Conflicts increase, lack of dialogue persists in Bolivia’s Gas War
On the twenty-first anniversary of Bolivia’s return to democratic rule, the government continues to close democratic spaces, provoking further conflicts in the country. The ruling coalition’s manipulation of the recent Human Rights Ombudsman election by inserting a candidate sympathetic to its interests, confirmed the Bolivian public’s fear that most political parties in the government are more concerned with conserving their own power than representing the needs of the citizens.
The government’s refusal to engage in dialogue with protest leaders and the continued use of excessive force by military and police has increased violence and tension in country. Meanwhile, blockades, protests and strikes persist as new sectors join the movement against the exportation of the nation’s gas to the US through a Chilean port.
Recent Confrontation Results in Two More Deaths
After almost a month of repeated confrontations between security forces and protesters, more than twenty-one injuries and two deaths were reported after a conflict near El Alto, outside La Paz, on October 9th, 2003.
The Bolivian press reports that forty year old miner, Jose Atahuichi was killed after dynamite exploded near him. Later that day, twenty-two year old, Ramiro Vargas Astilla died from a gunshot wound to the head. He was reportedly shot by security forces during a protest near El Alto. Of the many people who were injured as a result of this conflict, one person remains in critical condition. When Bolivian President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada was asked at a press conference to comment on the recent deaths and injuries near El Alto, he refused to respond and left the room.
These deaths in El Alto are the most recent in Bolivia’s Gas War. In the town of Warisata, on September 19th of this year, seven other people died as a result of confrontations between security forces and protesters. The Permanen
t Human Rights Assembly maintains that there have been more people killed by the security forces during the past twelve months than in any year of military dictatorship.
Opposition Groups Plan Coordination, National Division Persists
As the movement against the exportation of the gas intensifies and becomes more diverse, the lack of coordination between opposition sectors continues. The Bolivian Worker Union, (COB) is a diverse collection of unions from across Bolivia, and is currently going into its eleveneth day of national strikes. Yet the not all of the groups within the COB are participating in the strikes, and those that are have varied demands. The executive secretary of the COB, Jaime Solares, said that the movement for the defense of the gas could be strengthened with a pact between opposition leaders such as Evo Morales and Felipe Quispe. Solares and Morales have met to coordinate efforts. These opposition leaders plan to meet on October 15th to discuss the possible unification between campesino groups, unions and coca farmers.
Although the government continues to downplay the impact of widespread protests, discontent increases among many Bolivian citizens regarding the transportation problems that have developed due to the blockaded roads. Tourism has come to a virtual standstill, and many tourist agencies, hostels and guiding services have protested against the social unrest rocking the country. Transportation workers and business owners are also deeply affected by the blockades, as the transportation of goods to La Paz has been irregular at best.
Previous Human Rights Ombudsman Resigns
After waiting six months for elections, ex- Human Rights Ombudsman, Ana Maria Romero de Campero, withdrew from the race on October 3. Campero said she resigned because she believed the elections were already fixed by traditional parties in congress, and that she refused to participate in the "democratic farce." She added that, "I have come to the conclusion that objective conditions to guarantee a correct election and future action free of pressure do not exist." During her five-year term, she established a high level of credibility and objectivity in political processes and played a key role in mediation and conflict resolution. The great majority of the Bolivian public, as well as opposition parties, supported her reelection.
The congressional election of the Ombudsman as well as other appointments had been postponed since July, as government coalition parties in Congress continued to fight over "power quotas"— the division of key political posts between parties. The great majority of congressional seats in Bolivia are determined not by direct election, but by the percentage of the vote won by each party. As a result most traditional party representatives are more loyal to their party than to their supposed constituents.
Traditional parties quickly elected Ivan Zegada as the new Human Rights Ombudsman. Several irregularities existed during the election. For example, Education Minister Hugo Carvajal, resigned his post to rejoin congress, using his vote to help insure the required 2/3 majority to elect Zegada. He then became minister again after the election.
