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
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
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
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
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 www.UpsideDownWorld.org