BOLIVIA: GAS BILL PASSES, PROTESTS EXPLODE

from Weekly News Update on the Americas

PREZ FAILS TO EASE PROTESTS

Some 15,000 campesinos, students and other protesters filled the Plaza Murillo in La Paz on May 30 to demand nationalization of Bolivia's natural gas resources and the seating of a constitutional assembly. Police did not repress the protests, which on May 30 were mainly limited to La Paz and the adjoining city of El Alto. (La Jornada, Mexico, May 31 from AFP, DPA)

The next day, May 31, more than 50,000 people gathered in La Paz for what Associated Press called the biggest demonstration since the latest round of protests began on May 16. Rural school teachers, members of El Alto's neighborhood organizations, Aymara indigenous campesinos from the Altiplano region of La Paz department and other protesters closed off access to the center of the capital, blowing up sticks of dynamite and blocking all the major intersections with burning tires. Police used tear gas and clashed with the marchers, especially El Alto university students. In El Alto itself, everything was closed by a civic strike which began May 23. As night fell, thousands of protesters remained in La Paz, and police used more tear gas and rubber bullets to try to disperse them. At least 10 people were wounded by rubber bullets and seven people were arrested. (LJ, June 1 from correspondent; El Nuevo Herald, Miami, June 1 from AP)

On June 1, more than 10,000 rural and urban public school teachers marched again through La Paz, as did a huge contingent of small business owners and vendors from El Alto and Aymara campesinos from the Altiplano. By the afternoon of June 1, the protests in La Paz had calmed, but in the communities of Ayo Ayo and El Tholar in the Altiplano, Aymara campesinos began blockading the roads that connect the capital with cities to the south and east. The roads linking La Paz with Chile and Peru to the north and west had already been blocked since May 28. In Cochabamba, campesinos and factory workers led a massive march through the center of the city on June 1 for the same consensus demands of nationalization and a constitutional assembly. In Santa Cruz de la Sierra, where the wealthy business class has been pushing demands for regional autonomy, rightwing paramilitary thugs from the Union of Crucenista Youth attacked a campesino march arriving from the north of Santa Cruz department. Local police broke up the fight with tear gas. (LJ, June 2 from correspondent)

Transport workers in La Paz began a two-day strike on June 2. (Miami Herald , June 4)

At 11 PM on June 2, after the Bolivian Congress failed for the second consecutive day to reach agreement on bills to convoke a constitutional assembly and a national referendum on regional autonomy, President Carlos Mesa Gisbert announced he was issuing Supreme Decree 28195, which sets Oct. 16 as the date when Bolivians will elect representatives for the constitutional assembly and decide the regional autonomy question in a referendum. The decree must be ratified by Congress in order to be valid. In his televised announcement, Mesa emphasized that the constitutional assembly is the best forum to reconsider the hydrocarbons law which took effect on May 17 and to take up the issue of nationalization. La Paz mayor Juan del Granado, a former leftist, played a key role by meeting with Mesa earlier in the day and pressing him to issue the decree. "If this decision is not ratified by Congress," announced Del Granado, "all the institutions of La Paz will go on hunger strike." (LJ, June 3)

Abel Mamani of the El Alto Federation of Neighborhood Committees (FEJUVE) said on June 3 that the decree is "illegal" and fails to address "the main demand of the social organizations, which is the nationalization of the hydrocarbons." (AP, June 3) Movement to Socialism (MAS) leader Evo Morales also blasted Mesa's decree as "absolutely anti-constitutional" and called it a "show" with which the president seeks to "demobilize the people." (LJ, June 3) Leaders of the Santa Cruz business class are likewise dissatisfied with Mesa's decree; they insist the autonomy vote be held on Aug. 12. (Miami Herald, June 4)

Earlier on June 2, Morales and other MAS deputies had blocked Congress from simultaneously considering the bills on regional autonomy and the constitutional assembly, as it had agreed to do the night before. MAS said Congress must first pass the constitutional assembly bill. Congress president Hormando Vaca Diez, a senator from Santa Cruz, blasted the move by MAS, and citing inadequate conditions, suspended legislative sessions until June 7. Hundreds of campesino coca growers (cocaleros) from the Chapare region of Cochabamba department--Morales' base of support--gathered outside the Congress building and tried to keep the legislators from leaving. They managed to beat up one senator, Gonzalo Chirveches. (LJ, June 3)

