Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Reforms and Resistance

Morales Confronts New Challenges
by Federico Fuentes
Originally published in Green Left Weekly, April 12, 2006.

Three months into Evo Morales' presidential term, much of Bolivia's mainstream media has been focusing on a range of protests and mobilisations by different sectors that have sprung up across the country.

The April 2 El Nuevo Dia commented that Morales was “getting a taste of his own medicine of blockades and mobilisations, as he became engulfed in a wave of protests”.

Mainstream media reports indicate that health workers, teachers and bus drivers have all pledged to go on strike, while indigenous communities in the south-east of the country blockaded roads for 24 hours to press for the creation of a 10th departmento (state).

The centre of most of the media's attention has focused on what has become Morales' biggest headache — the protest by pilots and other airline workers demanding the renationalisation of Lloyd Aereo Boliviano (LAB) airline. After occupying three airport runways, the protesting workers were removed by Bolivian police and soldiers using tear gas.

A New Wave of Protests?

According to Morales’ vice-president, Alvaro Garcia Linera, in comments he made to April 2 La Paz El Diario, “Bolivia is and will continue to be a site of mobilisations and protests by sectors which for decades have been abandoned in regards to legitimate demands”, but that it had to be taken into consideration that the big social movements that generated the uprisings in October 2003 and June 2005 — the neighbourhood committees of El Alto, cooperative miners, and the coca grower unions — are not the ones that are currently mobilising.

He added: “We are doing everything we can to collect these demands, but we should not exaggerate the level of social tension. It is worrying: the government would have preferred to not have these types of dispersed conflicts, but which can be resolved. We will gather these demands, but one thing is very clear, the business owners that have investments have to pay their taxes.”

Morales spokesperson Alex Contreras was reported by the April 3 El Potosi as saying that those workers who were demonstrating had no reason to do so as the government was willing to consider all their demands. However, he also explained that the government would not accept some of the demands, because “we all have rights, but we also have responsibilities to attend to”.

He made specific reference to the interdepartmental bus drivers, saying that their demand to not have to pay taxes “was not a just demand because there are some business owners who are the ones who do not want to pay taxes”.


The case of LAB perhaps best explains the complexities of the situation. Privatised in 1996, over 50% of the company was transferred into the hands of Brazilian company Viacao Aerea de Sao Paulo (VASP), which began to dismantle LAB including selling off the company’s spare parts and engine turbines.

Just under half of company’s shares are held in a trust, managed by foreign financial institutions, that cannot legally be touched by the Bolivian government. In 2001, Bolivian multi-millionaire Ernesto Asbun bought enough shares from VASP to take over LAB.

In February this year, most of LAB’s 2000 employees walked off the job, demanding back wages as well as payment of the airline's debt to the public pension system. The airline had more than US$160 million in debts. The government intervened in LAB, arresting Asbun on corruption charges.

On March 28, the Constitutional Tribunal (TC), upheld an appeal by Asbun, declaring the government intervention in LAB illegal. Two days later, judge Constancio Alcon decided that Asbun would be released on bail of less than $5000, despite pleas by the government for his preventive detention.

The next day, hundreds of striking LAB workers blocked runways airplanes, cars and mobile stairways, and other equipment, stopping flights from the cities of Cochabamba and Tarija.

According to a March 31 El Potosi report, Morales said he had “come to the conclusion that corruption is powerful in Bolivia”, and asked how much money the TC had received in order to ruke in favour of Asbun. “When I was detained for marching and mobilising my companeros for their demands, a judge gave me a fine of [around $7500] in order to be released from jail”.

Unable to legally move forward on this front, government officials entered negotiation with the LAB workers, stating the government’s position was that it would not “nationalise corruption” and burden the government with Asbun's debts and at the same time let him off the hook. Rather, they argued that Asbun should be punished for his crimes and that a new airline could be established under majority state ownership.

Initially, the LAB workers rejected the offer, with the ensuing clashes in the three occupied airports. As the conflict escalated, negotiations continued and by April 4 La Razon reported that, according to union general secretary Gustavo Vizcarra, the workers were no longer asking for nationalisation.

