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Bolivia's Gas War Moves Inside

Jean Friedsky is an independent journalist living in La Paz, Bolivia.


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 more.


The Question of Elections

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 country.

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 Tregua

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 mobilization"

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 here.


June 2005

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