By Pablo Velasco
Trade unionists, indigenous groups and peasant organisations in Bolivia have organised strikes and road blockades against the economic policies of the centre-right government of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada.
The protesters oppose plans to export natural gas to the US. They say rich foreigners are plundering Bolivia's natural resources, and demand that 250,000 homes in Bolivia be supplied with free gas before any is exported.
Bolivia has the largest natural gas reserves in Latin America. Three foreign companies-British Gas, Repsol-YPF of Spain and Pan American Energy (a subsidiary of BP)-own the reserves and plan to build oil pipelines and a plant in Chile. Tankers would ship the gas to Mexico and then it would be piped to California.
The fact that the gas will be transported through a Chilean port has stirred nationalist feelings, because Bolivia lost its access to the sea during a war with Chile in the 19th century. Also, the gas reserves are in a part of Bolivia known as the Chaco, where 60,000 indigenous people were killed in a war against Paraguay between 1932 and 1935.
The protestors have other concerns, ranging from land tenure agreements to opposition to the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).
The Confederation of Bolivian Peasant Workers (CSUTCB), the Bolivian Workers Confederation (COB) and the Coalition in Defence of Gas (CNRDG) have led the protests. Many of them were involved in the Coalition in Defence of Water and Life that successfully fought the US multinational Bechtel's takeover of the water system in Cochabamba in 2000.
The main opposition party, Movement to Socialism (MAS), led by the former coca farmer Evo Morales, is backing the strikes. Morales almost beat Sanchez de Lozada in last year's presidential election.
Demonstrators have faced repression from the police, who have routinely used tear gas to disperse thousands of marchers. On 20 September, troops attacked peasants in Warisata, killing seven people. In response, peasant leader Felipe Quispe, head of the CSUTCB, called for an indigenous uprising and CNRDG leader Oscar Olivera said that weeks of confrontation and struggle remain ahead.
Massacre at Warisata
On 20 September, Bolivian security forces attempted to "rescue" nearly 700 people - including 70 Western tourists - who had been stuck for a week in buses in a road blockade at Warisata, north of the capital La Paz. The people maintaining the road blockade were protesting the sale of gas through Chile, as well as demanding the release of imprisoned local leaders.
Even the president's spokesman admitted that the peasant protestors had reached an agreement to allow the numerous buses to leave. But when the security forces arrived, the tension rose and the agreement was ignored.
The security forces began to indiscriminately open fire on the peasants, while also randomly shooting into homes and schools. Some of the peasants returned the fire with their own weapons and rocks. In the end, the confrontation resulted in seven dead from bullet wounds, including two soldiers
Though government officials maintain that the security forces were ambushed by peasants, Human Rights investigators stated that there was no evidence of an ambush and that the military had been securing the area around Warisata from early Saturday morning, and that later in the afternoon, though talks had been going on with the peasants to end the blockade, the military had aggressively moved in for the confrontation.
Government officials said that "racist and armed terrorist groups" were to blame for the violence in Warisata. Photos of armed peasants were on all the front pages of Bolivian newspapers. Many believe these comments and propaganda are simply an attempt to justify excessive use of force by Bolivia's police and military in Warisata. Felipe Quispe, Campesino Federation Leader, said that no such terror groups exist and that it was the security forces who had provoked the conflict.
Dozens of union groups and political parties met in Cochabamba to decide what course of action to take regarding the deaths in Warisata. At this meeting various leaders, including those from the Movement Towards Socialism, the People's High Command and the Bolivian Workers Union (COB), threatened that if these massacres persist nationwide strikes and road blockades will go on indefinitely.
- Edited from Ben Dangl's Indymedia report at bolivia.indymedia.org