[Marxism] Bolivia referendum vote leaves gas in imperialist grip

Fred Feldman ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Tue Jul 20 02:42:45 MDT 2004

Enforced Democracy: the Bolivian referendum
After a long day of tension, rumors, and ocasional provocations,
Bolivian polling stations have closed and the counting of votes is
underway.  But the results are already known. Regardless of whether the
"yes" vote or the "no" vote wins, Bolivia’s most valuable natural
resource -- natural gas -- will remain in the hands of the
Bolivia, South America’s poorest country, has long had its wealth
plundered by foreigners. First, it was the realization by the Spanish in
the sixteenth century that a small hill in the southeast of the country
was comprised almost entirely of silver. For two centuries, the wealth
extracted from Cerro Rico in Potosí was, according to Uruguayan writer
Eduardo Galeano, "the primary nourishment of the capitalist development
of Europe." Next it was saltpeter, desperately needed as fertilizer for
exhausted European soil, and plundered by the English. Then during the
second world war, Bolivia’s tin was mined and sold at approximately ten
times less the market price, leading to massive strikes, and massacres
of the workers, who were only demanding to be paid a living wage. Now,
the world wants Bolivia’s gas -- the second largest reserves in Latin
America. But Bolivians are sick of watching the wealth of their nation
stolen from underneath their feet. 
Last October, nation-wide popular resistance to a export scheme which
would have sent gas to California resulted in a bloodbath. Around one
hundred were killed, and four hundred more injured, but in the end the
people prevailed, as the detested president, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada
(commonly called Goni), resigned from office, fleeing the presidential
palace in a helicopter, and then heading to Miami, the traditional
refuge of right-wing Latin American scoundrels. 
This was the third time in three years that such dramatic uprisings had
occurred in Bolivia. The first was in 2000, when the people of
Cochabamba successfully reclaimed their water from a subsidiary of
California engineering giant Bechtel, which had raised rates by anywhere
from 200% - 400%, and was charging people for wells, rainwater
catchment, and irrigation systems they had constructed themselves, at
their own expense. Three years on, the water continues to be
successfully run by the people. The second occurred in February of last
year, when popular protest forced the government to roll-back
IMF-imposed taxes and cuts to social benefits. The protests resulted in
a few demands by the campesinos -- the suspension of coca eradication,
the total rejection of the FTAA, an end to privatization, and
nationalization of gas. 
During the October insurrection, the Vice President, Carlos Mesa,
shrewdly withdrew his support for the government of Sánchez de Lozada,
and assumed the presidency after Goni fled with promises of a referendum
on the gas issue in order to respond to the peoples’ demands. But those
demands were for nationalization, nothing less, and today’s referendum,
despite the lazy shorthand employed by most journalists, is not anything
close to a vote for nationalization. 
People are able to vote for or against: the repeal of the current law
pertaining to gas, passed by Goni; rebranding and restructuring of the
(privatized) state oil company; the use of gas as a strategy towards
regaining territory lost to Chile over a hundred years; and a vague idea
about how money gained from exportation might be spent. Nothing close to
nationalization. Nothing close to anulling the 78 contracts with
transnationals which already exist. Nothing close to meeting the demands
of the people. In fact, the government has already signed an agreement
with the IMF committing to having a clear strategy in place by October
31 of this year guaranteeing exportation of gas. Today’s referendum is
little more than an instrument towards fulfilling that commitment. 
I visited a few polling stations today in El Alto, a predominantly
indigenous city of about 700,000 people which sits on the edge of the
canyon into which the capital, La Paz, is nestled.  Each station had
between 40-50 tables, with each table collecting the votes of between
100-200 people. Already, some tables are reporting that all of their
ballots collected were either blank or spoiled. Early in the morning,
within the first hour of the stations being opened, I watched an Aymara
woman as she emerged from the private voting room, ballot in hand, a
huge grin on her face. One of the election officials staffing the table
stopped her from putting her ballot in the box, and began chastising her
for folding it improperly, with her votes (or lack of) visible from the
outside. He tried to fold it properly, with the votes on the inside, but
she resisted, and by then enough people had seen her ballot that it had
to be declared null and void. She watched with a smile as they marked it
uncountable, as that was clearly her intention. It seemed to have been
the first time that the election officials had seen such an action
today, but it definitely was not the last. 
In Bolivia, voting is obligatory, and abstention is punishable by a fine
equivalent to about a month’s salary, not to mention that without the
proper marks on one’s paperwork means that one cannot conduct banking
transactions, nor travel, among other serious inconveniences. Even so,
many tables are reporting record-high levels of abstention -- by people
who can scarce afford to pay. 
In Senkata, a region of El Alto, blockades of burning tires which were
built last night were still smoldering at 6:30 this morning, despite a
light drift of snow which had fallen the night before. Few people were
out, and the street was silent. When I returned several hours later, a
crowd of about 200 people had gathered. The atmosphere among them was
calm, despite them having driven out several journalists a half hour
prior to our arrival. But people were for the most part quite friendly,
and eager to share their perspective. 
