An intense series of road blockades, protests and strikes continue to gain momentum across Bolivia as new sectors enter the movement against the exportation of the country’s gas to the US. The geographical and political diversity of the groups involved in the movement makes it difficult for them to coordinate their efforts and demands. Furthermore, the paralyzed government jeopardizes its own longevity by refusing to negotiate with most of this loose, but persistent, collection of citizens.
On Monday, September 29th, Bolivia’s Labor Union (COB) called a national strike against the exportation of the country’s gas. COB leaders also demand Sánchez de Lozada’s resignation. Though extensive protests and strikes took place in La Paz, and to a lesser degree in other cities, the demands from various sectors differed as much as their methods of protest. Some marched demanding better wages; others went on hunger strikes until local political leaders were released from jail. Some blockaded roads to end coca eradication laws, while others protested against the ALCA free trade agreement.
But above the din of this varied, nearly chaotic social movement, one chant was present everywhere, "EL GAS NO SE VENDE" (The gas is not for sale). Government Says Exporting Gas Will Solve Economic Problems
Historically, Bolivia has been rich in natural resources such as gold, tin and coal, all of which were exported out of the country by foreign companies that made enormous profits while Bolivia struggled on. In the recent Gas War, many Bolivians are trying to make sure that history does not repeat itself.
However, many US energy companies are pressuring Bolivia with trade agreements for the gas. Furthermore, the Bolivian government is more anxious for the deal to go through than the US investors are; they see it as the solution to all the country’s economic problems. Yet, the agreement with the US investors states that only 18 percent of the future profits from the exportation of the gas will go to Bolivia. Instead of creating solutions for the country, so far, the gas issue has only created greater conflict.
Undemocratic Political Procedures Create Need for Direct Action
When commenting on the social unrest dividing Bolivia, President Sanchez de Lozada said to reporters, "These problems and difficulties are born of what I consider a very radical group in Bolivian society that believes they can govern from the streets and not from Congress or the institutions" (BBC, 10/1/03).
But the Bolivian government leaves the people no other choice, as they are blocked from articulating their interests within the system. The traditional political parties in the government are more concerned with conserving their own power than representing the views of the opposition and citizens in the country. For example, in a recent meeting over congressional appointments, traditional party members fought over key posts in the state house while opposition parties, such as MAS and MIP, were left waiting in congress for over twelve hours without being able to take part in the meeting. Although social unrest increases daily, legislators have spent months bickering over party control of appointments, such as that of the Human Rights Ombudsman. Protesting sectors, such as coca growers and campesinos, as well as the political parties that represent them, have stated that if the previous Ombudsperson, Ana Maria Romero de Campero is not re-elected, mobilizations will multiply exponentially.
These undemocratic procedures have pushed a discontented populace to direct action. The government appears unable and unwilling to address this social unrest, creating the possibility for renewed military and police excessive use of force, which provoked six deaths in Warisata on September 20th.
But after the violent events in Warisata, confrontations between security forces and people blockading roads and urban protestors have not provoked any further deaths. There have been numerous detentions, mistreatment of protesters and some injuries. However, a successful "rescue" of 192 people that were trapped in a road blockade took place recently in the town of Luquisani. The Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office, representatives from the Catholic Church and the Permanent Human Rights Assembly of Bolivia participated in the rescue, with limited participation by the Bolivian navy. (Finally, a productive mission for this largely superfluous force in a landlocked country!) The government has tried to take credit for this peaceful resolution, but divisions between opposing sectors in the Gas War continue to deepen.
Divisions Deepen in Gas War
The conflict in Warisata caused campesinos and government officials to become even more entrenched in their own positions, making dialogue between the two groups nearly impossible. Felipe Quispe, campesino leader, has stated that he will not participate in dialogue with the government until the military withdraws from blockaded areas. The government refuses to negotiate with Quispe because they believe he is not representative of the campesino movement, although he is leading the most intense road blockade campaign in the country.
In the meantime, coca farmers in the Yungas region began blockading roads on October 2nd. Coca grower representatives from the Chapare region, including Evo Morales, have suggested that blockades may also begin there on October 6th. So far, this group, and the Movement Towards Socialism Party (MAS), have focused on waiting out current elections, demanding the re-election of Ana Maria Romero de Campero, previous Human Rights Ombudsperson. Chapare coca growers also protest the persecution of their leaders, most recently the terrorism charges against MAS councilwoman, Juana Quispe.
During the September 29th protests in La Paz, Jorge Alvarado, representative of the Movement Towards Socialism Party (MAS), said, "The gas should be used for the progress of the country, to benefit Bolivians and not simply be sold in favor to other countries. Now is the time for the current government to listen to great majority of the country, to wake up from their lethargy and begin to realize that the gas should be used for national development" (El Diario, 10/1/03). However, sectors in favor of the exportation maintain that even if the gas remains in Bolivia there is not enough money within the country to industrialize it, and that the only way to profit from the natural resource is to export it now.
A History of Popular Protest
In the water wars of 2000 and the riots against a proposed income tax in February of 2003, grassroots protests overturned unpopular policy in Bolivia. Opposition groups in Cochabamba kicked out foreign investors that had privatized the region’s water. 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 pressing question in Bolivia now is — will the movement against the exportation of Bolivia’s gas be similarly successful? The Interim Human Rights Ombudsperson, Carmen Beatriz Ruiz, warned that "if the parties in conflict do not begin dialogue, the situation will spin of control at any moment." (La Prensa, 10/3/03)
Meanwhile, underneath all the raucous activity above ground, the largest natural gas reserves in Latin America sit in bowels of Bolivia, waiting.
Benjamin Dangl has worked as a journalist throughout Latin America and is the editor of www.UpsideDownWorld.org, an online magazine about activism and politics in Latin America.