BOLIVIA: 'Gas war' protests intensify
BY BENJAMIN DANGL
COCHABAMBA — An intense series of protests, strikes and highway blockades continue to gain momentum across Bolivia as new sections of the population join the movement against the export of the country's natural gas to the US. While the geographical and political diversity of the groups involved in the movement make it difficult for them to coordinate their actions and demands, the paralysed government is jeopardising its survival by refusing to negotiate.
On September 29, Bolivia's peak trade union body, the Central Obrera Boliviana (COB), launched a two-day national strike against the government's decision to allow foreign corporations to market and export the country's natural gas and petroleum. The strike follows mass protests on September 19, which mobilised 150,000 people across the country.
The government's plan would produce US$1.3 billion in annual income for Pacific LNG — a consortium of Spanish-owned Repsol-YPF and British Gas and Panamerican Gas, a subsidiary of British Petroleum. Protesters are demanding that the country's resources be used to modernise Bolivia's industry and rebuild social services rather than line the pockets of private corporations. The government deal will return as little as $40 million annually to the Bolivian treasury in the form of taxes and fees.
COB leaders also demanded President Sanchez de Lozada's resignation. Though extensive protests and strikes took place in the capital 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, while 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 Free Trade Area of the Americas agreement.
But above the din of this varied, nearly chaotic social movement, one chant is present everywhere, "El gas no se vende" ("The gas is not for sale").
Bolivia was once rich in natural resources — such as gold, tin and coal. These were exported by foreign companies, which made enormous profits while Bolivia did not benefit. In the "gas war" that has erupted, many Bolivians are trying to make sure that this history does not repeat itself.
However, US energy companies are pressuring Bolivia with trade agreements for the gas. Furthermore, the Bolivian government sees the gas export deal as the solution to the country's economic problems. Yet, the agreement with the private corporations states that only 18% of the future profits from the export of the gas will go to Bolivia.
During September 29 protests in La Paz, Jorge Alvarado, representative of the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), was quoted in the October 1 El Diario as saying: "The gas should be used for the progress of the country, to benefit Bolivians and not simply be sold in favour to other countries. Now is the time for the current government to listen to the great majority of the country, to wake up from their lethargy and begin to realise that the gas should be used for national development."
Commenting on the social unrest that is dividing Bolivia, President de Lozada told reporters on October 1, "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".
But the Bolivian government has left the people with no other choice, as they are blocked from articulating their interests within the system. The government, unable and unwilling to address the unrest, has resorted to military and police repression. On September 20, security forces opened fire on a protesters' road blockade in Warisata, killing six peasants.
While so far there have been no more deaths in the confrontations between security forces and protesters, there have been numerous detentions of protesters, mistreatment and injuries.
Felipe Quispe, leader of the Confederation of Bolivian Peasant Workers (CSUTCB), has stated that he will not participate in talks with the government until the military withdraws from blockaded areas. The government refuses to negotiate with Quispe because it claims he does not represent the peasants' movement.
Coca farmers in the Yungas region began blockading roads on October 2. Representatives of coca growers from the Chapare region, including MAS leader Evo Morales, have suggested that blockades may also begin there on October 6. Chapare coca growers are also protesting against the persecution of their leaders; most recently, "terrorism" charges have been laid against local MAS councillor Juana Quispe.
The anti-privatisation "water war" protests of 2000 kicked out Bechtel, the US corporation that had bought Cochabamba's water supply, and the February 2003 riots blocked an income tax proposed by the International Monetary Fund. Will the movement against the export of Bolivia's gas be similarly successful?
From Green Left Weekly, October 15, 2003.
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