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International Socialist Review Issue 36, July–August 2004

Bolivia's Gas War


Tom Lewis is a professor of Spanish at the University of Iowa and a member of the ISR’s editorial board. He is the author of numerous articles on Latin America. He recently returned from Bolivia.

When popular revolt succeeded in overthrowing the government of President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada in October 2003, the question of who owns and who will benefit from the development of natural gas resources in Bolivia emerged as the lightening rod that is channeling two decades of anger over the cruel impact of free market capitalism on the majority of Bolivians. Bolivia’s social movements today regard the projected revenues from the sale of natural gas as the last, best hope for fully modernizing the nation and securing a brighter future for its population. The transnational oil companies, as well as their junior partners among Bolivia’s economic and political elite, have other plans for the profits they anticipate from Bolivian gas.

On May 2, 2004, the Central Obrera Boliviana (COB), Bolivia’s national trade union confederation, called an indefinite general strike with the twin aims of nationalizing Bolivian natural gas and of abolishing the legislative foundations of neoliberalism in the country.

Rural and urban workers in Bolivia inaugurated a general period of struggle against neoliberalism with the "water war" in Cochabamba during the southern hemisphere’s summer and fall of 2000. The cycle of militancy has continued and has centered on a number of key issues: the "coca war," the "tax war," and the ongoing "gas war." Arguably, the general struggle will reach a defining moment sometime in the coming months with the battle over nationalizing gas.

The October rebellion

President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada fled La Paz in October 2003 as hundreds of thousands of Bolivians overran the capital city demanding his resignation and prosecution. Like so many others of Washington’s fallen henchmen in Latin America, he eventually scrambled aboard an airplane and scurried to safe haven in the United States. On the heels of his resignation, the administration of President George Bush issued a travel warning for Bolivia. The Pentagon also announced that it was sending an "assessment team" to investigate whether U.S. troops would be necessary "to protect American citizens" living in Bolivia. Sánchez de Lozada left behind a country in turmoil–where the stakes remain high, not only for Bolivia’s rulers, but also for Washington and its imperialist interests in Latin America.

The gas war started September 19, 2003, and escalated until Sánchez de Lozada resigned on October 17. At the center of a month of mass protests was popular rejection of the government’s contract with a transnational consortium to export natural gas to the U.S. by way of Chile and Mexico. The consortium–Pacific LNG–is made up of British, Spanish, and Argentine corporations. A U.S. company holds the contract to transport Bolivian gas from Chile to Mexico.

The Pacific LNG contract legalizes the foreign pillage of Bolivia’s most important natural resource. Under its provisions, Bolivia would keep only 18 percent of the $1.5 billion in annual income expected to be generated by gas exports to the U.S.–nowhere near the standard 50 percent, according to Bolivian economists. The gas sold to Pacific LNG, moreover, was fixed at a price well below current market value. The difference means a loss of additional billions of dollars to Bolivia over the life of the contract.

It was Sánchez de Lozada himself who, two days before his first presidential term ended in August 1997, signed the Pacific LNG deal. The October 2003 protests against gas privatization toppled him one year into his second term (he spent five years out of office between terms). Demonstrators won significant concessions from the besieged president before driving him from office. He agreed to hold a national referendum by the end of 2003 for Bolivians to decide whether to renationalize the country’s natural gas, and he agreed to modify existing legislation to make renationalization possible. He also approved the establishment of a Constituent Assembly as a regular component of the Bolivian political system. These gains had actually been won by early Wednesday evening, October 15.

But the protests raged on. Popular anger at more than seventy brutal slayings carried out by Bolivian troops demanded retribution. On October 16 and 17, wave after wave of indigenous fighters cascaded down into La Paz from El Alto, La Paz’s poverty-stricken satellite city situated higher up in the Andes. Miners from the same region, marching under the banner of the COB, also advanced on the city. From the south and east came workers, peasants, and coca growers–all focused on getting rid of the president. The working-class neighborhoods of the capital then emptied onto the streets. By the afternoon of October 17, downtown La Paz was overflowing. Sánchez de Lozada, who had fled La Paz for the eastern capital of Santa Cruz on October 15, now abandoned the country altogether.

Multiple struggles coalesce

The insurrection of October 2003 resulted from several ongoing struggles that rapidly coalesced into a mass movement united around a common goal: recovering Bolivian gas. Four main developments created the window of opportunity that made the insurrection possible.