Associated Press reported on April 5 that Asbun agreed to the demand of LAB pilots and other employees that he resign and sell his stake in the airline.

Challenges Ahead

Even before the TC ruling on LAB, Morales, who was propelled to the presidency by his indigenous supporters through their “political instrument”, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), has already begun to come into conflict with the existing state institutions, specifically the judiciary.

In an interview with Paul Mason from the BBC, published online on April 5, Morales expressed his frustration on this issue: “You want to issue a decree to help the poor, the indigenous people, the popular movements, the workers... but there's another law. Another padlock. It's full of padlocks that mean you can't transform things from the palace... I feel like a prisoner of the neoliberal laws.”

There are two ways out of this dilemma for Morales — to back down back down in the face of opposition from the capitalist state bureaucracy and to start doing the bidding of its big-business masters, or to rely on the self-organisation of the working people to force through increasingly radical measures against those powerful interests.

The use of the police and military in the LAB dispute, although worrying, can hardly be seen as Morales having chosen the first option. The majority of the other protests have been met with dialogue and solutions, as the LAB case was in the end as well. The events have to be placed in the context of attempts by the right-wing to attack Morales by trying to portray the country as descending into chaos. By blockading airport runways, the LAB workers were potentially endangering the lives of other airline passengers.

Morales’ growing public support can be explained by his initial steps towards regaining control of Bolivia's gas industry, with the aim, according to Morales, of completing the nationalisation of Bolivia's hydrocarbon reserves by July 12.

Another important step was taken on March 4, when the parliament voted to move ahead with elections of delegates for the constituent assembly on July 2, as well as a referendum to grant greater autonomy to the country’s nine regional departments. According to a poll by Apoyo, Opini¢n y Mercado, 69% of Bolivian voters would vote “yes” in the referendum.

Another poll, carried out by Apoyo, Opini¢n y Mercado, in the period March 13-25, indicate that Morales' voter support is at 80%, more than 25 percentage points higher than the vote he received in last December’s presidential election. His support is even higher in the capital La Paz and in the nearby predominately indigenous city of El Alto — 82% and 86%, respectively.

Morales won the presidential election by building alliances among Bolivia’s diverse regional and sectoral social movements, attempting to unite them behind a national anti-imperialist project aimed at “decolonising” the white-dominated, racist Bolivian state. Central to this project is nationalising gas and a constituent assembly to refound the Bolivian state, this time with the participation of the indigenous majority.

As Morales pointed out to Mason: “In last year's election we only captured government — with the Constituent Assembly we want to capture political power.”

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Sunday, April 16, 2006

Nationalization Delayed, Bolivia Takes Smaller Steps on Hydrocarbons

The much anticipated plan for nationalizing hydrocarbons will be delayed “some weeks” according to Alex Contreras, spokesman for President Evo Morales. This statement follows an announcement last week that the Bolivian government will not nationalize Andina, a local subsidiary of Spanish energy

giant Repsol.

Both represent major obstacles in the country’s aim to nationalize its oil and gas reserves. Elected on a platform that promised nationalization of the country’s resources, the new government is taking a number of different tactics to reach that goal.

In late March the Bolivian government filed charges against three former presidents, eight former energy ministers, and arrested two business executives - all in conjunction with inappropriate oil and gas dealings.

Former presidents Carlos Mesa, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, and Jorge Quiroga are charged with violating the country’s constitution by signing lucrative contracts without congressional approval.

Bolivian Attorney General Pedro Gareca announced his discovery of 44 illegal contracts signed by the former presidents with foreign oil firms between 1993 and 2003.

In addition, last month’s arrest of Julio Gavito and Pedro Sanchez has put increased pressure on multinational companies operating in Bolivia.

The two Repsol executives - who were each released on $50,000 bail - face charges that their company smuggled $9.22 million worth of oil between 2004 and 2005. Gavito - president of Bolivia’s state-run Yacimientos Petroliferos Fiscales Bolivieros (YPFB) and also Vice President of Andina - recently resigned claiming “personal reasons”. Sanchez will remain as the Chief Operating Officer of Repsol YPF Bolivia. If convicted they are facing charges of three to six years.

