Bolivia Postscript: Tensions Building

Against the Current, No. 116, May/June 2005

Jeffery R. Webber

SUNDAY, MARCH 27, 2005 — According to one of Bolivia’s most famous reactionary social scientists, Roberto Laserna, there have been 3,020 events of social conflict in Bolivia between 1994 and 2004.(1) Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that much has happened since the early weeks of February of this year, when I wrote “The Rebellion in Bolivia” (see pages 13-15). Nonetheless, while some social forces have shifted, the basic polarization between Left and Right national projects has not changed.

Undoubtedly, the event with most political and social consequence in the last two months was the faked resignation of President Carlos Mesa. On the evening of Sunday March 6, 2005 Mesa announced, in a speech lasting approximately 45 minutes, that he would present his (revocable) resignation before Congress on Monday morning.

Late that Sunday night and into the early hours of Monday morning I went to the Plaza Murillo, which hosts the Presidential Palace, to witness thousands of organized middle-class right wingers from La Paz work themselves into frenzied chants of “Death to Evo!” (Evo Morales, leader of the Movimiento Al Socialismo, MAS), “Evo and Abel are the Apocalypse!” (Abel Mamani, key leader of the FEJUVE-El Alto, Federación de Juntas Vecinales de El Alto, Federation of United Neighbors of El Alto), and “mano dura,” or “iron fist,” asking Mesa to stay in government and repress the social movements that had effectively shut down most of the country through blockades and strikes in the preceding week.

In retrospect, it seems clear, Mesa never intended to resign. He announced his resignation on Monday for Congress to consider, expecting that they would rally behind him. The unelected president — whose position of power is a product of the October 2003 popular insurrection — was looking for a new mandate from the political Right.

In his calculated and manipulative speech of Sunday evening he named the enemies of state — Evo Morales and Abel Mamani — and announced the necessity of proceeding with policies around natural resources, natural gas and water especially, that would be “viable” in the face of the “international community” — meaning the imperialist and sub-imperialist states, international financial institutions, transnational corporations, and the local bourgeoisie with extensive ties to international capital.

Reaction vs. Popular Solidarity

To do this the country needed to rally around Mesa, to clear the roads of blockades and protect the “human right” of free transit and commerce, and to denounce as the frauds they are, the Aymara-indigenous social movement and Leftist political party leaders, Mamani and Morales respectively. As Mesa hoped, the middle class came out in force, drawing on a long tradition of racial hatred and fear of the lower classes.

Meanwhile through Congress Mesa abandoned his tacit 17-month old pact with Evo Morales and MAS, and built a new Right-wing coalition with the traditional parties Movimiento Nacional Revolucionario (the National Revolutionary Movement, MNR), Movimiento de la Izquierda Revolucionaria, MIR), and Nueva Fuerza Republicana (the New Republican Force, NFR). This part went as Mesa planned.

What he didn’t predict was a radicalized unity of Left forces. On March 9, an “anti- oligarchic” pact was signed by the following individuals in the historic La Paz headquarters of the Bolivian Workers’s Central: Evo Morales, Jaime Solares (leader of the Bolivian Workers’ Central, the COB), Felipe Quispe and Román Loayza (leaders of the campesino union, the CSUTCB), Roberto de la Cruz (councillor of El Alto, who played a central role in the October rebellion), Alejo Véliz (leader of the Trópico de Cochabamba, an association of coca-growers), leaders of the Bolivian Movimiento Sin Tierra (Landless Movement), Oscar Olivera (from the Coordinador of Water and Gas), Omar Fernandez (from the irrigating farmers’ association in Cochabamba), among others.(2)

Journalist Luis Gómez has commented that these folks don’t normally pass time comfortably together, never mind sign pacts of solidarity. So at the time, the potential seemed great. The uniting theme was the demand that the new hydrocarbons law, in front of Congress at the time, would increase royalties paid by transnationals to the Bolivian state on hydrocarbons (mainly natural gas) to 50%.

Blockades went up with force in support of this demand, especially those led by the cocaleros (coca growers) who are closely aligned with MAS.

Bizarre Maneuvers

Then, in a complicated and bizarre set of events — as the cocalero blockades persisted and a “light” hydrocarbons law passed through the lower house and moved to the Senate — President Mesa, on March 15, announced on television that he wanted presidential elections, scheduled for 2007, to be moved forward to August of this year because it was impossible to govern.(3)

This was rejected as unconstitutional by Congress, and Mesa continues as President (although now with significantly less support from within the middle class), with elections still scheduled for 2007. The blockades were lifted, however, as Evo Morales helped to de-radicalize the cocalero bases, many of whom wanted to continue with blockades until 50% royalties on gas was ensured.

The proposed hydrocarbons law is before the Senate, and the outcome remains unclear. There are no roadblocks, and the capital is eerily quiet given the tradition of many Paceños (residents of La Paz) to leave the city for religious vacations during semana santa.

The “tense calm” that everyone here refers to is likely to break in the near future, as the extraordinary underlying tensions and social divisions within this country persist.


  1. Cited in Fernando Molina, “Los conflictos, ¿causas o resultados?” Pulso del viernes 24 al jueves 31 de marzo de 2005.
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  2. See forthcoming, Susan Spronk and Jeffery R. Webber, “The Two Bolivias Square Off,” Canadian Dimension.
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  3. For an attempt to piece all these events together in more detail see many of the articles in El Juguete Rabioso, Año 5, No. 125, del 20 de marzo al 2 de abril de 2005.
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ATC 116, May-June 2005