Bolivia Update—June 13, 2005

by Andy Pollack


Nationalization is the only way forward to create more sources of employment, to end the hunger and misery that is killing us. The only solution is for us workers to take power. — Francisco Quispe, head of La Paz Factory Workers Federation

Here are three comments I have in response to a report sent by Jorge Martin to the “Marxmail” discussion list on June 11. His excellent report is reproduced below. But first, my comments:

(One) Nationalization of the Bolivian gas and oil industry, the main demand of the mass organizations in Bolivia during the past several weeks, is the right slogan. One of the contributors to the “Marxmail” discussion list this past week said that nationalization was not the right slogan, because nationalization of gas and oil resources by itself wouldn’t solve the problems faced by impoverished Bolivians: Bolivians couldn’t exploit their natural resources without outside help; the multinational energy corporations have the technical know-how and capital, and they would withhold that. However, T. Kruse (a contributor to the discussion, reporting from Bolivia) seems to recognize the centrality of the nationalization demand. He makes the important point that the multinationals will always try to maneuver either to stop nationalization or to find sources elsewhere (although the possibility of their “looking elsewhere” may underestimate their greed and need for Bolivia’s rich reserves, second largest in South America).

This situation is an argument for using the breathing room now afforded, whether of weeks or (hopefully not) months, to urge Brazilian militants to start campaigning to demand that a cooperative relationship be established between Bolivia and Petrobras, the publicly owned Brazilian oil company that operates in Bolivia—a cooperative relationship like the one that now exists between Venezuela and Cuba. If the Petrobras management refuses, then Petrobras should be reorganized, just as Venezuela’s publicly owned oil company, PDVSA, has been reorganized under Hugo Chávez, the radical military officer who has repeatedly been elected president of Venezuela since 1998. Such a demand highlights the link between the struggles for self-determination and economic improvement in both Bolivia and Brazil, as in all of Latin America.

(Two) Key to the tasks of the coming weeks is a point made in the June 11 statement by the Coordinadora del Agua y el Gas in Cochabamba (translated on the “narconews” web site). The statement pointed out the need to “build self-government of the people for the next mobilization” and said that “next time it is not enough to take over and blockade oil and gas installations but that they should be able to run them for the benefit of the people.” This is a key task not only in hydrocarbons but in every workplace and neighborhood—that is, to use the breathing space to organize tighter coordination of the constituent parts of the People’s Assembly, or the Assembly itself, and to organize a party to lead these struggles. And of course to sink new roots in the rank and file of the army and police. Evo Morales (the relatively moderate leader of the so-called MAS, Movement Toward Socialism) will of course use this breathing space for diametrically opposite purposes, to try and contain the movement within the bounds of capitalist electoral politicking.

(Three) We in the imperialist heartland can use this time to organize events on what just happened and prepare for mobilizations against the imperialist intervention that will surely be attempted as the Bolivian workers and peasants move to establish their own power and control over their national resources.

The more radical leaders in Bolivia have stated explicitly that the struggle continues for nationalization (and for some a Constituent Assembly, for others a People’s Assembly).This gives us here in the U.S. an opportunity—and a responsibility. Certainly any activist we know will be wondering what the Bolivian people have just been through, and it should be easy to get people to forums explaining that. While it will be hard in most cities to find a Bolivian to speak, or even someone active around Bolivia, we should all be able to find someone from our own groups able to give an articulate account of what has happened—and what might come. Perhaps such forums could be combined with speakers on such issues as the Venezuelan revolution and the present campaign led by Fidel Castro to expose U.S. government support for terrorist activity as revealed in the Posada case. (Luis Posada Carriles is a counterrevolutionary terrorist from Cuba and Venezuela and former CIA employee, who entered U.S. territory illegally a couple of months ago and who is facing demands that he be extradited to Venezuela to face trial for his terrorist activities, including blowing up a Cubana airlines plane near Barbados in the 1970s, killing all of the nearly 80 innocent civilian passengers on the plane.) In any case, if we begin preparing forums now to take place in the next few weeks, we’ll be in a good position to mobilize for other kinds of actions when things jump off again. (Incidentally, the Cuba Solidarity Network in New York is considering the launching of a Bolivia solidarity campaign.) The report by Jorge Martin follows (edited slightly for Labor Standard).


I will try to just relate some of the latest developments from Bolivia that you might not find on the newswires; then everyone can make their appraisal.

On June 9 Vaca Diez tried to get parliament to elect him as president after the resignation of Carlos Mesa (whose resignation had to be accepted by parliament in order to be effective). A government of Vaca Diez would have meant bringing the army out to “restore order.” This seemed to be the preferred option of the U.S. embassy.

