The gas referendum in Bolivia – a dirty trick

The recent referendum was called by the Mesa government as a legal cover for what it has laready gone ahead with - the privatisation of Bolivian gas. The questions were not simply posed as yes or no to privatisation. The masses sensed this and in many parts of the country took part in a boycott. This is the priced the movement is having to pay for the compromise reached back in October.

In spite of the militarisation of the country, the legal threats and the desperate calls of the Bolivian media to vote in the referendum, the majority of the Bolivian people stayed at home and did not turn up at the polling stations. The Bolivian workers and peasants expressed in this manner their rejection of Carlos Mesa's privatisation proposals.

On Sunday July 18, there was a referendum on the privatisation of Bolivia's natural gas resources. The day was very tense with a heavy presence of troops and police in the polling stations. However it was also clear that there was a general disinterest in the referendum and this was confirmed by the massive abstention.

The comment of one street seller can help illustrate the mood of the majority of ordinary working Bolivians: "I don't think this is going to improve the situation, there have been so many promises, and the government always does what it wants.'' (The Guardian, July 18, 2004). We will have the final picture on August 4, when the official results will be available. However the partial results that are already available indicate that Mesa has been successful, but in a referendum marked by very big levels of abstention.

The calling of this referendum was in fact a manoeuvre to legitimise the selling off of Bolivia's hydrocarbon resources. Mesa began his presidential mandate in October of last year with lots of false promises. The aim was clear. He wanted to find a means by which to demobilise the workers and peasants who were seriously threatening the powers that be in Bolivia.

To understand the context in which this referendum was called we need to remember that what sparked off the revolutionary movement towards the end of last year were the plans to sell off Bolivia's natural gas to Chile. However, that was not the only explanation. Mass opposition to the selling off of the gas reflected the huge discontent which had built up among the Bolivian workers and peasants. The Bolivian masses are amongst the poorest in Latin America.

The cynicism of Mesa was clear to all when on Sunday 11 he stated the following: "It's easy to play the demagogue. It would be very easy for me to say, 'Yes we will nationalise through expropriation' and I would probably be the most popular man alive. But I don't govern for popularity. I govern for the responsibility of the state" (Financial Times July 18, 2004). This statement reflects the real nature of the relatively new puppet of the local Bolivian oligarchy which in turn does the bidding of US imperialism.

The main feature of the political and social situation in Bolivia at this moment is the huge polarisation to the left and to the right. On the one hand the COB (the Bolivian TUC) stood for a boycott of the referendum. Correctly, the COB explained their boycott on the basis that the referendum was simply a dirty trick on the part of Mesa to "institutionalise" the privatisation of gas and also that the referendum did not include in any way the possibility of the re-nationalisation and the development of gas, as the masses had been demanding during the October uprisings.

On the other hand the MAS leadership, headed by Evo Morales has been trying to provide a democratic cover for Mesa. They actively canvassed in favour of the referendum, even after Mesa had made his statements to the effect that he was going to export the gas whether there was a YES or NO in the referendum. Mesa has to fulfil his promises to the class he represents, but the parliamentary cretinism of Morales seems to have no limits at all!

Background of the struggle

Since the 1980s and specially the 1990s all the governments in Latin America have been busying themselves privatising and selling off at knock down prices the state-owned companies and their natural resources such as natural gas and oil. Bolivia is one of the countries where this process has gone furthest. The results of these pro-capitalist measures have been devastating for the Bolivian masses. For instance, 87% of the land is owned by only 7% of the landowners. On the other hand 90% of the rural population live below the poverty line (La Jornada September 25, 2003).

The devastating effects of the crisis in the tin industry at the end of the 1980s drove thousands of mineworkers and their families back to the countryside to cultivate Coca leaves. However, although this was a step back for the working class and trade union movement, it did lay the basis for one of the most revolutionary peasant movements of the whole of Latin America.

The frustration produced by the lack of decent working and living conditions have led the Bolivian workers and peasants onto the road of the struggle. The level of their mobilisation has been so intense that they have sent several governments packing and have forced successive representatives of the Bolivian oligarchy to temporarily retreat and put off their plans to privatise and sell off the country's natural resources and key industries. The insurrection of the Bolivian masses in Cochabamba stopped the privatisation of water. As a result of that massive uprising, Hugo Banzer (the then Bolivian president) was actually forced to renationalise the water.

In September and October of last year the Bolivian workers and peasants mobilised against the attempts of the government to allow the big hydrocarbon companies to export gas to the USA through the Chilean seaport of Patillos. This plan of the government enraged the masses who suddenly and without any clear leadership set up roadblocks and there were peasant uprisings in some areas.

