Bolivian Gas War Heats Up

Jennifer Whitney Apr 6, 2005

High in the Andes, in the impoverished city of El Alto, history was made in March. Leaders and spokespeople of movements from across the country gathered to relaunch the People’s General Staff – a social movement coordinating body established in 2001. Many are antagonists, but have agreed to attempt to work together. As Movement Towards Socialism leader Evo Morales said, “When the right wing, the government, the oligarchy, and the transnationals unite, we are forced to unite as well.”Bolivia is Latin America’s poorest country, after Haiti. Though it is rich in natural resources, 70 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. It also has the highest percentage of indigenous peoples of any country in the western hemisphere; 62 percent of its 8.7 million inhabitants belong to one of 37 nations.

Throughout the last 500 years, foreign invaders have stripped the country of its wealth of silver, saltpeter and tin, bankrolling the Spanish empire for centuries and engaging in a war that cost Bolivia its access to the Pacific Ocean.

In recent years, the U.S. “war on drugs” has ravaged the central Chapare region, where coca leaf – from which cocaine can be extracted – has been grown for traditional use for millennia. Currently, transnational corporations export Bolivia’s natural gas, getting $10 back for every dollar invested.

Powerful Social Movements

Much to the chagrin of the contemporary plunderers, however, Bolivia also boasts some of the most vibrant social movements in the region. El Alto’s predominantly indigenous Aymara population has become renowned for their road blockades, building occupations, and hunger strikes – tactics that have won them numerous victories against a rabidly neoliberal government.

These movements have reversed the privatization of Cochabamba’s water by Bechtel; won the right to continue legally growing coca in the Chapare; rolled back IMF-imposed taxation and slashing of social services; overthrown U.S.-backed president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and forced an agreement from Congress to put him on trial for massacres in the “Gas War” of October 2003, while demanding that his successor, Carlos Mesa, nationalize the nation’s vast gas reserves and begin a participatory process to reform the constitution.

Despite these victories, there have been great divisions, as well as suspicion of the leftist political party, Movement Towards Socialism, led by coca farmer turned parliamentarian Evo Morales. These suspicions reached a peak last year, when Morales endorsed President Mesa’s gas referendum, which did not address the principal demand of nationalization. The Aymara of the Altiplano, who called for a boycott of the referendum and who suffered the greatest losses during the “Gas War,” remain leery of Morales’s relationship with Mesa, and the concessions he has made in an effort to woo the middle class as he gears up for a second bid for the presidency (he lost by just 1.5 percent in 2002).

The catalyst for the historic convergence was a cascade of events. In January, after four months of struggle, residents of El Alto won a promise from the government to terminate its water contract with Aguas del Illimani, a subsidiary of the French corporation Suez. During the same month, the country was paralyzed as people blocked highways to protest price hikes in diesel fuel and gasoline.

Two months later Aguas del Illimani was still operating in El Alto, charging exorbitant rates and showing no signs of leaving. So members of the Federation of Neighborhood Committees blocked most roads leading from the capital La Paz, situated in a valley below. Meanwhile, in Santa Cruz, bus drivers initiated further protests against fuel price hikes. On March 7, Mesa attempted to resign, blaming Morales and Neighborhood Federation leader Abel Mamani for the crises.

It was a shrewd move, calculated to re-legitimize his administration, which in 17 months has seen around 800 protests. Mesa’s supporters took to the streets, and Congress, which was in the midst of lengthy debates over a new gas bill, refused to accept his resignation or call for early elections.

Mesa’s strategy backfired: Blockades sealed off seven out of the nine departments (states) in the country, forcing Mesa to apologize publicly to Morales and negotiate with the newly formed coalition.

The day after the People’s General Staff signed an agreement formalizing their coalition, a 48-hour general strike was set to begin. That same day, March 16, Congress’ lower house passed a new gas law. It fell short of the bare minimum demand by the social movements – that barring nationalization, transnationals pay Bolivia 50 percent of the royalties.

However, Congress did impose an immediate tax increase on the transnationals that would result in up to (U.S.) $450 million in revenue, less than the amount generated by the Movement Towards Socialism proposal, but a far cry better than the current arrangement.

This bill, just approved by a Senate committee, is a slap in the face to Mesa and the transnationals. (They argue that the gas belongs to them the moment it emerges from underground.) Some members of the People’s General Staff have sworn to shut down Parliament if the Senate doesn’t pass the bill, and the Movement Towards Socialism will be sending people into the streets to maintain pressure, beginning in mid-April.

Even if the Senate approves the bill, the struggle will continue. As Jaime Solares of the Federation of Bolivian Workers put it, “Faced with the moment the country is going through, we are fighting to make the 50 percent royalty paid by the oil companies a reality. But we are not renouncing the demand for nationalization.”

Until that demand is met, the radical alliance in Bolivia will not give up.

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