On June 3, as the transport strike paralyzed La Paz for a second day and protesters blockaded more than 40 highways in eight of Bolivia's nine departments, leaders of the Catholic Church announced they would seek to mediate a solution to the conflict. (AP, June 3) Also on June 3, the Confederation of Urban Teachers of Bolivia announced it was rejecting the government's latest salary offer and would maintain the open-ended national general strike which started May 6. The same day, La Paz teachers took Deputy Education Minister Celestino Choque hostage in an effort to force him to explain why the Education Ministry claimed that unionized teachers earn high salaries and bonuses. (Los Tiempos de Cochabamba, June 4)

In Santa Cruz department, Radio Erbol reported that nearly 2,000 campesinos had seized the gas wells of the Chaco company to demand nationalization and the constitutional assembly. (Resumen Latinoamericano, June 3 from Bolpress)

In San Pablo, Trinidad, a group of military and police agents were attacked with gunfire as they tried to dismantle a blockade from the San Pablo bridge on the highway linking Trinidad to Santa Cruz. Three people were killed. Presidency Minister Jose Galindo said the troops were ambushed by hired professionals. (Los Tiempos, June 4)

As of June 4, highways were blocked at more than 55 points in seven Bolivian departments, with La Paz and Oruro departments having the most blockades. Early on June 4, the Assembly of the Guarani People (APG) set up a blockade along the Camiri-Santa Cruz route, joining the demands for a constitutional assembly and nationalization of the gas. The APG is also demanding the creation of a 10th department in the Chaco region of Bolivia, to include four provinces currently located in Santa Cruz, Chuq uisaca and Tarija departments. In Cochabamba department, cocaleros say they will blockade a main highway through the Chapare on June 6 if the nationalization issue is not resolved. (La Razon, La Paz, June 5; Resumen Latinoamericano, June 3 from Bolpress]

In other news, in a May 25 operation organized by the Santa Cruz departmental government, military troops and police agents forcibly evicted members of the Bolivian Movement of Landless Rural Workers (MST) from the Los Yuquises estate in Santiesteban province, Santa Cruz department. No injuries were reported. From May 8 to 12, the Los Yuquises squatters had held hostage a group of 60 people who were hired to attack them. (Bolivia Press, from Centro de Documentacion e Informacion Bolivia, CEDIB, May 27; Alai-amlatina, May 25; Bolpress, May 25)

Weekly News Update on the Americas, June 5

On May 23, some 5,000 Bolivian coca growers (cocaleros) from the Chapare region of Cochabamba department arrived in La Paz after a four-day, 200-kilometer march from the town of Caracollo in Oruro department to press for national control of oil and natural gas resources and the convening of a constitutional assembly. The Federation of Neighborhood Committees (FEJUVE) in El Alto began an open-ended general strike the same day. As the cocaleros passed through El Alto into La Paz, El Alto's organized indigenous majority chanted demands for "not 30%, nor 50% royalties--nationalization!" Bolivia's popular movements are pressing for full nationalization of hydrocarbons resources, while MAS leader Evo Morales, who headed the cocalero march, has reaped harsh criticism for his compromise proposal that the government increase gas royalties to 50%.

American Airlines cancelled all its flights to the La Paz international airport--located in El Alto--and other airlines cancelled some flights. As many as 50,000 street vendors and other small-scale merchants joined the cocalero marchers and El Alto residents in mobilizations in La Paz, culminating in a massive rally in San Francisco Plaza. As Morales spoke, some people in the crowd shouted "nationalization" and "close the parliament." Morales, who is a legislative deputy, insisted that Congress should not be shut down. Other speakers included Bolivian Workers Central (COB) executive secretary Jaime Solares, who called for nationalization, the closing of the parliament and the resignation of President Carlos Mesa Gisbert, and urged the military to join the people in defeating the oligarchy.