First, the ruling class had found itself on the defensive in the preceding months. Protests throughout the year had caused Sánchez de Lozada’s approval ratings to drop to single digits and stay there. In particular, a tax rebellion in February revealed important divisions within the armed forces, as well as bitter antagonisms between local ruling elites and the national government.

Second, the Coalition for the Defense and Recuperation of Gas held a nationwide demonstration on September 19. More than 150,000 turned out in Bolivia’s major cities. Demonstrators demanded a moratorium on government plans to allow British and Spanish transnational corporations to export Bolivian natural gas to the U.S. under a contract that promised few, if any, benefits for Bolivia. The gas coalition argued for renationalizing petroleum and natural gas, for workers themselves to manage the extraction and processing of gas, and for society as a whole to democratically decide what to do with gas profits.

Third, the fight of Bolivia’s indigenous population for self-determination became a key component of the anti-government movement. When soldiers massacred indigenous protesters in the town of Warisata, in the altiplano [high plain] above La Paz, the killings galvanized rural workers, the unemployed, and the miners from the regional labor confederation (COR) into action. Indigenous workers could be heard shouting, "Civil war! Civil war!" The next day, the gas coalition vowed solidarity with the indigenous rebels.

Fourth, the COB’s decision to call a general strike beginning September 30 propelled the rebellion forward. Declaring solidarity with the indigenous struggle and the gas protests, the COB announced that it aimed to halt government repression and block gas privatization. The strike did not fully get off the ground until its second week. But outrage at the mounting death toll eventually prompted workers to overcome fears of losing their jobs in retaliation for participating in the strike. With the weight of the organized working class firmly behind the protests, the momentum that had been building against Sánchez de Lozada proved unstoppable.

Among the immediate results of the gas war was the COB’s recovery of legitimacy after years of passivity and kowtowing to the political parties. The former COB leadership had been voted out at its last national congress in April 2003. The new leadership under Jaime Solares and Luis Choquetilla now proved itself under fire through its role in the October rebellion.

The rebellion catapulted the Coalition for the Defense and Recuperation of Gas, formed in early September 2003, to prominence. This organization represented the transformation of Cochabamba’s water coalition into a new fighting force around the issue of gas. Óscar Olivera, who in some of his writings had clearly identified the gas question as a time bomb for both U.S. imperialism and Bolivia’s ruling class, surfaced as its main architect and spokesperson. The principal sectors comprising the gas coalition were the factory workers of Cochabamba’s Federation of Factory Workers, the cocaleros (cocaine farmers) under the leadership of Evo Morales, and various professional associations and NGOs with established ties to the water coalition.

Limitations of the gas rebellion

The Bolivian working class is arguably the most militant in South America. Workers carried out one assault after another against the country’s ruling elite from the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century.

In 1952, Bolivia’s miners marched on the capital city of La Paz and disarmed the military. Workers took control of the mines and redistributed the property of wealthy landowners among the landless poor. Bolivia’s main labor confederation–the COB–and its workers’ militias emerged as an alternative power rivaling the power of the bosses’ state. But the leaders of the revolutionary movement–including Bolivia’s main revolutionary party, the Partido Obrero Revolucionario (Revolutionary Workers Party)–eventually put their faith in middle-class nationalist politicians, who soon derailed the revolution and moved to strengthen Bolivian capitalism.

From 1970 through 1971, workers again attacked the power of Bolivia’s bosses. A split in the army and the ruling class created an opening for a united front comprised by the COB, the state labor confederations, the Left parties, student groups, and peasant organizations to call a popular assembly. This time, however, the workers had not armed themselves. Their leaders instead trusted "progressive military officers" to insure the movement’s goals. The political parties reached backroom deals that limited the reforms of the Popular Assembly. The tragic outcome was a right-wing coup and military dictatorship.

In the mid-1980s, 10,000 miners armed with dynamite sticks returned to La Paz. They occupied government buildings and won the support of rural workers, students, and the city’s population. But illusions in the new "democratic government" once again scuttled hopes for transforming society. Despite taking over La Paz, the miners gained nothing from their militancy. The new government introduced the agenda of austerity and free-market measures known as neoliberalism to Bolivia in 1985, and the workers’ movement still has not recovered from the bosses’ offensive.

In each of the revolutionary moments of the last half-century, Bolivia’s workers and their leaders have ultimately looked to reform-minded middle-class politicians, or to "progressive" army generals, who promptly acted to put the brakes on these struggles. That is why the revolutions failed–and why the lives of workers and their families inevitably suffered.

