By Dan Katz
IN June 2005 the latest round of street fighting in Bolivia ended, having forced the resignation of the president, Carlos Mesa. Mesa had been in power since October 2003 when similar protests had forced his predecessor, Sanchez de Lozada, out of office.
Over the past five years Bolivia has been rocked by waves of protest movements that have demanded nationalisation of Bolivia’s natural resources and rights for indigenous people.
Bolivia has a population of nine million; 60% live on less than 50 pence a day.
After 1985 and the closure of Bolivia’s once vast state-owned tin mining industry, with the loss of 25,000 jobs, there followed a series of governments whose policy was to sell off all state-owned industry. Electricity, water, telecom, air, rail and oil were all privatised.
In the 1990s huge gas and oil reserves were discovered – and struggles have developed around the use of this vast wealth. Under pressure, Mesa organised a referendum on hydrocarbons in July 2004, in which 70% voted for nationalisation.
A victorious battle in 2000, fought against transnational water company, Bechtel, in Cochabamba (the ‘Water War’), was followed by the ‘Gas War’ of October 2003.
In May 2005 the most recent mobilisations began after Congress voted to increase taxes on foreign gas companies. Protesters believed that increased taxes were not adequate to prevent vast oil and gas profits leaving the country. The May protests began with a symbolic seizure of a gas refinery in Cochabamba and road blockades of La Paz. The blockades were co-ordinated by the El Alto Federation of Neighbourhood Associations, FEJUVE (El Alto is a working-class town of 800,000 ex-peasants and miners, on the outskirts of La Paz).
El Alto’s Regional Labour Confederation, COR, called and indefinite general strike, backed by the COB union federation, peasant organisations, student groups and the miners’ organisations.
Following Mesa’s resignation, Bolivia's new interim president, Eduardo Rodriguez, called elections for 4 December. The tactic of calling elections to demobilise mass opposition movements has been used often in Bolivia.
At the start of November Rodriguez imposed new rules on distributing congress seats and decreed that the poll should be put back two weeks, and held on 18 December. He stated that he had to intervene to ‘safeguard democracy’.
The election frontrunner is Evo Morales, candidate of the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS).
Morales has roots in the struggles of the coca producers, the cocaleros, of Chapare. The US has pressed Bolivia – for example by granting tied aid – to end coca production as part of the war on drugs. Morales led resistance to repression and formed the MAS; he became a Congressman in 1997. He narrowly lost the 2002 presidential election, but MAS won 36 parliamentary seats.
Two years later victories in local elections made MAS the largest party in the country.
During the 2002 elections the US government branded Morales a ‘narco-cocalero’; recently Roger Noriega, speaking for the US government stated, “It is no secret that Evo Morales reports back to Havana and Caracas.” But Morales also has plenty of critics on his left.
Morlaes has made the demand for nationalisation at a number of public rallies – most recently during the launch of his campaign in October – but shies away from the demand in front of the media. He sums up: “A lot of multinationals live off illegal and anti-constitutional deals, smuggling and tax evasion. We will enforce the law. But we are banking on nationalisation through dialogue and consensus.”
Jamie Solares of the COB says, “Evo is a traitor. He said he would fight for nationalisation, but he hasn’t done it.”
Writing in Le Monde Diplomatique, Maurice Lemoine, writes, “the social movement’s two main blocs [continue to] quarrel. The more radical elements, grouped around the COB, the MIP [Pachakuti Indigenous Movement] and El Alto FEJUVEs are most active in the Aymara areas on the altiplano, where they make much of the ethnicity issue. MAS and its allies enjoy support among the peasant farmers but have a more inclusive nationwide approach. They are popular with the urban wage workers, having established links with corporations and integrated a larger number of mixed-race Bolivians.”
Morales’ vice-presidential candidate is Garcia Linera. Linera is also careful when he talks about nationalisation: “I favour a pragmatic solution… We have to show prudence.”
Linera has spent time in jail after fighting with the Tupac guerrilla movement; he supports the demand for a separate state for the indigenous Aymara people. The advantage to the MAS of running with Linera on the ticket is that soon after the announcement of his candidacy, in August, six peasant federations pledged their support to MAS.
MAS’s policy includes the demand for a Constituent Assembly. Since more than 60% of the population are indigenous people (the elite is largely white, with Spanish roots), that poses the question of the break-up of Bolivia.
However Jose Sagaz of the UK’s Bolivia Solidarity Campaign comments that the demand for a separate state is “the worst demand to have now. There is another guy, Felipe Quispe, who is calling for a separate state which is really undermining the working class movement… it is a mixture of desperation and ignorance attracting people to these ideas.” Quispe’s dream is of a new Collasuyo, the eastern province of the Inca empire, covering western Bolivia, southern Peru, northern Argentina and Chile.
No matter what the election result the basic underlying issues that have created a series of political crises - social control of natural resources, terrible poverty and the rights of the indigenous population – will not disappear. There are sure to be further mobilisations.
• Bolivia Solidarity Campaign