New Protests In Bolivia: A Brief Look at the Stage and Its Players

MAY 16, 2005: It was just a question of time. But the people of Bolivian’s social movements are now on the march, in streets and on the highways. The new Hydrocarbons Law, still not officially in effect, and the ownership of natural energy resources form the axis of the mobilizations once again.

They began in two key places in Bolivia: on the highway that divides the country horizontally in half (and unites the main cities), thousands of peasant farmers, coca growers, and other groups under the leadership of coca grower and congressman Evo Morales; and in El Alto, a city once again united as a single “person” who came down midday today to combat the repressive forces of the Bolivian state. Along with them comes a public school teacher’s strike, miners, and Aymara farmers, all present in today’s march in El Alto.

And although everything now hangs in suspense, while Evo Morales’ march grows and heads toward the capital city, while the people of El Alto decide on their next actions, we should take a moment to chart a simple and brief map of the stage and the actors moving across it. In the lead role, because of its size and strength, is Morales’ army of followers, supported in great part by the Pact of Unity forged during the political crisis two months ago. This group, which plans to march for an entire week, is demanding the transnational oil companies pay at least a fifty percent tax in order to continue extracting Bolivia’s natural wealth. However, their position leaves them still several days from making themselves felt in the streets of La Paz.

Now, right at the epicenter of the conflict, are the residents, merchants, and various other El Alto groups mobilizing for battle. Today, in a march of just over 100,000 people, they came down into La Paz to try to push through their three basic demands:

  1. Hydrocarbon nationalization
  2. Carlos Mesa’s renunciation from the presidency
  3. Closing of the National Congress
On the way toward Congress, their first objective, they confronted the police, who fired dozens of teargas grenades at them. See some photos of this action, here: l

The “Alteños” were unable to close the legislative building, but they held a great assembly and announced that they would begin to prepare an indefinite civic strike, which would close all entrances to La Paz from El Alto, as well as food supply lines, the international airport, and ground transport into the country’s interior.

According to a wire report from the El Alto Press Agency:

“The leaders of the Regional Workers’ Federation (COR) and the El Alto Federation of Neighborhood Committees (FEJUVE) announced that until the indefinite civic/labor strike is carried out, the El Alto International Airport will be blockaded, and the Senkata plant of [the Bolivian state oil company] YPFB will be physically occupied.”

Also, as the Alteños tried to reach the famous Congress building, right there inside the heart of Bolivian power two congressmen from the right-wing New Republican Force party began a hunger strike… asking for Mesa’s renunciation and the total nationalization of the country’s hydrocarbons!

Finally, on the other extreme of this tug-of-war is one weakened President Mesa, who the people jeered in the streets of La Paz just a few days ago. He has refused to pass the new Hydrocarbons Law (a law that the social movements did not like, but which the oil companies opposed as well, seeing it as an attack on their business)… and his legal deadline for vetoing in expires in a few hours. If by tomorrow there is still no action on his part, the president of the Congress (Senator Hormando Vaca Diez) will be empowered by the Constitution to pass it.

In other words, the scene is hardly a simple one… and this latest tremor is just starting. Stay with us; we’ll have the immediate news as Bolivia “heats up” once again.

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