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2005-05-25

Beyond the Gas War: Indigenous Bolivians Fight for "Nationalization of the Government"

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Massive indigenous-led protests continue to rock South America’s poorest country. The fight for control of Bolivia’s vast natural gas resources is fueling the current crisis but a war is escalating over the rights of the country’s majority indigenous population. We’ll go to Cochabamba to hear from the famed Bolivian resistance leader Oscar Olivera and longtime Bolivia activist Jim Shultz of the Democracy Center, as well as activist Moises Gutierrez Rojas of the Aymara Quichua Indigenous organization. [includes rush transcript]

The political situation in Latin America’s poorest country continues to heat up and it’s being fueled by a battle over who will have control of the country’s substantial natural gas reserves. For years, Bolivia has seen a war between pro-US and pro-corporate regimes and an opposition composed largely of indigenous communities, labor unions and dissident political movements.

At the center of these battles has been the debate over control of Bolivia’s water, oil and now natural gas. This week, massive contingents of indigenous communities have escalated their campaign to call for the nationalization of the country’s natural gas industry.

Yesterday, tens of thousands of people blockaded roads in and out of the capital La Paz, while protesters in the militant city of El Alto blockaded highways connecting the capital to the rest of the country and to the Peruvian and Chilean borders. A councilman from El Alto, Roberto de la Cruz, was among four people arrested. There were also confrontations with the police who used rubber bullets and water cannons on the demonstrations. American Airlines suspended its flights in and out of Bolivia, after activists threatened to occupy Bolivia’s international airport in El Alto. Meanwhile, airport workers announced a 24-hour strike for today.

The current political crisis has highlighted a division between the charismatic opposition leader, Evo Morales and his Movement Toward Socialism party and the more radical indigenous communities and leaders. The indigenous groups say Morales has sold out and engaged in unnecessary compromises. They are demanding total nationalization of the country’s natural gas industry and a rewriting of the constitution, demands that have significant popular support. For his part, Morales has been pushing for heavy taxation of foreign companies exploiting Bolivia’s gas. That is essentially what the Bolivian Senate passed last week-a hydrocarbon law that would tax foreign companies 50% of their profits from Bolivia. While the law has shaken the foundation of foreign companies operating there, the indigenous groups say this is not enough. This is what Evo Morales said on May 17.

  • Evo Morales, speaking on May 17:"We could not continue seeing these laws harm the country. We are asking for the repeal of other laws and the marches are going to continue. They are marches fundamentally for the unity of the Bolivian people, marches for the hydrocarbon law that is a resource that should benefit Bolivians."

That was Evo Morales, leader of Bolivia’s Movement Toward Socialism party. While the specifics of the fight over control of natural gas is dominating the current crisis, many observers say the battle is already headed well beyond that to the bigger issue over how long the current regime will last and who will next govern Bolivia.

We go now to Bolivia, where we are joined by two people. Jim Shultz is the Executive Director of the Democracy Center in Cochabama, Bolivia. His latest book is called "Deadly Consequences: The International Monetary Fund and Bolivia"s Black February." He writes a blog on the situation in Bolivia that can be found at DemocracyCtr.org. And we are joined by Oscar Olivera. He is the president of the Cochabamba Federation of Factory Workers and is widely seen as the key figure in forcing the Bechtel corporation out of Bolivia in 2000. He is also one of the leading voices in the international anti-corporate globalization movement. He has a new book out called "Cochabamba: Water War in Bolivia." And, we are joined in our studio by Moises Gutierrez Rojas. He is a representative of the Aymara Quichua Indigenous organization in Bolivia. He is in New York to attend the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

  • Jim Shultz, Executive Director of the Democracy Center in Cochabama, Bolivia. His latest book is called "Deadly Consequences: The International Monetary Fund and Bolivia"s Black February." He writes a blog on the situation in Bolivia that can be found at DemocracyCtr.org.
  • Oscar Olivera, president of the Cochabamba Federation of Factory Workers in Cochabamba, Bolivia and is one of the leading voices in the global anti-corporate globalization movement. He has a new book out called "Cochabamba: Water War in Bolivia."
  • Moises Gutierrez Rojas, Representative of the Aymara Quichua Indigenous organization in Bolivia. He is in New York to attend the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is what Evo Morales had to say on May 17.