Meanwhile, Mesa and Morales favored the president of the Supreme Court, Eduardo Rodriguez, as a replacement for president. Technically, for this to happen, both Vaca Diez and Cossio (presidents of both houses of parliament) had to resign as well. The argument in favor of Rodriguez is that he would have a constitutional duty to call early elections. This alternative did not mention either the Constituent Assembly (which the MAS leaders have presented as the way forward) or nationalization of oil and gas (the main demand of the movement).

In order to prevent the installation of Vaca Diez, who had moved the parliament to the “safer” location of Sucre (hundreds of miles away from the radicalized workers and peasants in El Alto-La Paz), all sections of the movement united in an effort to blockade Sucre and prevent the Vaca Diez maneuver from succeeding.

This maneuver by the Santa Cruz oligarchy enraged the masses even further and gave new strength to the movement. A 60,000-strong cabildo abierto (mass, public decision-making meeting) in Cochabamba, where the MAS is strongest, passed a resolution which included the following lines: “The cabildo of the people of Cochabamba has decided to set up the People’s Assembly and to build a government of workers and peasants, following the lines of the enlarged meeting of the COB and the meeting of the El Alto Neighborhood Juntas (FEJUVE).” The resolution also contained other points more in line with the position of the MAS leadership (the demand for a constituent assembly), but it was clear that the main demand was nationalization of hydrocarbons.

At a demonstration in La Paz [the same day, June 9] there was a strong presence of factory workers. Max Tola, workers leader at Cervecería brewery, one of the largest factories in La Paz, said: “There is no political way out between themselves, amongst the bourgeois. What we are talking about here is nationalization and the taking of power by the workers. Our slogan is workers and peasants to power.”

Francisco Quispe, leader of the La Paz Factory Workers Federation, said: “If there is no nationalization, we will continue with the mobilization. Nationalization is the only way forward to create more sources of employment, to end the hunger and misery that is killing us. The only solution is for us workers to take power.”

By the time the parliamentary session in Sucre was supposed to start there was a huge mass of people in the streets (including miners, peasants, teachers, factory workers, etc.). After a while the masses blockaded the airport as well, so that members of parliament (who had had to fly in, as all main roads are blockaded) would not be able to leave Sucre without permission from the masses. The session was suspended.

Then in the afternoon news came of the death of a miner [assassinated by police special forces, urged on by Vaca Diez]. Tension increased even more. Vaca Diez went to hide in a military barracks, while the parlamentarians returned to the safety of their hotels.

Finally in the evening the attempt to impose Vaca Diez as president collapsed. In a very short session Vaca Diez and Cossio resigned and Rodriguez was elected as president. The ceremony reflected very well how this was done under the pressure from the streets; any semblance of constitutional pomp was lost. The choir which sang the national anthem was out of tune and the few MPs present could not do it any better. The new president did not receive a presidential sash nor the presidential “stick” (I don’t know the English word for it), since these were still in the hands of Mesa, who remained in La Paz.

The masses in Sucre considered this a victory and celebrated. The MAS leaders immediately appealed for the lifting of the road blockades and the end of the strike, and this was being carried out in the areas where they have the strongest influence. Immediately Rodriguez got the support of the U.S. embassy, the employers’ federation, and the Catholic Church. Leaders of the El Alto COR, Patana, and the El Alto teachers federation, Soruco, immediately replied that the “struggle is for the nationalization of hydrocarbons, not to change one clown for another” and that they would continue the struggle.

On June 10 an emergency assembly in El Alto decided to continue the struggle. “Regardless of who is the president we will continue the struggle. We were not asking for Mesa’s resignation but for the nationalization of gas. No truce!” said Abel Mamani, president of FEJUVE [the Federation of Neighborhood Councils of El Alto].

“The aim of nationalization has not been achieved. Nobody in power wants to even deal with it. Not even Evo, who only mentioned it right at the end when his own ranks were already surpassing him,” said Patana of the El Alto COR.

“El Alto has already lived through this kind of political transition, when Mesa replaced Losada and continued to rule in favor of the multinationals and the rich. We will not make the same mistake with Rodriguez” said Alvarez, leader of the La Paz urban teachers.

“We should not let ourselves be fooled by the bourgeois maneuvers that have put into power [Rodriguez,] a former adviser to the U.S. embassy and law firm partner to Sanchez Berzain [Losada’s minister, responsible for the massacre in El Alto in October 2003].” This statement was made by Wilma Plata of the La Paz Teachers Union (a member of the POR). [Note by Labor Standard: Partido Obrero Revolucionario (Workers Revolutionary Party) was formerly the name of the Fourth Internationalist party in Bolivia.]

