A quick and dirty alternative primer on events in Bolivia
Such is, in an abbreviated fashion, more or less the narrative of the indigenous uprising in Bolivia over the past month that one reads in the New York Times or Washington Post, and even the BBC and Guardian.
The situation is indeed acute, but this world turned upside down, in which the natives, oppressed for nigh on 500 years, rise up against the IMF and their comprador gangsters in the domestic bourgeoisie to take their just share in the country's natural gas wealth, is an event to be welcomed as devoutly as I as an eight-year-old welcomed Christmas morning and the box that hopefully contained Optimus Prime or Megatron.
Beyond the expected mendacity of the newspapers of record, we should also be wary of the NGO-style analysis that seeks to distance itself from such eclatant grassroots direct action: The analysis that takes on the IMF by saying, 'Look, see, the IMF is part of a global economic system that instigates this sort of violence.'
It may be true that the depredations of structural adjustment instituted by IMF blackmail are the catalyst for this resistance, but it is only this sort of resistance that will overthrow such an economic system, and when the resistance is met with the repression of tear gas, beatings and bullets, we have the right to defend ourselves, violently if necessary. Bolivia is the poorest country in South America, with around thirty per cent of the population living on incomes of less than $1 a day. I'll not shed any tears for the hurlers of tear gas hurt by the miners hurling dynamite to defend themselves.
Timorous, middle class Nervous Nellies talk of 'restoring order' and 'preserving democracy', but it is the very protests on the street who are by their actions restoring an order, but one that is just and not exploitative, and are fighting for genuine, participatory, economic democracy, not the chimera of democracy we see in bourgeois parliaments the world over.
The short version of events is that the poor, working class and indigenous of Bolivia - the country's majority - angered with their natural-resource-rich country having been plundered for hundreds of years refused to see their patrimony plundered one more time. Incensed at the minimal royalties and taxes foreign companies would return to Bolivia in return for the theft of the country's considerable natural gas reserves and inspired by the transformation that Venezuela's Hugo Chavez has shown is possible if resource revenues are invested in social programmes and development, protestors have essentially shut the country down.
The social movements from across the country at first demanded companies involved in gas extraction be taxed fifty per cent. Emboldened by the experience of their own power in the streets of La Paz, and weeks of blockades and protests throughout the country (61 peasant blockades have halted the transportation of commodities throughout the country, with an estimated $5,000,000 in exports lost per day), the protestors now say taxation is not enough, and demand full nationalisation of the gas industry, with some protestors saying the government must go entirely. '¡Afuera todos!' 'Out with the lot of them!' they shout, demanding the convening of a constitutional assembly, free of neo-liberal pocketliners, to resolve these issues.
Meanwhile, there are many different organisations involved in the protests. The largest, the Movement towards Socialism (MAS), led by coca-grower and bête noire of the United States, Evo Morales, is uncomfortable with much of the extra-parliamentary activity, as he came within a whisker of winning the last presidential elections, and is sure to win those scheduled for 2007. Legalistically oriented, he does not want anything to threaten his electoral ambitions. Nonetheless, he is trapped by the rapidly advancing consciousness in the streets and cannot lose his position at the head of the movement.
Elsewhere, worried that the government will capitulate to the protestors, the wealthy, right-wing inhabitants of Santa Cruz, the region that contains many of the gas reserves, are demanding autonomy from the country.
In the last 24 hours, President Carlos Mesa, who took over from Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada after he was ousted by the same protestors in the fall of 2003, has himself resigned. According to the constitution, the President of the Senate, Hormando Vaca Diez, now assumes power. However, Vaca Diez, a Santa Cruz politician, has in recent months repeatedly demanded that Mesa 'start governing', which, as Jim Schulz, of the local Democracy Center and who maintains a very good blog of the events ongoing in Bolivia, says: 'is shorthand here for sending out the military to deal with protesters.' Forrest Hylton, writing in Counterpunch, says that there are rumours (at such times, rumours simultaneously cannot be trusted and must be trusted) of a coming 'State of Siege', and an 'attempt at a Pinochet-like beheading of the social movements'.
Alternately, there is the possibility that the government will resign en masse, prompting early elections. The Catholic Church was attempting to broker just such a deal over the weekend, according to Schulz. If this happens, although the demand for full nationalisation will not yet have been met, there is a good likelihood that this will channel resistance into electoral activity. At the same time, as Schulz says:
'The issue in the streets is not who is President; it is who controls the nation’s oil and gas, along with calls for rewriting the Constitution through a national constituent assembly. A snap election in October will be run through the same political rules that people are in the streets protesting against. I don’t see how new elections satisfies anyone.'If the voices in the street spoke to the country’s national leaders in the language of my homestate of California, the message might be, “What part of we want to take back the oil and rewrite the constitution didn’t you understand?”
