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
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
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
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.
© 2005 The Nation