Recovering Bolivia’s Oil and Gas

Petroleum and natural gas are riches found in our territory; they represent national wealth. The presence of oil and gas provides an objective condition that can permit the expansion of the national economy and the raising of the quality of life and work using our own Bolivian resources. Bolivia possesses a great wealth of petroleum and natural gas, but these resources do not currently benefit the Bolivian people. Despite the current situation, these deposits are important for the future economic viability of Bolivia.

The sheer value of the oil and gas is important to the future of the Bolivian economy. The 52.3 trillion cubic feet of gas reserves in Bolivia-reserves presently in the hands of foreign capitalists-are minimally worth $120 billion.1 This means that financial resources exist in Bolivia for improving the living conditions of the whole population. The resources exist for job creation, better salaries, and expanding free services.

One hundred twenty billion dollars is an extraordinary amount of money. Such funds can enable the creation of a new productive base that could halt the country’s decline and rescue it from industrial and commercial insignificance. The resources exist to modify the structure of national production by broadening its industrial base, improving the transportation system, and diversifying the economy. Better yet, it could build the economy without the foreign loans or favors that always end up submerging us in greater dependency.

But as long as this wealth belongs to foreign businessmen who have appropriated resources that belong to others, these dreams remain unfulfilled. Foreign capitalists are getting rich, and intend to go on getting rich, from these resources. They restrict the possibilities that this wealth, which should belong to us, might be used to benefit the lives of all Bolivians. The capitalists, whether local or foreign, puts profits and her or his own personal benefit above the collective and national interest. The transfer of wealth to private and foreign hands is the fate that has befallen the collective national patrimony.

What could be a source of rebirth for the productive capacity of the nation is, for now, only a source of profits and private fortunes for a handful of capitalists. The private ownership of petroleum and natural gas by these businessmen constitutes, without any doubt, the strangulation of one of the greatest opportunities the nation has ever had to finance and to sustain the type of productive growth that can benefit the population, satisfy our needs, and fulfill our right to a dignified communal life.

We have economic wealth, but this wealth is not under our control. We have the potential to make a great technological and productive leap that could benefit working people-the real owners of the gas and oil. Yet those who stand ready to benefit are foreign businessmen and their local commercial and political associates who have handed over to foreign capital what belongs not to them but to all Bolivians.

Bolivia’s possession of natural gas and petroleum, because of their world-wide use, is what most strongly ties the national economy to world trade and foreign investment. The principal consumers of Bolivia’s hydrocarbons are businesses, governments, and citizens of other nations, particularly those in neighboring countries. Moreover, it is estimated that by the end of 2000 direct gas-related foreign investment in Bolivia originating from extremely powerful multinational companies will total $1.4 billion, equivalent to 20 percent of our GDP.2

The management and control of these resources, whatever option is adopted, needs to take into account how petroleum and natural gas link us to world trade. We need to realize that these commodities speak within the international economy as objects of trade embody the commercial value of natural wealth. The presence of private foreign interests is also observed in their production and management.

A third economic implication is that gas and oil, along with water, are the sources of energy upon which the nation depends. With our technical knowledge, gas and oil will nourish the long-term development of the national economy. Any strategy for national economic and social development in the context of the global interdependence of nations-whether a business strategy, or a community-based strategy of self-management-requires, if the nation’s relative autonomy and material viability are to be sustained, the ability to control the wealth embodied in hydrocarbons. Today, such strategic resources are controlled by business consortiums whose only goal is rapid private gain. These groups stand in the way of the possibilities we have, as a country, for productive development and autonomy in matters of economic policy.

On the basis of this economic and political analysis two things become clear. First, the country must recover the control and management of its hydrocarbon resources. This is perhaps the nation’s last best chance to materially revolutionize the country’s productive infrastructure and improve the working and living conditions of the Bolivian people.

Second, we should understand that no possibility exists for autarkic development of our resources in isolation from the rest of the world and the dominant economic interests. We do not need to lie down and roll over. However, for as long as the hegemony of the bosses and the transnational power of the great capitalist enterprises survive, our economic policy must conquer spaces of self-government and economic autonomy which connect to other spaces of autonomy, resistance, and economic self-management in other nations. In truth, only the mid-term and long-term quest for an interdependent globalization of workers’ autonomy and economic self-management can eventually furnish the moment in which ordinary working people can enjoy the use of their wealth.

When we talk about recovering our national patrimony, the central questions remain: Who or what is the “nation”? What would it mean to recover the control and management of hydrocarbon resources “for the nation”? Who decides the meaning, and who authorizes the voice, of the “nation” that will take charge of the reappropriation of natural wealth?

Up until now, the entity that incarnated the nation, its authority, and its sovereignty has been the state. From the 1940s to the 1990s, the state has attributed to itself the power to represent the nation, its destiny, and its political sovereignty. In particular, a bureaucratic, political elite has spoken in the name of the state and claimed to embody the state. On this basis it also claimed to speak in the name of the nation. Hence, for almost fifty years the destiny of the nation has been confused with that of the state; the property of the nation has been confused with the property of the state; the welfare of the nation has been confused with the welfare of state functionaries and government administrators; and the sovereignty of society over its own resources has been confused with the state’s monopoly of the economy, culture, and collective wealth.

That which claimed to possess the voice of the nation was, at bottom, nothing more than a form of state capitalism. It sacrificed the collective resources of society to enrich a caste of politicians and military officers. They, in turn, fattened up and paved the way for the current elite. This elite, in turn, spearheaded the transnational privatization of petroleum and natural gas.

