A new cycle of conflict has developed in Bolivia as worker unions, coca farmers and ordinary citizens unite to prevent the sale of the nation’s gas reserves to the United States through a Chilean port. In a country whose economic identity has been strongly shaped by U.S. pressure in the war on drugs and IMF structural adjustments, The Gas War is the most recent case where the Bolivian public has vehemently protested against foreign interests taking priority over the country’s economic well being.
Bolivia is currently in its tenth day of road blockades and on September 19th large scale strikes and protests took place across the country. Confrontations with security forces and protesters during these manifestations resulted in over twenty five injuries and seven deaths.
The debate regarding what to do with Bolivia’s natural gas reserves, which are the largest in Latin America, began approximately a year and a half ago when the government proposed that the gas be exported through Chile, instead of the more costly option of exporting it through Peru.
In August of this year civil society and union groups announced a coordinated campaign to stop the exportation which began with direct action in the Yungas, a region north of La Paz. From its start, The Gas War included demands for clarity in coca laws, the release of jailed political leaders and justice regarding the atrocities that took place in La Paz last February.
In Bolivia, there is a profound contempt towards Chile which originated with the Pacific war of 1879 when Chile took over Bolivia’s only access to the sea. This event has fueled much of the tension regarding the plan to sell the gas through Chile. Rather than having their desperate government sell the gas to foreign investors, many Bolivians want it to be industrialized nationally for much needed employment and income.
Bolivia’s president, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, maintains that the millions in revenue from the sale of gas to the U.S. will create jobs and stabilize the Bolivian economy. He has promised that the money generated will go directly into funding for education and healthcare. But many Bolivians believe that foreign companies and Bolivian business and political leaders will be the only ones to benefit from the sale.
The results of a recent survey conducted by Equipos Mori for the Bolivian TV network, Unitel, shows that 70 percent of western Bolivia, mainly located in the cities of La Paz, El Alto and Cochabamba, reject the proposal to export the gas. Whereas 58 percent of the population in the southeast region of the country, where most of the large gas companies and reserves are – Santa Cruz, Tarija and Sucre – support the proposal. (La Prensa, 9/24/03)
Those against the exportation of the gas demand more open discussions regarding the destiny of the country’s natural resource. Yet the lack of significant responses from the government has created the need for direct action.
On Friday, September 19th tens of thousands protested in cities across Bolivia. These marches proved that there are large numbers of citizens who are willing to strike and construct extensive road blockades if the plan to sell gas through Chile moves ahead.
On September 19th, in a protester presence the city of Cochabamba has not seen since the water wars in April of 2000, nearly ten thousand people marched down the streets into the plaza. The protest was made up primarily of coca farmers from the nearby Chapare region, most of whom had left their farms to ride in buses all night to march in the city.
Protest placards in the Cochabambais main plaza read "No To Gas Through and For Chile" and "Soldiers – Who Are You Defending?" Meanwhile political figures such as Evo Morales, the leader of The Movement Towards Socialism party, and Oscar Olivera, the spokesperson for The Peopleis High Command, addressed a raucous crowd.
Calling the people to action against the exportation, Morales threatened, "If the government decides to export gas through Chile it’s hours are numbered." (Los Tiempos, 9/17/03)
The police force, who had had hundreds of officers bussed into Cochabamba from La Paz the day before, were barely present at all in the day’s pacific, but impressive events
Violent Confrontation in Warisata
The next day, September 20th, Bolivian security forces attempted to "rescue" nearly seven hundred people who had been stuck in buses in a road blockade for a week in Sorata, a town north of La Paz. The people maintaining the road blockade were protesting the sale of gas through Chile, as well as demanding the release of imprisoned local leaders.
Among those stranded in the blockade were seventy tourists from the United States, Germany and England. Under urgent recommendations from David Greenlee, the U.S. ambassador in Bolivia, the Bolivian government dispatched the security forces to Sorata to extradite these people from the blockaded area.
When confrontations began in the town of Warisata, just below Sorata, Mauricio Antezana, the spokesman for president Lozada, said that "they had spoken with the campesinos that were blockading Sorata and had reached an agreement that allowed the numerous buses to leave." (La Razon, 9/21/03) But when the security forces arrived, the tension rose and the agreement was quickly ignored.
The security forces began to indiscriminately open fire on the campesinos, while also randomly shooting into homes and schools. Some of the campesinos returned the fire with their own weapons and rocks. In the end, the confrontation resulted in seven dead from bullet wounds, including two soldiers, a sixty year old man, a student, a professor and a mother and her daughter. Nearly twenty five injuries were reported from both sides.
Though government officials maintain that the security forces were ambushed by campesinos, Human Rights investigators from El Defensor del Pueblo, Bolivia’s Permanent Assembly of Human Rights and the Congressional Human Rights Commission stated that there was no evidence of an ambush and that the military had been securing the area around Warisata from early Saturday morning, and that later in the afternoon, though talks had been going on with the campesinos to end the blockade, the military had aggressively moved in for the confrontation.
Government officials proposed that "racist and armed terrorist groups" were to blame for the violence in Warisata. On Monday, photos of armed campesinos were on all the front pages of Bolivian newspapers. Many believe these comments and propaganda are simply an attempt to justify excessive use of force by Bolivia’s police and military in Warisata. Felipe Quispe, Campesino Federation Leader, said that no such terror groups exist and that it was the security forces who had provoked the conflict. (La Razon, 9/23703)
However, in the midst of a national debate regarding the confrontation, press accounts state that during a ceremony on September 23rd in which the U.S. gave the Bolivian government 63 million dollars in development aid, U.S. ambassador Greenlee said that the intervention of the security forces in Warisata was justified. (El Diario, 9/23/03)
Dozens of union groups and political parties met on Monday, September 22, in Cochabamba to decide what course of action to take regarding the deaths in Warisata. At this meeting various leaders, including those from the Movement Towards Socialism, The Peopleis High Command and the Bolivian Workers Union, threatened that if these massacres persist nationwide strikes and road blockades will go on indefinitely. Currently road blockades continue on major highways across Bolivia and it is likely that blockades around the Chapare and Cochabamba will begin soon.
The excessive use of force in Warisata reduces the country’s already weak faith in the government, puts constructive dialogue to a standstill and fuels the likelihood of more violence in the future, leaving the destiny of Bolivia’s natural resource still very much in question.
Ben Dangl works for The Andean Information Network in Cochabamba, Bolivia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org