By Pablo Velasco
Bolivia's gas war turned into a national uprising against the neo-liberal government last week, forcing the president S·nchez de Lozada to resign. The capital La Paz was shut down by a general strike. Schools and businesses were closed, buses didn't run and barricades were erected in the streets. Overall around one million people demonstrated in the streets on 17 October to demand the president resign.
A thousand tin miners marched on La Paz to join the demonstrations. The miners had earlier clashed with troops in the city of Patacamaya. After troops fired tear gas, the miners responded by hurling dynamite back at them. Large demonstrations and road blockades in cities such as Cochabamba and El Alto paralysed the rest of the country.
Bolivians have said "Ya Basta" (enough) after a decade of cuts, privatisation and neo-liberal policies, advocated by the IMF and World Bank, which have increased poverty in South America's poorest country. More than 80% of Bolivians live below the poverty line.
The crunch came when the government agreed to export gas to California. A consortium of companies known as Pacific LNG, which includes British Gas and BP from the UK, and the Spanish firm Repsol-YPF, wanted to ship the gas out of Bolivia through Chile. Many unions and social movements argued that the gas should first be used for Bolivians.
S·nchez de Lozada had already backtracked on the export of gas, offering first to postpone it and then saying a referendum would be held. But after last week's events, members of his ruling coalition split away and he fled to Miami.
The gas war bears many similarities to the water privatisation struggle three years ago. Then the California-based engineering giant Bechtel was given control of the water system of Bolivia's third largest city, Cochabamba. Within weeks of taking control of the city's water, Bechtel imposed huge increases in water bills. But this only sparked a popular rebellion that drove Bechtel out.
The new president Carlos Mesa has promised early elections and a referendum on the gas export project. This seems to have defused the protests, though many organisations have pledged not to give up the struggle. There are important voices within the unions (COB) calling for working class independence.
However the likely beneficiary of any elections is Evo Morales, leader of the centre-left Movement to Socialism (MAS). The MAS did not endorse the general strike or the road blockades, though Morales did speak out against the export of gas. The MAS is based on indigenous peasant farmers such as the coca growers, who have suffered under a US-backed scheme to eradicate the crop. But Morales has also been quick to agree truce with the new president.
The COB refuses to support the new government
An assembly of the Bolivian Workers Central (COB) resolved to continue their indefinite general strike until the next government commits itself "not to export Bolivian gas either through Chile or through Peru and to repeal the Petroleum Law." It also approved a minimum programme for the new government. The central points of the programme are: a review of the gas contracts, the repeal of the INRA land law, a reactivation of support for national production and the trial of those responsible for "genocide" during the "gas war".
The COB prefers to maintain its "class independence", to not commit itself to a government that is not a government of the working class.
The COB says it presents the new government with a minimum programme that is "demanded by the people". Until the new president accepts this programme, the COB will "remain alert and vigilant".
The assembly began after the arrival of the miners from Caracoles, who entered Plaza San Francisco, detonating scores of dynamite bundles. This group of miners, who were welcomed with applause, suffered two dead in Patacamaya, when the army shot them at point-blank range. When the assembly ended, COB leader Jaime Solar called for another assembly to discuss the strengthening and unity of the COB, and to call a People's Assembly.
The COB assembly also approved a letter addressed to the new president calling for "the National Congress to publicly reject any request for entry to the country of foreign troops".
- Translated from Bolpress.com by Ian Michael-Walker [abridged]
Bolivia: a history of struggle and betrayal
The working class in Bolivia, led by the miners, has organised some of the greatest struggles in working class history - and suffered constant misleadership from both the leaders of the union (COB) and most of the revolutionary organisations.
l April 1952: an armed workers insurrection stopped a military coup, only to hand power to the MNR bourgeois nationalist party.
l October 1970: general strike thwarts a military coup, but power is given to nationalist General Torres.
l January 1971: another attempted coup is prevented by 50,000 workers coming out on strike in La Paz.
l September/October 1982: massive general strike against the military dictatorship of General Vildoso.
l March 1985: two-week general strike paralyses La Paz. Between 1982 and 1985 there were six general strikes.
Often these struggles have involved workers organisations supporting various left nationalist governments - justified by references to the "anti-imperialist united front". Calls for a "Peoples' Assembly" have been counterposed to building workers' councils or factory committees. Bolivian history is full of lessons - principally the need for working class political independence.
Since 1985, the tin mining industry has been decimated, throwing thousands of miners out of work. The number of organised industrial workers in Bolivia has more than halved in the last twenty years.