The answer of the government was to use the military to put down the movement. The repression carried out by the government only helped to complicate the situation for Gonzalez Losada (also knows as Goni). On September 20 the Bolivian army attacked the peasants in the Altiplano region killing six people amongst them an 8-year old child.

This massacre unified the movement of the masses. Workers, students and shopkeepers joined the massive demonstrations that were then taking place. It also raised the level of the movement which led to sharper demands for the re-nationalisation of natural gas. This was a clear indication that the movement was not going to be stopped by the repressive measures of the government.

The participation of the working class in the struggle with their traditional methods such as the general strike placed the Bolivian ruling class in a very difficult situation. The answer of the Bolivian capitalists was more repression against the movement. However, the slaughter that had taken place in El Alto sparked off a struggle not only for the defence of the gas resources, but also against the government and US imperialism.

Karl Marx explained long time ago that the revolution sometimes needs the whip of the counterrevolution to advance. As we explained at that time elements of dual power developed in Bolivia particularly in the city of El Alto where the Neighbourhood Juntas took over control of all social life for a few days. The might of the oppressed put the Bolivian capitalists on the ropes and forced the unpopular Goni to flee the country.

On October 18, Carlos Mesa who was the vice-president of Sanchez Lozada took over as president of the country. Despite the growing lack of confidence among the masses towards the new president some leaders of the leftwing parties in Bolivia started to ask for time and to have confidence in the new president. The main supporter of the new government from the left was Evo Morales who made a big effort to calm down the masses and to provide a democratic façade for the new government. At that time we explained that there was no difference at all between Gonzalez Losada and Carlos Mesa. They serve the same masters.

On Mayday of this year the COB started another offensive against the Mesa government. This offensive was undermined by the fact that the miners, industrial workers and some layers of the peasant masses were not mobilised. During the whole month of May and part of June roadblocks, marches and riots took place all over the country. In spite of the organizational problems and the lack of coordination, what this movement showed was that the Bolivian masses were not at all happy with Mesa.

The referendum on this issue of the export of Bolivian gas was called – and worded in such a way – to legitimise Gonzalez Losada's privatisation plans. This is not what the masses were expecting and it shows how correct masses were not to have any confidence in Carlos Mesa.

The trap of the referendum

The Bolivian masses have very good reasons for opposing this referendum. Even if the people voted in favour of the first question (the question related to the abrogation of the Sanchez Lozada gas law which was the legal basis for the privatisation of the gas) the taking back of the gas would take place only in about 30 years time! The official explanation for this is that this referendum cannot modify the contracts the Bolivian government has signed with Total Fina, Repsol and other multinational companies, and these are valid until 2030. This is no accident. Carlos Mesa was brought into office as the last resort of the ruling class faced with an enraged working class and peasantry. His task is to carry through the programme Goni was unable to complete and do it in the smoothest way possible. Unfortunately for the Bolivian oligarchy and their imperialist backers, the patience of the Bolivian people is not going to last so long.

Mesa has also played the card of causing confusion. He has even tried to present the referendum as part of the "October Agenda". The October Agenda was an unfinished programme which was simply a list of some of the demands of the popular movement that had defeated Sanchez Lozada. Mesa even had the cheek to ask the Bolivian people to defend the referendum because it represents a conquest achieved in October.

This referendum is just a manoeuvre on the part of the Bolivian oligarchy. Its aim is get Mesa's Energy law passed and at the same time make the voters believe that they have a new law that can allow them to take back the gas. In reality, Mesa has no intention whatsoever of taking back the gas for the Bolivian people. This popular demand comes into direct conflict with the greedy interests of both the hydrocarbon multinational companies that are currently operating in Bolivia and the geo-strategic and economical interests of imperialism.

A representative of the Indigenous Council of South America analysed the five questions of the referendum and came to the following conclusions:

"Generally no more than one or two clear questions are asked in a referendum. In this case we have five long and unclear questions (...) it shows that the people who elaborated the questions did not want to come into conflict with the interests of the majority of the people and at the same time they did not want to go against the interests of the government"

"The referendum which is going to take place on July 18 has been elaborated for external consumption. The sponsors of the referendum want the [foreign] countries and international bodies that have interventionist aims to use it as a fact. The important thing does not lie in the questions, even less in the percentage achieved for each question. The priority is to have the referendum held to provide some legal basis." ( July 13, 2004)

At the same time the Bolivian government put pressure on the population to vote. In fact not to vote in the referendum is considered illegal and is banned. Despite the threats of the Bolivian government, 12% of the population that has the right to vote refused to be listed in the electoral register. This first level of refusal to take part in the referendum can be explained by the boycott campaign sponsored by the COB in the cities and by the CSUTCB (the peasants organization lead by Felipe Quispe) in the countryside. However, there is also the question of the geographic isolation of lots of indigenous communities, which has also played a role.

