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Miners, farmers, city poor join for general strike

Published May 26, 2005 12:56 AM

The specter of Che Guevara—assassinated in the Bolivian jungle by the CIA four decades ago—is alive in the streets of La Paz. Bolivian workers and peasants, more than 60 percent of whom are Indi genous, are shutting down the country and battling riot police in the capital hand-to-hand. The protesters are facing down a hail of rubber bullets and clouds of tear gas to press their demand for the nationalization of the country’s natural gas and oil industry.

Here’s how a May 23 French Press Agency report described the action in the streets in the capital of La Paz: Police fired blasts from a water cannon and canisters of tear gas to break up the demonstrations. Cops clashed with miners who detonated a tool of their trade—dynamite blasting caps—near the Plaza des Armas, where the Presidential Palace and Congress are located. Protesting street vendors tried to muscle their way past police lines and into the same main square before cops forcibly turned them back.

Then three huge protest marches—all calling for the nationalization of the valuable natural resources of natural gas—set off to march from different parts of the capital, heading for the plaza. Protesters in the rally, which began in El Alto, a suburb of La Paz that is home to the poor, demanded nationalization without compensation—in other words, expropriation. A march of shopkeepers closed virtually all the small stores in the capital.

Evo Morales, a former coca farmer and leader of the Movement toward Socialism (MAS), led a third large protest, of coca farmers and other peasants, on a 120-mile march to La Paz to demand that oil companies pay a 50-percent royalty to the state for the natural gas they extract.

Those pushed out of the plaza—miners, teachers and other workers, street vendors and representatives of neighborhood associations—regrouped in nearby San Francisco square and demanded a constitutional assembly.

Who owns the resources?

“Bolivia has natural gas, water, coca and all kinds of natural resources,” said Zurita, a 35-year-old parent from the village of Eterazama. “But the problem is that they keep stealing it from us.”

The April 4 Washington Post, to inform its own wing of the U.S. capitalist class, assessed the mood of the Bolivian population: “This is the refrain these days among Bolivians like Zurita, who see life as a struggle of David vs. many Goliaths: the foreign companies that drill for natural gas; the U.S. government, which has spear headed programs to eradicate coca fields; the private companies that have taken over some municipal water utilities.”

As a result of the corporate takeovers, Bolivians—living on land rich with natural resources—are the poorest people in South America.

Bolivia has reserves of 48.7 trillion cubic meters of natural gas, second only to Venezuela in South America. A plan in 2003 to export fuel through nearby Chile sparked a popular uprising 19 months ago that forced President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada out of office.

Former presidents Sánchez de Lozada and Jorge Quiroga reportedly penned 76 contracts that heavily favored 12 transnational giants, including Enron, Shell and British Petroleum. They allowed the companies to buy natural gas at prices well below market value and then turn around and sell it back to the Bolivians at 12 times the price.

Carlos Mesa, who succeeded Sánchez de Lozada, was driven to the precipice of resignation in March 2005 as protests grew to an average of 40 each day. Now the most impoverished people are in the streets, vowing to push him out of office.

In March, the Bolivian Congress was for ced to vote for an energy law that imposes a 32-percent tax on top of the 18-percent royalties that foreign oil giants like Exxon Mobil, Total, Petrobras, British Gas and Repsol have been paying. That was less than the 50 percent additional royalties that the majority who cast their ballots in the June 2004 gas referendum demanded.

These transnational corporations use capital to exploit the natural gas and oil wealth. This legislative concession, which was passed because of mass struggle, made the corporations howl with outrage and vow to flout the law as “illegal.”

Even before the final legislation was inked, U.S. Treasury Department Assis tant Secretary of International Affairs Randal Quarles threatened that the new law would “inhibit foreign investment.”

The U.S. is “worried,” Quarles said. Sure, Wall Street and Big Oil are worried. They have every right to be. They fear another Bolivarian Revolution in this hemisphere.