Bolivia's gas wars:

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An Overview of Bolivia's Gas War

By Benjamin Dangl

Landlocked Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in Latin America and has the largest proportion of indigenous people on the continent. Historically, Bolivia has been rich in natural resources such as coal, tin and gold which were repeatedly exploited by foreign companies that made enormous profits while Bolivia struggled on.

Fierce social movements against such exploitation and pressure have marked Bolivia for decades. In April of 2000 in the city of Cochabamba, local citizens took to the streets to kick out foreign investors who had privatized the area’s water. After weeks of blockades and violent confrontations between protesters and security forces, the investors left and the water privatization ended.

In February of 2003, during a series of riots and national protests, the Bolivian public rejected an income tax that was proposed by the government and recommended by the IMF.

The most recent social movement in Bolivia was the Gas War, which took place primarily from mid September to October of 2003. Yet the debate regarding what to do with Bolivia's natural gas reserves, which are the second largest in Latin America, began approximately a year and a half ago when the government proposed that the gas be exported through Chile, instead of the more costly option of exporting it through Peru.

In August of 2003 civil society and union groups announced a coordinated campaign to stop the exportation which began with direct action in the Yungas, a region north of the capital La Paz. From its start, the Gas War included demands for clarity in coca laws, the resignation of then president, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, the release of jailed political leaders and justice regarding the atrocities that took place in La Paz last February.

In Bolivia, there is a profound contempt towards Chile which originated with the Pacific War of 1879 when Chile took over Bolivia's only access to the sea. This event has fueled much of the tension regarding the plan to sell the gas through Chile. Rather than allowing their desperate government to sell the gas to foreign investors for a meager sum, many Bolivians want it to be nationalized so that the profits can help the neediest sectors of society.

Throughout the Gas War huge mobilizations took place against the exportation. Hundreds of thousands of farmers, coca growers, students, union workers, and ordinary citizens protested, went on strike and constructed extensive road blockades across the country. These mobilizations were marked by intense confrontations between security forces and protesters. In the end, nearly eighty people were killed and hundreds more were wounded. In the fourteen months of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada’s presidency, more people were killed than in any other presidency, including the years of military dictatorships.

On October 12, after weeks of intense confrontations between security forces and protesters, nearly thirty people were massacred in El Alto, a city outside La Paz,. Protesters in El Alto had been maintaining the most intense road blockades in the country for weeks, cutting off the main route to La Paz. As a result, La Paz had been experiencing a severe shortage of gasoline, food and other supplies.

On Sunday, October 12, heavily armed military and police escorting gasoline tankers tried to pass through the blockades in El Alto to get to La Paz, where the shortage of gasoline, paired with blockades, had brought transportation to a standstill. The protesters in El Alto would not permit the trucks to pass through the blockades and at 10 am, the confrontation with security forces began.

The security forces, armed with high caliber weapons, indiscriminately fired on the protesters and into homes as they circled the city in helicopters and shot into the crowds from the ground. Some protesters carried sticks and slingshots, and some of the people killed and injured were children. The next day in La Paz, nearly twenty more protesters were killed in confrontations with security forces.

These deaths produced a turning point in the Gas War. Though many protesters throughout the conflict had been mobilizing against the exportation of the nation’s gas to the US, the demands of various sectors had remained diverse. But after the deaths in El Alto and La Paz, all protesting sectors began focusing on the resignation of the president as a condition for dialogue on any other point.

Soon, Sanchez de Lozada’s remaining political allies, including the vice president Carlos Mesa, demanded the president’s resignation as well.

Finally, after repeatedly refusing to resign, Sanchez de Lozada left office October 17, and took off in a plane to Miami. That same night, previous vice president, Mesa assumed the position of president of Bolivia, as stipulated in the country’s constitution.

Mesa knew that if he was to survive the political climate, he would have to concede to some of the diverse demands of the protesting sectors. Among his promises were plans for a national referendum on the gas exportation issue and justice for the victims of the 2003 Gas War.