Everything points to an even bigger abstention. That explains why Mesa extended the deadline, giving one more week to register more people. It is also a well-known fact that the Mesa government used threats and blackmail to get more people to enrol on the electoral register. Another measure taken by the Bolivian representatives of the oligarchy has been the militarisation of the whole country. The government has brought a big contingent of troops into the cities of La Paz and Cochabamba. This is one of the reasons that can explain why the boycott only took place in some areas of the country.

Nevertheless the militarisation of the country is also an expression of panic on the part of the Bolivian ruling class in the face of the response of the Bolivian workers and peasants. The COB and CSUTCB leaders called for a boycott, roadblocks, rallies, spoiling of the ballot papers, writing the word 'nationalisation' on the ballot papers and the collection of one million signatures for a petition for the nationalisation and development of the hydrocarbons.

It is clear to anyone that the Mesa government is trying to use this referendum as a way of justifying what he has already done, i.e. the selling off of Bolivia's natural gas resources. The dirty tricks and threats merely confirm that the Bolivian oligarchy and US imperialism are panicking and fear a repetition of the events that took place in October 2003. They correctly understand the threat that the Bolivian masses pose to their economic and political interests, despite the limitations of their leadership.

The MAS and the Referendum

Since the beginning of the conflict Carlos Mesa has received the almost unconditional support of Evo Morales and the leadership of the MAS. From the very first day the referendum was announced the MAS leadership has worked hard to present the referendum as a "popular conquest of October". Also, the MAS leadership has been spreading the lie that the referendum was for the nationalisation of gas. Even when president Mesa publicly announced the referendum was not going to nationalise nor develop the hydrocarbons, the MAS leadership did not stop their campaign of legitimisation of the referendum.

The reaction of Jaime Solares (COB leader) was the expulsion of Evo Morales from the COB due to his support for the referendum and his calls to sabotage the actions of the workers and peasants against the referendum. Jaime Solares publicly criticised him using terms such as traitor and scab.

In Santa Cruz, peasant leaders who are backing Evo Morales publicly called for Jaime Solares and Felipe Quispe (CSUTB) to be jailed because of their actions against the referendum. The reaction of Benigno Solares of the MAS is an indication of how far these so-called leaders have gone. He stated that, "those who burn the ballot papers will themselves be set on fire" ( July 12, 2004).

Evo Morales supported the Mesa government in the three of the five questions in the referendum. However, this has not surprised anyone. As we have explained, Morales has been promoting confidence in the Mesa government since the very beginning of his presidential mandate in October. With these actions the MAS leadership is dividing the movement and acting as real blacklegs and traitors.

The COB, the CSTUCB and the referendum

Six days before the referendum the COB called the workers, peasants and rural and urban poor to defeat the referendum through a boycott, roadblocks and marches. As we saw back in October 2003, the revolutionary town of El Alto was once again in the forefront of the struggle. The people of El Alto decided to call for a 3-day strike to stop the referendum. Felipe Quispe, also known as "Mallku", (the CSUTCB leader) also announced that, "There will be no referendum in the peasant communities and the polling stations where they [the government] will make our peasant brothers and sisters vote will burn." ( July 12, 2004).

However, it must also be said that this boycott action of the revolutionary workers and peasants was not as generalised throughout the country as it could have been. The announced boycott of the referendum was patchy. In some areas the protest against the referendum was limited to writing the word 'nationalisation' on the ballot papers while in others the electoral officers had serious difficulties in doing their job, such as in El Alto, where the OAS international observers were received by a crowd of people who threw stones at them.

This situation is a consequence of what happened back in October, and how the movement was demobilised. We must learn from the mistakes that were committed after the October days. The hesitations of the trade union leaders gave enough breathing space to the capitalists to take regain control of the situation. The "tactical retreat" proposed by the COB leaders only provided the ground for the installation of Mesa and his government. Conditions for the taking of power do not arise everyday and when one is wasted due to the lack of boldness on the part of the leadership, the initiative is lost and the moment passes.

The struggle for the nationalisation and development of the energy resources must therefore be transformed into an offensive struggle for the nationalisation of the whole of the Bolivian economy. It is utopian to think that the movement can achieve control of the gas industry while the rest of the economy remains in the hands of the oligarchy and its imperialist backers. To achieve control of the gas industry it is necessary to have control over the whole economy, with a workers' government in power.

Such a struggle would find a lot of sympathy among the workers and peasants of other Latin American countries who are fighting back against imperialism, such as in Venezuela. Throughout Latin America we see massive movements of the workers, the urban poor and the peasantry. There is enormous potential for revolutionary movements right across the continent. What is missing is a revolutionary leadership of the working class. The urgent task is to build it.