The emergency meeting agreed to give Rodriguez a 72-hour deadline to nationalize oil and gas.

The cooperative miners in La Paz decided to give the new government a 10-day deadline and suspend the mobilizations in the meantime. They said, “The new government has as its main task the nationalization of oil and gas and the calling of a Constituent Assembly” and warned “the miners have been here and we will be back if necessary.”

Representatives of the peasants and indigenous peoples in the 20 provinces of the La Paz department decided to maintain the blockades and mobilizations and not to give Rodriguez any truce. “They have just changed one clown for another clown.” “In 2003 we let Mesa in and nothing was achieved. They are not going to fool us again this time,” said leaders of their Tupak Katari peasant workers union.

The Coordinadora del Agua y el Gas in Cochabamba also decided to give a truce, mentioning the tiredness of the masses after 20 days of mobilization, and to hear what Rodriguez had to say. Their statement was also clear that the main demands have not been achieved (nationalization and Constituent Assembly). It also pointed out the need to build self-government of the people for the next mobilization and said that next time it is not enough to take over and blockade oil and gas installations, but that the people should be able to run them for their own benefit.

The MAS peasant leader Loayza gave the new president a 10-day deadline to respond to the demands of the movement. Meanwhile MAS leaders, and particularly Evo Morales, gave speeches that were broadcast over radio and TV appealing to the masses to lift the road blockades and end the strike.

In the next few days it will become more clear which one of the two strategies wins more support in the movement: the one favored by the MAS leaders, of granting a truce and placing confidence in [or allowing some time to] the new government of Rodriguez; or that of the COB and El Alto of no truce and continuation of the struggle as it is.

My impression is that probably the first one will gather more momentum. They have in their favor the support of the media, the Catholic Church, etc., the authority that Morales still commands, particularly outside of La Paz and El Alto, and among important layers of the masses (coca farmers, cooperative miners), and finally the natural feeling of tiredness among the more radical sections, which are at the same time the ones that have been out for the longest.

However, this is unlikely to be a lengthy, protracted process like with Mesa (who managed to stay in power for 18 months), but rather a shorter one, since this time the demands of the movement are clearer and more focused, with a higher political content, and they have already gone through the experience with Mesa.

I think it was Fred Feldman (sorry if I got this wrong) [actually, it was Nestor Gorojovsky, an Argentinian contributor to the “Marxmail” discussion group] who argued that maybe nationalization was not the right slogan, since Bolivia has no capacity to extract gas and oil on its own. That is exactly the argument of the ruling class in Bolivia, going from the right-wing oligarchy in Santa Cruz to the more moderate sections around Carlos Mesa and others. It is also the argument of the oil multinationals. [Note: These include British Petroleum, the “Spanish” corporation Repsol (actually owned by U.S. investors), the French company Total, etc.—Labor Standard]. However, it does not follow that nationalization would mean the withdrawal of the multinationals. Contracts and agreements can still be reached with them (as in Venezuela) in many different forms, but if ownership of the resources is placed firmly in the hands of the Bolivian state, then the Bolivian people would be in a much better position to negotiate deals that are favorable.

[Note: A later version of Jorge Martin’s report, posted on June 13 (with photos from Bolivia Indymedia), may be found at the web site www.marxist.com]

[Additional Note from Labor Standard: A detailed account of the police killing of mineworkers’ leader Juan Coro at Sucre, and the reverberations of that police murder within the Bolivian military, was posted on the Narco News web site June 12 (in an article by Al Giordano; see www.narconews.com). Some excerpts from the Narco News account follow:

Narco News reported (the first to do so in English) that the Bolivian Congress had not succeeded in convening at 10:30 a.m. as planned [on June 9].

Before lunch hour, [Narco News reporter] Luis Gómez predicted that Congress may not be able to meet at all in order to coronate Vaca Diez as president:

“Copublisher Jean Friedsky and this reporter doubt that they will pull off a session today. There was a general pre-agreement to begin work by 6 p.m., but it is far from certain whether that will happen.”

At 3:49 p.m. Gómez broke a major story: that disgraced and exiled Bolivian president Gonzalo “Goni” Sanchez de Lozada’s son-in-law had arrived in Sucre, riding on the same airplane as aspiring dictator Vaca Diez, and traced the facts showing that Goni and the U.S. Embassy were collaborating in the attempt to impose Vaca Diez upon the throne.