EVO MORALES: We could not continue seeing these laws harm the country. We are asking for the repeal of other laws, and the marches are going to continue. They are marches fundamentally for the unity of the Bolivian people, marches for the hydrocarbon law that is a resource that should benefit Bolivians.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Evo Morales, leader of Bolivia’s Movement Toward Socialism Party. While the specifics of the fight over control of natural gas is dominating the current crisis, many observers say the battle is already headed well beyond that to the bigger issue over how long the current regime will last and who will next govern Bolivia. We’re going now to Bolivia where we’re joined by two people in Cochabamba. Jim Shultz is the Executive Director of the Democracy Center. His latest book is called Deadly Consequences: The International Monetary Fund and Bolivia’s Black February. He writes a blog on the situation in Bolivia that can be found at DemocracyCtr.org. We’re also joined by Oscar Olivera. He is the President of the Cochabamba Federation of Factory Workers, widely seen as the key figure in forcing the Bechtel Corporation out of Bolivia in 2000. He is also one of the leading voices in the international anti-corporate globalization movement. And he, too, has a new book out. It’s called Cochabamba: Water War in Bolivia. In our studio, we are joined by Moises Gutierrez Rojas. He is a representative of the Aymara Quichua Indigenous Organization in Bolivia. He is here in New York to attend the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, and we welcome you all to Democracy Now! As we begin with Jim Shultz in Cochabamba at the Democracy Center. Can you lay out the situation right now, and what has happened, particularly in this week, in Bolivia?

JIM SHULTZ: First of all, thanks for focusing on this. It’s a really important issue. The situation right now in Bolivia is as follows. The capital of La Paz is essentially blockaded. Tens of thousands of people from the Altiplano, which is this very, very high, 14,000-foot flat plain outside the city, have descended into the city and essentially blocked it off. The airport is shut down, as you mentioned, and there is a demand for the congress to be closed for this constituent assembly, which is essentially a national constitutional congress, to be held, and the first order of business in their demands is that the gas and oil resources of the country be put back in the hands of the people, be recovered from the corporations. We are really at a standoff. It’s very clear that the protests against the gas deal and in favor of nationalization are extremely intense, extremely well backed in that part of the country. So while you have that going on in the capital, in the other departments of the country, like Santa Cruz, for example, what you have are movements underway for what people are calling autonomy, which is essentially those departments want to be able to separate themselves from the national government. That’s not a big surprise. That’s where the gas and oil is, and the wealthy interests in that part of the country would like to really maintain as much control over the gas and oil as they can. So, you really have this battle of autonomy coming out of the conservative parts of the country and the demand for a constituent assembly and a really complete re-establishment of the state under a different order coming out of the Altiplano.

AMY GOODMAN: Jim Shultz speaking to us from Cochabamba at the Democracy Center. Oscar Olivera is also there in Cochabamba. Can you lay out what you think is the key issue? And welcome to Democracy Now! We’re also translating. Andres Conteris is translating for us here in the studio for both of our guests, both in Cochabamba and here in New York, asking Oscar Olivera to lay out what he sees as the key issue. Andres.

ANDRES CONTERIS: Oscar is sending warm greetings to the listenership of Democracy Now!, and he is explaining a little bit about the situation there in Cochabamba.

OSCAR OLIVERA: [translated by Andres Conteris] I think what we are seeing now is a struggle among the Bolivian people that has been going on for several years. This began some five years ago when the Bolivian people were in the struggle for water, and they were able to kick out the corporation at that time. The people at that time then understood very well that we needed economic change as well as political change. So, since then, in the years 2002, 2003, 2004, what we see is the demands of the struggles are very similar to what they were historically five years ago. So, what we are seeing, very specifically, is that this involves changes having to do with the nationalization of the country’s resources. So really, what this is about is taking away the control of the resources that the corporate powers have there in Bolivia, and this is what the people are struggling for. And so in the political realm, the changes that the people are asking for is to eliminate all of the authoritative and repressive apparatus that is present in the current political structure. So, for 500 years, the indigenous people have historically been excluded from participating in the democratic process of the country in Bolivia.

