Truth about the Bolivian Referendum: Enforced “Democracy”

In El Alto, More Than Half Refused to Vote or Cast Spoiled Ballots

by Jennifer Whitney

This article was posted to the Internet from Bolivia on July 18, 2004, the day of the phony referendum.

After a long day of tension, rumors, and occasional provocations, Bolivian polling stations have closed and the counting of votes is under way.  But the results are already known. Regardless of whether the “yes” vote or the “no” vote wins, Bolivia’s most valuable natural resource—natural gas—will remain in the hands of the transnationals.

Bolivia, South America’s poorest country, has long had its wealth plundered by foreigners. First, it was the realization by the Spanish in the sixteenth century that a small hill in the southeast of the country was comprised almost entirely of silver. For two centuries, the wealth extracted from Cerro Rico in Potosí was, according to Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, “the primary nourishment of the capitalist development of Europe.” Next it was saltpeter, desperately needed as fertilizer for exhausted European soil, and plundered by the English. Then during the second world war, Bolivia’s tin was mined and sold at approximately ten times less the market price, leading to massive strikes, and massacres of the workers, who were only demanding to be paid a living wage. Now, the world wants Bolivia’s gas—the second largest reserves in Latin America. But Bolivians are sick of watching the wealth of their nation stolen from underneath their feet.

Last October, nationwide popular resistance to an export scheme which would have sent gas to California resulted in a bloodbath. Around one hundred were killed, and four hundred more injured, but in the end the people prevailed, as the detested president, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada (commonly called Goni), resigned from office, fleeing the presidential palace in a helicopter, and then heading to Miami, the traditional refuge of right-wing Latin American scoundrels.

This was the third time in three years that such dramatic uprisings had occurred in Bolivia. The first was in 2000, when the people of Cochabamba successfully reclaimed their water from a subsidiary of California engineering giant Bechtel, which had raised rates by anywhere from 200% to 400%, and was charging people for wells, rainwater catchment, and irrigation systems they had constructed themselves, at their own expense. Three years on, the water continues to be successfully run by the people. The second uprising occurred in February 2003, when popular protest forced the government to roll back IMF-imposed taxes and cuts to social benefits. In the protests workers and campesinos (peasants) raised several demands—the suspension of coca eradication, the total rejection of the FTAA, an end to privatization, and nationalization of gas.

During the insurrection of October 2003, the vice president, Carlos Mesa, shrewdly withdrew his support for the government of Sánchez de Lozada, and assumed the presidency after Goni fled. Mesa promised a referendum on the gas issue in order to respond to the peoples’ demands. But those demands were for nationalization, nothing less, and today’s referendum, despite the lazy shorthand employed by most journalists, is not anything close to a vote for nationalization.

People are able to vote for or against the following: repeal of the current law pertaining to gas (adopted under Goni); restructuring of the (privatized) state oil company; the use of gas as a strategy toward regaining territory lost to Chile over a hundred years ago; and a vague idea about how money gained from exportation might be spent. Nothing close to nationalization. Nothing close to annulment of the 78 contracts with transnationals which already exist. Nothing close to meeting the demands of the people. In fact, the government has already signed an agreement with the IMF committing to having a clear strategy in place by October 31 of this year guaranteeing exportation of gas. Today’s referendum is little more than an instrument toward fulfilling that commitment.

I visited a few polling stations today in El Alto, a predominantly indigenous city of about 700,000 people which sits on the edge of the canyon in which the capital, La Paz, is nestled.  Each station had between 40 and 50 tables, with each table collecting the votes of 100-200 people. Already, some tables are reporting that all of their ballots collected were either blank or spoiled. Early in the morning, within the first hour of the stations being opened, I watched an Aymara woman as she emerged from the private voting room, ballot in hand, a huge grin on her face. One of the election officials staffing the table stopped her from putting her ballot in the box, and began chastising her for folding it improperly, with her votes (or lack of) visible from the outside. He tried to fold it properly, with the votes on the inside, but she resisted, and by then enough people had seen her ballot that it had to be declared null and void. She watched with a smile as they marked it uncountable, as that was clearly her intention. It seemed to have been the first time that the election officials had seen such an action today, but it definitely was not the last.

In Bolivia, voting is obligatory, and abstention is punishable by a fine equivalent to about a month’s salary, not to mention that the absence of the proper marks on one’s paperwork means that one cannot conduct banking transactions or travel, among other serious inconveniences. Even so, many tables are reporting record-high levels of abstention—by people who can scarcely afford to pay.

In Senkata, a region of El Alto, blockades of burning tires ignited last night were still smoldering at 6:30 this morning, despite a light drift of snow which had fallen the night before. Few people were out, and the street was silent. When I returned several hours later, a crowd of about 200 people had gathered. The atmosphere among them was calm, despite them having driven out several journalists a half hour prior to our arrival. But people were for the most part quite friendly, and eager to share their perspective.

