Sunday, May 29, 2005

BOLIVIA: A week of upheaval

On Monday May 23, around 10,000 coca growers, marched into El Alto, the capital of Bolivia, ending a 200-kilometre, four-day march led by the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), and its leader Evo Morales. Far from ending the protests, however, the cocaleros' arrival kicked off more.

The marchers were demanding an increase in the royalties paid by transnational companies to the government for natural gas exploitation. This issue -- who should benefit from Bolivia's gas reserves, the second largest in Latin America -- brought down one government, and is rapidly becoming a struggle over who controls the country. It has crystallised the divide between the vast, poor majority who want Bolivian resources to benefit them, and the US-led imperial empire that has the support of the country's business elite.

After months of debate, a public referendum and threats from both mass organisations and big business, President Carlos Mesa allowed a new hydocarbon bill to be signed into effect on May 17. The bill imposed a tax of 32% on top of 18% royalties. However, this falls short of the proposal of 50% royalties put forward by MAS, and way short of the most popular option: nationalisation of the industry.

On the other side of the political spectrum, the gas transnationals, the Bolivian oligarchy and their most vocal supporters, the civic committee of Santa Cruz, have denounced the bill as too radical. The civic committee of Santa Cruz has announced its intentions to hold a referendum, with or without government support, on greater autonomy for the department (state), believing that this would enable it to control the gas reserves, which are located in the region around the wealthy, mostly white, city. The indigenous people on whose land the gas is located, however, are opposed to this.

Bolivia has a history of mass struggle and several well-defined mass groups. MAS, which grew out of the cocalero movement in the Chapare region, has a significant parliamentary presence. Morales missed out on election as president last time by 1.5%.

However, more radical are the demands of the altenos, members of the groups based on El Alto, the city that grew out of a shanty-town suburb of La Paz, and has a history of militant struggle against privatisation. The main groups in El Alto, FEJUVE (which unites around 600 neighbourhood committees), COR de El Alto (the Regional Workers Central of El Alto) and El Alto's federation of trade unions, have been calling for nationalisation of the gas supply, and Mesa's resignation, a demand supported by the Bolivian Workers Central (COB).

Green Left Weekly has abridged these reports of the week of struggle that started with the cocaleros arrival from journalists based in La Paz.

By Alison Dellit & Federico Fuentes posted 29 May 05

Green Left Weekly