Movimiento al Socialismo and the Bolivian Gas Wars

Bolivia’s Gas Wars

Bolivia’s gas wars are prime examples of how the privatization of natural resources can cause movements among normal citizens. The precepts of the gas wars started under the presidency of President Sanchez de Lozada. Lozada proposed changes to the hydrocarbon laws and placed new laws to privatize the gas. Besides the new Hydrocarbon laws there was a Superintendency for Hydrocarbons giving the government less power in the matter of this natural resource. This also allowed businesses oil exploration and reduced the taxes on oil by thirty percent. The government had matched the world market prices on gas, to increase the consumption in gas. In 1996 Bolivia had 6.6 trillion cubic feet of gas which grew to 52.3 trillion in 2002. They had the most amount of gas in the Southern Cone and by 2003 gas had become their biggest export (1).

It’s no surprise that the Bolivian government wanted to start selling their gas to Mexico and the U.S. Their project was to build a pipeline, selling liquefied gas to Mexico and the U.S. The project was a collaboration of corporations comprised of The British Petrol and Gas, REPSOL and Sempra Energy. Bolivia wanted an exporter and believed Chili would be an efficient choice despite their issues with them concerning sea rights, after they had lost in the War of the Pacific. Bolivian’s thought their production should remain within their country’s bounds. They thought the production in Bolivia could help their own economy and employment. Despite the dispute, the government still wanted to carry out the idea, even putting out a World Bank campaign to try and convince their people it was the smart way to go. Soon after the World Bank campaign the government began building the gas pipeline. In Tarija, which holds 85 percent of Bolivia’s gas reserves there was a movement to prevent exports. This was a precursor to the movements that followed (1, 2).
The national party MIR lost control over the Bolivians Workers group (Central Oberera Boliviana). These workers were a part of the MAS party, who declared the “Gas Wars”. An Aymara leader was arrested for killing two cow rustlers. Felipe Quispe accumulates 1,000 people to go on a hunger strike. They barricade off El Alto trapping in many tourists. They demanded not exporting Bolivia’s gas and letting the man go were among two of their demands (1).

Soon the movements were dispersed throughout the nation. The government attempted to portray the movements as being fueled by only a small minority. They attempted to move gas from El Sato to La Plaz, killing 26 people in their path. The next day the government killed 20 more, again without regard for human life. In El Sato 100,000 people marched on the city, however the police had no ammunition left and had to surrender to the city to the Bolivian masses. The scene in Bolivia was essentially cities that were barricaded, so that not even tanks could drive through them. Across the nation the people went on hunger strikes, with the goal of driving Lozada from office. They soon got their wish with MIR and NFR giving up their support for Lozada. He quickly resigned and fled to the U.S. The people celebrated by handing out food, in preparation for the long trip back to the mining fields (1, 2).

Once Mesa took office the movements had died down to give him a chance in making some changes. Mesa promised a Constitutional Assembly, to revamp the constitution which is being worked on currently. Mesa attempted to change the Law of Hydrocarbons, but in the end it had little effect. Lozada had already established the law so in reality the law could not be abolished. This meant Mesa had to deal with national capital and property rights of the oil. The law change was minimal, adding a 32 percent tax to the 18 percent that the oil companies already owed. Unfortunately for the Bolivian people, the new law only applied to 2 of the 29 mining fields in Bolivia. People protested again and accumulated similar numbers in the first gas war to get rid of Mesa. Recently, the topic of gas is still debated and many aren’t in favor of exporting it. Many are paying attention to the elections ahead and what can be done concerning the privatization of gas (2, 4).

Throughout the Bolivian protests there was a combination of different demands. They wanted business generated from the gas reserves to stay in Bolivia. Specifically, they didn’t want exportation of gas to Chili or Peru. The people wanted the state to have more control than private or foreign corporations. They wanted privatization of gas to be eliminated, but also the commodity to be used to help Bolivia economically. From a political standpoint they wanted the government restructured to be more democratic. Bolivians want to be able to participate in the dealings of their natural resources, and receive the wealth from them as a national resource (4).

To identify the type of new social movement for the ‘Gas Wars’ is difficult, because it was a national event with many different kinds of people involved. Coordinadora, which started when the “Water Wars” events took place many different types of people were involved. Among them were factory workers, coca farmers and ecological activists. They barricaded off the streets to defend the gas reserves, mobilizing together 50,000 people in La Paz and 20,000 in Cochabamba. This defense was mobilized by Morales and Oscar Olivera. Another group led by Quispe was CSUTCB, a peasant trade-workers union. It was an important group that blockaded the town of Aymara and was the group that also conducted the hunger strike. This highly indigenous group even had the idea for “Two Bolivia’s” composed of one distinctly indigenous people and another that is non-Indian. Eventually even the Landless Workers got involved and began claiming land. Miners also had a big role in the “Gas Wars” who were backed by the groups COB and FUJAVE. Overall the types of movements could be considered either a workers movement or a peasant movement. Even so, most of these groups are made up of average Bolivians, including intellectuals and other activists. The one category that I could compare it to is a natural resource movement. The problem with identifying the gas wars is that the movement was on a national level and included many groups coming together in an attempt to make national political changes (2).

Bolivia’s ideology in the privatization of natural resources started when they experienced the “Water Wars” which began in Cochabamba. When their government continuously commoditized everything imaginable at an alarming rate, water became the pivotal struggle. It was their understanding that if they had to pay for their own water they would have absolutely no control in what the government did. Water is something many expect to have and is a basic necessity for survival. Water was never a huge commodity before the water wars. It also requires basically no technology and is drinkable on its own. The idea of water was different among the indigenous people and the businessmen who wished to commoditize it. The Water Wars gained national recognition different than gas, because gas is a more profitable commodity in comparison to water. Gas has economic qualities incomparable to any other resource out of the ground. The reason the Gas Wars is different from the Water Wars is because it started with the civilians being fed up with the country outsourcing their commodities. The outsourcing of their natural resources has become a trait of the country for hundreds of years, and has left them poor (3, 4).

The Gas Wars is an important event among the new social movements for a few reasons. First, it is against the new neoliberal and globalization ideals. Clearly it wants economic autonomy among private companies and other countries with financial interests in their resources. Bolivians have realized that they’ve been constantly under the same economic and foreign pressures, making them an economically poor nation for a long period of time. It is a movement against the government’s dictatorship that disguises itself among the ideas of democracy. In response Bolivians want more of a participatory role in making national decisions. Also, the movement itself was partly successful in contrast to old social movements. An old social movement wouldn’t have done as well because of lack of organization and involvement. There is no movement similar that could have had such an impact on the nation and drawn so many people together across the country. The event reached its most effective when forcing its president out of office and at least attempted to change some governmental policies. This is what distinguishes it from other movements in that this movement allowed for real governmental and society impacts on the nation as a whole (4).

Works Cited
1. Willem, Assies. “Bolivia: A Gasified Democracy.” European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies 76, April 2004. Pg. 25-41.

2. Hylton, Forrest, Thomson, Sinclaire. New Left Review 35, September-October 2005.

3. Stahler-Stoke, Richard, Vanden E. Harry, and Kueker, David Glen. Latin American Social Movements in the 21st Century: Resistance, Power and Democracy. Pg.77-91. Rowman & Little Field Publishers. U.S:2008.

4. Perreault, Thomas. From Guero Del Agua to the Guerra Del Gas: Resource Governance, Neoliberalism and Popular Protest in Bolivia. Antipode 38, Issue 1, June 2006. Pg. 150-171.

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