations such as the Gas Coalition, the COB trade union federation, peasant organisations, students, miners and teachers.
Deeper issues lie behind these struggles. These are the failure of neoliberalism in Bolivia to improve living standards and the failed political system that has largely excluded the majority indigenous communities who now call themselves, in Bolivia, “original” peoples.
The discovery of huge gas and oil reserves during the 1990s was seen as the solution to Bolivia’s poverty — 60% of Bolivians live on less than $1 (50p) a day and only 16% have enough to meet their basic needs.
In 1985 Bolivia’s once vast and state-owned mining industry was shut down with 25,000 miners losing their jobs. In the 1990s a wave of “capitalisation” under the first Sanchez de Lozada government saw electricity, telecom, air, rail, oil and water privatised.
These privatisation policies were imposed by mainstream parties such as the MNR, MIR and ADN, which had once espoused the rhetoric of “revolutionary nationalism”.
Neo-liberal policies hit the original peoples hardest. Class and ethnicity are closely intertwined in Bolivia, and with decline of old workers’ organisations such as the COB and the FSTMB miners’ federation, organisations of the original peoples have risen to take the lead.
The first stirrings of political activism came in the 1970s with the formation of MRTK indigenous political party and the CSUTCB peasant union. Prominent leaders include Felipe Quispe, the CSUTCB general secretary and MIP peasant party leader (known as “the condor”) and Evo Morales, leader of the ASP party, representing cocoa growers of Chapare. In 1999 the ASP changed its name to the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) in order to qualify for electoral registration.
The strength of the original peoples’ political organisation can be seen both on the streets and in elections. After massive demonstrations and confrontations with the police, Bechtel’s attempt to take over the privatised water supply in Cochabamba was defeated in the “water war” in 2000. The October 2003 “gas war” uprising deposed Sanchez de Losada. Another measure was in elections in 2002, when the MAS and MIP won 27% of the vote and Morales came second in the presidential vote.
Most of the demonstrators today want Bolivia’s oil and gas industries nationalised, much as other basic industries were before the 1990s. And many have called for a Constituent Assembly to reform Bolivian politics, and in particular to give the original peoples a more significant role, possibly with regional autonomy.
Evo Morales’ stance should have made it clear how far he is from socialism. Morales has not supported the call for nationalisation and wanted to keep Mesa in power. He backed calls for “national dialogue” from churches and other establishment groups, and for the existing state to convoke a Constituent Assembly. His aim is to be elected to the presidency, and he may well be the “Lula figure” the Bolivian ruling classes will look to, to bring the mobilisations under control.
Others on the left are more canny, demanding nationalisation of the energy reserves, but are more cautious about a Constituent Assembly. The FEJUVE, COR and COB argue that any attempt to convene the Constituent Assembly at this moment is little more than a trap. Instead they favour an assembly called by the social movements, although they are not clear on the kind of alternative government that could replace the existing system.
Toppling Mesa was not the main focus of the demonstrations, and until the gas issue and the indigenous question are addressed, there are likely to be further mobilisations.