AMY GOODMAN: Oscar Olivera, do you think Evo Morales represents their views?

OSCAR OLIVERA: [translated by Andres Conteris] Originally, Evo Morales very much was listening to the perspective of the indigenous peoples, but what we are seeing currently is that the emphasis on that perspective is going down quite a bit, and so he’s really not so much focused on the interests of the general population.

AMY GOODMAN: What’s changed him?

OSCAR OLIVERA: [translated by Andres Conteris] I think it has to do very much with the lack of direct contact with the people at the grassroots, and he is in much more touch with the political elite.

AMY GOODMAN: We are also joined by Moises Gutierrez Rojas from the Aymara Quichua indigenous Organization. He’s here in New York at the United Nations for the Indigenous Forum. Your thoughts on this issue, Moises.

MOISES GUTIERREZ ROJAS: [translated by Andres Conteris] Initially, I would like to thank very much this coverage and also to send warm greetings to the audience. There are very much important issues that have to do with the hydrocarbons, the petrocarbon issue at this moment. But the fundamental critical issue in Bolivia has to do with the exclusion of the indigenous peoples that has happened for over 500 years. The hydrocarbons, the water resources have, in fact, been nationalized in two different occasions: in the 1940s with Standard Oil and newly nationalized also in the 1960s. So for the indigenous peoples, whether the natural resources are in the hands of the government or in the hands of the corporation, it doesn’t matter. And so for us, what is most important is to nationalize the state and the government itself. What I’d like to point out about the struggle that happened in the year 2000, the water struggle, the water war that the companero, Oscar, is referring to, it would not at all have been possible without the mobilization of the Aymara people in the region around La Paz. The mobilization at that time had to do against the water laws at that moment. Presently, the country is very divided, and there are a whole range of perspectives. Bolivia is a fractured country.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think that Evo Morales will be the next leader, or will there be an indigenous takeover?

MOISES GUTIERREZ ROJAS: [translated by Andres Conteris] At this time it’s important to point out that Evo Morales received at the national level elections 20% of support. Later on, in the municipal elections, this support was lowered to 18%. What we’re seeing is his support is increasingly going down further. And what my information tells me is that he is reaching a point of desperation because his mobilizations are not reaching the people as they had in the past.

AMY GOODMAN: Oscar Olivera, I will end with you on that question, where you see your country going right now. Who ultimately will lead? This is to Oscar Olivera.

OSCAR OLIVERA: [translated by Andres Conteris] I believe that the transnationals that are located in the eastern part of the country together with the U.S. embassy and its interests are very much causing the critical problem of the crisis in the country right now. The President, Mesa, also has a critical role, and what he has been doing is very much in defense of the corporate powers in the country. These forces are the ones in the country that want to divide the people and want to abscond with the natural resources that have to do with water, forestry and oil and petrol materials. These forces have great resources at their disposal in the economic realm, in communications, and in the political arena, and they are using these resources against the people. And a majority in the country, including workers and indigenous around Bolivia, what we have as our weapon is our dignity, as well as our indignation at what is happening right now and our capacity to construct an alternative society built on justice and respect for the masses.

AMY GOODMAN: And on that note, we have to leave it there, and I want to thank you very much for being with us, Oscar Olivera, one of the leading anti-corporate globalization activists, speaking to us from Cochabamba, Bolivia. We also spoke with Jim Shultz of the Democracy Center there. And in our studio, Moises Gutierrez Rojas of the Aymara Quichua Indigenous Organization. Special thanks to Andres Conteris for translating. And also want to let people know that on our website, we have our headlines translated into Spanish every day at DemocracyNow.org.

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