When Bolivia's interim president, Eduardo Rodriguez, announced on June 9 that he would hold new congressional and presidential elections within six months, it was widely portrayed as the end of a month-long crisis that nearly spurred a civil war. But the political divisions besetting Bolivia didn't begin this year -- and they're not likely to end easily.
The most recent confrontation erupted when the Bolivian government, led by the now-deposed President Carlos Mesa, passed a law on May 16 to raise taxes on companies that exploit the nation's vast and recently discovered reserves of natural gas. Indigenous groups took to the streets -- shutting down the international airport, blockading La Paz and more than 100 roads in the country, and occupying foreign-operated gas and oil fields -- arguing that the bill did not go far enough. The demonstrators demanded that the government take full control of, or nationalize, the industry, and that a national assembly be convened to rewrite the constitution to give the indigenous majority more of a say in the nation's governance.
By all accounts, we are witnessing something new in Bolivia over the last five years: A well-organized and determined indigenous movement has found its voice, is fed up with neoliberalism, and is demanding to be heard -- or, more accurately, to do the talking itself. Important questions -- such as who will control the world's natural resources and who will decide that question -- are now being fought over in Bolivia.
Since 1985, when Bolivia became a testing ground for U.S.-driven, radical neoliberal economic reforms, this small Andean nation has been a globalization weather vane, closely watched by both sides of the international debate. When vast reserves of natural gas were discovered in the mid- to late '90s, ranking the nation second in gas wealth in the region, Bolivia leaped from a nation of academic and ideological interest to one of immediate concern. In 1996, control of the oil and gas industry was privatized and sold off to Enron and Shell for around 0.1 percent of its current $250 billion value. Since that day, indigenous groups have been demanding that the state reclaim control.
The fall of Mesa and the demonstrations shutting down La Paz are an extension of this battle. The first of the recent flare-ups came in 2000, when indigenous groups rose up to protest the privatization of the water supply in Cochabamba, the largest city in the Chapare region and the political base of Evo Morales, the most well-known leader of the current movement. After several months of protests, the “Water War” led to the expulsion of a Bechtel subsidiary and the return of the water supply to the public.
Since then, Morales and his party, Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), have become the strongest single political force in Bolivia. In 2002, Morales finished second in the presidential race. Though he lost to the U.S.-supported Gonzalo “Goni” Sanchez de Lozada by only 2 percentage points, Morales' 21-percent share of the vote in the crowded field left him far short of the 50 percent-plus one needed to win outright. The decision was thrown to the parliament, which chose Goni.
In fall 2003, nationwide demonstrations over the export of natural gas, dubbed the “Gas War,” led to the fall of Goni. When police in La Paz and El Alto killed more than 60 demonstrators, the protests grew -- joined by the middle class -- and forced Goni to flee to Miami. He was replaced by the moderate -- and doomed -- Carlos Mesa.
Then, in January 2005, a long-running battle over water privatization between the French company Suez and the city of El Alto erupted in street demonstrations. Initially, the Bolivian government capitulated and canceled the Suez contract. But Suez sued and, instead, will finish out the contract, which lasts until the end of the calendar year, according to leaders in El Alto. Maya Alexandresco, a spokesperson for Suez, said in an e-mail that "[d]ue to the local political and social unrest, discussions regarding the future of the [contract] have been progressing slowly." Echoing El Alto leaders, she added that they hope to have the status of the contract "finalize[d]...in the next six months." That Suez is lost ground marked a mixed victory for organizers.
Two months later, the nation rose up again, this time over a plan to export natural gas to the United States. President Mesa offered his resignation, but the parliament turned it down. The nation simmered until May, when the gas law was passed and the uprising began anew. On June 9, three days after Mesa offered to resign for a second time, Senate President Hormando Vaca Díez renounced his constitutional right to ascend to the presidency, tilting the balance of power toward nationalization and indigenous control.
Among Bolivia's eight political parties with at least one elected representative, MAS is in the best position to capitalize on the upcoming power shift; since Morales' defeat in 2002, it has grown and now includes eight seats in the 28-member Senate and 27 of the 130 seats in Congress. But, says Antonio Peredo, a MAS senator from La Paz, “MAS is not prepared to govern.” Peredo's reservations echoed those of MAS insiders I spoke to in the Chapare region. “If we took power now, we would not last for 10 days,” predicted Felipe Caceres, a former two-term mayor of Villa Tunari and MAS' second-in-command, behind Morales, as the party grew in the '90s. Current Villa Tunari Mayor Feliciano Mamani and Mayor Rimer Agreda of Shinahota independently offered the same assessment.
Morales, for his part, is determined to run. He may consider another bid a chance to make himself seem like a mainstream politician, knowing that he needs to appear “electable” in order to be elected.
His MAS colleagues, meanwhile, see a way forward. “We need a reorganization of the country,” said Peredo, the older brother of Inti and Coco Peredo, known as leaders of Che Guevara's ill-fated Bolivian guerilla outfit. “The only way for MAS to be prepared to govern is through a national process of defining the problems of the country,” he says, making reference to the demanded national assembly. The three other insiders agreed.
Whether or not MAS' leadership feels ready to take the national reins, public opinion clearly points in the party's favor. The latest poll released in Bolivian newspapers showed 76-percent support for nationalizing the gas industry. If President Rodriguez calls for elections to create a constitutional assembly, which observers say he will, MAS' time may come sooner rather than later. If not, don't look for an extended peace in La Paz anytime soon.
Ryan Grim, who lives in Washington, D.C., is a contributor to The Brooklyn Rail.