Bolivia, after the referendum the fight is on

Thursday, 29 July 2004
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The fraudulent nature of the recent gas referendum in Bolivia has become even clearer to the Bolivian masses. Within just a few days Mesa was selling off even more of Bolivia's natural gas resources to the multinationals. The response of the masses has been to mobilise once more.

"Eighty per cent of the more than 8 million inhabitants of Bolivia live in poverty, with no running water, electricity or, ironically, gas. Most believe that gas wealth generated by privatisation in the mid-90s is being squandered." (The Guardian, July 19, 2003)

Only days after the referendum on the future of Bolivia's natural gas resources, Carlos Mesa has sold off more gas to the hydrocarbon multinational companies. The Bolivian President did not even wait until the results of the referendum had come out. However, this is not a surprise. During all the referendum process President Mesa said that he was going to respect the contracts that are still valid with the hydrocarbon multinational companies like Repsol, Total Fina, BP and Petrobras among others. Indeed Carlos Mesa used the infamous law 1689 passed by Gonzalez Losada (also known as Goni). Those contracts are vital to the interests of the petrol and gas companies who desperately need these raw materials. The negotiation of this latest contract - that witnessed the personal intervention of Nestor Kirchner, the Peronist President of Argentina - was signed in the city of Tarija, in southern Bolivia on July 21 (www.econoticiasbolivia.com July 22, 2004). The contract allows for the sale of 6.5 million cubic metres per day from Bolivia to Argentina. The Bolivian state will only receive 10 US cents per 1000 cubic feet of gas. The biggest slice of this massive pie will go to Repsol and Petrobras that are operating on both sides of the border. They export the gas from Bolivian territory and they sell it on the Argentine side of the border. If anyone still had doubts about the nature of the recent referendum these have now been completely cleared up. This new contract involves even more massive looting of Bolivia's natural resources.

Divide and Rule

It is no accident that the Bolivian President chose Tarija located in the south of the country. This city is situated in the area where South America's second largest reserves of natural gas are to be found. Due to the particular interests of the Tarija businessmen the campaign in favour of the referendum was extremely virulent there. In fact, the Bolivian ruling class has been playing the card of "autonomy" for this region since 2000. These bourgeois backed movements in favour of "autonomy" and even secession were launched at the same time that the landless peasants led by the MST (movement of landless peasants) were seizing land. A very similar situation is also developing in the eastern city of Santa Cruz that also has very important natural gas reserves. The reasons for this are easy to understand. The local oligarchy in Santa Cruz wants to go further than Mesa and sign even more contracts with the multinational hydrocarbon companies.

The capitalists in Santa Cruz have launched a campaign of lies and are using the tactic of "divide and rule", pushing the idea of a so-called "Camba" nation. The sinister interests of the local landowners and businessmen, and their political representatives, are very clear. At the same time as they talk of "self-government" for their regions they also talk about the need for "foreign" investment. In reality, there is no fundamental difference between Carlos Mesa and these local oligarchs. For the Santa Cruz and Tarija oligarchies the signing of the hydrocarbon contracts is a matter of urgency. They cannot even wait until the final results of the referendum are made public. They want to be the sole beneficiaries of these contracts, thus keeping the crumbs that fall from the banquet table of the multinationals. These so-called "nationalist" movements are even more in thrall to imperialism than Mesa itself. They are in more of a hurry to make deals with imperialism. From their point of view Mesa is taking too long in the selling off of gas. But they have the luxury of not having to deal directly with the mass protest movement, and can also hide behind the slogan of so-called "self-government".

This is nothing new at all. The Bolivian ruling class has a long experience in whipping up national chauvinism. For example, the Bolivian oligarchy has a history of fomenting anti-Chilean feelings as a way of covering up their own servile relation to US imperialism.

The interests of the miners, the teachers, the street sellers and the poor and landless peasants are completely the opposite of those of Imperialism and their local agents, the Bolivian oligarchy. The workers and youth in the Eastern and Southern regions have nothing to gain from this kind of "autonomy". It is not autonomy for the local population at all. It simply reflects the desire of the local oligarchy to have exclusive rights to exploit the local working class. The Bolivian workers must oppose this false and reactionary nationalism of the Bolivian oligarchy. The workers can only defend their interests by raising the banner of proletarian internationalism.