One man in his mid-20s, who wore a balaclava and didn’t wish to give his
name, exclaimed "Out with all the transnationals!" pounding the pavement
with the 6-foot stick he carried. "They are robbing us, looting the
country. And what can we do? We don’t believe in having leaders, we know
what is going on without anyone telling us. And we are living in poverty
and misery because of the corruption of our idiot leaders. Mesa
absolutely has to go, but there is no one to replace him. There is no
good option." 
Sounds like the situation the US is currently faced with. 
On that note, a chant arose from the crowd, "Mesa, Ayo Ayo te espera.
Mesa, Ayo Ayo waits for you." Ayo Ayo is a small Aymara community where
the mayor (elected through state government proceedings, NOT the
traditional community leader) was put on trial according to the
traditional justice system last month, after having had violated Aymara
law three times. He was sentenced to death, and was killed on June 15.
The community then declared a state of emergency and expelled all police
from their territory. Just last week, it was decided that Ayo Ayo would
be the center for justice for the entire Altiplano, and that all those
being charged with corruption would be sent there for judgement.(for
more information, in Spanish, go to
http://prod.bolivia.indymedia.org/es/2004/07/10110.shtm l) 
I then spoke with a man who was curious about the differences between
electoral law in the United States and in Bolivia. His name is Marco,
and he is a member of FEJUVE -- the federation of neighborhood
assemblies which has around 900 participating groups in El Alto and La
Paz combined. Marco asserted that what we were witnessing today was "the
dictatorship version of democracy. We shouldn’t have to vote whenthere
is nothing on the ballot we believe in. For us to be required to vote,
under the vigilance of federal police and with the threat of expensive
fines -- this is not democracy." 
While we were speaking, the police, which had been gathered about a half
mile away from the blockade, zoomed up alongside the blockade on their
motorcycles, circled the demonstration, paused for a bit, and then
headed back on the other side. A few rocks were thrown at them, but they
were largely ignored. Marco didn’t miss a beat. 
"We have a high unemployment rate; they promised 
500,000 jobs and instead we have 500,000 unemployed people, and so we
cannot keep following these same policies, exporting the gas, selling
everything. This is why we are rebelling. October taught us a lot. We
know that we have nothing, and yet they’re selling everything they can
get away with to the US. And all of us here, we are alive now, but we’re
also dying. And we know that life is not eternal. None of us can say ‘I
have to stay alive, my life is worth so much.’ It’s not like that. All
of us are ready to die. Because when we are always fighting for
survival, struggling just to fill our stomachs, we can’t have a good
life. We prefer to die with dignity." 
A commotion distracts us, and Marco excuses himself so he can go and
join his neighbors. Two SUVs have approached the blockade, and about
eight men get out. They are from the Organization of American States,
which has sent election observers to monitor the proceedings. Strangely,
they are approaching the blockade, on foot, as if they imagined they
would be welcome here. Sharp whistling fills the air, and people call
for rocks and sticks. The officials run a quick retreat to their
vehicles, and speed away. 
The group I have come with is ready to go, and so we head away from the
blockade to where our taxi is waiting. On the way back down to the city,
the streets are marvelously empty of traffic: on election days, all
transportation is banned -- private cars, public buses, taxis, you name
it. There are a few reasons which grant some taxis the right to drive --
transporting the press happens to be one of them. Apparently the idea is
that people will be encouraged to stay in their neighborhoods and will
then be more likely to vote -- another part of the "dictatorship
democracy "to which Marco referred. And so the streets are as they
should be -- completely filled with people. 
As we speed down the steep highway to the floor of the canyon, and La
Paz, we are trailed by gleeful skateboarders, roller- bladers, joggers,
dog-walkers, and batallions of cyclists. On the opposite, uphill lanes,
we pass a game of tennis, and then a game of soccer. Laundry is spread
out to dry on the adjacent hillside, and people lie basking in the sun,
despite the fact that it is about 50 degrees Fahrenheit and windy. The
radio carries reports of plans to blockade the transport of ballots
after the elections; some say there are plans to burn them. In every
imaginable way, this is different from any election I have ever dreamed
And as I’m preparing to post this, the numbers are coming in. At this
point, all five questions are passing; an incredible vote of confidence
in Mesa’s government...or is it? With forty percent abstention and
fifteen percent of ballots thus far either blank or void, it seems that
only about forty-five percent of the electorate voted at all -- that is
to say, about twenty-three percent of Bolivian’s population. Not much on
which to base one’s legitimacy. 
Whatever the government decides to do with the final figures, the people
have spoken very clearly -- this referendum doesn’t come close to their
primary demand -- nationalization of their gas - which they have been
clearly stating for a long time. They are well aware that the referendum
is being used as a tool to legitimize the government and as an attempt
to pacify them, to get them to return to their homes and their routines.
Yet these are people who are quite adept at creating true, participatory
democracy; this spectacle of a referendum, this "dictatorship democracy"
is unlikely to appease them. As Marco from Senkata put it, "There are
going to be actions in the future which will be much stronger and more
radical than those of October. We will not stop until we get
Jennifer Whitney July 18, 2004 La Paz, Bolivia 

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