'There is a saying here in Bolivia, ¡Hasta las ultimas consequencias! Literally translated it means, until the final consequences. Politically translated it means, once the people have mobilized past a certain point there is no turning back. The people who are in the streets in La Paz, who are piling up rocks by the kilometer to block roads in and out of Cochabamba, poor farmers who took over a Shell/Enron pumping station earlier today – I don’t see them backing down. Not a Presidential resignation, not a promise of new elections, not even a state of martial law will send them quietly home.'
The United States however is not abounding with jouissance at the way the tide is turning in Latin America, according to campaigning journo Al Giordano of Narco News (the very best source on the web for news on Latin America, even if Al was a bit of a Kerry-loving Democrat 'pragmatist' last summer), and, following the rebuke the gringos received at the Organization of American States meeting on the weekend attempting to impose mechanisms that would allow the O.A.S. (read: the U.S.) interfere in the affairs of other states (read: Venezuela), the Yanks are now accusing Chavez of fomenting the rebellion in Bolivia. The proof? Evo Morales had invited Chavez to Bolivia last May.
On the other hand, Julio Mamani Conde, also of Narco News has found some proof of American interference:
'Leaders of remote neighborhoods of the city of El Alto have complained that representatives of the government agency Democratic Initiatives, who work with resources from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), offered much needed equipment for their neighborhood committees’ social centers, on the condition that their committee presidents lift the general civic strike now in its 15th day.'
'According to the leaders, people working for the current administration offered some of the leaders between 200 and 500 bolivianos ($25 to $65 dollars, several weeks’ income for many El Alto families) if they would propose the suspension of the indefinite civic/labor strike.' Jim Schulz today reported that 'A very reliable source told me this afternoon that the Embassy here is in talks with Vaca Diez, helping pave the way for his succession.'
Giordano himself has his own gaggle of Bolivian Deep Throats who have let him in on what the White House would like to see happen in La Paz:
'According to well placed sources in La Paz, yesterday, prior to the resignation of Bolivia's president, heir apparent to the Bolivian throne, Congressional leader Hormando Vaca Diez, had gone to Bolivia's military brass with a plan already written for how the military will declare martial law and ruthlessly stamp out the social movements when Vaca Diez becomes president. (Who wrote that plan, Mr. Noriega?).
'But the Bolivian generals told Vaca Diez to pound sand: They said, according to our sources, that they were tired of being the villains of history, causing coup after coup, massacring their own people. (This - and perhaps copious amounts of alcohol - explains Vaca Diez's crestfallen voice during his Monday night press conference, heard around the world via Radio Erbol.)
'US Ambassador [to the O.A.S.] Roger Noriega is red-faced angry that the Bolivian military won't get to work assassinating Evo Morales, Felipe Quispe, Oscar Olivera, the entire city of El Alto, and Authentic Journalists [Giordano's crew] who are covering the story. And Noriega blames Chavez!
'Noriega blames Chavez because Chavez - a military soldier admired by many just like him across the hemisphere - has set the gold standard of how to put an Armed Forces to work on behalf of the people instead of against them.'
I think Giordano is perhaps a little too sunny about the benign impulses of the Bolivian military, but if his sources are accurate, what is more probable is that sections of the military, as has historically been common at times of peaked civil unrest, are unsure as to which side to support. This is both good news and bad news. It means that come a successful push, and the military, or proportions of it, will side with the people. However, it also means that the only thing that is holding back a Pinochet-style crushing of the revolt is indecision within the army.
Even so, the poor on the streets of La Paz and indeed across Latin America are tearing down the economic and political consensus of the last thirty years - something the United States cannot permit. Bolivia, and the rest of the continent, have not only their domestic armed forces to fear: The dreadnoughts of American Manifest Destiny have surely already set sail for the Southern Hemisphere.
Events will undoubtedly have unfolded subsequent to my writing this by the time you have read it. The best English-language sources on the net you'll find on the rebellion are:
- Narco News
- The Narcosphere (related to Narco News)
- Blog From Bolivia
- Indymedia Bolivia (Spanish)
- Forrest Hylton writing in Counterpunch; in particular these two articles
- Democracy Now, in particular these downloadable interviews with Jim Schulz of Blog From Bolivia and the Democracy Center