Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

Bolivian workers fight privatisation and imperialism

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Bolivian workers have been battling the vicious neo-liberal policies of their government backed by Western imperialism.
Over the last five years the struggle has overthrown one president and successfully defeated water privatisation.
Now the incumbent president, Carlos Mesa, has tendered his resignation.
Dave Carr reports on the current mass protest movement which is demanding nationalisation of the gas industry.“PROTESTERS CHANTED, ‘Mesa go home, power for the people,’ as they marched through La Paz on Friday, clad in colourful ponchos and wielding whips and clubs.” (BBC, 3/6/05)

Bolivia remains gripped in a deep political crisis. The beleaguered President Carlos Mesa, in a last ditch attempt to end the weeks of workers’ and farmers’ protests that have brought the country to a halt, announced elections to an assembly on 16 October.

The assembly would write a new constitution – the indigenous peoples who comprise 62% of the population are demanding more rights. On the same day as these elections a referendum would be held to decide on a demand (from a section of the capitalists) for more autonomy in the resource-rich regions.

However, this hasn’t placated the protesters who are against the referendum and are demanding the nationalisation of the gas industry.

THE REVOLT of the poor masses is against the ‘neo-liberal’ policies of the current president and his predecessors.

In October 2003, president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada was overthrown by a mass movement and fled to Florida following a general strike organised by the COB (Bolivia’s TUC). Lozada was planning to export natural gas to the USA, a move that would have benefited the multinational energy companies and the imperialist superpower. Vice-president Carlos Mesa was appointed president and promised a referendum about the oil and gas industry and a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution.

On 2 March 2005 a general strike was declared in El Alto (a desperately poor industrial and housing area of one million people adjoining La Paz) to demand the reversal of the water privatisation. Congress revoked the contract with French company Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux.

Suez was the major shareholder in a failed privatisation that had left 200,000 people without access to water whilst guaranteeing a 13% rate of return on the companies’ investment. Countless others were unable to afford the $435 connection fees – almost eight times Bolivia’s monthly minimum wage.

A similar struggle in Cochabamba in 2000 led to victory. As a result the US company Bechtel (currently enjoying profitable contracts in Iraq reconstruction) was thrown out. Bechtel then brought a $25 million lawsuit against Bolivia for cancelling!

Most recently, the strikes, street protests and blockades of the capital city La Paz have again been to demand the nationalisation of the highly profitable gas industry.

Mesa is defending the interests of the multinationals saying that the recent hydrocarbons law passed by the congress to increase taxation on the energy industry is “too punitive”. He also rejects nationalisation.
Mass movement

THE SCALE and depth of the mass movement is of revolutionary proportions. The state and the ruling class have repeatedly lost control of the country and are unable to hold the masses back. When Mesa threatened Congress with resignation back in March 2005 he complained that there had been 820 national protests against him during his 18 months in office!

However, the leadership of the opposition party MAS and the COB isn’t prepared to carry through a transformation of society. They are still wedded to capitalism.

Since the year 2000 popular movements in Ecuador, Argentina and Bolivia have removed ‘neo-liberal’ presidents. Other radical and populist figures like Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, have come to the forefront and won elections.

Unfortunately, in all these cases, these leaders have not broken with capitalism. What is needed is mass socialist and revolutionary parties that can lead the struggles to a conclusion, ie the abolition of capitalism and its replacement with a socialist system, where production is run democratically, according to people’s needs, not for profit. Only then can the capitalism system of poverty, violence and oppression be broken.

BOLIVIA, LIKE almost all of Latin America countries, has been ruthlessly exploited by imperialism and its local client capitalist rulers.

The chief executive of Repsol/YPF (Spain’s largest oil company which has extensive interests in Latin America) admitted earlier this year that “the oil and gas industry is highly profitable in Bolivia: for every dollar invested the companies take out 10 dollars.”

The oil and gas companies take $1.4 billion a year but the Bolivian state only gets around $75 million in taxes. And despite very low extraction costs, fuel prices in Bolivia are higher than internationally.

Notwithstanding huge gas reserves, valued at over $100 billion, Bolivia remains the second poorest country in Latin America (only Haiti is poorer). 5.6 million Bolivians – out of a population of 8 million – live in poverty. Three million Bolivians have neither access to electricity or clean drinking water.


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