Bolivia has been described as a beggar sitting on a mountain of gold. It is a description that applies to any number of the world’s super-exploited and oppressed countries. Imperialism helps itself to the gold only with the beggar’s permission, obtained through depositing pennies in the begging bowl or, if necessary, by force.
The people of Bolivia, however, have begun to fight back – with a clear-sightedness as to the cause of their abject poverty that must be seriously alarming to the imperialist looters. There have been major confrontations between the people on the one hand and the Bolivian government – which is nothing more than an imperialist puppet – on the other, both in February this year (when police went on strike over proposed tax increases) and now in October as the masses fought back against the imperialist looting of their country and against their government for facilitating this. And the Bolivians, two-thirds of whom live below the poverty line, and one-third in absolute poverty (according to Isabel Hilton in Guardian of 21 October 2003), with “more than 60% of [Bolivia’s] … indigenous population [living] on £1.20 or less a day” (Financial Times, 20 October 2003), are learning not to pull their punches.
The latest round of popular protests has seen the fall of the country’s President, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada – much beloved though he was of US imperialism, described by Geoffrey Sachs of the Washington Post (26 October 2003) as “an enormously talented leader friendly to the US regional and global objectives”. The US was powerless to prevent his ouster.
Against an enemy who is happy to let them starve, the Bolivian people have no interest in confining themselves to the peaceful forms of protest that are the norm in imperialist countries and which, as the British government’s war against Iraq has proved yet again, are cynically ignored by the imperialist powers. No, the Bolivian people are showing what it takes to force their wishes on a recalcitrant imperialism. They are engaging in widespread strikes – militantly enforced – and hunger strikes, roadblocks and mass demonstrations:
“Columns of miners brandishing sticks of dynamite threaded past street barricades along with crowds of students and Indians shouting: ‘We will not stop until he’s gone'” (Guardian, 18 October 2003).
“The miners detonated dynamite charges to stop buses transporting other [scab] miners to Potosi city …
“Business News Americas has also received reports of miners … attempting to take possession of an electricity substation … in order to cut power supplies to put pressure on Sanchez de Lozada to resign” (Business News Americas, 16 October 2003, ‘Comsur workers pressure miners to strike’).
Whenever army and police were sent to disperse demonstrations by force, the demonstrators fought back, turning these demonstrations into what the imperialist media refer to as riots. Some 60 demonstrators were shot dead in the attempts of the government to disperse the angry crowds demanding the President’s resignation.
What is remarkable is the clarity with which the demonstrators understand the cause of their misery. Isabel Hilton (op.cit.) noticed this phenomenon and explains:
“Perhaps the fact that the Bolivians have not been blessed with much in the way of sound government goes some way to explaining why, when they are exercised about an issue, they tend to take to the streets rather than write to their MP. Experience has taught them that government give them little that the people have not wrested by force, and that when foreigners take an interest in Bolivian natural resources, fortunes are made by the few and the mass of Bolivians stay hungry”.
On this occasion the principal cause of the anger of the Bolivian masses was the proposal by the Bolivian government to authorise Bolivian natural gas exports to be routed to the sea through territory in Chile to which Bolivia has traditionally laid claim, after having lost it to Chile in the 19th century in what was essentially a spat between the US and the UK over oil interests – fought out by local people. Bolivian nationalism mobilised against the Chile route in favour of the $400 million more expensive Peru route, only to be completely overtaken by mass demands that the gas should not be sold at all, even if it did mean a loss of revenues. It emerged that the Bolivian government was only to receive some 16% of the revenue generated by these sales, the rest going to the imperialist companies involved in the Pacific LNG, the multinational consortium extracting the gas, namely, the Spanish oil group Repsol, British Gas, BP and Bridas Corporation, with a good cut to Chile for hosting the pipeline.
Furthermore, it was clear to the Bolivian masses that the ludicrously low price the Bolivians were receiving for the gas would go for the most past to the very people who were driving such a poor ‘bargain’ on their behalf – people such as the President himself. As John Jefer points out in the Washington Post of 18 October (‘Protests force Bolivian leader to resign’) “Bolivia … yielded its vast mineral wealth in tin, silver and other natural resources to its colonial rulers – and many see the gas project as a return to that legacy.”
While the imperialists and their minions wail that in holding up gas exports the people are simply shooting themselves in the foot, even the World Bank is prepared to admit that the truth is otherwise. The World Bank has produced a preliminary report known as the Extractive Industries Review, which concludes that “there is clear evidence that in developing countries, negative impacts of extractive industries are outweighing the benefits enjoyed. The benefits go to people who do not know and do not appreciate the sacrifices being made by local people … The sector may be the one that most clearly reveals the uneven playing field that is the present global economy in which the strong exploit the weak …”(Business News Americas 20 October 2003, ‘Mining groups rally against World Bank report’).
No doubt the World Bank spent tens of thousands of pounds funding the research on which the above conclusions were based. The Bolivian people, and indeed the oppressed people of the whole world, could have supplied them with the information for free, or a few back issues of Lalkar would have put them in the picture at very little expense.
