[Marxism] The Two Bolivias Square Off

Tony Tracy tony at tao.ca
Sun Mar 13 19:01:10 MST 2005

The Two Bolivias Square Off

by Susan Spronk and Jeffery R. Webber

With the embers of October 2003 “Gas War” still glowing, the failure of 
the government to respond to protestors’ demands has fanned new flames 
of indignation, reaction and counter-reaction throughout Bolivia in 
recent weeks. The country has become increasingly polarized as the 
Right and Left radicalise their respective agendas. 

In January, the country further divided along regional and ethnic 
lines: the white elite of Santa Cruz in the east versus indigenous 
movements rooted primarily in the west. The key issue concerns control 
over the country’s natural resources, particularly gas. Bolivia is home 
to the second largest natural gas deposits in Latin America, which 
mostly lie in the eastern and southern regions of the country. 
Unfortunately, this area is also home to some of the most powerful 
elements of Bolivia’s capitalist class—agro-exporters and gas magnates. 
Resurrecting their historical claims for regional “autonomy”, the 
cruceño elite mobilized the popular sectors of the region in an effort 
to railroad the demands put forward in the rebellion of October 
2003. The October Agenda demands nationalization and economic justice 
for the peasants, indigenous people, formal and informal workers, who 
have resisted colonialism, exploitation and oppression for over 500 

The current wave of protest started in early January with Bolivia´s 
“Second Water War” and culminated in widespread protests throughout the 
country in early March, organised by indigenous peasants and cocalero 
(coca-grower) movements, which blocked transit between seven of the 
nine regions of the country. When traffic between most major trade 
routes was suspended, the government reacted with its tactical 

Mesa’s New Mandate From the Right

In what has to be one of the most ahistorical, manipulative speeches 
made by an ex-historian, Bolivia’s president Carlos Mesa Gisbert 
announced on Sunday, March 6 his forthcoming resignation. 

Mesa’s performance that Sunday evening is instructive in many 
ways. First, the enemies of state were clearly defined. Evo Morales of 
MAS, currently the most popular political party in the country, was 
described as an obstructionist, special interest trouble-maker who 
understands neither democracy nor international economics. Abel Mamani 
of FEJUVE-El Alto (central protagonist in the “Second Water War”), was 
painted in the same light. Clearly identifying in the public eye the 
protagonists of the Left and the supporters of strikes and road 
blockades is the necessary groundwork for marginalization through 

Second, Mesa’s speech to Bolivians clarified to what constituency he 
responds and what he defines as “democracy.” In response to MAS’s 
proposed hydrocarbons law – one that would effectively distribute more 
of the wealth generated from natural resources to the country’s 
impoverished majority and away from transnational gas companies – Mesa 
complained, “Brazil has told us, Spain has told us, the World Bank, the 
United States, the International Monetary Fund, Great Britain, and all 
of the European Union: Bolivians, approve a law that is viable and 
acceptable to the International Community,” not one that responds to 
your own social and economic interests!

In this way, Mesa’s ultimatum was laid on the table and the interests 
and the social forces behind it unfurled. On the one hand, you have 
transnational gas companies, the “International Community” (imperialist 
and sub-imperialist states and multinational corporations), the local 
bourgeoisie with close ties to the first two groups, and for now, the 
loyal middle class. On the other hand, you have the indigenous working 
classes, the indigenous peasantry, the indigenous coca growers, and the 
indigenous strikers and blockaders. On which side of the racial class 
divide do you fall?

A crowd of several thousand middle-class Paceños (residents of La Paz) 
quickly gathered outside the Presidential Palace in the Plaza Murillo 
demanding that the president stay in office and begin to use a “mano 
dura” (iron fist), against the social movements that had effectively 
shut down the country. Cries from the crowd included “Death to Evo!” 
and “Evo and Abel are the Apocalypse!,” referring to Evo Morales and 
Abel Mamani of FEJUVE-El Alto.

