[Marxism] Thoughts on Bolivian referendum

Fred Fuentes fuentf01 at tartarus.uwa.edu.au
Wed Jul 21 10:02:51 MDT 2004

Some observations on Bolivia referendum
This is just some thoughts nad notes which I have put together for an
article I am writing on the referendum, Feedback and other info would be
great appreciated. Apologies it is not written as an essay but rather
random thoughts in order to piece together a better piece of work and
perhaps cause some discussion

The referendum on Sunday was never really about nationalisation of gas or
not, but rather to try and once again legitimise the Bolivian  capitalist
state. It was therefore imperative that the vote was a yes, which was
support by all neoliberal parties, except NFR (Ex-president Sanchez de
Lozada), a rightist party, who first rejected the consultation and then
said that it would agree to participate but prefered a NO vote. The IMF
made a $120 million dollar loan contingent on a YES vote. The US emabssy
and Commandor of Southern Cone US military supported the referendum, as did
the Spanish Embassy, Lula and the big petrol companies. They knew a yes
vote would both help relegitimise the continued transfer of gas wealth from
Bolivia to the transnaitonals etc, and more importantly give Mesa more
credibility and a mandate to carry out his plan. His plan was pretty
obvious. A week before the referendum he signed a deal with the IMF allow
free export of gas from Oct 2004, even though this issue was one of the
questions to vote on. He promised all contracts would be secure, most of
which last to 2036 and only give the Bolivian state 18% royalities not 50%
as the older contracts do. Mesa has however said new contracts will be
signed at the 50% royality. The fact that Repsol YSPF shares, who are a big
part of gas exploitation in Bolivia, have gone up 30% since Oct is an
indication of feeling for Mesa's policy.

In order to secure the vote a number of tactics were used. Firstly the
militarisation of the countryside with 30,000 military and 22,000 police
officers put into action. There aim was to stop any disturbances as well as
"hunt down" those that advocated abstention or boycott. The governemnt made
it clear such actions carried penalties such as disqualification from
holding public office, not been able to open bank account or use/get
passport, upto 5 years jail.

Secondly, the talk of Bolivia "breaking up" was turned up in the weeks
leading up. Argentine Defense Minister Jorge Pampurro spoke of the
"Lebanonisation" of Bolivia, whilst Mark Falcoff of American Enterprise
Institute, closely related to Dick Cheney, had articles published in
Bolivia and interenationally talking up the threat. The issue is over the
calls by pro-business sections of Santa Cruz, Tarija and other Eastern
regions for autonomy. This areas is generally wealthier, non-indigenous,
European background elites, where most of the gas reserves are. 9% of the
population level below the poverty line in this areas compared to levels in
the 70-90% in the rest of the country. They seem to be angry that there is
internal migration into this area and that it is MAS which is recruiting
the poorer sections who come in search of a better life. This seems to be
Plan B if total distabilisation hits Bolivia. (will post more on this issue
in upcoming weeks)

Thirdly, talk of coup attempts hit the media in the few days prior. It is
reported that the rumors or information on the attempts were passed on from
US embassy sources to the government. One commentator I read says this was
an attempt to stop referendum going ahead by the US, suggesting the US was
saying it would be to dangerous and it should be cancelled. I think as do
others I have read that this was a scare tactic to promote voter turnout,
which was the biggest threat given the referendum would fail if less than
50% plus 1 turnout was achieved.

Forthly, the intense media campaign with around US$800,000 being spent plus
donations from Repsol and other transnationals supporting a Yes vote

Given this situation the results have been portrayed, at least in the media
as a victory of Mesa and "stability and democracy" as well as been touted
as the radicals being marginalised. In fact the results are not so clear
cut. First it seems there was around 41% abstention, 12% more than the last
presidential elections. When put in context of the scare campaign with the
militarisation of the country and penalties imposed for such an action this
is quite big. It can not all be attributed to the call by COB, CSUTSP etc
but certainly a big part can. On top of this 640,000 did not enrol to vote
around 10% of those that could. That is combined abstentions in some form
or other are almost if not over 50%

Of the 60 percent that voted, around 70-75% supported the first 3 questions
with the last 2 been closer, around 50-55% although latest figures show
they may even go down, although this seems unlikely. Null votes (which
could include those with nationalisation written on them) were between
10.7-12.3% and blank votes 9.1-15.8%. This means rough only 30% actually
voted YES to all questions of those that could hard a huge mandate. MAS
call did have a resonance particular in the countryside, but it is clear
that the division has helped in allowing Mesa to come out looking like
victory in this round.

This partial victory will give Mesa a boost but it will not last long. Now
the vague wording of the questions has to be written in to law and passed
in a congress, 2/3 of which is made up of the neoliberal parties. Already,
MAS and Mesa look set on a possible collusion course. Despite being clearly
not the case, MAS has argued the referendum was for nationalisation, albeit
"without exproriation or confiscation". They are meeting next week to write
up their bill they propose to put ot Congress. Already they are saying they
have the mandate and if it does not pass they will be back on the streets.
Mesa and the rest of congress are writing ther own bill. No matter what it
is clear that nationalisation support by 81% of the population will not be
the outcome of the referendum, despite voter illusions and

The question now remains is can COB, CSUTSP and MAS heal their split. It
seems that MAS is moving to the right and fracturing. It was clear that the
referendum really only allowed two choices, vote YES as supported by the
US, petrol corporations, neoliberal parties etc and MAS (parcially) or
abstain, aa a NO vote was basically set up to mean support of Sanchez de
Lozada. MAS seems to have made a mistake by supportiing the referendum. COB
has also made a mistake expelling him. Tension has grown with MAS leaders
calling for Solares (COB leader) and Quispe (CSUTSP leader) to be arrest,
and there have been attacks against MAS leaders. It is unclear if were
exactly MAS will end up. IT recently expelled one of its founding
ideologues Filomeno Escober for apparently taking bribes to allow the
passage of a bill giving US troops immunity in Bolivia. It seems as with
Morales explusion of Com, this was not done according to correct procedure
and has angered some MAS sections. Escober had his base in Yungas, a key
cocaleros region, who it seems oppose his explusion (which if true is a
good reason to expel him, although it should be done correctly) but also
did not follow MAS in the referendum and organised blockades and

With the noose around Mesa neck, it seems vital that this forces unite, in
what forn it is unclear, but unite as much as possible to not allow Mesaof
the hook again.

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