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General strike rocks president
Bolivia on the brink

By Tom Lewis | May 27, 2005 | Page 1

A POWERFUL wave of protests erupted in Bolivia May 16 when the country's largest social organizations united in a weeklong series of demonstrations, occupations and blockades. The aim of the actions is to win nationalization of Bolivia's oil and natural gas resources.

Thousands of men, women and children from the poorest neighborhoods of El Alto and La Paz peacefully "took over" government buildings for several hours, threatening to shut down Congress and unseat President Carlos Mesa. "Workers want to recuperate Bolivia's natural resources, and they want a president who is of and for Bolivians," said Jaime Solares, head of the Bolivian Workers Confederation (COB), the country's main union federation.

If Mesa is driven out of power on the heels of the toppling of Ecuador's President Lucio Gutiérrez in April, it will send political shock waves across Latin America.

A report published on the CounterPunch Web site said the mass protests drew out "workers in the massive informal sector, ex-miners 'relocated' to [El Alto] after privatization of the mines in 1985, the unemployed, recent migrants from the countryside pushed from their former livelihoods through the devastation of the agricultural economy in the high plateau, women in traditional indigenous dress with their unique bowler hats, shoeshine boys, Trotskyist teachers, communists, socialists, indigenists, neighborhood activists, populists and others."

Meanwhile, just south of the city of Cochabamba, the Coalition for the Defense and Recuperation of Gas--along with student groups, irrigators' associations and other social movements--carried out a "symbolic" takeover of the refinery at Valle Hermoso. "This is the last 'symbolic' takeover," declared Gas Coalition leader Oscar Olivera. "The next time will be a real takeover for the people to recover, operate and autonomously administer our national patrimony."

Throughout the densely populated altiplano region surrounding La Paz, peasant unions staged roadblocks with the aim of closing off access to the capital. City council members in El Alto, as well as the head of the Regional Workers Confederation (COR), declared a hunger strike and demanded Mesa's resignation.

COR leader Roberto de la Cruz also called for a general "civic strike" that began as Socialist Worker went to press. "We are going to shut down Congress," de la Cruz predicted. "We are going to tear up the existing Hydrocarbon Law. Everything will remain paralyzed, and the Mesa government will throw up its hands and flee."

The call for a general strike was seconded by the Gas Coalition; the COB; both of the major peasant unions; the Movement Toward Socialism party, led by Evo Morales; and a host of civic groups. The decision by the Bolivian Mine Workers Federation to join the strike has also galvanized preparations.

Solares issued a statement last week urging "all neighbors to stock up on food supplies and not to travel because everything will be closed by road blockades starting Monday."

Protests last March called for Congress and the president to enact legislation that would tax transnational oil and gas profits at a 50-percent rate. Congress passed a law in April that appeared on the surface to do just that. But left analysts agree that the new Hydrocarbon Law is as devoted to the neoliberal agenda as earlier versions.

Adding to the confusion, Mesa refused to sign the new law because he didn't think it was tough enough. So he left it to Congress to implement the new law.

The response of those forces mobilizing for this week's general strike has been to escalate their demands. Last March, the main call of protests was for 50 percent of the profits of the transnationals, and no one called for Mesa's ouster. Today, except for Morales and the MAS, unions and social organizations are demanding full nationalization, without indemnification, of Bolivian oil and gas. And protesters are demanding Mesa's resignation.

The MAS is holding to its original demand of 50 percent royalties on transnational profits because it wants to portray itself to the U.S. and international capital as a "respectable" electoral alternative to Mesa.

Meanwhile, an attempt by business leaders in the oil-rich eastern states of Bolivia to promote a referendum on regional autonomy seems stymied by lack of support from rural and urban workers there. Capitalists based in the province of Santa Cruz have threatened secession if the new Hydrocarbon Law stands.

The army is closely monitoring the social movements' confrontation with the state and private property, as well as the secessionists' call to break up Bolivia's territorial integrity--and the threat of a military coup is real. Stepping up the mobilization is the best way to defend against such a crackdown--and achieve the demands of the popular movement.

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