In the weeks leading up to this eventful Sunday, Mesa’s government had 
already begun to shift away from a discourse of peace and dialogue, 
toward a rhetoric guaranteeing the free circulation of traffic and 
commerce. In phrases eerily reminiscent of those of ex-president 
Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada in the lead up to the massacre of civilian 
protesters in October 2003, Mesa began emphasizing the state’s 
responsibility to protect the “human rights” of those Bolivians who 
want to work, against those who are shutting down the country for 
sectoral demands that are impossible to meet within the framework of an 
austere budget and the strictures of the “International Community.” The 
national police and armed forces were put on alert and mobilized in 
various areas.

Through his speech, Mesa sought a mandate to use force against the 
movements pushing for the October Agenda. What he failed to mention, is 
that he became President thanks to the mobilization of October, whose 
social base allowed him to stay contingent upon his promise to the meet 
popular demands. What is plainly evident by this point is that Mesa has 
not delivered on his authentic mandate, instead continuing the 
neoliberal economic project of ex-President “Goni,” under whom he acted 
as Vice President.

With the benefit of hindsight, Mesa’s political acumen has been 
extraordinary. He presented his resignation to Congress, but it was 
obvious by Monday that the resignation was not irrevocable and that he 
would be willing to stay if the conditions were right. Just as he 
wanted, all the traditional parties of the Right coalesced and begged 
him to stay in office with a new mandate to crush the social movements, 
while MAS and MIP (the Indigenous Pachakuti Movement) were isolated in 
Congress, and portrayed as the intransigent, irrelevant Left. Politics 
in Bolivia, however, is rarely determined in the hallowed halls of the 
legislature. The Left’s potential has always been in the streets.

Uniting the Left

Only time will tell whether Mesa’s defensive tactic has worked, but it 
has inspired a rare moment in Bolivian politics—the uniting of 
progressive social movements that have historically fought each other 
as much as the enemies they hold in common. In a pact – signed by Evo 
Morales, Jaime Solares (leader of the Bolivian Workers’ Central, the 
COB), Felipe Quispe and Román Loayza (leaders of the campesino union, 
the CSUTCB), Roberto de la Cruz (councillor of El Alto, who played a 
central role in the October rebellion), Alejo Véliz (leader of the 
Trópico de Cochabamba, an association of coca-growers), leaders of the 
Bolivian Movimiento Sin Tierra (Landless Movement), Oscar Olivera (from 
the Coordinador of Water and Gas), Omar Fernandez (from the irrigating 
farmers’ association in Cochabamba), among others – major social 
leaders from all over the country made a commitment to co-ordinate 
efforts in the fight against President Mesa and the neoliberal parties 
that defend transnational corporations, the mining companies, and 
privatised enterprises. As journalist Luis Gomez notes, it is rare to 
find these leaders of the Left in the same room together, never mind 
united behind a common agenda.

Some of the most radical social movement leaders, such as Jaime 
Solares, who up until recently have demanded the nationalisation of the 
hydrocarbon industry, are moving towards MAS’s more moderate proposal—a 
law that would require transnational gas companies to pay the state 50% 
in royalties – in an effort to defeat the current proposal in Congress 
which stipulates only 32% royalties, and 18% taxes. Taxes are more 
amenable to manipulation and reduction in the future.

While there is reason to hope that a united Left can win the struggle 
for more control over gas—commonly referred to as the “last hope” for 
national development—there are important social leaders who are notably 
absent from the pact. Abel Mamani appears to be keeping his distance 
from the coalition in order to focus on local issues, which reflects 
FEJUVE’s historical fear of inserting itself directly in traditional 
party “politics.” MAS is also far from united in its support for the 
social movements. Some deputies of paler complexion within the party 
are publicly criticising Evo Morales’ move towards the base for fears 
of how it will alienate more moderate supporters and affect the party’s 
performance in the 2007 presidential elections.

Susan Spronk is a PhD candidate in political science at York University 
in Toronto; Jeffery R. Webber is a PhD candidate in political science 
at the University of Toronto and a member of the New Socialist Group 
<http://www.newsocialist.org> in Canada. Both are currently in La Paz, 


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