The MAS leadership in trouble

As we have pointed out in other articles, the MAS leadership - headed by Evo Morales - has been Mesa's main base of support on the left since he took over from Goni. But the MAS is not a monolithic bloc. The latest measures taken by Carlos Mesa in favour of his class are producing an internal differentiation within the MAS. Evo Morales and co have spent lots of resources and time in boosting the confidence of the Bolivian workers and peasants in the Mesa government. Evo Morales' statements on the referendum campaign cost him his expulsion from the COB (Bolivian TUC) and the hatred of the Bolivian worker and peasant activists. He presented the referendum as "a popular conquest of October" (in reference to the insurrection that took place in October 2003 which was provoked by Losada´s attempts to sell off the gas). Some of the MAS leaders even demanded the arrest of Jaime Solares (COB leader) and Felipe "Mallku" Quispe (CSUCTB leader) who were calling for a boycott of the referendum.

Now, however, the MAS leadership is being embarrassed as the masses can clearly see that the Mesa government has had no hesitation in giving away even more gas to the multinationals. While all this unfolds, anger is growing within the rank and file of the MAS. The MAS rank and file have gained nothing from the shift to the right of the leaders of their organisation. On the other hand they can also see how within the trade unions and the neighbourhood associations they are attracting the hatred of the trade union and community activists. The pressure of the masses, and particularly that of the MAS rank and file, forced Evo Morales to take a stand and to come out publicly against the Bolivian president for the first time since he came into office. Evo Morales declared that "Carlos Mesa's days in office will be near their end if he carries on with these policies" (www.econoticiasbolivia.com 22/07/04). The view of the MAS leadership is that the gas referendum results should lead to what they view as "nationalisation". This is to be achieved by imposing new taxes on the multinational companies, combined with some form of "generic control". They say there should be "nationalisation" but without "expropriation" or "compensation". This graphically expresses the contradiction they are in. Their language is that of a leadership that is trying to walk a narrow path between the capitalists and the masses. That way they can satisfy no one. This plan, of course, is very far from meeting the interests of the multinational companies, US imperialism and their local agents in Bolivia. They just cannot afford anything short of complete privatisation. In fact the only way of using the natural resources to the benefit of the Bolivian people is through the complete nationalisation without compensation of all the gas companies that are operating in Bolivia. But even this could only really work if it is seen as the first step in the nationalisation of all the commanding heights of the economy under workers´ control and management.

The unrest of the Bolivian people

On July 27 the Bolivian newspaper "El Deber" came out with the news that the Coca leaf growers were setting up roadblocks. The Mesa government, pushed on by US imperialism, is aiming to move against all the Coca leaf growers. Far from being criminals, as they are described by the capitalist media, most of the Coca leaf growers are former miners who were driven out from the pits during the crisis of the tin industry during the late 80s. Imperialism forced them out of the mining areas and the only alternative left to them was Coca leaf growing. Now US imperialism - in an exercise of pure cynicism - is asking them to abandon the growing of the Coca leaf.

The reply of the Coca leaf growers has been very clear. They are not going to give up the only means of subsistence they have. The Coca leaf growers thus set up roadblocks in different parts of the country. On July 26, 300 Coca leaf growers blocked all the roads in the area of Yunga and forced many bus passengers to walk to the next village. In Chuspipata more than 30 trucks were held up due to the roadblock.

However, the Coca leaf growers are not the only ones who are fighting back against the pro-capitalist policies of the Mesa government. The teachers in the rural areas went on a 24-hour strike and the teachers in the cities are going to follow suit. The Caparari of Gran Chaco are threatening to seize the San Alberto gas plant and the indigenous people are in a state of permanent mobilisation demanding a new hydrocarbons law that nationalises Bolivia's natural resources.

The events of the past period clearly demonstrate that the Bolivian working class and peasants are not going to tolerate the pro-capitalist policies of Carlos Mesa that are dictated by the interests of big business. The task is to bring all these struggles together in one unified movement. The workers and peasants of Bolivia have shown over and over again that they are prepared to fight. What they need is a revolutionary leadership. The struggles and events of this period will provide an opportunity to build such a leadership. The outlines of this leadership are already there. There are many marvellous working class and peasant leaders at local level. They need to be brought together under a revolutionary programme for the overthrow of the oligarchy and the nationalisation of the major corporations operating in Bolivia.