The Gas is Ours

Jennifer Whitney Jun 15, 2005

After three intense weeks of stand-offs and street-fighting, Bolivians demanding national control over their oil and gas fields have emerged victorious.

The recent wave of protests began on May 12, as Congress prepared to approve a controversial hydrocarbons bill that would only marginally increase the taxes on transnational corporations (who currently enjoy the cheapest natural gas extraction in the world), rather than instituting the 50 percent tax on foreign profits advocated by the popular Movement Toward Socialism. (More radical indigenous groups have called for full nationalization of the natural gas industry.) On May 17, the bill became law, and protests grew exponentially. In the weeks that followed, a general strike was called, public transport was halted in several cities, all roads in and out of La Paz were blockaded, gas and oil fields were occupied, the airport was shut down intermittently and border crossings into Peru and Chile were sealed off.

On June 6, President Carlos Mesa announced his resignation. Next in line to succeed him was the right-wing Senate leader, Hormando Vaca Diez, rumored to have negotiated with members of the armed forces to repress protesters upon his ascendance. The people clamored for him to step aside; the next in line had already promised to refuse the presidency, which would leave the office in the hands of Dr. Eduardo Rodríguez Valtzé, chief justice of the Supreme Court. This was an option most people seemed prepared to accept – he is not affiliated with any party, and if he became president he’d be constitutionally bound to hold new elections within six months.

Under the impossibility of convening Congress in La Paz to approve Mesa’s resignation, Vaca Diez announced that they would meet in Sucre, some 400 miles away. The social movements responded immediately with roadblocks, forcing legislators to be airlifted to work, unable to travel the roads of the country they ostensibly represent.

On June 9, Vaca Diez finally stepped aside, and Bolivia had a new president. The former chief justice, Rodríguez Valtzé, has promised to take steps toward the principal demands of the people: nationalization, a Constituents’ Assembly and new elections. For the time being, an edgy peace has returned to the country.

Though President Rodríguez is constitutionally required to hold elections only for president and vice-president, many are demanding that Congress face elections as well. “The election of a new president and vice-president won’t resolve the ingovernability we’ve been living,” says political analyst and ex-guerrilla Alvaro Garcia Linares. “It will also be necessary to overhaul Congress, and this will require a new political pact.”

Not content with simply being a well-organized powerhouse in the streets that can overthrow governments, the people are taking a long view. “When we started this fight, we were not interested in changing those in the government palace,” says Roberto de la Cruz, labor leader from El Alto. “The objective was, and still is, to recover the gas for the Bolivian state.”

On June 10, the Coordinating Committee for the Defense of Water and Gas in Cochabamba, leader of the “water war” of 2000, issued a communiqué reaffirming its commitment to the nationalization of hydrocarbons, and “a Constituents’ Assembly. It called for the Assembly to consist of “the majority presence of the Bolivian population – and not of the political parties – to design a new form of internal coexistence and social regulation for all of us, constructed by a new collective will from below.”

The document continues by recognizing the peoples’ victory while acknowledging that they still have much work to do toward the goal of building their own capacity to self-govern: “This has begun to happen with the occupation of hydrocarbon wells, gas plants, and refineries, and on the next occasion we must be capable of operating them ourselves for our own good.”

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