The insurrection that unfolded between September 19 and October 17, 2003, clearly embodied the potential to bring down not only the president but also the Bolivian state. The revolt possessed the raw force and class fury necessary to seize control of the country’s political institutions. Yet, once again, protesters placed their trust in middle-class and "progressive" politicians, who used their power to quickly re-stabilize the situation.

The Movement Toward Socialism (Movimiento al Socialismo, or MAS) is the main opposition party in Bolivia. Its leader, Evo Morales, finished second by only one percentage point in last year’s presidential election. As mentioned, Morales is also the leader of Bolivia’s coca growers, a powerful social movement representing 50,000 families whose livelihood has been destroyed by the U.S.-imposed program of coca plant eradication.

Morales did not initially commit the cocaleros to building the October unrest. Although the growers did participate in the September 19 demonstration called by the gas coalition, Morales held back the bulk of his forces until the second week of the general strike–when it became apparent that he had to join in or risk losing credibility. Morales’s MAS, too, balked at jumping into battle and actually played only a minor role in the uprising.

Eventually, the main contribution of the MAS was not to advance the struggle, but to steer it in the direction of a negotiated settlement with establishment politicians. Like Felipe Quispe–the head of both the Bolivian Peasant Workers Union (Confederación Sindical Única de Trabajadores Campesinos de Bolivia, CSUTCB) and the political party Movimiento Indígena Pachacutik (MIP) in the altiplano–Morales intervened to save the Bolivian state. Both the MAS and MIP lobbied hard for Vice President Carlos Mesa to constitutionally succeed Sánchez de Lozada, despite the fact that Mesa was and is a fervent supporter of neoliberalism. While calling for a Popular Assembly as the way out of the crisis, moreover, the MAS specified that the assembly would meet, not independently, but rather under the aegis of the judicial branch of the government. And after Mesa’s first speech as the new president, Morales gave him a resounding endorsement, declaring that "80 percent of [Mesa’s] message" could have been written by the MAS itself.

The damage to the revolutionary movement caused by the MAS was substantial. Its electoral ambitions insured that it would act to stem the revolutionary tide. Once again, reform and "progressive" politicians had led ordinary working people back into the arms of the bosses’ state.

The new struggle over gas

Following the October 2003 gas war, a lull set in that was to persist, despite some sporadic outbreaks of struggle, into the second half of April 2004. Indeed, not only the leaders of the MAS, but also those of the gas coalition, the COB, and other components of the social movements, argued that "the Bolivian people are tired at the moment and still filled with illusions in the Mesa government." They also stated that post-October was a time for "making positive proposals instead of throwing rocks."

In a more analytical vein, a mass meeting held by the COB in La Paz assessed the October uprising differently. A report on the meeting concluded that,

After initiating and leading a great social upheaval, which resulted in more than 70 deaths from government bullets and more than 500 wounded, the workers, the peasants, the oppressed nations and the impoverished middle classes did not bring down the power of the dominant class because they had no revolutionary party to rely on.1

In other words, no revolutionary organization(s) existed that had helped to build–and that had thereby earned a leadership role in–a conscious mass movement for socialism.

Social conflicts began slowly to break out again starting in February 2004. Most of these involved isolated sectors of workers tired of waiting on the Mesa government for wage increases or for the fulfillment of other economic demands. By mid-April the struggle in three sectors had grown particularly violent: retired miners, university students, and the landless peasants. One pensionless miner blew himself up with dynamite as a public act of protest, while hundreds of his comrades occupied a government building threatening more self-immolations until their demands were met. Riot police clubbed and gassed students at La Paz’s University of San Andrés, a public institution with seventy thousand students, who were protesting education budget cuts. And the landless movement had threatened to paralyze the country with roadblocks. The government managed temporarily to settle these disputes before May 1.

Nevertheless, it was the gas issue once again in May and June 2004 that galvanized urban and rural workers into action. More than any other issue today, the question of natural gas most clearly pits the interests of ordinary Bolivians against the interests of the bosses and their state. It has crystallized the debate over neoliberalism and has led to an extreme polarization of Bolivian society.

When Mesa took over the Bolivian presidency from Sánchez de Lozada in October 2003, one of the promises he made to the insurrectionary groups was to hold a referendum on natural gas within the year. This referendum is now scheduled for July 18. The social movements, including the unions, are demanding not only the nationalization of natural gas but also its "industrialization." By this they mean not only that the formal ownership of Bolivia’s oil and gas resources should be reclaimed by the state, but also that the state should undertake to build an industrial infrastructure that would enable gas to be refined in Bolivia. The social movements are thus in favor of selling Bolivian natural gas, but only if it is sold "with value added"–that is, not as a raw material–and only if the profits flow to the Bolivian people rather than the transnational oil companies.

