BOLIVIA: Political crisis looms

January 19, 2005

Federico Fuentes

The New Year ushered in a new wave of protests and strikes that has threatened to end Bolivian President Carlos Mesa's term early. Already the latest events have completely polarised Bolivia, a country which witnessed 2000 protests last year, and whose mass mobilisations of the poor have already claimed the scalp of one president.

It is unsurprising that it was gas that lit the wildfire. In the poorest nation of South America, the simple request of Bolivia's poor that their gas reserves be used to benefit the people has brought them into direct confrontation with international financial institutions and oil transnationals as well as the national financial oligarchy, the pro-business civic committees of Santa Cruz and Tarija and Mesa.

On December 31, as a result of demands imposed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, the prices of gas, kerosene and diesel were increased by between 10% and 23%. The IMF had recently suspended its agreement with Bolivia under the pretext that it believed Bolivia had not done enough to increase its earnings.

The response to these measures was immediate. Mass mobilisations occurred in all the major cities, with violent clashes erupting in Santa Cruz.

The protest took a qualitative leap when the poor of El Alto began an indefinite general strike on January 11, completely paralysing the city and demanding, among other things, the sacking of the company supplying water. Led by FEJUVE, the Federation of Neighbourhood Juntas, the inhabitants of El Alto were decisive in driving out the previous president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada during the October 2003 uprising.

In 2000, an uprising in Cochabamba forced multinational Bechtel out, putting the water service back in the hands of the people.

Faced with the growing radicalisation, Mesa announced on January 10 that, unlike his predecessor in similar circumstances, he would not direct the police and army to fire on protesters. Mesa said he would resign first.

If Mesa was to resign, with no clear progressive alternative posed, constitutionally the position would go to the president of the national parliament. Currently this position is held by Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR) member Hormando Vaca Diez, who many see as directly aligned with Sanchez de Lozada.

The comments came only days after members of the neoliberal parties, which governed in alliance before October 2003, had called for Mesa's resignation. It also coincided with the demand for his resignation put forward during the January 12-13, 48-hour general strike in Santa Cruz, called by the pro-business Civic Committee.

In response to the initial passage of a hydrocarbon bill through parliament in October this year that would have seen gas royalties increase to 50%, and increased state ownership over gas reserves, the Civic Committee of Santa Cruz spearheaded a massive campaign against the government, particularly targeting Mesa. They organised a one-day strike in November, threatening to seek autonomy, or even separation, if the gas was nationalised.

The mobilisations in El Alto and other areas of the country by the poor on the one hand, and the increased calls for Mesa's resignation on the other hand by the ruling elite are clear evidence of the growing polarisation in Bolivia today.

In response to Mesa's announcement, the left forces have responded by calling for national elections to be moved forward. According to an article posted at <> on January 10 "the workers of El Alto organised in the Regional Workers Central, having debated the situation of President Mesa, want to publicly state .... that their objectives do not coincide with those of the political class that control parliament or the logic of those from Santa Cruz that want the fall of the current president in order that the position be passed on to the president of the National Parliament, Hormando Vaca Diez, who they identify as a natural ally of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada."

They along with almost all the left, including the powerful FEJUVE, and the Coordinating Committee in Defense of Gas, have called for the national presidential and parliamentary elections to be moved forward from the scheduled 2007.

According to Evo Morales, coca grower leader and head of the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) has called for elections to be moved forward, saying: "MAS is not asking for [Mesa's] resignation, we are proposing structural changes. MAS is proposing the annulment of the [price rises] and if he doesn't want to do it, then it would be better that the president move the national elections forward."

Following the December 5 municipal elections, MAS has been able to establish itself as the main political party in Bolivia. It had maintained an important alliance with Mesa, providing him with vital support both inside and outside parliament. However, a gradual split has been evolving as Mesa has continued to show himself faithful to the gas transnationals.

This position, however, has not been accepted by all sections of MAS. Two days after Mesa's announcement, MAS parliamentarian Carlos Sandy announced that he would join with some 10 others to form a pro-Mesa voting bloc in parliament. Morales responded by declaring that those that supported such a bloc were turncoats.

Mesa has also tried to stabilize his position by conceding to one of the key demands of the El Alto general strike, announcing on January 13 that he would end the contract with water company Aguas de Illimani. This led to a halt in the general strike, but will only provide a short breathing space for Mesa as a new round of mobilisations are set to begin across Bolivia from January 17.

From Green Left Weekly, January 19, 2005.
Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.