Mass Mobilizations Convulse Bolivia

by Gerry Foley / June 2005 issue of Socialist Action



Resurgence of the mass movement against allowing transnational companies to exploit the country’s natural resources has brought Bolivia to the boiling



The Bolivian radical news website Econoticias reported May 19 that the unionized tin miners had taken the leadership of the mass movement in the streets of La Paz:


“There were no more than 500 of them, but they are already leading the struggle of tens of thousands of workers, peasants, and people from the poorest and most rebellious neighborhoods in Bolivia, who have begun to rise up to finally overthrow the neoliberal regime.


“They are the waged miners [most miners have been converted to supposedly self-employed workers by privatization] who emerged from the pits of the

Huanuni mine and today in La Paz are leading mass demonstrations of teachers, merchants, students, factory workers and peasants, men and women, elderly people and children.”


Econoticias reported May 24 that La Paz was crowded with demonstrators. It did not make an estimate of the numbers, but it said that 50,000 street sellers were supporting the protests. In its May 25 issue, the Mexican daily La Jornada put the numbers of protesters at 40,000. In any case, it is clear that the crowds are huge and clashes are occurring with the police who are trying to block off the government buildings.


The leader of one of the principal parliamentary parties, Evo Morales of the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), has accused the president of the national

congress, Hormando Vaca Diez—the next in line to take the presidency if the current chief executive, Carlos Mesa, is forced out—of being involved in a conspiracy to stage a military coup. In its May 23 issue, La Jornada reported, “The Permanent Assembly of Human Rights in Bolivia has called on the citizens to start up a process of defending democracy.”


Morales also accused radical leaders of planning a coup d’etat, since they are calling for shutting down the parliament.


The incumbent, Carlos Mesa, was vice president under Sanchez de Lozada and took over after his predecessor was forced from office in 2003. When Mesa threatened to resign a few months ago, Morales urged him to stay.

Morales was obviously hoping that the present government would remain in place until the upcoming regular parliamentary elections, which he hoped to



Actually, Morales’ party’s vote declined in the recent municipal elections, with independent left candidacies showing the greatest dynamism. Now he is calling for the convening of a constituent assembly.


Morales previously supported Mesa’s proposals for regulating the sale of Bolivian natural gas and oil to foreign trusts, although soon after the proposal was accepted in a referendum, he began to interpret it in a different way. Under the pressure of the ongoing radicalization, he has increased his demands, just as Mesa has increased his offer.


Mesa’s new hydrocarbon law, promulgated May 17, sets the royalties due the Bolivian government at 18 percent and the tax rate at 32 percent. Morales now is calling for setting the tax rate at 50 percent. The transnational oil companies are already denouncing the May 27 law as “confiscatory.”


However, the vanguard of the mass mobilizations, the Bolivian Trade Union Confederation (COB) and the mass organizations in the city of El Alto—the working-class satellite city of La Paz, with a population of nearly a million—are calling for full nationalization of the country’s natural resources without compensation and the ouster of the foreign companies.


On May 17, the expanded plenum of the Central Obrera Regional of El Alto, which Econoticias described as a “bulwark” of the struggle in 2003, issued a

declaration calling not only for the nationalization of oil and gas but for overthrowing the government and establishing a workers and peasants government.


The statement said: ”Considering, that in October 2003 the heroic people of El Alto spilled their blood for the nationalization of the hydrocarbons and the

building a gas industry, while power was left in the hands of another bourgeois politician, Carlos Mesa.


“That hunger, poverty, and unemployment have deepened in our city and in the whole country and the bourgeois has reorganized itself more strongly under the

leadership of the oil companies and imperialism.  “That Mesa and the parliament have promulgated a hydrocardon law in favor of the transnationals, which reinforces our people’s poverty.


“That the promises of royalties and jobs are a farce and a deception and solve nothing.


“That now or never the people must take power—workers, peasants, the impoverished middle class—and form their own government, a government of the people, in order to nationalize the hydrocarbons and all our natural

resources, expelling the transnationals.


“Therefore, the Second Expanded Emergency Plenum of the Central Obrera Regional de El Alto resolves:


“1) To call for a united, combative, intransigent struggle for the seizure of power by the people, expelling the oil transnationals and their traitor

government of Carlos Mesa Gisbert and their whole parliament of stooges, by forming people’s assemblies that will organize the seizure of power.


“2) To declare a strike of citizens, of neighborhoods, of unions, of toilers and blockades of roads and highways throughout the day and night in the city of

El Alto, for the nationalization of the hydrocarbons, the closure of the parliament, and the resignation of Mesa. We call for beginning a day of sporadic blockades on May 20 and the unlimited strike on May 23, with an encirclement of the city of La Paz and rallies at the blockades.


“3) To organize the seizure and encirclement of the International Airport, the pipelines, banks, government offices, etc. until we achieve our objectives.


“4) To organize in a covert way picket groups armed with arrows, sticks, and other weapons of self-defense in the various areas to defend the workers.


“5) To mobilize jointly representatives of the vital organizations in the city of El Alto, together with the miner and teacher and other compañeros … to begin

a march to the center of La Paz on May 18 demanding nationalization of the hydrocarbons.


“6) Ongoing meetings with all the vital organizations, federations, and unions to synchronize the mobilizations.


“Adopted in the meeting hall of the Central Obrera Regional of El Alto on May 17. Long live the nationalization of the hydrocarbons! Long live the heroic fighting people of El Alto! Down with the parliament and its government! Long live the government of the workers and peasants! El Alto always on its feet, never on its knees!”


In the face of this popular onslaught, at least for the moment, the weak government of Carlos Mesa seems paralyzed. Two provincial governors have already resigned.


The major response of the right at the moment is to try to split off the provinces in the Amazonian area, where most of the hydrocarbon resources are located.

This area is historically more conservative and whiter than the highlands, where mining is concentrated and the indigenous populations predominate. In part, the demand for immediate convocation of a constituent assembly is designed to respond to the separatist threat.


It is obvious that Bolivia is in a profound crisis, in which large-scale violent confrontations are possible. The country is very vulnerable to foreign pressures

and intervention. But the mass movement in Bolivia has long been an inspiration to the socialist and workers’ movement in the much larger countries of the region, and that is especially true after the upsurge of 2003.


It is too early to see what the impact will be in such decisive countries as Argentina and Brazil. (The events in Bolivia have just begun to be reported in

the big Spanish-language press.) But that should become evident soon.

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