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Conflicts between oligarchy and social movements
Is Bolivia headed for a showdown?

February 23, 2007 | Pages 6 and 7

SARAH HINES and KARL SWINEHART report from Bolivia on the state of the struggle one year after Evo Morales took power.

AS BOLIVIA'S first indigenous President Evo Morales celebrated his first year in office in January, increasing tensions and confrontations that threatened to shatter the balancing act his government has tried to maintain between the social movements that put him in power and the country's right-wing oligarchy.

The electoral success of Morales' Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party came in the wake of the toppling of two elected presidents--by mass mobilizations of Bolivia's many social movements against the government's neoliberal policies, especially regarding natural resources.

Morales was elected with 54 percent of the vote in December 2005, promising to fulfill the social movements' demands for land reform, nationalization of the country's natural resources, increased funding for education and health care, a doubling of the minimum wage, respect for coca production, and a Constituent Assembly that would rewrite the country's constitution.

To the extent that Morales has tried to fulfill these promises, he has faced a relentless campaign of obstruction by right-wing parties that represent the oligarchy of petroleum, mining and land interests. These parties want to prevent any change to the status quo, and to push the Morales government and the social movements on the defensive.

Hoping to placate the right without alienating its base, the Morales government has used radical rhetoric while keeping its reforms moderate and making a series of concessions.

Now, at the same time that the government is faced with stepped-up opposition from the right, it is also beginning to face a challenge from social movements to push reforms further.

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MORALES' POPULARITY surged to 80 percent last May when he announced the nationalization of natural gas--long a major rallying cry of social movements that want the revenues used to develop this impoverished nation, rather than line the coffers of multinational corporations.

Morales' nationalization decree reversed the formula agreed to by ousted President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada. Under the new arrangement, Bolivia will receive 82 percent of gas revenues--resulting, according to the government, in an increase in payments from multinationals from $240 million a year to $1.6 billion.

The government is using the increased proceeds to open new health clinics and hospitals, provide a subsidy to families with school children, increase education funding, embark on a literacy campaign and provide tractors to poor farmers.

But the nationalization affects subsoil resources only--it leaves untouched energy refineries and other installations, which continue to be owned and controlled by foreign companies. Thus, Morales could say, "We are exercising as Bolivians our property rights over our natural resources, without expelling or confiscating anything from anyone."

The nationalization was supposed to establish the state-owned oil company Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales Bolivianos (YPFB), all but broken by privatizations during the 1990s, as the majority shareholder at all installations.

But according to a recent study by a Bolivian social science research group, the petroleum giants continue to operate with exclusive rights to explore and exploit gas reserves, and control gas operations overall.

The contradictions between the rhetoric and reality of nationalization came to a head at the beginning of February when the residents of the town of Camiri in the gas-rich Chaco region went on strike, blockading a main regional highway and occupying the Transredes refinery, whose primary owner is the multinational Royal Dutch Shell.

The Chaco region is estimated to possess 1.6 billion cubic tons of natural gas, but the strikers contend that economic benefits aren't reaching the area's impoverished population. They ultimately demanded full nationalization, with expropriation of all property of the petroleum companies, and with the YPFB actually operating the gas industry, as opposed to playing an administrative role.

The government responded by sending in troops, causing a confrontation that left eight people wounded. "We regret what has happened in Camiri," Morales said. "Our compañeros have occupied the plants, and the plants already belong to the Bolivians. When a plant is occupied, the company doesn't lose, Bolivia loses."

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THE GOVERNMENT has been careful to proceed with nationalizations and other reforms through legal channels.

Yet as has become increasingly clear, the right wing isn't interested in compromise. It will go to any length to prevent reform--no matter how moderate--and weaken the government and social movements.

The Constituent Assembly, charged with rewriting the country's constitution, has been stalled for the last six months by the right's insistence on two-thirds approval for each article. The MAS has offered to compromise--to the point of practically accepting the right-wing's proposals--only to be rebuffed, showing that the "two-thirds is democracy" cry of the right is, in reality, only a means to stall the assembly until its mandate expires.

