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How revolt from below toppled a president
Victory in Bolivia!

June 17, 2005 | Page 5

TOM LEWIS is the co-author--with Bolivian popular leader Oscar Olivera--of the book ¡Cochabamba! Water War in Bolivia. Here, he reports on the rebellion that drove out a president.

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MASS PROTESTS in Bolivia forced President Carlos Mesa to resign June 6 and stopped two other U.S.-backed free-market conservatives from assuming power.

Demanding the "nationalization" of Bolivia's natural gas and oil resources, protesters also called for the speedy convening of a Popular Constituent Assembly in the hope of building a new ethnically plural state opposed to the conservative agenda known to its opponents throughout Latin America as neoliberalism.

Neither Mesa nor Bolivia's Congress had done anything to satisfy protesters' demands since the first so-called Gas War of October 2003. In fact, when Bolivia's elite politicians began to debate the gas question this May, it became obvious that any legislation they came up with would fall short of wresting control of the country's natural resources from the hands of transnational corporations. The new Hydrocarbon Law, passed by Congress and left unsigned by Mesa, became a classic case of "too little, too late."

Angered by government's foot-dragging and hostile to a weak "compromise" proposed by the Catholic Church, the protesters continued to gain supporters as mass demonstrations and marches paralyzed large parts of the country beginning in mid-May.

Following Mesa's resignation last week, there was no vice president to succeed him--Mesa had been vice president under ex-President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, who was driven out of the country at the end of the first Gas War in 2003. Next in the line of succession was Senate leader Hormando Vaca Díez, followed by House Speaker Mario Cossío.

Protesters denounced both Vaca Díez and Cossío as unacceptable because of their ties to the transnationals and to local oil barons in the eastern and southern states of Bolivia who have proposed seceding from the country.

Holding huge open meetings to decide what to do, protesters demanded that an interim presidency go to Eduardo Rodríguez, president of Bolivia's Supreme Court and next in line after Vaca Díez and Cossío. It took another round of determined fighting to win this outcome, but by week's end, Rodríguez had been sworn in as president with a mandate to call new elections within six months.

The popular power displayed during the struggle by mobilized neighborhood associations, urban and rural workers, and indigenous groups was incredible.

During a three-week long general strike with its epicenter in El Alto--the poverty-stricken city that stands adjacent to the capital of La Paz--workers laid siege to most major cities, shut down the airports and blockaded highways. Thousands participated in daily marches, then gathered at mass meetings for strategizing and debate. The protesters also occupied a dozen oil wells and refineries across the country.

Because of the roadblocks, the only people allowed to travel on the main highways were groups of protesters moving to strategic locations. Gasoline, food and water supplies dwindled to next to nothing in La Paz.

In order to escape the mass demonstrations held in front of government buildings, Vaca Díez moved the meeting place of Congress from La Paz to Bolivia's historic capital, Sucre. But demonstrators immediately mobilized toward Sucre, where concentric circles of soldiers awaited columns of protesters arriving from La Paz, other cities and the countryside.

The climactic moment of the struggle came on Thursday, June 9. The day before, the son-in-law of Sánchez de Lozada had been spotted on the streets of Sucre--in the company of a high-level adviser to the U.S. Embassy. Protesters rightly suspected that the U.S. was maneuvering to have Vaca Díez installed as president.

The morning of June 9 brought the only fatality of the struggle, when soldiers killed Juan Coro, the head of a mineworkers' local. At that point, protesters' fury overran their leaders' caution as well as their own fear of the military.

Government authority in Sucre collapsed for several hours as popular action prevented Congress from holding a scheduled session. In the mid-afternoon, Vaca Díez had himself whisked away and hidden in a military barracks until well into the night.

Around 10:30 p.m., Congress finally convened for a 10-minute session. It accepted Mesa's resignation, listened to Vaca Diéz and Cossío renounce their right to succeed as president--and then bowed to protesters' demands by appointing Rodríguez as interim president.

On June 11, tens of thousands of people representing all the different groups involved their struggle celebrated victory by marching through El Alto and La Paz--revisiting the sites they had occupied over the tumultuous course of recent weeks.

Although the fight for nationalization of gas and oil is not yet resolved, the social movements have delivered a stunning blow to the Bolivian oligarchy and U.S. imperialism. "We haven't gotten hardly a thing," said one protest leader. "But we did make two fascists like Vaca Díez and Cossío resign."

