Not Just About Gas
October 22, 2003

Maria Tomchick

Last week the president of Bolivia resigned in the face of widespread strikes, protests, and a crippling blockade of Bolivia's capital city, La Paz, and its other major cities. The US press largely ignored the tumult in South America's poorest nation and, when the protests were covered at all, they were described as a reaction against the Bolivian government's plans to build a natural gas pipeline through neighboring Chile to the sea.

In actuality, Bolivians turned out in the hundreds of thousands to protest a much deeper problem: the theft of the nation's natural resources. For the past 150 years, Bolivia has been through three major extraction/export cycles. In the 1800s it was silver, extracted by the Spanish colonial rulers to enrich themselves. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, it was rubber, which put money into the pockets of large landowners. Throughout the Twentieth Century it was tin, and Bolivia's small upper class is mostly composed of rich mine owners and executives (including Bolivia's recently booted president). With each extraction cycle, Bolivia's natural resources have been depleted, the proceeds pocketed by a few, and the vast majority of Bolivians starved, scratching out a living on less than $2 per day.

So when the second largest reserves of natural gas were recently discovered in Bolivia, the Bolivian people decided to draw a line. The proceeds from natural gas sales must not be used to enrich a few at the expense of many, the protesters said; the proceeds must go into funding social programs. In a nation where few homes have electricity, the people wanted the natural gas to be used for domestic consumption first before being shipped abroad to run power plants in the United States. Having played the privatization game and lost, Bolivians were ready to change the rules.

The protesters had a few key demands that were somehow always left out of US press reports. In addition to wanting the president--a man who spoke Spanish with a thick, American accent--to resign, they insisted that the government halt and roll back the privatization program. They called for a national referendum so all Bolivians could vote on whether Bolivia should export its natural gas. They called for a new constituent assembly that would represent all sectors of society--not just wealthy landlords and mine owners. They wanted increased spending on social programs, land reform, and higher wages. They wanted Bolivia to withdraw from the US-dominated Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). Whether they will get any of these things remains to be seen. Certainly, they have won the first round with the ouster of President Sanchez de Lozada.

They've won something else, too, that's been widely ignored in the US press. The current Bolivian protests represent the success of a certain type of globalization that few people expected: the globalization of anti-globalization protests. Bolivia has been through mass demonstrations before, particularly in the 1999-2000 struggle that prevented Bechtel from taking control of a large water utility in Bolivia's second-largest city. That, too, was a protest against privatization, and a successful one. But it wasn't on quite the same scale as the current, massive, nationwide blockade that has involved nearly all sectors of Bolivian society: peasant farmers, indigenous Aymara and Quechua peoples, miners, public sector workers, barrio residents, transport workers, students, priests, union members, small businessmen, and intellectuals. This unity made the blockades and protests effective and will serve as an inspiration for future protests all around the world.

In addition, the Bolivian protests have pointed up the failure of US foreign policy in South America, which rests on two platforms. The first is drug eradication, which has put indigenous farmers out of business without providing alternative work. Certainly, peasant farmers can grow food crops for export, but global food prices are too low for them to make a living. Enormous North American and European corporate farms produce surplus food with governmental subsidies, and that surplus floods the world markets, driving commodity prices down. That's why there was such a big fuss over agricultural subsidies at the WTO. That's also why a South Korean farmer climbed onto the barricades at Cancun and stabbed himself in the chest: he could die slowly, heavily in debt and starving, or he could die quickly and make a statement that the whole world needed to hear. His was an individual protest; in Bolivia, however, unemployed peasant farmers have opted for mass protests over this issue.

The second US foreign policy concern in South America has been to create a showplace for free-market, neoliberal economic theory. By privatizing state industries, IMF technocrats have helped an elite group of very rich people to buy up South America's treasures on the cheap. By forcing cuts in social services, the same economists have driven poverty rates to all-time highs. In Bolivia, some 70-80% of the population lives below the official poverty line. Neoliberal theory has proved disastrous in practice in Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Argentina, Venezuela, and Brazil. All of these nations have been through recent upheavals over disastrous IMF policies.

Fortunately, the Bush administration's narrow focus on Iraq has opened up a space for change in South America. While Bush & Co. are absorbed with the Middle East, the US's Latin American sphere of influence has begun to deflate. Fortunately, no US troops are available for deployment to Bolivia to help the Bolivian army murder peaceful demonstrators. And while $87 billion is pouring out of the US Treasury into the black hole of Iraq occupation, no funds are available to prop up a president who was elected by only 22% of Bolivian voters.

It's exciting to watch the destruction of an old, corrupt system in Bolivia and the birth of a new one. Hopefully the Bolivian people can keep up the pressure and see their demands met.