Weekly News Update on the Americas, May 29

GAS LAW SPARKS PROTEST WAVE

On May 16, some 10,000 Bolivian workers, campesinos and unemployed people marched into the center of La Paz from El Alto to press for the nationalization of oil and gas resources, the convening of a constitutional assembly and other demands. The protesters tried to topple security fences and push past a heavy contingent of agents from the Special Security Group to reach the Plaza Murillo and seize the national legislature; police barely managed to keep them back using tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons. The tear gas drifted into nearby schools, forcing teachers to abruptly cancel classes and children to flee through the streets in a panic. (El Diario, La Paz; AP, May 17)

At the same time, thousands of miners set up road blockades on May 16 at numerous points in the center of Bolivia, halting transportation between the departments of La Paz, Oruro, Potosi and Cochabamba. The action was organized by the National Federation of Mining Cooperatives (FENCOMIN) to draw attention to specific demands relating to the mining sector, and to push for nationalization of hydrocarbons resources. (ED, May 17)

The same day, May 16, 5,000 campesinos and workers began marching to La Paz from Caracollo, in Oruro department, to demand the nationalization of hydrocarbons and the immediate convening of a constitutional assembly. The marchers included members of the Only Union Confederation of Bolivian Campesino Workers (CSUTCB) and the COB, as well as campesino coca growers from the Cochabamba tropics, oil workers, irrigation workers and members of the MST. ([ED, May 17, 18)

On May 17, Senate president Hormando Vaca Diez signed into law a controversial hydrocarbons bill which maintains royalties on gas production at 18% but creates a new 32% direct tax on production and requires companies to renegotiate their existing contracts with the government to comply with the new rules. Congress passed the bill late on May 5, and Mesa declined to either sign it, return it Congress with recommended changes or veto it outright. Vaca Diez apparently had no choice but to sign the bill; article 78 of the Bolivian Constitution dictates that if the president fails to act on a law within 10 days of receiving it from Congress, the president of the Congress must promulgate it. The law was published and took effect on May 18. (AP, May 17)

On May 17, as soon as Vaca Diez signed the law, the Bolivian Chamber of Hydrocarbons (CBH), a business group of oil and gas companies with investments in Bolivia, issued a communique blasting the new legislation. The CBH said that while the gas companies would remain in Bolivia, they would freeze their investments. "We believe this law has a confiscatory character which affects rights recognized by the contracts, laws and the Political Constitution of the state and international treaties," said the communique. The main players in CBH are the Spanish company Repsol YPF, British Gas and British Petroleum, Brazil's Petrobras and the French company Total. (AP, May 18)

On May 17, after Vaca Diez signed the law, Mesa gave a lengthy address on television and radio announcing a new economic and social program called "Bolivia, Productive and in Solidarity," for the period from 2005 to 2007. Most of the country's social sectors seem to have ignored Mesa's plan or dismissed it as a feeble attempt to stem popular protests. "Carlos Mesa is trying, once more, to fool Bolivians; but the simple working people, from the country and the city, have a clear idea that at this moment we have to nationalize the hydrocarbons and call a constitutional assembly to avoid a social uprising with unpredictable consequences," said Cochabamba factory workers' leader Oscar Olivera, spokesperson for the Gas Coordinating Committee. (ED, May 18; Servicio Informativo "Alai-amlatina", May 19) MAS leader Evo Morales called Mesa's plan a "distractionist maneuver." (El Nuevo Herald, May 21 from AP)

On May 18, some 1,000 miners and El Alto residents marched into La Paz, firing off sticks of dynamite and demanding Mesa's resignation; police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse them. (ENH, May 19 from AP)

Later on May 18, the government signed an agreement with the leaders of the mining cooperatives to end the blockades which had kept inter-city transportation in Bolivia almost completely shut down for three days. The government agreed to assign more of the new gas tax revenues to the departments of La Paz, Oruro and Potosi; provide some $7 million in credits and financial assistance, along with help in purchasing equipment and building homes; extend rent agreements between the state-run Bolivian Mining Corporation (Comibol) and mining cooperatives; limit taxes imposed on mining cooperatives; and regulate the companies which buy ore from the cooperatives. (ED, AP, May 19)

On May 19 nearly 2,000 miners, together with campesinos, unionists and El Alto residents, shut down the center of La Paz and forced Congress to suspend debate over a law authorizing a referendum on local autonomy being promoted by the rightwing oligarchies of Santa Cruz--the country's wealthiest department--and the gas-rich southern department of Tarija. Despite conflicts among the legislators, the Chamber of Deputies gave initial approval to the autonomy referendum and was set to begin debate over each of the bill's articles when COB leader Jaime Solares and El Alto council members Roberto de la Cruz and Wilson Soria, together with a group of workers, tried to occupy the legislative chamber. Police used tear gas to block their entry, but after Solares threatened to bring in "500 miners with dynamite to close the Parliament" the session was abruptly suspended and the Santa Cruz deputies fled out the back door. (LJ, May 20; ED, May 19)

