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"Popular Participation" in Bolivia’s Gas Referendum*

When Colombian President Álvaro Uribe Vélez gave the signal for the propaganda onslaught — accompanied, coincidentally, by paramilitary threats and harassment — in favor of his referendum in October 2003 (in which 81% of the Colombian population abstained from participating), some Colombian analysts reminded readers that Hitler had used referendums to build fascism. Referendums can be demagogic instead of democratic. Brought to power on the strength of a popular, indigenous-led insurrection in October, Bolivian President Carlos Mesa is a different species of politician than Uribe or Hitler, of course, but his July 18 gas referendum — one of the three pillars of the program imposed on the government (the other two being a constitutional assembly and an end to government impunity) — fit squarely in the demagogic camp. The Mesa administration, along with neoliberal political parties (MNR, MIR, NFR), the Catholic Church, Evo Morales/MAS, the Permanent Human Rights Assembly, the Human Rights’ Ombudsman’s Office, and numerous NGOs, equated participation in the referendum with support for “direct democracy.” The referendum was pitched as an unprecedented historical opportunity for the Bolivian people to decide the fate of their natural resources; one that they, as citizens of the world’s second-most unequal country measured in terms of the distribution of wealth and income, could not afford to miss.

The five questions of the referendum were as follows:

1. Do you agree that the current Hydrocarbons Law should be changed?

2. Do you agree that the Bolivian State should have rights to hydrocarbons once they reach the ground?

3. Do you agree that YFPB [the oil company privatized under Sánchez de Lozada] should be re-established in order to control hydrocarbon production?

4. Do you agree that Bolivian gas should be used to regain useful or sovereign access to the Pacific?

5. Do you agree that Bolivian gas should be exported, and that multinationals should pay 50% of projected profits for rights to exploit Bolivian gas, and that the government should invest in health, education, and infrastructure?

The chief architects of October’s uprising — COR-El Alto, FEJUVE-El Alto, UPEA (El Alto’s public university), the COB, the branch of the CSUTCB led by Felipe Quispe, and the Coordinadora of Gas in Cochabamba — advocated a boycott because Mesa refused to incorporate the demand supported by over 80 per cent of Bolivians: nationalization. According to social movement leaders, dominated by but not limited to indigenous people, Mesa’s referendum offered only the appearance of sovereignty, insofar as it neglected to revise the seventy-eight contracts signed with multinationals under the 1997 Hydrocarbons Law — brainchild of former president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, who authored the decree two days before leaving office for the first time. In short, opposition movement leaders contended that the referendum, since it was not retroactive, would leave Bolivian gas and oil in the same multinational hands that acquired it before neoliberalism fell into the crisis that led to Sánchez de Lozada’s downfall on October 17, 2003.

With coup rumors launched by Waldo Albarracín, the Human Rights Ombudsman, on July 14, the message was explicit: those who advocated a boycott threatened Bolivia’s “democratic” stability and, willingly or not, favored the forces of reaction. On the evening of the 15, speaking on PAT (a television station of which President Mesa is a major shareholder), Mesa equated social protest with violence, intolerance, and disrespect for democracy, and used his formidable skills as a television broadcaster to persuade his audience of the specters he conjured up for them. Immediately following Mesa’s address, PAT showed the results of its nationwide opinion poll ­ even in El Alto, only 10 per cent favored burning referendum forms. A tiny, radicalized minority, then, threatening to subvert Bolivia’s democratic order, pushing it inexorably towards a reactionary coup. The tune was not new, and its one-note insistence recalled Goni’s pathetic song and dance in September-October. So did the searches and seizures conducted in La Paz on July 13, which ostensibly revealed the existence of a “subversive group,” harboring “explosives” in order to “sabotage” the coming referendum. Neither the alleged subversives nor the explosives were shown to the ever-compliant press, which asked few questions and told necessary lies.

