Rebellion is in the air in Latin America’s poorest country, Bolivia. For weeks, indigenous-led protests have rocked the country and have brought the government to a near shutdown. The protests began as demonstrations calling for nationalization of the country’s natural gas resources but that was just the spark for a much bigger war; a war over the rights of the country’s majority indigenous population. We go to Cochabamba for a report from human rights activist Jim Shultz of the Democracy Center. [includes rush transcript]
Bolivia’s US-backed President, Carlos Mesa, is scrapping to maintain control of the government and there are rumors in the air of coup plots.
Late yesterday, Mesa signed an emergency decree ordering a referendum on greater autonomy for the richest area of the country and a vote in mid-October to elect members for an assembly to rewrite the constitution. The protests have cut off the capital from the airport and blockades have shut down two-thirds of the country’s highways.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
JUAN GONZALEZ: We go now to Bolivia where we are joined by Jim Shultz, the Executive Director of the Democracy Center in Cochabamba. He writes a blog on the developments in Bolivia that can be found at DemocracyCtr.org. Welcome to Democracy Now!
JIM SHULTZ: Good morning. Thanks for having me on, and thanks for continuing to keep this important story alive in the United States and for your other listeners.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, the story has gotten very little coverage here in the corporate press. I’d like to get some sense from you what’s been going on in the last 24 hours and your sense of some of the underlying factors that haven’t yet surfaced.
JIM SHULTZ: Well, let’s start with sort of looking at what’s happening on the ground. To orient people, the capital of Bolivia, La Paz, is this city of a million people basically at the base of a bowl, 12,000 feet high. It is surrounded by this plain 2,000 feet higher than that called El Alto and the Altiplano outside of that. What has happened for the last 2 1/2 weeks is the indigenous Aymara communities from the Altiplano and from the twin poor city of El Alto have descended onto the capital and essentially shut it down. I mean, there isn’t food coming in and out. There isn’t bus transport in or out. A number of the airlines have cancelled their flights. And there is, you know, 10-20,000 people that have been coming in every day and trying to literally shut the government down by taking over the heart of the city, which is Plaza Murillo, where the congress and the presidential palace are located. This has spread to other parts of the country, as well. Here in Cochabamba, the center of the city has been blockaded now every day for the last three days. There’s limited bus transport out of Cochabamba today, as well. All of this is aimed at forcing the government to take back control of the nation’s oil and gas resources, which were privatized under I.M.F. pressure in the mid-1990s. And really what’s happening is this is the end of a process that has been in motion for more than two years. This is the same issue over which Bolivia kicked out its last president, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, in very similar uprisings in October of 2003.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, but at the same time there’s also a developing autonomy movement in the richest state or province of Bolivia. Could you talk a little bit about that?
JIM SHULTZ: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, part of what’s going on here is traditionally the mineral resources of this country, silver, tin, have been in the highlands where the indigenous communities are strongest and most represented. The oil and gas — and we’re talking about a lot of oil and gas. We’re talking about 53 trillion (with a T) cubic feet. This is the second-largest reserve on the continent after Venezuela. This is a lot of natural gas. It’s in Santa Cruz [inaudible] on the other side of the country, the lowlands, the jungle lands, as well, which is a wealthier part of the country. The response to the demand by the people in the highlands for nationalization and public control has been an effort, especially in the province of Santa Cruz, to demand autonomy, essentially to demand that the national government stay out of certain affairs, and it doesn’t take a lot of reading between the lines to understand what it’s really about is the people who are sitting on the land where the gas is located really want to make sure that they get the biggest share and the most control. And the oil companies have very clearly been manipulating this. This is not an uprising in Santa Cruz of the poor. This is an uprising of the business class. And it is very simple for foreign oil companies to manipulate that process and foment that discontent, and so — I mean, it’s interesting every time the indigenous community has an uprising, the U.S. government likes to blame it on narco-traffickers but they don’t seem to pay attention to the fact that you have this uprising on the other side of the country for autonomy that has oil company fingerprints all over it.
JUAN GONZALEZ: We’re talking with Jim Shultz, the Executive Director of the Democracy Center in Cochabamba, Bolivia. He writes a blog on developments on Bolivia that can be found at DemocracyCtr.org. We’re going to return and talk with him about the role of the United States and the I.M.F. in the current crisis in Bolivia.
JUAN GONZALEZ: We’re talking right now on the phone with Jim Shultz, the Executive Director of the Democracy Center in Cochabamba, Bolivia, about the crisis in Bolivia. Jim, could you talk to us a little bit about the U.S. role in the current crisis and in Bolivian politics, in general, and that of the I.M.F.? You have been writing quite a bit about that on your blog that can be found at DemocracyCtr.org. Can you talk to us about that?
