A Referendum Divides Bolivia

Alex Contreras Baspineiro

The upcoming referendum in Bolivia has accomplished what various neoliberal governments, including military dictatorships, even the United States? own policy, could not: dividing the popular movement and challenging its leaders. A great question mark now hangs over this country?s future.

A recent demonstration against the referendum and for the nationalization of Bolivia?s gas
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(Photo supplied by the author)

A recent demonstration against the referendum and for the nationalization of Bolivia?s gas
(Photo supplied by the author)

A binding referendum will be held on July 18 to decide the fate of the country?s hydrocarbons ? especially its natural gas. The Coordinating Committee for the Defense of Gas and Autonomous Social Monuments resolved at a meeting yesterday in Cochabamba to use all forms of protest to reject the five ballot questions.

"Those questions,” read the committee?s declaration, “are no more than a consolidation of the privileges awarded to multinational corporations under (overthrown ex-president Gonzalo) Sanchez de Lozada?s Law 1689."

Textile-workers? leader and movement spokesman Oscar Olivera said that if the government does not listen to the people?s basic demand to include a question on nationalization in the next few days, the movement would encourage abstention, an “X” across the entire ballot, or the writing of the word “nationalization.”

The Central Obrera Boliviana (COB, the main Bolivian labor federation) called for civil disobedience and voter abstention, although due to conflicts between specific unions, it did not do so with the support of all its member organizations.

"We must boycott the referendum with marches and roadblocks, also using null and invalid votes,” said COB leader Jaime Solares. “What we demand is the immediate nationalization of our natural resources."

Felipe Quispe, the executive secretary of the Bolivian Farmworkers? Federation (CSUTCB in its Spanish initials), said that there would be a “state of siege” throughout rural Bolivia.

"There are already mobilizations, there will be roadblocks, there will be an organized boycott,” said Quispe. “Many areas will not receive ballots; the ballots will be burned. In other places, people will not participate."

Other radical minority groups are organizing to close voting centers on the day of the referendum, although such action would be illegal and unconstitutional.

The Split

Meanwhile, the principal political party of the lower classes, the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), has decided to actively participate in the referendum. Coca growers? leader and national congressman Evo Morales began a massive campaign yesterday to encourage participation. The campaign will ask voters to answer “yes” to the first three questions and “no” to the last two.

“Those who boycott and oppose the referendum are defending the policies of ex-President Gonzalo S?nchez de Lozada,” said Morales. “The majority of the Bolivian people want to strengthen democracy, and that is why they will participate in the referendum. Now, if the government does not hear the popular clamor for nationalization, we will take to the streets and the highways to demand it.”

The binding referendum consists of five questions:

President Carlos Mesa, in a clear example of extortion of the Bolivian people, said several days ago: “The referendum is the policy that the government presents for the country?s consideration. Why this policy and not another? Because it is the one I believe in, and nobody can or should do something that he does not believe in. If I lose on a question that forces me to do something I do not believe in, I see no other choice but to leave.”

The traditional political parties, which represent the oligarchy, the business class, and sections of the middle class have divided just like the popular movement. The former allies of S?nchez de Lozada and members of the Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR) and the Revolutionary Nationalist Movement (MNR) are in favor of the referendum, while the New Republican Force (NFR) is timidly opposed. However, all of these organizations support the transnational corporations.

The rest of the political parties, as well as the unions and social, civil and neighborhood organizations are fractured. The Catholic Church, with a great influence over the Bolivian people, has called simply for respect for constitutional norms.

The System

While the social and popular movements are divided over the referendum, the Bolivian government is in a phase of systematic consolidation. On the 228th anniversary of the United States? independence, ambassador David Greenlee announced, in a press release, that his country “hopes for the well-being of the Bolivian people, for their freedom, for coexistence based on tolerance and equal opportunity.”

This brief statement ? according to many Bolivian media ? reflected a dramatic change in U.S. policy toward this country. Apparently, the destruction of the coca leaf and the so-called war on drugs have taken a back seat since October 2003, when the “gas war” broke out. The president?s chief of staff, Jos? Antonio Galindo, confirmed that since October, the White House has not touched on the subject of coca as it had in previous years. “Relations are good,” he said.

Although a recent report from the U.S. State Department?s Bureau of International Information Programs labeled Bolivia, together with Venezuela and Haiti, as countries in “critical condition,” it sees the division within the social movement as comforting.
Despite the poverty this country faces, the government is spending more than $800,000 dollars in its campaign for the referendum. Some of these resources come from a donation from the Andean Promotion Corporation (CAF), according to Jorge Cort?s, presidential delegate for the promotion of institutional development.

At the same time, recalling the previous authoritarian Bolivian governments, it was revealed a few days ago that Francesco Zaratti, the presidential delegate for capitalization revision, receives $5,000 dollars every month from the transnational gas companies. The official documents demonstrate that the Petrobas and Total companies ? through the Bolivian state oil company ? are paying the salary of the official charged with inspecting those corporations? work.

Responding to calls for a boycott and the rejection of the referendum, President Mesa announced that the government will use all available means, including the Army and the National Police to guarantee peoples? democratic rights. What is certain is that this referendum, which has managed to divide the Bolivian social movement, is only one battle in a larger struggle. The war for hydrocarbon nationalization is coming.

Published Thursday, July 8th, 2004 - 11:55am GMT

Alex Contreras Baspineiro is South American Bureau Chief for Narco News

Article courtesy of Narco News

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Alex Contreras Baspineiro

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