The images of a returning "normality" in
the capital of Bolivia are seductive. Fleets of oversized pick-up trucks
filled with thousands of gas cisterns roll out of the Senkata Gas Plant
in El Alto, past police guards who stand chatting next to the burned
tires, rocks and barbed wire remnants of blockades that had shut down
the facility for the past two weeks. The trucks zoom down the cleared
Altipista highway that connects El Alto to La Paz towards the eager
masses. On residential streets, rusted yellow gas cisterns snake along
the pavement while neighbors visit, waiting to refill their supply of
liquid cooking gas that had run out the week before. A few blocks away,
a gas station owner crosses his arms across his chest, nods and smiles,
watching the line of thirsty cars grow as word spreads that he has
gotten his shipment of fuel. On the Prado, cars and minibuses chug along
past open store fronts and happily shopping tourists, unencumbered by
angry protesters or the fog of tear gas. Abel Mamani, President of
Fejuve (the El Alto neighborhood organization), shakes hands with the
new President, who has vowed to bring about new general elections. Cut
to scenes of campesinos clearing away boulders and tree trunks on the
roads that connect Bolivia to neighboring Chile and Peru. And, for the
mainstream media: fade to black.
These surface images and neat-ending
stories of the last five days in Bolivia are misleading because they
portray closure where there are only more beginnings. La Paz is calm,
market stalls are again overflowing with fresh fruit and recently
slaughtered meat and tregua (truce) is the word of the week. But the
quiet on the streets is a symptom of the noise that now fills the
meeting halls, organizational offices and livings rooms. With a break in
the marches, thousands sit analyzing this most recent "battle" and
deliberating the future. So, whether its apparent on CNN or not, the Gas
War here still continues - it's just gone inside.
This article is therefore a brief analysis
of what's happened, what continues and what might follow.
As renowned Bolivian activist Oscar Olivera
stated in his June 10th communique, the past four weeks were not in
vain, even though neither the major demand of nationalization of the gas
industry nor of a Constituent Assembly was met. The social movements'
ability to mobilize en mass, bring their country to a halt, take down a
President and prevent the ascension of dangerous replacement were great
achievements that ought to be acknowledged and praised.
In addition, there were other
accomplishments in what is now known as the second phase of the Bolivian
Gas War. The Bolivian people's demonstration of strength and will is, in
and of itself, important. In movements for social change, demonstrations
of force are strategically beneficial even when they do not directly
yield the realization of the ultimate goal because they serve as
warnings to those with the power. The political elite in Bolivia,
transnational energy corporations and the United States government were
reminded this past month that the Bolivian people will fight against
harmful governmental and business practices. This conglomerate of
economic and political power is now on the defensive which gives the
people an edge as their struggle continues.
Over the past month, a united call for
"Nationalization!" rose above all else. This unity in demand is
significant to note because Bolivia's social movements began with
disparate goals. This consensus grew from the ground up--it was what the
people decided they wanted, not what the leaders or political parties
declared. This agreement from below could create and sustain a future
unity from the top. Social movement groups here are still very divided
in practice but a common demand could be a helpful basis on which to
organize jointly in the future.
Phase two of the Gas War was persistent,
tactical and almost wholly peaceful. Through this patient movement,
protesters gained the respect and support of non-protesting Bolivians,
instead of alienating those whose lives were negatively affected by the
blockades and marches. A recent poll by El Deber, a newspaper in the
conservative Santa Cruz region of Bolivia has found that 75% of
Bolivian's favor nationalization of the gas industry. Comments in El
Alto and La Paz over the weekend mirrored this sentiment. "Those
campesinos stood up for the rights of all Bolivians; they were out there
fighting for us and I am proud of what they did," a middle-class woman
in La Paz affirmed as she waited in the street for 8 hours on Saturday
to get her share of the shipment of cooking gas from El Alto.
Lastly, the social movements here ought to
be credited with saving lives. Their discipline and restraint, week
after week, prevented escalated violence in the streets. Their strength
and determination prevented the presidency of Hormando Vaca Diez, a man
whose first task would have been to send out military against his own
citizens. One life was lost and though there were few reports
internationally about the reaction to loss of miners cooperative
President Juan Carlos Coro, his death did not go unnoticed here. On
Friday, black plastic bags were tied to the tops of Wiphalas and miners
hats as the thousands long funeral procession marched slowly along the
Prado. San Francisco felt sad that afternoon and the grief for the life
that was taken was only metered by the relief everyone felt in the fact
that Bolivia had avoided a situation that would have meant losing many
The Question of
The most tangible result of the past month
of mobilizations is that there is a new President. But the significance
of this for the Gas Was is not yet clear because the prospect of new
elections raises divisive and difficult questions that will take a long
time to answer.
