[Marxism] Bolivia: Tear Gas in the Andes

Fred Fuentes fred.fuentes at gmail.com
Fri May 27 20:20:54 MDT 2005

Published on Friday, May 27, 2005 by The Nation
Tear Gas in the Andes
by Christian Parenti

LA PAZ, Bolivia - Bolivia is again in the grip of a major political
crisis, marked by parliamentary deadlock and street fighting. Huge
marches, thousands strong, have descended on La Paz all week. In the
ensuing battles indigenous protesters throw dynamite, stones and
bottles, while paramilitary police shoot tear gas and rubber bullets.

The basic question is this: Who will control the nation's massive
natural gas reserves, which has jumped to 53.3 trillion cubic feet
from just 5.6 trillion cubic feet in 1999? The deeper issue, of
course, is the unwillingness of the highly organized and politicized
majority indigenous population to suffer through another generation of
brutal high-altitude poverty.

The rolling protests and road blockades around La Paz come a week
after Congress passed a law raising taxes on the foreign oil companies
that have controlled Bolivia's petroleum wealth since a sweeping
privatization in 1996. The companies cast the new law as far too
severe, while the largely indigenous left decry the law as too weak.

Part of the opposition, led by MAS (the Movement Toward Socialism) and
its leader, Evo Morales, is calling for 50 percent wellhead royalties
rather than the new law's combination of 18 percent royalties and a 32
percent tax on more easily hidden company profits. MAS also wants an
aggressive renegotiation of all contracts with foreign companies, as
well as four other major amendments to the new law. But many more
sectors in the popular movement are calling for outright
nationalization and an overthrow of the government.

As I write, for the third day in a row the city of La Paz is under
siege--the two major highways linking it to the world are closed by a
series of peasant roadblocks. No supplies are getting in or out. The
international airport is functioning only sporadically; it has been
closed by a strike. And for the third day running, tens of thousands
of protesters--peasants, teachers, miners, shopkeepers, factory
workers and unemployed people--have marched on La Paz. A smaller
subset of this force has repeatedly tried to take Plaza Murillo,
location of both the Parliament and presidential palace, a space
rarely occupied by protesters since the populist revolution of 1952.

The vanguard sector in this struggle is the well-organized Aymara
peasants, who have descended en masse from the altiplano, above the
capital. Joining them are 800 miners. In heavy jackets, fedoras,
bowlers and wool hats, their faces lined and buffed by years of wind
and cold, the Aymara columns march fast and hard, carrying sticks,
pipes, shepherds' whips and wiphalas, the rainbow-colored banner of
indigenous self-determination.

All week I have had a front-row seat to the action. On Tuesday, as the
columns circled around the police, who had barricaded Plaza Murillo,
marchers smashed minibuses and cars that they found in their path,
tossed rocks at journalists and then threw dynamite into police lines.
The frightened, penned-in cops responded with volleys of rubber
bullets, tear gas and sometimes water cannons.

As the canisters popped around us the and rubber pellets ricocheted
off the walls we ran, protesters and press alike, sucking in the
burning fumes as we sprinted through the curtains of gas that floated
like thick walls of stage smoke. At times the narrow hillside streets
of old La Paz became so choked with accumulated vapors that you felt
your lungs would burst. In the chaos, the lines between protesters and
cops seemed to overlap in an increasingly claustrophobic and panicky
game of cat and mouse.

Wednesday was more of the same, with protesters rolling several very
large dynamite bombs toward the police, who, on at least one occasion,
broke ranks and ran in fear only to return the favor immediately with
rubber bullets from shotguns and more gas--always more gas.

The skirmishes will probably last all week and into the next, with
some possible respite during two local holidays. So far about a dozen
protesters have been injured, and a handful, including at least one
important popular leader, have been arrested.

Meanwhile, above La Paz on the rim of the altiplano in the city of El
Alto, neighborhood groups are maintaining a general strike. Throughout
the country unions, community groups, peasant federations and all
manner of popular organizations are meeting to plan their next moves.

In short, angry Indians have La Paz surrounded. The capital's banks,
hotels, offices, restaurants and middle-class neighborhoods are
running on limited supplies, and the popular movements have all
transportation routes on lockdown. The situation feels untenable. But
despite the drama, there remains a strange political stasis here.

The president, Carlos Mesa Gisbert, a former historian and journalist,
has vowed to stay in office until elections in 2007. Furthermore, he
has pledged, or perhaps bragged, that he will not kill protesters. His
former boss and predecessor, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, ordered the
military to kill scores in October 2003, when the gas issue first
erupted. Officially sixty-seven people died, but the social movements
say as many as eighty were killed. In response to the repression, the
left united and sectors of the equivocating middle classes joined
them. In the end, Sánchez de Lozada was forced to flee to the United
States. Mesa wants to avoid that fate.

The far right doesn't like Mesa's stance but seems too divided to
oppose him effectively. The military is also divided, with a few
officers openly taking the side of protesters. Likewise, the left is
at odds with itself and most importantly is, by the admission of MAS
and most other social movements, not ready to take power.

If Mesa lets loose the forces of order, the entire political equation
will change. But if the government does not overreact, it is not clear
how the left will proceed. Can the popular movements hold on longer
than the government? And, most of all, can they unite and force
nationalization? Or will their own tactics exhaust them before the
government and business sector capitulate to their demands?

Christian Parenti is the author of The Freedom: Shadows and
Hallucinations in Occupied Iraq (New Press) and a visiting fellow at
CUNY's Center for Place, Culture and Politics.

(c) 2005 The Nation

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