Bolivia: The Fall of Carlos Mesa

Against the Current, No. 117, July/August 2005

Jeffery R. Webber

[THIS UPDATE WAS written June 7, 2005 by Jeffery R. Webber, a PhD Candidate in political science at the University of Toronto and a member of the Canadian New Socialist Group currently living in Bolivia.]

PRESIDENT CARLOS MESA Gisbert appeared on television at 9:30pm Monday, June 6, 2005 to address the nation with his latest dramatic gesture of resigning.

The hated right-wing President of Congress, Hormando Vaca Díez, was next in line constitutionally to assume the presidency. If he were to refuse, the President of Deputies, Mario Cossío (a member of Goni’s old party the Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario, MNR) could accept the position. Finally, the President of the Supreme Court of Justice, Eduardo Rodríguez Veltzé would be the third option if the first two refused —the latter scenario favored by the mass social movement. [Two days later, this in fact resulted from continuing mass protests — ed.]

On March 6, 2005 Mesa had announced his first revocable “resignation” on television, denouncing various social movements that were blockading the country, and citing the necessity of following every dictate of imperial power, from the World Bank, to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), to the United States Embassy.

There was no other choice according to Mesa’s logic. His role as president was to take their orders, and if some crazy Indians had different notions about how Bolivia ought to be run, they just didn’t understand the way “democracy” works these days.

A few weeks later, faced with further mobilizations by popular forces and demands from the far right to crush heads, Mesa called for moving the presidential elections forward, then set for 2007.

As Mesa had anticipated, the necessary approval of Congress was not forthcoming. “The Colonial President,” as Luis Tapia recently referred to him, continued in power, increasingly governing from the right.

The Gas Wars

However, popular forces wouldn’t let their agenda slide from the face of politics after over seventy had been killed in the “Gas War” of October 2003. In that struggle Gonzalo (“Goni”) Sánchez de Lozada was removed from power, leaving Mesa — then vice-president — in his place.

Mesa’s mandate derived from his promise to carry through the “October Agenda,” understood by the mobilized masses to mean (i) nationalization of hydrocarbons (especially natural gas), (ii) convocation of a Constituent Assembly to remake the Bolivian state in the interests of the poor indigenous majority, and (iii) a trial of responsibilities for Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada for the crimes he and his closest cronies committed during October 2003.

Mesa failed to carry through the October Agenda, and 2005 had thus become a year of steadily increasing popular mobilization. Most recently, the “Second Gas War” began on May 16 with a large march of organizations descending from El Alto to La Paz, led by the Federation of United Neighbors of El Alto (FEJUVE-El Alto).

On the same day, a number of peasant- indigenous organizations joined a four-day march from Caracollo to La Paz under the banner of the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party, led by Evo Morales.

The demands from El Alto were clearly more radical: nationalization of gas; closing of the Parliament; and the resignation of Carlos Mesa. The MAS-led march demanded 50% well-head royalties to be paid by the transnational petroleum companies to the Bolivian state, instead of the law that passed on March 17 with Mesa’s de facto approval, which stipulates only 18% royalties and a 32% direct hydrocarbons tax. The latter will be easily manipulated by the transnationals, according to critics.

The MAS-led marchers, the various popular organizations from El Alto, the Aymara peasants from the twenty provinces of the department of La Paz, and the miners all bean to converge on the capital by May 23. The capital became the scene of dynamite clashes with the state’s police, and eventually military forces, and the continual dosing of downtown with copious amounts of tear gas and rubber bullets.

The capital was crippled by gas shortages, inflationary prices on basic food products, and water shortages in some neighborhoods. On June 5 between four and five hundred thousand protesters took to the streets in La Paz. Standing in the Plaza of Heroes, one could not see the end of the masses in any direction. La Paz was occupied, and Mesa was forced to make his televised resignation that evening.

The neoliberal state is in crisis, but has persisted against the odds thus far. How the military will respond to each development is also unclear. If the popular bloc manages to articulate a unified political project beyond mobilization, the consequences will be of massive significance both for Bolivia and Latin America as a whole.

ATC 117, July-August 2005