by Gerry Foley – February, 2005
The mass mobilizations that forced neoliberal President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada to flee to the United States in Oct. 2003 left an open volcano of
revolutionary aspirations and organization. It erupted again on Jan. 10 with general strikes in Santa Cruz, the commercial center of the country, and in El Alto, a city of nearly 800,000 people on the doorstep of La Paz, the national capital.
The biggest explosion was in El Alto, the epicenter of the uprising against Sanchez de Lozada. This is a new conglomeration of former peasants forced from the land and workers displaced by the privatizations of the 1990s. In this teeming concentration of the poor, neighborhood committees arose in October 2003 that resembled the soviets that were the base of the Russian Revolution of 1917.
Once again, in the latest upsurge, tens of thousands of people marched from El Alto into La Paz, as they did at the peak of the October 2003 uprising. This
time, the new president, Carlos Mesa, who was Sanchez de Lozada’s vice president, pledged that he would resign rather than call out the military and police.
The fact is that under his predecessor the military had failed to stop the protests and began to break under the pressure of the mass upsurge. So Mesa knew that it would be suicidal to resort to military force.
The protests were sparked by Mesa’s decree on Dec. 30 raising diesel fuel (23 percent) and gasoline prices (6 percent), which become known as the “gasolinazo,” and the attempts of a French-dominated company, Aguas
del Illimani, a subsidiary of Suez Lyonaise des Eaux, to charge the people of El Alto unaffordable prices for a deficient water supply. A Jan. 11 Reuters
dispatch noted: “About 200,000 people in El Alto still don’t have running water, although the contract stipulates 100 percent coverage, and the government
said connection costs were too high.”
An article compiled from wire service dispatches in the Jan. 4 edition of the Mexico City daily La Jornada reported that in the Baillivian and Alto Lima
neighborhoods, the inhabitants seized 11 installations of the Aguas del Illimani. The principal reserves of potable water are in these areas but the people living there have no connection to drinking water or sewers.
The article also noted that according to the latest general census statistics, 52 percent of the population of El Alto lacked drinking water and basic sanitary facilities. It quoted a local person as saying, “Look, Mr. Reporter, a lot of us are living on 20 Bolivianos ($2.50) a day. How are we going to pay for a connection when they are asking $160?”
The government was forced to rescind the French company’s contract. That was the first victory of the new wave of protests. But it did not stop them, only
defused them. The leadership of the protesters in El Alto, the Federacion de Juntas Vecinales de la Ciudad de El Alto (FEDUVE, Federated Neighborhood Committees of El Alto) granted Mesa a truce to give him time to rescind his decree raising petroleum prices and to meet other demands.
Abel Mamani, the leader of the FEDUVE, was quoted in a special dispatch to La Jornada by Luis A. Gomez as saying: “It is important to see how these neighborhood microgovernments [the juntas vecinales, of which there are 600 in El Alto] are reorganizing, but this time the people have gone out peacefully to demand their rights” [since Carlos Mesa ordered the police and military not to repress the demonstrators].
At first Mesa only offered FEDUVE a letter saying that he had begun procedures to rescind the El Aguas del Illimani contract. But the neighborhood committees demanded a presidential decree. They gave Mesa an ultimatum that if he did not issue the decree within 24 hours they would begin seizing the installations of the company. At the end of the day, Mesa granted it.
Gomez wrote: “Throughout Wednesday night [Jan. 12], district by district, neighborhood by neighborhood, the leaders organized assemblies. Today [Jan. 13], in the early morning hours, the action by Carlos Mesa’s government was accepted.
“‘We know anyway that the company is not going to leave El Alto right away, but we are staying on the alert. From now on, groups of neighbors have to be at the offices of the company in El Alto to make sure that they don’t take anything out,’ explained Mercedes Condori Quispe, a short stout woman from District 4 known as Mechi, while she distributed photocopies of the decree.”
La Jornada’s correspondent noted that as the people left the meeting they were shouting that the next step was to throw out Electropaz, an electricity supply company dominated by Spanish capital.
The British business magazine The Economist described the events in Bolivia in a Jan. 20 article as “another defeat for privatization.” It is clear that the movement that arose in October 2003 and that has continued to deepen wants nationalization of the basic services and Bolivia’s natural resources.
In defiance of the International Monetary Fund, to which other Latin American governments have capitulated, the Bolivian government has been subsidizing sales of gas and diesel fuel. Mesa tried to reduce the subsidies on Dec. 30, by 6 percent on gas and 23 percent on diesel fuel, arguing that artificially low petroleum prices encouraged smuggling to neighboring countries.
But one of Bolivia’s main neighbors, Argentina, has itself been hard hit by the privatization of its oil industry, which resulted in mass layoffs and unaffordably high prices for Argentines. A major impact of subsidized prices and nationalization in Bolivia would probably be to encourage demands in
Argentina for the same policies. The Economist reported that Mesa had rolled back the price increases by 6 percent in mid-January.
Clearly, Mesa is trying to ride the wave of the mass upsurge in Bolivia but losing his balance. Indications are that the radicalization will continue to deepen, with the new mass organizations assuming a more and more dominant role. And the example of Bolivia is being closely watched in Argentina and Brazil, which are decisive countries in Latin America.