BOLIVIA: Security forces massacre 'gas war' protesters
BY BENJAMIN DANGL
COCHABAMBA — A new cycle of conflict has developed in Bolivia as trade unionists, coca farmers and ordinary citizens unite to prevent the sale of the country's gas reserves to the United States.
In Bolivia, a country whose economic policies have been strongly shaped by US pressure and International Monetary Fund structural adjustment programs, the "gas war" is the most recent case in which the Bolivian people have vehemently protested against foreign interests taking priority over the country's economic well-being.
On September 24, Bolivia was in its 10th day of road blockades. On September 19-20, large-scale strikes and protests took place across the country. Confrontations between security forces and protesters during these demonstrations resulted in the deaths of seven people, with 25 injured.
Bolivia's natural gas reserves are the largest in Latin America. About 18 months ago, current Bolivian president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada (nicknamed Goni) proposed that the gas be sold to the US and be exported through Chile, instead of the more costly option of exporting it through Peru.
In August, civil society groups and trade unions announced a coordinated campaign to stop the exports, beginning with direct action in the Yungas, a region north of La Paz. From its start, the "gas war" also included demands for clearer coca laws and the release of jailed political leaders.
In Bolivia, there is a profound contempt towards Chile, which originated with the Pacific war of 1879 when Chile took over Bolivia's only direct access to the ocean. This has fuelled much of the tension regarding the plan to sell and export Bolivia's gas. Rather than having their desperate government sell the gas to foreign investors, many Bolivians want it to be industrialised nationally for much needed employment and income.
Goni maintains that the millions of dollars in revenue from the sale of the gas to the US will create jobs and stabilise the Bolivian economy. He has promised that the money generated will go directly into funding for the education and health systems. But many Bolivians believe that foreign companies and Bolivian business leaders will be the only ones to benefit from the sale.
La Prensa reported on September 14 that a recent survey conducted by Equipos Mori for the Bolivian TV network, Unitel, show that 70% of the people of western Bolivia, mainly located in the cities of La Paz, El Alto and Cochabamba, reject the proposal to export the gas. However, 58% of the population in the south-east region of the country, where most of the large gas companies and reserves are — Santa Cruz, Tarija and Sucre — support the proposal.
On September 19, tens of thousands protested in cities across Bolivia. In Cochabamba, in the largest protest since the mass mobilisations against water privatisation in April 2000, nearly 10,000 people marched into the city plaza. The protesters were primarily coca farmers from the nearby Chapare region, most of whom had left their farms to ride in buses all night to reach the city. Their placards read "No to gas through and for Chile" and "Soldiers — who are you defending?"
Evo Morales, the leader of the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party, and Oscar Olivera, spokesperson for the People's High Command, addressed the raucous crowd. Morales threatened, "If the government decides to export gas through Chile ... its hours are numbered".
Massacre in Warisata
The next day, September 20, Bolivian security forces attempted to "rescue" nearly 700 people — including 70 Western tourists — stuck in buses at a protest road blockade for a week in Sorata, a town north of La Paz. The peasant blockaders were protesting against the sale of gas through Chile, as well as demanding the release of imprisoned local leaders.
Following recommendations from David Greenlee, US ambassador to Bolivia, the Bolivian government dispatched security forces to the blockaded area.
According to presidential spokesperson Mauricio Antezana, quoted in the September 21 La Razon newspaper, an agreement had been reached with campesinos in the town of Warisata, near Sorata, to allow the buses to leave. However, when the security forces arrived, tensions rose and the agreement was quickly ignored.
Security forces indiscriminately opened fire on the campesinos, and randomly shot into nearby homes and schools. Some of the campesinos returned the fire with their own weapons, or threw rocks. In the end, the confrontation resulted in seven deaths, including two soldiers, a 60-year-old man, a student, a professor and a mother and her daughter. Nearly 25 injuries were reported from both sides.
Though government officials maintain that the security forces were ambushed by the campesinos, human rights investigators from El Defensor del Pueblo, Bolivia's Permanent Assembly of Human Rights and the Congressional Human Rights Commission stated that there was no evidence of an ambush and that the military had been securing the area around Warisata from early morning, and that later in the afternoon, though talks had been continuing with the campesinos to end the blockade, the military had aggressively moved in.
Government officials claimed that "racist and armed terrorist groups" were to blame for the violence in Warisata. Felipe Quispe, leader of the Campesino Federation told the September 23 La Razon, that no such terror groups exist and that it was the security forces that provoked the conflict.
During a ceremony on September 23, in which the US government gave the Bolivian government US$63 million in development aid, US ambassador Greenlee said that the security forces' intervention in Warisata was justified.
Dozens of trade unions and political parties met on September 22 in Cochabamba to decide what course of action to take following the deaths in Warisata. At the meeting, the various leaders, including from the MAS, the People's High Command and the Bolivian Workers' Union, threatened that if the massacres persist nationwide strikes and road blockades will go on indefinitely. Road blockades continue on major highways across Bolivia and it is likely that blockades around Chapare and Cochabamba will begin soon.
[Ben Dangl works for the Andean Information Network in Cochabamba, Bolivia.]
From Green Left Weekly, October 1, 2003.
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