The next six months most likely will look like a kind of limbo--in which a surface calm veils the preparations of both sides for the next round of potentially explosive confrontations. The issue of organizing for the Constituent Assembly will take priority for the most radicalized sectors of the social movements.

Meanwhile, Evo Morales and his Movement Toward Socialism party will concentrate on electioneering. Morales may well be elected as Bolivia's next president. Given his failure to join the chorus of protesters calling for nationalization of gas and oil--as well as the moderating and sometimes divisive role he played throughout the events of the past month--the U.S. may agree to let him have a shot at controlling the mass movement.

But the demand for nationalization will not go away. As the Democracy Center's Jim Schulz wrote on his "Blog from Bolivia" last weekend, "What happens after a few days or a few weeks of talking? I tell you, I don't see the social movements backing down on this one--not in the face of requests, or international pressure, or arrests, or tear gas and guns."

The future of the rebellion

ONE OF the leading organizations of the struggle that toppled Mesa is the Coalition for the Defense and Recovery of Gas--the successor of the coalition that defeated water privatization in the city of Cochabamba in 2000. Here, we print the Coalition's statement following last week's demonstrations.

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To our mobilized comrades in Cochabamba and in Bolivia:
To the national and international public:
The Coordinating Committee for the Defense of Water and Gas releases our view of the current moment:

WITH THE enormous mobilization of the Bolivian people and the indigenous people throughout the country, we have temporarily avoided the greatest maneuver of the transnational corporations, the U.S. government, the Santa Cruz oligarchy and the traditional Bolivian political parties.

Yesterday, with the efforts of thousands of men and women, and with the life of the miners' cooperative leader Juan Coro, we stopped the return of Vaca Díez's mega-coalition to the government, which would have meant a bloodbath for the Bolivian people and the continued sacking of our natural resources.

This, comrades, is nothing small: All the power of global capital was brought down against us yesterday, and we have managed to stop it. For that reason, we have achieved much more, although we have not gotten exactly what we proposed as strategic objectives for all of the ordinary and hard-working Bolivian people.

These objectives continue to be: 1) NATIONALIZATION, by which we mean the immediate social expropriation of Bolivian hydrocarbons from the hands of the transnationals; and 2) the realization of a sovereign CONSTITUENT ASSEMBLY with the majority presence of the Bolivian population--and not of the political parties--to design a new form of internal coexistence and social regulation for all of us, constructed by a new collective will from below.

In the coming days, we should begin a massive discussion on how to go forward in these two objectives. We feel that after three weeks of confrontations and mobilization, it would be a good time to declare a period of rest, so that the population can replenish its supplies of food and fuel, as well as to see what position the new president, Mr. Rodríguez, will assume toward the people of Bolivia.

To Mr. Rodríguez we say clearly that he must understand that the objectives of the people are the two points outlined previously, and that he is now in the Palace of Government because his predecessors did not listen to us, did not take our opinions and proposals into account, and did not command by obeying the people. We will not accept it if he tries any new tricks, and he has seen the force we are capable of unleashing.

It is important also to reflect upon the following. In this May-June mobilization, we have seen two things. On one hand, the great force that we are capable of deploying--we, the diverse social movements, are capable of paralyzing the entire country and of avoiding the maneuvers of the businessmen and bad politicians. On the other hand, we have not been capable of imposing our own decisions and objectives on these same politicians, who today are in the worst crisis they could possibly confront.

Based on these two considerations, we have opened a wide debate in all the neighborhoods and communities of Cochabamba and the country, about the need to build, little by little, our own capacity for SELF-GOVERNMENT, and to push for that in the next mobilization.

Our immense strength that enables us to shut down the entire country should correspond to a great and creative capacity to carry out our own decisions beyond the official institutions and traditional political parties, which always drive us to the edge of the precipice. On this occasion, this has begun to happen with the occupation of hydrocarbon wells, gas plants and refineries, and on the next occasion, we must be capable of operating them ourselves for our own good.

We will continue, unwavering and irreversible, on this collective goal that the people have been putting together for years to build a country for us, for our children and for our children's children.

LONG LIVE THE UNITED BOLIVIAN PEOPLE!!! DEATH TO THE TRANSNATIONAL CORPORATIONS!!!
Cochabamba, June 10, 2005

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