At the base, Mesa's removal is primarily
symbolic. He needed to be sacrificed to demonstrate the consequences
state power will face if it does not listen to its citizens, not because
replacing him would directly bring about nationalization. President
Eduardo Rodriguez is now constitutionally obligated to call new
Presidential elections within six months. He is not required nor does he
have the exclusive power to call new elections for Parliament as well.
He has stated that he will try to bring about general elections but
Congress itself must ratify a change in the country's Carta Magna or
pass an amendment for this to occur. For the social movements, these
general elections are more important than those for President because
revamping Congress would offer an opportunity to affect a minimal shift
in governmental power. Recent statements from congressional leaders
imply that Congress is willing to call these new elections but nothing
has been decided.
Should new general elections be called,
they are, at best, a small opportunity for forward progression in the
Gas War. At worst, they are a distraction that will result in nothing
more than a game of musical chairs amongst the political elite of this
The benefit of new elections is the chance
to empower politicians more likely to nationalize the gas industry and
carry out an honest and people-directed Constituent Assembly. But this
is easier said than done in Bolivia right now. Internationally there is
much talk of "President Evo" and of MAS (Movement Towards Socialism)
being in a position to gain a stronger foothold in Congress. Here, the
prospects for this are more grim. The feeling among Evo's theoretical
base (poor and indigenous) is that that he cares more about
international approval and the long-term viability of his political
party than about the life of the average Bolivian. His actions in the
past month only fueled this criticism because he acted like a
temperature-sensitive politician, rather than spokesman for his people.
He started asking for nationalization in week four and only then because
he was the last remaining voice on the left not demanding it. He also
seems to know that his influence has weakened and that MAS might not be
ready to govern. It took him three weeks to begin calling for new
elections, and even then, his cry was an echo of what thousands had
already begin chanting in the streets. If he had believed that MAS had
the capacity in the next few months to take control of this nation,
elections could have been a first demand rather than his last resort.
Without a party that poor and indigenous
Bolivians trust, new elections may seem inconsequential rather than
vital. But even if MAS was in a stronger position, the prospect of new
elections right now raises larger issues for the social movement groups.
Specifically, there are two fundamental questions: first, how important
are elections and elected officials for the advancement of a social
justice campaign? And what ought to be the role of community
organizations (neighborhood groups, unions, federations, etc.) in the
political campaign process?
The debate has already begun. Some scholars
and movement leaders speak of transitioning the power of the streets to
the ballot box, that it is necessary to work to put in place politicians
most likely to enact the people's demands. Others believe that social
movement groups inherently belong in the streets and that working for
advancement of parties is dangerous because it places the people's hope
and confidence in the political elite who can never be fully trusted.
They worry that if all the resources are shifted to the polls, there
wont be enough energy to then hold those politicians accountable.
The current truce has as many definitions
as there are social movement groups in Bolivia. It could last six days
or six months. The radical have threatened that if Rodriguez does not
prove he is leading the country towards nationalization, they will
unleash street protests. Others recognize that with a "caretaker"
President and a Parliament that only has two sessions left in their work
year and that is on the verge of becoming a lame-duck governing body,
mobilizations ought to begin once a new government takes over.
However, the real importance of this break
is not the date that it ends, but what's talked about in the meantime.
Olivera noted in his communique:
"It is important, also, to reflect upon the
following. In this May-June mobilization we have seen two things. On one
hand, the great force that we are capable of deploying: we, the diverse
social movements, are capable of paralyzing the entire country, and of
avoiding the maneuvers of the businessmen and bad politicians. On the
other hand, we have not been capable of imposing our own decisions and
objectives on these same politicians, who today are in the worst crisis
they could possibly confront. Based on these two considerations, we have
opened a wide debate in all the neighborhoods and communities of
Cochabamba and the country, about the need to build, little by little,
our own capacity for SELF GOVERNMENT, to push for that in the next
Olivera's analysis displays the type of
reflection and forward thinking that a break from protest can allow.
Social movements must use the streets, but it's how they use the time in
between mobilizations that can often make the difference in whether they
become victorious. Therefore, the conversations taking place all over
the country during this truce--about what went right, what went wrong,
and about the questions posed by current opportunities--can help the
social movement groups progress by being platforms for developing a
long-term strategy for winning nationalization. It may seem quiet, but
the future of the Gas War is unfolding right now.
Oscar Olivera's communique published on
June 10, 2005 from Cochabamba, Bolivia can be found