Special hatred for the President
Sanchez de Lozada earned the special hatred of the people of Bolivia not only for selling the nation’s family silver at absurdly low prices, but also as a mine-owner himself whose whole life has been devoted to selling Bolivia’s mineral wealth to imperialism in a way that made himself rich and his masters richer still, but left his workers earning a pittance that would not even provide sufficient funds for them to give their children an education. Nor is the ex-President just any mine-owner: he controls Bolivia’s largest private sector mining company, Comsur. He also “has interests in the Porco and Andecava mines and in a processing plant, all in the Potosi department, the Colquiri mine in La Paz, the Vinto tin smelter in Oruro and the Don Mario gold mine in Santa Cruz, which is operated by Canada’s Orvana Minerals” (‘Protesters threaten Sanchez de Lozada’s mining interests, Business News Americas, 14 October 2003).
During his period in office Sanchez de Lozada has presided over a regime of unpopular privatisations, many of which have been stiffly resisted by the Bolivians. Some of these privatisations have facilitated his own companies acquiring former state property (such as the Vinto tin smelter, bought last year by Comsur from state company, Comibol), at, no doubt, very fair prices!
One might have thought there was an unacceptable conflict of interest for a politician here – privatising so his own companies could purchase the assets – but it’s all right: while President, his companies are no longer legally his – only held in trust for him (but he will get them back now his presidency has ceased, of course). The masses obviously lack the finesse to appreciate these legal niceties. As far as they are concerned, these mines belong to Sanchez de Lozada and that’s all there is to it. Furthermore, they are not only threatening to occupy the ex-President’s mines but even to expropriate them and turn them into co-operatives. It seems, however, that there would be a problem turning the mines into co-operatives because of their “sophisticated technology”, according to a Comibol spokesperson quoted in Business News Americas. One assumes that what he means is that the “sophisticated technology” is all provided by imperialism and would be removed were the mines not serving imperialism’s purposes. Who is to say, however, that freed from the shackles of imperialism, a mineral-rich country such as Bolivia could not be producing such machinery for itself? The ambitions of the Bolivian working class may go well beyond the confines that various bourgeois experts expect them to respect. The experts have been confounded in their belief that the wishes of the popular masses with regard to gas exports could simply be ignored. They will undoubtedly be confounded repeatedly in the future as well as Latin American resistance to super-exploitation continues to grow.
So unexpectedly successful has the Bolivian uprising been that there are now recriminations in the bourgeois media as to how stupid it was of Bush to have been so mean towards Bolivia. Jeffrey Sachs in the Washington Post of 26 October (‘Call it our policy of not-so-benign neglect’) writes:
“In 1987 Sanchez de Lozada came to Washington for visit with President Regan, Secretary of State George Shultz and Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger. That year the Pentagon had launched a military operation against peasant coca growers and cocaine traffickers. Bolivia’s economy was in turmoil, and Sanchez de Lozada told the Americans that Bolivia needed more than military operations. It needed help to build transport infrastructure, industrial parks, schools and clinics, so that it could overcome the root causes of impoverishment and offer alternatives to the peasantry. Incredibly, Shultz, representing the world’s richest country, explained to Sanchez de Lozada, representing the hemisphere’s second poorest nation, that the US had a large budget deficit and would therefore be unable to help even as US military actions were destabilising Bolivia. …
“The United States is paying an enormous price for this … As expensive as it might be to support economic development, the failures of economic development are proving far more costly. We are spending billions of dollars for military outlays in the Andes, and hundreds of billions in the Middle East, not to mention hundreds of billions of dollars and a growing number of lives lost to violence, terrorism, drug trafficking and other ills tied to rising anti-Americanism.”
In other words, the Washington Post is bemoaning the fact that imperialism is forever lifting a rock only to drop it on its own feet. The need to maximise profit prevents imperialism taking such prudent measures as the Washington Post suggests. It reaches for its pocket only when forced to do so by the militancy of the exploited.
What of the future?
The militant uprising of the Bolivian masses has wrested certain concessions from the powers that be. One imperialist puppet president has been removed and the proposal to export Bolivia’s gas has been put on hold, awaiting the decision of a popular referendum.
What there has not been is significant regime change. The person who has taken over, Carlos Mesa, was Sanchez de Lozada’s Vice President, and he has been falling over himself to reassure various imperialist concerns that their investments are safe. He has, however, of necessity had to take some steps to appease the anger of the Bolivian people, and in particular he has suggested he wants to increase oil-field royalties to 50% (Business News Americas, 24 October 2003, ‘Oil chamber asks Mesa for appropriate signs’). He is begging the recalcitrant imperialists to ‘show understanding’ for this position, in other words, to give them half a loaf – he urges – before they seize the whole lot.
If Mesa is able to secure such a deal, this will speak volumes about the strength of the Bolivian anti-imperialist movement, which certainly Mark Mulligan of the Financial Times of 22 October considers to be “only in temporary retreat” following the fall of the President.
Certain forces have retired from the fray following the victory, including a major union leader. Of these some are simple Simons who continue to believe that a country’s problems will be solved if a ‘corrupt’ president is replaced by an ‘honest’ one – a very overworked delusion in Latin America. Perhaps some of the people who pull their troops out of the battle on this pretext have received certain inducements of a material nature. No doubt time will tell.
Maybe, on a temporary basis at least, various imperialist concerns will follow the advice of the Washington Post and direct subsidies to the supporters of the most militant leaders, but channelled through collaborationist alternative leaders in order to try and buy off the militancy of the Bolivian masses.
However, the needs of the Bolivian people are great and imperialism is not going to meet them. The Bolivian people show signs of having realised this and of being prepared to fight to the death for a better life. If the quality of their militancy and determination is matched by the quality of their leadership, then they will be invincible.