The anniversary of the foundation of La Paz was unusually tense this year, and on July 15 Mesa nipped the traditional celebration in the bud at midnight, under the “Auto de Buen Gobierno,” declared in order to prevent widespread drunkenness before the referendum. Drink continued to flow in copious amounts in bars across the city into the early morning hours, but the packed, all-night street festival in the city center was shut down via a show of overwhelming state power. On the 16, security measures were tightened in the Plaza Murillo to protect the president, his cabinet, and the diplomatic corps from “threats” of undisclosed provenance. Meanwhile, with sporadic blockades beginning in El Alto, Roberto de la Cruz, one of the leaders of COR-El Alto, received multiple death threats before turning off his cell phone. The fault lines in the loose coalition that overthrew Sánchez de Lozada were thrown into sharp relief: on the official side, Morales/MAS — the “respectable,” electoral opposition — and the representatives of Bolivia’s only politically legitimate state institutions (the Permanent Human Rights Assembly and the Ombudsman’s Office); on the other side stood the insurgent forces without whom the referendum would never have been put on the national political agenda in the first place.

As Lucila Choque, a UPEA professor of Aymara descent (and former student of mine), noted on PAT on July 14, the second question was particularly deceptive, since it appeared to give Bolivians sovereignty over gas reserves, without reversing the privatization process first initiated under Jaime Paz Zamora (1989-1993) and accelerated during and after Sánchez de Lozada’s first administration (1993-97). Choque explained that what Bolivians like her wanted was for her and her children to eat better, to have decent lunches instead of soup and bread, and she explained that that would never happen unless Bolivian gas was sold at world market prices (as opposed to 20 per cent of said prices). Mesa had betrayed the October agenda, and according to Choque, people like her knew it, which is why they advocated a boycott; no one was against a binding referendum per se, or even the export of gas, she said. The issues concerned the terms and conditions of sale, and the nature of the questions on the referendum. To their credit, then, representatives from the movements advocating a boycott explained their reasoning on television, radio, and in meetings with the rank-and-file in their respective organizations. They argued that the people had already spoken out in favor of nationalization.

As soon as they were divulged in May, the questions were scrutinized around the country, especially in El Alto, and given media efforts to stereotype the opposition as a small group of maximalist “dead-enders,” the opposition demonstrated an impressive capacity for sustained, respectful debate. In the media, much was made of the people’s incapacity to understand the technical complexities of gas exploitation, and Mesa inundated the airwaves with simplistic explanations of various aspects of the process. Yet as in September and October, the opposition articulated a clear vision of what it wanted: national sovereignty over natural resources, especially the 53 trillion cubic meters of gas reserves ­ the second-largest in Latin America. For the opposition, nationalization is considered the only hope for a future that would break with past cycles of non-renewable natural resource extraction (silver, tin, rubber), which enriched a small number of creoles and foreigners at the expense of urban artisans and Andean peasant communities. The debate over the referendum reflected clashing historical interpretations and contrasting — and perhaps incompatible — visions of the country’s future. President Mesa tried to represent the referendum as a chance to break with the past, threatened only by a violent minority that refused to recognize the democratic rights of the majority. Yet the in the region whose almost exclusively non-violent resistance and rebellion made Carlos Mesa president in October, the majority saw the referendum as continuity, thinly disguised as change; a way of masking the minority interests of privileged groups as the general interests of the nation.

In the face of widespread deployment of police and military forces throughout the country, with characteristic pragmatism, on July 18, some rank-and-file militants opted for a “third way” between the maximalism of their leadership and the opportunism of Evo Morales and MAS. Although the latter had considerable influence in the towns (pueblos), their reach was limited in the countryside. Even Roberto de la Cruz voted, following the rank-and-file consensus, but not in response to the questions as formulated on the ballot. Like many, he voted for nationalization. In District 8, Senkata — gateway to Oruro and a key site of conflict in October — was heavily militarized, with continuous blockades on the Avenida 6 de Marzo in which two people were injured. Yet the voting tables were open all day, and members of the FEJUVE and the COR voted, many casting blank ballots or writing in the word “nationalization.” At another flashpoint in October, Santiago II, a zone composed largely of ex-mining families, many voters opted for nationalization as well. In other words, the boycott in El Alto fell flat (excepting Senkata), but insofar as significant portion of the rank-and-file expressed a preference for nationalization, which Mesa had excluded from consideration, they sent a clear political signal that attempts to void the content of October’s agenda via the manipulation of democratic forms will not go unchallenged.