With the nationalization and industrialization of gas as its central demand, the COB launched a direct action campaign to pressure the Mesa government on May 2. Called as an open-ended general strike, the campaign started off weakly. Over the course of the preceding months, Evo Morales and the MAS had declared their support for Mesa through the 2007 elections and had come out against any further social protest. Morales maneuvered to split the Central Obrera Regional (COR) in El Alto into reformist and radical wings, which had enormous political repercussions. El Alto–the city perched atop La Paz in the altiplano–holds the greatest concentration of workers in Bolivia, and the urban and rural workers of the high plain formed the backbone of the October rebellion. Similarly, MAS officials won control over the majority wing of the main peasant union (CSUTCB), leaving only its minority wing led by Felipe Quispe to support the COB and its president, Jaime Solares, in the general strike. Both before and after the strike began, Morales colluded with Mesa to plan and to implement "divide and conquer" strategies to defeat the strike.

Throughout May, however, the strike gradually gained strength. Less a general strike in the classic sense–in which workers walk off the job indefinitely and establish permanent roadblocks and barricades–the COB strike initially adopted the form of different sectors mobilizing for marches and blockades on alternating days, within a framework of escalating the magnitude of the protests. In one of the most spectacular protests of the first few days, 400 ethnic Guaraníes occupied a petroleum plant in tropical Bolivia. Throughout mid-May, marches of 5,000—20,000 occurred several times a week in La Paz. By May 24, the COB was able to successfully organize a symbolic, peaceful occupation of the downtown areas of five major cities in actions involving tens of thousands of workers. The next day the workers and neighborhood organizations of El Alto finally joined the COB campaign. In wave after wave, angry protesters descended upon La Paz shouting anti-government and pro-nationalization slogans. Police estimated the demonstrators at 60,000, while union organizers counted 200,000.

What assured the qualitative leap in the strength of the COB-led protests was the Mesa government’s duplicity in regard to the promised referendum on natural gas. In April, the government had broken its promise when it sold gas to energy-strapped Argentina without prior consultation of the people. The decision proved particularly irksome because part of the reason for Argentina’s gas shortage was its existing contracts to sell Argentine gas to Chile. Bolivia effectively had agreed to sell its gas to Argentina at one rate, while Argentina was selling its own gas to Chile at a higher rate.

With this deception still in people’s minds, the government chose to make public in mid-May the five questions to be included on the ballot for the July referendum. The word "nationalization" did not appear on the ballot even once, and all the questions appeared rigged in the government’s favor. In response to criticism, Mesa confirmed that, no matter what the result of the referendum, existing contracts with the transnational petroleum corporations would not be affected. In other words, the referendum was in fact a big lie designed to keep Bolivian gas privatized and serving the interests of foreign and national capital.

Reliable news agency polls reveal that 83 percent of Bolivians stand in favor of the nationalization and industrialization of natural gas. The level of government deceit, combined with the overwhelming support for nationalization and industrialization, has led the COB and its allies to press Mesa for nationalization now, without the referendum. And, should the referendum go ahead, virtually every mobilized sector among the social movements is calling for a boycott of what they see as a pro-imperialist trap.

The renewal of struggle today shows that the fight for economic and social justice in Bolivia is far from over. Indeed, as long as the Bolivian state survives in the hands of Bolivian capitalism, the aspirations of the indigenous nations will remain unfulfilled, the coca eradication program will continue to ruin lives, and no action will be taken to give effective control of natural gas to the Bolivian people. The frustration of all these goals will ensure continuing outbreaks of struggle for the foreseeable future. The potential for the development of mass revolutionary consciousness clearly exists in the growing awareness that the question "who will control natural gas?" cannot be resolved in the interests of Bolivian workers within the framework of capitalism and its existing political institutions.

Revolutionary consciousness will be sorely needed and tested in the coming months. If urban and rural workers in Bolivia fail to achieve the nationalization and industrialization of natural gas, the cycle of struggle that began with Cochabamba’s water war may close down for a substantial period. But if workers do win, their victory will represent a serious challenge to capitalism across the globe. It will inspire similar rebellions everywhere.

1 Quoted in Econoticias, online at on October 19, 2003.

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