Sixteen minutes later, at 4:04 p.m. Gomez informed the world that the day’s conflicts had brought the first martyr: Juan Coro, a Bolivian mineworker, who had been shot by police while he sat on a bus on his way to the protests in Sucre.

Rumors quickly spread throughout the World Wide Web that Bolivian Military soldiers had assassinated him. If true, it would have been even graver, for all prior indications (including in Narco News reports) were that the Armed Forces were refusing to act violently against the Bolivian people in this conflict. It was a moment when we all got a collective lump in our throats, and worried intensely while also mourning a fallen American.

At 5:08 p.m., Gómez came in with an earthshaking report that changed the course of history: “BOLIVIA’S ARMED FORCES DID NOT PARTICIPATE IN THE REPRESSION,” Gomez shouted in capital letters.

The assassination had been committed by police who had, according to Gomez’s famously accurate sources, been ordered by aspiring president Hormando Vaca Diez to stop the mineworkers from reaching the Congressional meeting in Sucre:

“Vaca Diez ordered the Commander in Chief of the National Police, David Aramayo, to block the passage of all demonstrators who were marching toward the capital to surround the session of Congress.

“It was members of the [police] special forces group known as ‘The Dalmatians,’ known for their brutal participation in the Water War of 2000 in Cochabamba, who repressed the mineworkers’ march. Now, with this information confirmed, we can correct (the facts), for the peace of mind of all the world…”

Apparently Vaca Diez (also in constant contact with his advisers, utilizing many of the same cell phone-to-Internet communications systems that are part of the new landscape for newsmakers as well as news reporters) was one person to whom this news did not cause “peace of mind.” He immediately fled from the Congressional session – claiming he was going to meet with a police officer – and ran directly to the military base in Sucre, seeking protection from angry mineworkers who were also learning, at this moment, of his role in the true facts about the death of their fallen comrade. Vaca Diez was, factually speaking, a hunted man.

In his report for the next morning’s daily La Jornada in Mexico, Gómez added some interesting context that showed just how responsibly the Bolivian Armed Forces had acted. And given the dark history of how that institution was used and abused by Power to repress its own people throughout history, this was an especially comforting report:

“The Bolivian military, which on this day had deployed troops in various cities of the country, especially in Santa Cruz, evaluated the situation of Senator Vaca Diez. ‘Seeing that the country was in a delicate situation’ one high-ranking military officer told La Jornada, ‘and that it was impossible to get him out of there discreetly without causing confrontations, we made a call to him.’ Vaca Diez listened, via his cell phone, to the firm voice that explained everything to him. At the time the position of the Armed Forces of Bolivia was made clear to him: ‘Avoid a confrontation between brothers at all costs.’

“’It was nothing more nor less than an ‘invitation’ to consider that the Armed Forces were not going to resort to bullets, contrary to what he and others believed,’ the high-ranking military official continued. ‘And [Vaca Diez] was also reminded that we had said that Congress should listen to the voice of the people, to the popular demands.’ That made the difference. And Vaca Diez, a capable politician, opted to return to the Congressional meeting in Sucre three hours late [and withdraw from the succession to the presidency].

But at that same hour, on Thursday afternoon, many news organizations, including activist sites, had jumped on the news of the death of mineworker Juan Coro, and pointed the finger at the Bolivian military. Narco News alone corrected the story and brought the true facts up for air.

At the moment that bulletin came in from Gómez, I had been chatting on IM with various collaborators, including Teo Ballve in New York. “What’s happening?” he typed.

“It’s over for Vaca Diez,” I replied. “He can’t survive this latest revelation.” I turned to Gómez and asked, “Can we publish that as a fact yet?” Gómez said we needed to do more investigating, and we all went back to work contacting sources.

The sources spoke, the facts rolled in, the news updates came flooding via the Narcosphere: At 5:50 p.m. Gómez confirmed that Vaca Diez had suspended the Congressional session – forty-two minutes after Narco News had reported the information about his role in the death of the mineworker. By 9:31 Gómez and other news agencies widely reported that Vaca Diez had withdrawn his bid to become president. Then at 11:17, the world knew: Bolivia Has a New President, Eduardo Rodríguez, whose first act was to call for new elections.

In twenty-one hours, a likely wave of terror was transformed into another hopeful step toward authentic democracy.

The feared wave of repression promised by Vaca Diez and his “Doctrine of Authoritarian Government” had been stopped in less than a day by the social movements of Bolivia. Authentic Journalists inside the country and around the world lent a significant assist and back-up to their heroism, and particularly acted as a counterweight to the distorting abilities of the Commercial Media and the power brokers in Washington and Wall Street.