JIM SHULTZ: Well, Juan, it’s important to put the story in the context both of sort of U.S. and I.M.F. policy but also in what’s happening in Latin America more broadly. Bolivia has for the past 20 years been the lab rat for the I.M.F. and the World Bank’s economic policies. Bolivia did it all, privatization of water, privatization of oil and gas, relaxation of labor standards, all of the deficit reduction coming in from the backs of the poor. All of this has been done at the command of the I.M.F. and the World Bank. And Bolivia doesn’t have a lot of choice. When the I.M.F. and the World Bank tell Bolivia, "Thou shalt privatize your water" or "Thou shalt privatize your oil and gas," those are commandments that are very difficult for a poor country like Bolivia to say no to. The fact is it hasn’t worked. I mean, this is a country that has had two major civic uprisings over water privatization, both of which have kicked big international companies out of the country, and now it’s having this uprising over gas privatization. It just hasn’t worked.
I think this is related to what’s happening all over Latin America. If you think about the last 30 years in Latin America, South America in particular, you know, we went in the period in the 1960s and 1970s of right-wing dictatorships and left-wing insurgencies and then we went through a period of elected governments that were very conservative, very tied to the United States and very dedicated to the policies of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and what’s happening now is this movement from the left to, you know, take over governments in Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela through the political process, and in the streets in Bolivia, it is a practical rebellion against a practical failure of the economic policies imposed on these countries from abroad by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
We just released a report in April called Deadly Consequences, which people can find in its entirety on our website. It’s a small book. It traces very clearly how the International Monetary Fund’s demands in this country two years ago for tax increases to reduce its deficit to pay its foreign debtors off more quickly, how that descended into 34 people being killed in the country’s capital, a shooting war between the police and the army in front of the national palace, directly, directly the result of I.M.F. economic policy. So what’s happening in Bolivia is not just the story of Bolivia. It is absolutely the story of Latin America and South America and it is the story of indigenous peoples rising up against a set of economic ideologies imposed on them completely against their will, completely without their consent from institutions abroad.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Jim, in your analysis, why has this been happening at this particular time? Is it that Latin America moved forward with the neoliberal program faster than other parts of the world, and therefore the populations began to recognize sooner the total bankruptcy of that approach? Is it that the United States and the Bush administration are so distracted and overextended by their battle to control the Middle East that they have not been paying attention? What’s been the particular reasons, in your opinion, why it seems the whole continent, the democratic vote and the whole continent is rapidly turning against U.S. policies?
JIM SHULTZ: It is — again, Juan, I think it’s a very practical rebellion against the effect of these policies. It’s important to note because you know, the new article du jour of the press is to talk about the rise of the left in South America. This is not the second coming of Ché Guevara. This is not even an ideological rebellion. It’s more interesting than that. You know, I live in this country. I have lived here for eight years. These are my neighbors. By and large, people who live on the margin don’t have the luxury of ideology. What they want is practical solutions to their practical problems like: Can they get water? Can they find a job? And what’s happening is, people in Bolivia, in particular, and it’s the same trend in Brazil — I was just there not long ago — people are basically saying, "This whole package of economic policies, it isn’t working. It hasn’t delivered the goods." If it had, if privatization of water, for example, had delivered water, if privatization of oil and gas had actually increased public revenues and made it possible to lift up people’s lives, I think people here would have embraced it. That’s the point to me that’s the most important, is what’s going on is a reaction to these policies that is not rooted in ideology, by and large. It is rooted in the absolute practical failure of those policies to do anything but make the lives of the poor more miserable.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And the current situation now in Bolivia, if President Mesa is forced out of office, given the fact that you have a very strong right-wing autonomy movement in the richest province and that Evo Morales, the popular leader, has been almost sidelined by this indigenous revolt that continues to grow, what do you see as the potential developments that could occur once Mesa steps down, if he does?
JIM SHULTZ: Right. Well, you know there is an expression in Bolivia that people use a lot called, "Todo es posible," everything is possible. Usually when people say it they mean, "Can you bring a 1982 Toyota Corolla back to life after it’s died?" Now when people say, "Todo es posible," they are talking about politics, and everything is possible. We could have a coup. That is entirely possible, although I’m optimistic that won’t happen. We could have the conflict in the streets turn deadly and violent. That has happened. I think that the most likely scenario at this point is the following: I think that there will be some negotiation through which there is the convening of an asemblia constituente, and we haven’t talked about that, that the president has called for it in October. We need to see the details. But I think there will be some sort of settlement in which this issue of gas will be turned over to a constituent assembly, elected at large from the grass roots across the country, and that that’s where the gas issue will be decided. And the side issue to that is to make sure that this call for autonomy doesn’t pre-empt some national decision-making about how to develop the gas. I think we’re headed toward some sort of a negotiated settlement. That is generally what happens here. Usually the Catholic Church, the Human Rights Assembly step in and are able to sort of pull people together. We are at the brink of not being able to do that, but I suspect that’s where this will go.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, I want to thank you for being with us. Jim Shultz, the Executive Director of the Democracy Center in Cochabamba, Bolivia. He writes a blog on developments in Bolivia that can be found at DemocracyCtr.org. His latest book is called Deadly Consequences: The International Monetary Fund and Bolivia’s Black February.