Thousands of people marched again in La Paz on May 20 to press the same demands for nationalization of the gas, against the autonomy referendum and for a constitutional assembly. The march brought together campesinos, miners and unionists from the COB with university students, teachers and state health workers. Also on May 20, police arrested two people and confiscated 4,589 sticks of dynamite and other explosives in El Alto which they said might be used in protests. (LJ, May 21 from AFP, DPA)

On May 21, the Santa Cruz Provisional Autonomy Assembly (APA) announced it would not wait for Congress to approve the autonomy measure but would instead call its own binding referendum on autonomy to be held on Aug. 12. Tarija has reportedly joined in the call for the Aug. 12 referendum, as have the departments of Beni and Pando in the Bolivian Amazon. (LJ, May 22 from DPA, AFP, Reuters)

La Paz got a break from protests on May 21 and 22 as the city celebrated an important traditional folkloric dance festival in honor of the "Lord of Great Power." (ENH, May 22 from AP)

Weekly News Update on the Ameicas, May 22

According to the Miami Herald, some of Mesa's advisers had told him to reject the bill because foreign lenders had made clear that if the bill passed, Bolivia risked a cutoff of credits. High-ranking officials in Argentina, France, Spain and Brazil--home to companies with oil or gas investments in Bolivia--privately told the Mesa administration that if he signed the gas bill Bolivia would face reprisals, including billion-dollar lawsuits by the companies, according to an unnamed Western diplomat cited by the Miami Herald.

Other advisers had reportedly urged Mesa to sign the bill, saying that rejecting it would prompt new protests and perhaps force Congress to consider imposing even higher taxes on corporations. (Miami Herald, May 12 from correspondent)

Weekly News Update on the Americas, May 15


SQUATTERS TAKE HOSTAGES

On May 8, a group of armed assailants hired by local landowners, accompanied by Ayoreo indigenous people they had contracted as thugs, attacked the Pueblos Unidos (United Peoples) rural squatter encampment on the Los Yuquises estate in Santiesteban province in the eastern Bolivian department of Santa Cruz. According to Bolivia's Movement of Landless Rural Workers (MST) and the Unity Pact, an eastern region coalition of indigenous, campesino and grassroots groups, at least three squatters were disappeared in the attack and a number of people were beaten. Two people were wounded, one squatter and one assailant. The assailants also burned rice and pineapple crops and several homes. (Bolivia Press, May 10; Adita, May 13)

MST members responded by taking 60 assailants hostage. On May 10, a delegation headed by Minister of Goverment Saul Lara and national police commander David Aramayo went to the area to try to negotiate the release of the hostages. The delegation included representatives from the Ministry of Sustainable Development, the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights of Bolivia (APDHB), the Catholic Church and the International Committee of the Red Cross. On May 12, the squatters agreed to release the hostages after the government promised to prioritize making a determination on ownership of the Los Yuquises estate, and distributed land to MST members. (Adital, May 13; El Diario, La Paz, May 11, 12)

The assailants said they were hired to harvest rice for 50 bolivianos ($6.18) a day, but when they arrived to work they were given weapons and told to violently evict the squatters. Local residents said landowners send recruiters to impoverished neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city of Santa Cruz to hire members for their "shock troops."

MST leader Silverio Vera said the conflict at Los Yuquises concerns an estate which has no owner, but which is being sought by businessperson Rafael Paz and his brother. The land conflicts in Santa Cruz intensified after the MST exposed the illegal appropriation by business owners of properties in the north of the department which the government had promised to distribute to landless families. Both the squatters and the business owners blame the National Agrarian Reform Institute (INRA) for being too slow in assessing and distributing land. (Adital, May 13)

Bolivia's conservative media mainly covered the incident at Los Yuquises from the perspective of Santa Cruz business owners who called the MST a "subversive" and "terrorist" group and demanded that the military forcibly evict all squatters in the region. Jose Cespedes, president of the Agricultural Chamber of the East (CAO), said that if authorities don't stop the MST, "we will be obliged to make use of the legitimate right to defense, with measures proportionate to the constant aggressions we suffer at the hands of the invaders." Cespedes claimed the MST is using its encampments as training camps for an armed movement. (ED, May 11; Adital, May 13)

Weekly News Update on the Americas, May 15

Weekly News Update on the Americas
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See also WW4 REPORT #108
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Reprinted by WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, June 10, 2005
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