In the First Social Conflict of His Administration, Evo Morales Represses Oscar Olivera

This Thursday at noon, the well-known social leader Oscar Olivera, in support of the workers of Lloyd Aéreo Boliviano (LAB) in their struggle against the owner of half of the company, participated in a blockade of the Jorge Wilsterman Airport in his home city of Cochabamba.

A large group made up of LAB workers, factory workers’ leaders, activists (some of them graduates of the Narco News School of Authentic Journalism), and others took up position on the main runway, blocking the landing or takeoff of any airplane… The Evo Morales administration ordered their removal by force (with soldiers and police). Olivera was gassed and mistreated, and has received word that he could be arrested in the coming hours…

Before continuing with this story, this correspondent must make clear that he places all responsibility for the safety of our ally and brother Oscar Olivera on President Morales. Now, yes, let’s get on with the tale… This all began, of course, many years ago, when Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, in his first administration, decided to implement the harshest measures of the neoliberal model: the privatization of state enterprises. This process, known in Bolivia as “Capitalization,” allowed private capital to participate in sectors such as telecommunications, electric energy production, hydrocarbon exploitation and various modes of transportation. In particular, the state airline, the above-mentioned LAB, or “el Lloyd” as the Bolivians call it.

Since then, as Oscar Olivera explained to us last night by telephone, “the people have been paying the consequences of Capitalization.” Especially because this supposed “capitalization” (a sort of half-privatization that gives the real control of public companies over to the private sector) has not brought higher productivity, much less higher employment. To the contrary, it has produced greater job instability and undeniably higher prices for the same services (such as in the case of water).

LAB was turned over to Brazilian businessman Wagner Canhedo, owner of another airline in Brazil (VASP), who nearly dismantled the Bolivian airline and, on the verge bankruptcy five years ago, sold his shares in the company to Bolivian investors and literally got out running.

After this, of course, there was a fight among the local business leaders over ownership of the shares. Especially between the late Raúl Garafulic Sr. and Ernesto “Tito” Asbún, who serves today as president of the board of LAB. Garafulic had always accused Asbún of having “stolen” his shares and the airline’s money when, according to Garafulic, Asbún borrowed his name to enter into the air transportation business.

The story brings us up to this past February, almost ten years since the capitalization of LAB. Just as the new president was arriving into office and naming his ministers, the conflict between the private shareholders – lead by Ernesto Asbún, who now controlled the company – and the pilots and ground crew workers exploded. Between unjustified firings, phantom investments with pension funds and other irregularities, it became clear that LAB could be on the verge of bankruptcy.

As always, those most affected were the workers, the pilots, and of course LAB’s customers… and, since LAB is still technically a public company and property of the Bolivian people, this was when the brand-new Evo Morales government appeared on the scene. The administration ordered an intervention in the airline in order to guarantee continuing service and avoid more mishaps, and put former Senator Ángel Zabella in charge of the process. At the moment we still don’t know exactly what he did… no one in Bolivia does, not even the President.

In fact, on March 1, pilots’ representative Richard Vaca declared that if Zaballa and the government would not take action to address the root of the problem at LAB, the intervention would be “a complete waste of time and a complete deception by the government.” Vaca demanded precise explanations from Morales and his people.

And, well, the intervention culminated last week: Asbún won a ruling in his favor from the Supreme Court. This, together with some other mistakes (or simple idiocy on the part of government attorneys) forced the Executive to take a step back… Evo Morales said earlier this week that this had all happened because of Asbún’s bribing the courts, which led to a clash between state powers… but let’s not get sidetracked, as there are now at least three airports blockaded in Bolivia.

The Vice President and His Profession: Numbers, Not People

A few months ago, Richard Vaca and other pilots of Lloyd Áereo Boliviano came looking for Oscar Olivera at his office. The labor conflict at LAB was imminent, and a bankruptcy could be seen on the horizon as well, which would seriously affect the already diminished patrimony of the Bolivian people. Oscar, always attentive and direct, listened, supported, and worked with the pilots. “They are middle-class,” he once commented to this journalist, “but they are honest in defense of our patrimony; they are patriots.”

During the last eight weeks, Olivera was close to the conflict, even mediating and winning audiences with politicians who, before winning office, were once his comrades in struggle during the Water War and other conflicts: Evo Morales and Alvaro García Linera. “But it seems that power has done them ill, Luis,” Olivera commented during an interview. “Now they see the job more then the people.”

What is certain, kind readers, is the Oscar Olivera did not get an answer to the demands of his LAB compañeros. At least nothing convincing from Evo’s government. And that is why, for a little over a week, he and several workers from LAB have been on hunger strike to demand clearer solutions… and still, nothing.

The intervention later ended… “They’ve turned into a bunch of law-abiders,” explained Olivera, reminding that in times before, when the law did not support the people, Morales and García Linbera’s posture was clear and with the people.

And it was in this scenario that today in La Paz, Santa Cruz, Tarija and Cochabamba the people decided to demonstrate using more radical means. Particularly in Cochabamba, in the heart of Bolivia: in a joint action that we describe here only partially, Oscar and his compañeros, led by the LAB workers, walked onto the runways and began a “roadblock” of the skies…

There they were at midday when the soldiers and police mobilized by the government began to repress and clear them out. All the noon news broadcasts showed the repression, kind readers, even a Chilean channel.

One La Paz station, Gigavisión, broadcast live across the county a call from Oscar Olivera after the repression began. Using his cell phone and still on the airport grounds, Olivera called Vice President Alvaro García for solutions one more time and demanded that the repression stop…

“Brother, it seems that Alvaro has re-launched his career as a mathematician. Now he sees only numbers, not people,” Oscar said to explain his anger and frustration. “Evo and he talk about not nationalizing LAB in order not to nationalize Asbún’s corruptions… what Evo has to do is to banish Capitalization once and for all and return to the Bolivian people what is rightfully theirs.”

Now, Oscar Olivera and his comrades have stopped their hunger strike. They are mobilized at the airport, where they are keeping watch over their blockades. Similar actions have taken place in Tarija and in Santa Cruz (where they have blocked access to the airport). In La Paz there was a clash between police and LAB workers… the conflict could intensify in the coming days.

Before we cut this transmission, let’s ask Oscar two more things…

Narco News: Did anything clear come out of your call to García Linera?

Oscar Olivera: Nothing, brother. Alvaro now talks just like Sánchez Berzaín* about repression and negotiation…

Narco News: And can you say anything about your possible arrest?

Oscar Olivera: Only that I have no fear of prison. I mean, it seems like they have forgotten what it means to be on this side of the trenches…. If they arrest me, at least that would help us know what side they’re on – on the side of the people, like they say, or on the side of a thief like Asbún…

We will keep following this….

* Carlos Sánchez Berzaín was a minister in both of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada’s administrations and actively participated in repression, massacres and assassinations.

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