After a huge march of the indigenous in November, Congress passed changes to the Agrarian Law that challenge the interests of the country's latifundistas (large landholders)--in what Morales has called an "agrarian revolution." In fact, while the new provisions threaten to redistribute unproductive land, they include concessions to the latifundistas and provide time to make unused land productive.

The government has announced that 2007 will see the nationalization of the mining sector and the reactivation of the state-owned mining corporation COMIBOL. The government currently receives only 1.5 percent of the value of mining exports and is proposing that at least half the value of exports be paid in taxes.

Last month, the government announced that it would nationalize without compensation the Vinto mineral processing plant--owned by ousted President Sánchez de Lozada, having been illegally slated for privatization in 1994 when he was still in office.

However, the government has assured private and "cooperative" mining companies that the property of firms "that respect Bolivian law, that don't rob from the Bolivian people, will be respected."

Thus, "nationalization" will mean adding state-sector jobs where possible, and seizing assets only where laws have been broken.

Evo is also beginning to see opposition from his own base--the coca growers he used to lead.

Coca growers in both the Chapare and Yunga regions are protesting the government's "voluntary eradication" plan that would limit coca growing to one cato (equivalent to about 175 square yards or about one-third the size of a football field) per family.

According to both Bolivian and U.S. authorities, the MAS government seized 26 percent more cocaine base and cocaine hydrochloride in its first nine months of office than were seized in the same period in 2005. Nevertheless, the U.S. has still refused to renew its trade with Bolivia and continues to claim that coca production has increased.

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THE GOVERNMENT'S concessions have not mollified the right.

In December, state officials and "civic committees" of the eastern departments of Beni, Pando, Santa Cruz and Tarija--which make up the Media Luna (Half Moon) region, so-called for its half-moon shape--mobilized hundreds of thousands to rally in support of an autonomy arrangement that would allow the elites of these departments to control oil and gas contracts and revenues, independent of the government.

When Cochabamba's ultra-right-wing Gov. Manfred Reyes Villa jumped on the autonomy bandwagon in December, MAS supporters from around the department converged on the city of Cochabamba to demand his resignation.

The MAS government's attempts to demobilize the protests once they threatened to escape its control left protesters without leadership or a strategy to push the struggle forward. So while the right came out of the confrontations in Cochabamba more organized, the social movements were demoralized by their failure to remove Reyes from office.

Threats of "civil war" are part of a general strategy of fear-mongering and destabilization by the right wing. Nevertheless, it is worth pointing out that the new U.S. ambassador to Bolivia, Philip Goldberg, is an experienced "balkanizer"--having played a key role in the breakup of ex-Yugoslavia.

The MAS, unfortunately, adheres to the mistaken idea that confronting the right will only antagonize them further.

As MAS Sen. Antonio Peredo Leigue wrote after the events in Cochabamba, "The leadership of Evo Morales has reined in, once again, the danger of a national confrontation. It is necessary that this leadership be recognized in order to halt provocations. In this context, the process of change will advance more decisively, and the right will be left isolated."

In reality, the government's concessions are giving the right room to build momentum--and demobilizing the very base that could defend and advance the government's program.

Morales continues to enjoy strong popularity after his first year--a January poll showed 59 percent support in major cities and an even higher rate in rural areas. But it will take a further revival and mobilization of the country's social movements to defend the government against the right--and push for more fundamental social change.

As Eusebio Merlo, a leader of the Federation of Neighborhood Councils in El Alto, put it, "We know that the struggle is long. It doesn't end with Evo Morales--the struggle continues. It's a process.

"So, as leaders, we don't just speak, but we listen to the regions...they want a profound change. We really want for the indigenous to learn how to administer natural resources and learn how to run our country. That's our vision, the vision of our neighbors and of our leaders."

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