On July 18th, 2004 the referendum took place. Voters were to choose yes or no to five questions including whether to repeal Sanchez de Lozada’s gas exportation plan, increase revenue with a new plan, use the gas as a strategic way to gain access to the sea from Chile, and use most of the profits from the exportation plan for the development of schools, hospitals, roads and jobs. Unfortunately for Bolivian protest groups, the referendum did not include the nationalization of the gas as an option.

Many voters did not understand the convoluted wording of the questions, which were not only pointed towards a “yes” vote, but also left open opportunities for corporate exploitation of the gas. Citizens were also reportedly forced into voting by a harsh new law which called for the imprisonment of any person who refused to participate in the referendum.

The controversial referendum led to divisions among activist leaders in Bolivia. Jamie Solares from the Bolivian Worker’s Union and Felipe Quispe, the director of the Bolivian Farm Workers Federation, led blockades and protests against the referendum, but were not able to generate enough grassroots support to stop or impede the voting. Congressman Evo Morales, leader of the Movement Toward Socialism Party (MAS) and a major coca farmers’ union, supported the referendum. Some viewed Morales’ endorsement as a strategic move to gain urban middle support for a presidential bid in the next election.

After the polls closed on July 18th, it was announced that seventy five percent of the voters said “yes” to all five questions. Yet for months, gridlock in congress, pressure from foreign investors and protesting groups postponed any major decisions on what to do with the gas.

The violence of the 2003 conflict still hasn’t been fully investigated, and members of Bolivia’s security forces have not been charged. However, Mesa has differed from his predecessor in one significant way: he has refused to call upon the use of lethal security force to break up the many protests and road blockades. In the year and half that Mesa has been in office, though confrontations between protesters and security forces have resulted in injuries, no deaths have been reported.

Gas War: 2005

In March of 2005, protest groups made up of unions, farmers, civil society organizations and students, were tired of waiting for the government to nationalize the gas. Through both independent and coordinated efforts, protesters marched, blockaded vital highways and shut down four oilfields near the central city of Cochabamba.

On March 6, after facing an estimated 800 protests during his term in office, President Carlos Mesa stated that the country had become “ungovernable” and offered his resignation. He blamed Evo Morales for the chaos in the country and used the resignation announcement as a threat to hand power over to the President of the Parliament, Hormando Vaca Diez. Due to his ties to foreign investors and the main right-wing party in government, Vaca Diez was highly unpopular with Bolivian leftists and was likely to respond more violently to protests than Mesa.

Mesa was hoping the gesture, which many called a plea for sympathy, would force the left to back off. Yet not only was Mesa’s resignation rejected by congress, but his announcement backfired. During Mesa’s show of weakness, diverse protest groups led by Morales, Quispe and Solares came together to re-launch a past protest front known as the People’s General Staff. The group, formed to unite the country’s social movements, called for continued strikes and demanded that governmental royalties from the sale of the gas be raised to a minimum of 50%.

On May 17th 2005, the Bolivian Congress passed a gas law which imposed a new 32% tax on production on top of the existing royalties of 18%. However, it fell short of the protesters' demands as they said it would be easy for the oil companies to evade the 32% tax. This set off another round of marches and road blockades. The legislation also agitated foreign investors, who claimed it gave far too much control to the government. The law increased taxes for foreign companies and stated that indigenous groups would have to be consulted about further use of gas in their areas and would receive compensation for the use of their land. Many foreign investors had been pumping money into Bolivia’s gas industry since 1996 and felt that the new law was confiscating their investments. Some threatened to sue the Bolivian government in international courts.

Jeffrey Webber published an article in ZNet, which quoted US Treasury Department`s Assistant Secretary of International Affairs, Randal Quarles as saying that, if the new gas law were to go into effect, it would be a “sure thing that the first measure would be the suspension of investments, at minimum while Bolivia continues this uncertainty.” Quarles also suggested that the law might influence the amount of financial support that organizations such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank offer to the Bolivian government.

The day before the law was passed, 100,000 protesters, primarily from El Alto, a working class community near La Paz, the country’s capital, rallied outside parliament demanding Mesa’s resignation. In the proceeding days, other sectors joined the El Alto protesters. The La Paz teachers’ union called a strike, peasant unions across the country organized road blockades, and the National Congress of the Miners’ Union also began marching in La Paz. The MAS party organized a massive march from the city of Cochabamba to La Paz, a distance of 190 kilometers.