The MAS and ADN parties immediately demanded Zegada’s resignation. Coca growers and other sectors stated that they refused to have any contact with the new Ombudsman. Protests against Zegada’s election have occurred in La Paz, Potosi, El Alto, and the Yungas. Many key representatives of the institution have also resigned. Chapare coca growers and other groups have added Zegada’s resignation to their list of key demands.
They state that he is linked to Sánchez de Lozada’s party and believe he will be more intent on representing the demands of the ruling party than the people.
Citizen Security Law Imposes Penalties for Blockades
Demands against the exportation of the gas persist, but are also linked to demands for the resignation of the president, rejection of the ALCA free trade agreement, and rejection of
the country’s new Citizen Security Law.
The law, which came into effect on August 4th, 2003, was created to "Increase the system of national security of everyone in the country without discrimination, and is destined to secure the free exercise of rights and constitutional liberties and obtain a better life for all of the habitants of our country." (Article 1) In order to maintain this security and freedom, the law cites the need to strengthen the support and funding for security forces and to "promote the permanent modernization of the National Police."
The most contentious part of the law is viewed by protesting sectors as an attempt to criminalize social protest. Article 213 states: "If in any way, a person puts in danger the security or the regularity of public transport for earth, air or water, they can be sentenced from two to eight years in prison." In a country where blockading roads is the most popular form of protest, this is a drastic proposal. Government officials have stated that they will apply the terms of this law vigorously.
Debate over Gas Exportation Intensifies
Though the debate within the Gas War persists, the exportation of gas in Bolivia is nothing new. Bolivia has produced natural gas since the 1960’s, exporting mainly to Brazil and Argentina in recent years. Still, huge untapped reserves of natural gas remain in the country.
Many in the opposition would rather have the gas exported through a Peruvian port rather than a Chilean port. Though the use of a Peruvian port is significantly more expensive, many in Bolivia maintain a serious sense of contempt towards Chile due to the fact that Bolivia lost their only access to the sea to Chile during the War of the Pacific in 1879.
Opposition leader, Evo Morales stated that according to information from the United Nations, the Bolivian government has already consolidated an agreement with foreign investors to construct a gas duct through Chile in 2004 and plans to begin exporting in 2007. Government officials maintain that no definite contracts or negotiations exist regarding the exportation of the gas.
Government Refuses to Dialogue, Conflicts Persist
Government Minister, Yerko Kukoc, said that the government refuses to engage in dialogue with opposition leaders Evo Morales and Jaime Solares because their demands are too extreme and radical, and that those who support these leaders only want to worsen social conflicts and destroy the democratic processes of the country. (El Diario, 10/10/03) Both Morales and Solares maintain a considerable amount of influence over the protests, blockades and strikes in the country. It is likely that the government’s refusal to participate in dialogue with these leaders will only prolong conflicts.
When asked about possible methods to quell the social unrest in Bolivia, Kukoc said that a "State of Siege" (a modified form of a state of emergency that permits government established curfews, detention of protesters and other measures) is not out of the question. (El Diario,10/10/03) The last time that the government called a "State of Siege" was during the Water Wars of 2000.
Meanwhile, blockades in the Yungas region and in El Alto continue to intensify. The militarization of the Chapare Region took place after the government received information that the blockades were to begin there. Although coca growers carried out sporadic blockades, they are currently meeting to decide when to engage in full-fledged blockades.
The increased use of unnecessary force on the part of the police and military and the intensity of nationwide protests, strikes and blockades, indicate that without dialogue between the government and opposition groups, focusing on the diverse demands of the population, the conflicts in Bolivia’s Gas War will continue indefinitely.
Benjamin Dangl and Kathryn Ledebur work at The Andean Information Network in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Dangl can be reached at: Ben@upsidedownworld.org .To contact Ledebur or to receive AIN updates write: firstname.lastname@example.org