In Achacachi and Warisata (Omasuyos), insurgent Aymara districts that led struggles in defense of natural resources in 2000 (land, water) and 2003 (gas), most voters were senior citizens who feared they would lose their right to a government bond if they failed to vote. The majority abstained from voting. Many of those who did vote wrote in “nationalization” or handed in blank ballots. Eugenio Rojas, a community member from Achacachi and veteran of the gas war in 2003, explained, “We are organizing ourselves because the Aymara and the Quechua don’t sleep. This is a long fight. we have to return to [the issue of] political redistribution. We have to reconstruct the ayllu, but not just the Aymara, but our brothers, the Chimanes, Gauraníes, Quechuas, because we can’t usurp their lands, or their forms of government, we have to unite with them.” Rojas warned that the process could not be allowed to fall into the hands of any of the political parties, whether MAS or NFR. For Felipe Quispe, leader of the CSTUCB, the referendum represented a “sad defeat,” since “the people have lost and the transnationals have won.” In Cochabamba, site of the water war in 2000 and one of the fronts in the gas war in 2003, Oscar Olivera and the Coordinadora for Gas held parallel tables and launched a campaign for the recollection of a 1,000,000 signatures in favor of nationalization. Olivera emphasized that the referendum would bring no changes in the daily lives of working people. “The people are building their own horizon. The referendum ends today but the struggle continues; it’s irreversible. This referendum won’t change people’s lives and people will understand that in time.”

As one neighborhood leader from Senkata put it, nationalization of gas under the type of state run by Mesa would be an advance, but a limited one. The strategic goal, he said, was to change the state, in which case nationalization would lead to radical change. His position echoes those put forth over thirty-five years ago by two of Bolivia’s leading national-popular intellectuals, René Zavaleta Mercado and Sergio Almaráz. In 1967, in a deep and wide-ranging debate at the University of San Simón in Cochabamba, both Zavaleta and Almaráz insisted that even if petroleum were to be nationalized, unless the state was nationalized along with it, gains would be limited and subject to reversal. Just as the eventual nationalization of Gulf Oil (1969) was linked to the formation of the Asamblea Popular (1971), so the nationalization of gas is tied to the constitutional assembly slated for 2006.

Though Mesa and the adoring media have proclaimed victory, since the majority response to all five questions was “yes,” they are surely premature in doing so, as is Morales — although of rank-and-file activists who voted, perhaps a majority voted “yes” on the first three questions and “no” on the last two, just as MAS had advocated. Why, then, is celebration premature? Because the overall abstention rate was around 40% (10% higher than normal for Bolivian elections), and of those who voted, an average of 12% handed in blank votes, while 11% turned in nullified votes. This gives an average total of 63% who passively or actively dissented from what is already being passed off as a consensus on the future exploitation of Bolivia’s gas and petroleum reserves. The referendum has opened the floodgates for debate and struggle over nationalization — not just of natural resources, but also of government and the state itself. What nationalization of state, government, and natural resources would look like in a country with a heterogeneous indigenous majority has yet to be defined, but in spite of the ambiguous language of the referendum’s questions, and the illusion of legitimacy the response to them has created, Mesa has won nothing more than a battle, and then only partially. The war for national sovereignty and the self-determination of the indigenous majority will go on.

*”Popular Participation” is placed in quotation marks because it refers to the centerpiece of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada’s neoliberal reform program (1993-97). Les doy gracias a los compañeros de IndyMedia Bolivia y Radio Wayna Tambo, ya que su trabajo en el día 18 hizo posible este artículo.

FORREST HYLTON is conducting doctoral research in history in Bolivia. He can be reached at

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