That is why, after sixty years of social struggles to reconquer our natural resources, it is impossible to return to the old state bureaucracy’s strategy for recovering the nation’s wealth. We have seen that nationalization, in the end, prepared the conditions for the denationalization of our collective wealth. The opposite of the cataclysmic privatizations and de-nationalization of transnational capitalism is neither state capitalism nor state property. Both options concentrate control of collective wealth in the hands of a few: in the first case, the corporate bosses; in the second, the state ministers, government functionaries, and lawyers. In both cases, tiny castes and elites-in the name of the free market or the patria (homeland)-appropriate the collective patrimony of Bolivian society for their private use. Both, in their own ways, monopolize social wealth without the decisions and will of ordinary working people.

It becomes a question of countering both forms of privatization-the private property of the transnationals and the private property of the state-with forms of social, economic, and political organization. It is a question of organizing working people, ordinary people, and people who do not live off the labor of others and having them take into their own hands the control, use, and ownership of collective and communal wealth. The true opposite of privatization is the social reappropriation of wealth by working-class society itself-self-organized in communal structures of management, in assemblies, in neighborhood associations, in unions, and in the rank and file.

For the true nation not to be supplanted by the market or the state, the working class, both urban and rural, and the marginalized and economically insecure of the nation-in other words, the overwhelming majority of society-must assume control over the wealth embodied in hydrocarbons. And they must do so through assembly-style forms of self-organization at the neighborhood, regional, and national levels. The sovereignty of the nation should not be alienated by the state or its administrative bureaucracy. The nation must enact a self-representation; it must self-govern through autonomous structures of participation that socialize responsibility for public life. The recovery of patrimony for the nation, the international articulation of the nation, and the form in which economic and political sovereignty is exercised is something that must be decided, implemented, and administered by all of us who do not live off the labor of others.

Now, the mere description of this concept of the nation, as the direct exercise of social sovereignty by all workers, is not enough to make it happen in reality. It requires a lengthy process of reconstituting the social fabric of solidarity, trust, and mutual support among the poor, among urban and rural workers, among the ordinary working inhabitants who maintain this country. It requires an effort to rebuild, broaden, and improve the old network of solidarities that neoliberalism has destroyed over the last twenty years. Though a difficult and possibly long road, it remains the only road by which power and control over our natural and social patrimony can be administered by plebeian and working-class Bolivia itself. The other road, state re-nationalization, is certainly quicker and easier, but clearly would mean a swapping of one set of elite expropriators for another.

The events known as the Water War in Cochabamba demonstrates that the construction of ties of self-organization, rebellion, and dignity can advance rapidly if one knows how to connect different sources of discontent and overcome the fear and the separation that isolate us and render us powerless. The Water War in Cochabamba is an example of the recuperation of natural resources by working people. Everyone mobilized; everyone assumed responsibility for recovering our patrimony; everyone deliberated in town meetings and assemblies; everyone offered their lives and their food to resist the military repression; everyone made themselves responsible-through their local, regional, and state assemblies-for controlling, directing, and administering water as a collective resource.

The same thing should happen with petroleum and natural gas. If we do not want the bosses and politicians to steal our children’s future, we should help transform the suffering and weariness that has broken out all around us into a force for decision, for coming together, and for mobilization. Today there is great discontent because this gigantic wealth that lies beneath our feet passes right out from under our noses and leaves us stuck in economic misery and desperation. And the gas we buy is priced as if it were flown in from Iraq. Hence, there exists a predisposition to struggle. What we need to do is to create networks of groups that can build social unity, in which individual anger and disillusionment can be converted into collective mobilization, democratic discussion, decision-making, and collective action.

It is necessary to reinforce the consciousness and conviction that Bolivia’s petroleum and natural gas belong to us-to you, to our parents and children, to the factory worker and the craftsman, to the peasant and the communal worker. The responsibility lies with all of us to take charge of the use and management of our oil and gas.

The formation of a new Coordinadora-the Coalition in Defense and Recuperation of Gas and Hydrocarbon Resources-could be a step toward reconstituting the fabric of working-class society. The committees or coalitions comprising the Gas Coordinadora would have as members any citizen, neighborhood group, housewife, or wage worker, and their goal would be to unite and to channel social discontent and collective demands. A word of caution: these groups cannot be allowed to become the top-down operations of a few who want to shine in front of the TV cameras.

The Water Coordinadora in Cochabamba proved able to emerge on the scene of struggle with such force because, starting five years earlier, organizational structures were built from below-from every peasant union, factory union, and outlying neighborhood. These structures had clear objectives: to defend what belongs to the collective; to defend social rights; to defend traditional customs and practices grounded in assembly-based self-governance; and to promote effective collective mobilizations. Only this patient work-ant-like, honest, clear, and committed-could have resulted, years later, in the only workers’, peasants’, and popular organization that has proven itself capable of throwing out a foreign corporation, defeating the state, and, for one week, replacing the state with forms of assembly-style self-government.

With petroleum and natural gas, one must go further and extend this kind of endeavor to the national level. But one must still start from below. Without that method, the recovery of our natural resources and national consciousness will remain impossible.

A version of this essay was originally delivered by Oscar at a seminar held in La Paz on June 30, 2000.


1. Kevin G. Hall. “Bolivians Vote to Boost Control of Gas Reserves,” Washington Post, July 19, 2004. (September 2004). These figures are based on the exchange rate of the dollar in summer 2000 and prices of $2.30 per 1000 cubic feet of gas.

2. “Las Prioridades y Perspectivas del Desarrollo en Bolivia,

“Our participation should not be reduced to the few seconds it takes to deposit our votes in the ballot box. Marches, protests, road blockades, and building occupations are neither adventurous lunacy nor destabilizing conspiracies against democracy. They are simply actions available to ordinary people…”

OSCAR OLIVERA is the author of ¡Cochabamba! Water War in Bolivia (South End Press, 2004), from which this essay is excerpted.

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