One man in his mid-20s, who wore a balaclava and didn’t wish to give his name, exclaimed, “Out with all the transnationals!”—pounding the pavement with the 6-foot stick he carried. “They are robbing us, looting the country. And what can we do? We don’t believe in having leaders. We know what is going on without anyone telling us. And we are living in poverty and misery because of the corruption of our idiot leaders. Mesa absolutely has to go, but there is no one to replace him. There is no good option.”

Sounds like the situation the U.S. is currently faced with.

On that note, a chant arose from the crowd, “Mesa, Ayo Ayo te espera.” (Mesa, Ayo Ayo is waiting for you.) Ayo Ayo is a small Aymara community where the mayor (elected through state government proceedings, NOT the traditional community leader) was put on trial according to the traditional justice system last month, after having violated Aymara law three times. He was sentenced to death, and was killed on June 15. The community then declared a state of emergency and expelled all police from their territory. Just last week, it was decided that Ayo Ayo would be the center for justice for the entire Altiplano, and that all those being charged with corruption would be sent there for judgment (for more information, in Spanish, click here).

I then spoke with a man who was curious about the differences between electoral law in the United States and in Bolivia. His name is Marco, and he is a member of FEJUVE—the federation of neighborhood assemblies, which has around 900 participating groups in El Alto and La Paz combined. Marco asserted that what we were witnessing today was “the dictatorship version of democracy. We shouldn’t have to vote when there is nothing on the ballot we believe in. For us to be required to vote, under the vigilance of federal police and with the threat of expensive fines—this is not democracy.”

While we were speaking, the police, which had been gathered about a half mile away from the blockade, zoomed up alongside the blockade on their motorcycles, circled the demonstration, paused for a bit, and then headed back on the other side. A few rocks were thrown at them, but they were largely ignored. Marco didn’t miss a beat.

“We have a high unemployment rate; they promised 500,000 jobs, and instead we have 500,000 unemployed people, and so we cannot keep following these same policies, exporting the gas, selling everything. This is why we are rebelling. October taught us a lot. We know that we have nothing, and yet they’re selling everything they can get away with to the U.S. And all of us here, we are alive now, but we’re also dying. And we know that life is not eternal. None of us can say ‘I have to stay alive, my life is worth so much.’ It’s not like that. All of us are ready to die. Because when we are always fighting for survival, struggling just to fill our stomachs, we can’t have a good life. We prefer to die with dignity.”

A commotion distracts us, and Marco excuses himself so he can go and join his neighbors. Two SUVs have approached the blockade, and about eight men get out. They are from the Organization of American States, which has sent election observers to monitor the proceedings. Strangely, they are approaching the blockade on foot, as if they imagined they would be welcome here. Sharp whistling fills the air, and people call for rocks and sticks. The officials run a quick retreat to their vehicles, and speed away.

The group I have come with is ready to go, and so we head away from the blockade to where our taxi is waiting. On the way back down to the city, the streets are marvelously empty of traffic: on election days, all transportation is banned—private cars, public buses, taxis, you name it. There are a few reasons which grant some taxis the right to drive—transporting the press happens to be one of them. Apparently the idea is that people will be encouraged to stay in their neighborhoods and will then be more likely to vote—another part of the “dictatorship democracy “to which Marco referred. And so the streets are as they should be—completely filled with people.

As we speed down the steep highway to the floor of the canyon, and La Paz, we are trailed by gleeful skateboarders, roller- bladers, joggers, dog-walkers, and batallions of cyclists. On the opposite, uphill lanes, we pass a game of tennis, and then a game of soccer. Laundry is spread out to dry on the adjacent hillside, and people lie basking in the sun, despite the fact that it is about 50 degrees Fahrenheit and windy. The radio carries reports of plans to blockade the transport of ballots after the elections; some say there are plans to burn them. In every imaginable way, this is different from any election I have ever dreamed of.

And as I’m preparing to post this, the numbers are coming in. At this point, all five questions are passing, an incredible vote of confidence in Mesa’s government...or is it? With forty percent abstention and fifteen percent of ballots thus far either blank or void, it seems that only about forty-five percent of the electorate voted at all—that is to say, about twenty-three percent of Bolivian’s population. Not much on which to base one’s legitimacy.

Whatever the government decides to do with the final figures, the people have spoken very clearly—this referendum doesn’t come close to their primary demand—nationalization of their gas, a demand they have been clearly stating for a long time. They are well aware that the referendum is being used as a tool to legitimize the government and as an attempt to pacify them, to get them to return to their homes and their routines. Yet these are people who are quite adept at creating true, participatory democracy; this spectacle of a referendum, this “dictatorship democracy” is unlikely to appease them. As Marco from Senkata put it, “There are going to be actions in the future which will be much stronger and more radical than those of October. We will not stop until we get nationalization.”