In an article on ZNet, Nick Buxton quotes a miner named Iriaro, who had traveled six hours to join protests in La Paz, as saying, “People are suffering to get here as they have so little money. But I decided to come because we need to reclaim our natural resources. We have been robbed for centuries and our government is robbing us again.”

Not all protesters shared the same goals. Evo Morales said that Bolivia should receive 50% of the royalties from the sale of the gas; a demand which had been previously supported by protesters but by this point was viewed by many as too moderate. As the perhaps strongest leftist presidential candidate, Morales and his positions are often highly scrutinized. In an article in CounterPunch, Forrest Hylton explained that “Morales poses as the defender of democracy in hopes of winning over the urban middle class…Though the U.S. Embassy, the weak and divided Bolivian elite, and the London Economist see Morales as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a strategic radical disguised as a tactical moderate, in rhetoric and fact Morales is the strongest defender of Bolivian democracy as presently configured. Neither he nor MAS want to see the constitutional order unravel, as both have had their sights set on the 2007 elections since 2002, when Morales nearly won the presidential race.”

By May 24, tens of thousands of protesters had again descended into La Paz from El Alto. They were met with rubber bullets and tear gas from security forces. Six protesters were reportedly injured in the clashes. Road blockades were set up on main roads across the country, shutting down routes to La Paz, the nearby international airport, and roads to the borders with Peru and Chile.

On June 2nd, as a last ditch effort, Mesa announced plans to re-write the constitution in a national assembly. With such an assembly, Mesa hoped to calm the protests by offering marginalized indigenous people a larger voice in the government. Under his decree, members to the constitutional assembly would be elected on October 16, 2005. According to a June 3rd report by the AFP News Service, Evo Morales, stating that Mesa’s proposal could easily be rejected by congress, said it had "good intentions, but is unconstitutional…a new show put on by the government [to demobilize the protests].”

Protesters were not satisfied with Mesa’s proposal, as it didn’t offer an immediate response to their demands for nationalization of the country’s gas. Protest groups pledged to continue road blockades and marches until the gas was nationalized and plans for the constitutional assembly were passed by congress.

Mesa also proposed a referendum on the autonomy of resource-rich areas in Bolivia, such as the province of Santa Cruz, where much of Bolivian gas is located. There is a strong drive in this region to privatize the gas. Protest groups are deeply against right-wing demands for such autonomy, as it would thwart any plans for full nationalization.

On June 6th, after another full day of protest and road blockades, Mesa again offered his resignation to congress. "This is as far as I can go," Mesa stated in a televised address. The Andean Information Network reported that Mesa also said that he had done his best, and that he asked Bolivians for forgiveness if he shared responsibility for the profound political crisis that was gripping the nation.

Although the MAS party demanded Mesa’s resignation, it was not a key demand of many groups; most primarily advocated for the nationalization of the gas. For many protesters, the issue wasn’t who was President; it was who was in control of the nation’s gas. As such, Mesa’s resignation is unlikely to offer a solution to Bolivia’s crisis.

Promising not to repeat the mistakes of his predecessor, Mesa did not call upon the use of lethal force by police to quell protests. However, should Mesa’s resignation be accepted, the presidency would then go to Vaca Diez, who has often advocated the use of force to stop the protests. During the Sanchez de Lozada administration such crackdowns only fueled national discontent.

Even before Mesa offered his resignation, Vaca Diez said that the idea of having early elections is “gaining momentum as a way out of the problem". Morales also told reporters that holding early elections “is the only way we will find a political solution."

To the relief of many Bolivian citizens, Vaca Diez stepped down and Bolivia's Supreme Court Justice took office, immediately calling for elections to take place in December 2005.

Benjamin Dangl is the editor of

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For more info. on Bolivia's Gas Conflicts:

ZNet's Bolivia Watch Site

Blog from Cochabamba, Bolivia

The Andean Information Network

Upside Down Blog

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