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Bolivia Rises (Frontline - ISM Scotland)



Bolivia: Gas Pipeline Plan Brings Down President

Goni gone, but what next?

Bolivian president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lazado resigned on October 17, brought down by a month-long mass uprising.  Forced to flee the presidential palace by helicopter, he found refuge in Miami and bitterly complained that the United States had abandoned him. The previous day had seen a million protestors on the streets, including a quarter of a million in the Plaza de San Francisco, near the presidential palace in La Paz – and this in country with less than nine million inhabitants. A general strike was called by the central trade union federation, the COB, while police stations and universities were occupied in the cities and the countryside. The poor El Alto barrios overlooking La Paz was literally in a state of insurrection. 

Another key centre of the uprising was Cochabamba, recently a centre of mass struggle against water privatisation. During the uprising more than 70 people were killed by army and police. In several waves of protest since Sanchez was elected in September 2002, around 700 people have died at the hands of security forces.   

Sanchez, contemptuously dubbed ‘Goni’ by the protestors, was brought down because of his plan to sell vast amounts of the country’s underground natural gas supplies to the United States. The plan involved building a pipeline to a port in Chile, from where it would have been shipped north. For millions of Bolivians, this was one more slap in the face from neoliberal globalisation, and another sorry episode in the long history of imperialist plunder of the nation’s natural resources. 

The political content of the protests is highly significant. First was the simple issue of imperial robbery. Numerous placards and banners on the demonstrations said “El gas no se vende, el industrializa” – a rough translation might be “the gas is not for sale, it will industrialise us” (literally “it industrialises”). No equivocation here on the issue of economic growth, and how could there be in this ultra-poor country? On the other hand, the pipeline which would have gone through indigenous farming areas, raised major environmental concerns. 

Anti-Sanchez mobilisations grouped together a wide spectrum of political and social forces, among whom indigenous people, tin miners, urban workers and sections of the middle class were prominent. Key leaders of the movement were Felipe Quispe, leader of the United Confederation of Workers and Peasants of Bolivia (CSUTCB) — the union of indigenous Aymara peasants and farm workers; and Evo Morales, leader of the MAS (Movement Towards Socialism) who narrowly lost to Gonzalo Sanchez in the September 2002 presidential election. Morales is the leader of the country’s coca farmers, in a country where the United States is pressuring the government to suppress the trade. However Quispe is seen as a more radical figure. 

Following Sanchez’s departure for Miami, the Congress chose his deputy Carlos Mesa as replacement President. The pipeline maybe as good as dead, but few people think Mesa will bring anything other than continued subordination to neoliberal austerity in general and Washington in particular. Immediately following Sanchez’s removal, US ambassador David Greenlee insisted America would demand no let up in the fight to end the coca trade – ie ruin the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of Bolivian peasants.  

This response has however led to debate in Washington over the correct course to pursue in relation to Mesa – and Evo Morales. Political commentator Marcela Sanchez, writing in the October 25 issue of the Washington Post, urged the state department to adopt the ‘Lula solution’ –ie forget about Mesa and back Evo Morales, despite the ‘socialist’ bit in the name of his party. This would then start the process of shifting the Bolivian opposition to the political centre and a new accomodation with Washington – a real Lula solution. However it would involve some concessions on the question of the coca farmers and some assistance with Bolivia’s crushing budget deficit. 

New president Mesa has promised to organise a referendum on the issue of the pipeline, which will doubtless be defeated. But the pipeline issue, important in its own right, was really a focal point for the massive resentment in a population where half the people live on less than $2 a day, and where the indigenous majority are well organised and remain mobilised. During the uprising and general strike, the COB union federation raised demands for higher wages, better pensions, comprehensive land reform and Bolivia's withdrawal from the planned Free Trade Area of the Americas. These demands will remain at the centre of the continuing struggle. 

The COB held a meeting on 18 October with 20 different industrial and commercial sectors represented. They vowed to continue their indefinite general strike until the government guarantees not to export the gas and repeals the law governing the sale of hydrocarbons. The COB also demanded a judicial inquiry into the police murders of the protestors,  and an end to privatisation. These demands will remain at the centre of the continuing struggle. 

Local reaction and its imperial masters in Washington will try every trick in the book to try to rob the Bolivian people of their huge victory in bringing down Gonzalo Sanchez. The workers, peasants and indigenous people will have tobe on guard against the twin dangers of repression and co-option from those they have humiliated.