Beyond the legal pinch, multinationals are feeling an economic squeeze as the Morales government demands back taxes as well as higher royalties.

Last week the Bolivian government announced a claim of $40 million in back taxes from oil and gas companies that are currently doing business in Bolivia. The amount could be worth as much as $200 million if penalties and administrative fees are calculated. Multinationals have appealed the decision to Bolivia’s Supreme Court.

This is the latest tool to be used as the government moves to renegotiate oil and gas contracts with companies from Europe and Latin America.

In late March, France's Total SA announced that it will pay an increased tax on oil exports from Bolivia. The new tax levy will increase royalties from 34 percent to 50 percent. Total SA also announced it had established a partnership to develop new gas fields with YPFB.

In contrast Petroleo Brasilerio SA chief executive Sergio Gabrielli declared that the company's future in Bolivia is uncertain. This amid recent demands that Brazil pay increased prices for natural gas.

Gabrielli's comment was prompted by disagreement with Bolivia’s hydrocarbon plans as well as statements made by Bolivian Hydrocarbons Minister Andres Soliz.

Soliz has accused Brazil of taking a tough stance on renegotiating gas purchases and exerting geopolitical pressure on the nation. In February Petrobras presented the new government with an investment plan worth US$5 billion. It has since declared a halt on all future investment.

Petrobras has invested over US$1.5 billion in Bolivia since 1996. Foreign oil and gas companies such as Britian’s BG and BP, Spanish-Argentine Repsol YFP SA, France's Total SA and U.S.’s Exxon Mobil Corporation have invested $3.5 billion in Bolivia since privatization was implemented in the 1990’s.

But many Bolivians will not be happy until multi-nationals are taken over by the government or expelled. Bolivian labor leader Felix Muruchi states that many residents in the poor city of El Alto want to see full nationalization of the nation’s resources that includes kicking out the multi-national corporations.

Last week Morales formally announced that Bolivia will not nationalize Repsol's local subsidiary, Andina. The cash-strapped government is not willing to assume a $57 million debt in order to take over the company. According to Soliz, Andina's debts reach a total of $177 million although its book value is only $120 million.

The new government must also contend with past contracts like those that put Brazil's Petrobras in control of 95% of Bolivia’s refining capacity. Brazil also owns a pipeline as well as 25% of the Bolivia's gas stations.

These type of arrangements represent some of the disproportinate influence that multinational companies have had in a country that is rich in natural resources but poor in economic development.

Planning Minister Carlos Villegas has stated “It’ll be a gradual process. We don’t want extreme or abrupt measures, or shocks which only generate uncertainty”.

Last week’s announcements demonstrate that the ability to "dismantle colonialism and neoliberalism" may be easier in theory than in practice.

Nationalization has been identified as a key issue that could drive a wedge between Morales and his MAS supporters. Critics of Morales contend that his government has yet to show how nationalization will work.

Yet his administration appears willing to use both economic and judicial methods as it moves towards the nationalization of all the country's hydrocarbons by July 12.


Thursday, April 06, 2006

The Legacy Of The Old Guard

Shortly before Sunrise, the military police huddled in the doorways of the Plaza Murillo begin to stir beneath their capes.

The door of the presidential palace creaks open and the guards, in scarlet tunics and white webbing, begin a rigmarole of shuffling, stamping and saluting that is the changing of the guard.

The police are muscular white guys. The guards, armed with muskets, are willowy young indigenous kids - the regiment has always recruited from the "indios" for ethnic novelty value.

Now, as the police strut away, the guards smile nervously at each other from beneath their kepis: then they collapse in a fit of giggles.

Evo Morales . "Look," President Morales tells
Paul Mason of the BBC, "60 years ago, our grandparents didn't even have the right to walk into the main square - not even in the gutter. And then we got into parliament - and now we're here."

He looks around apologetically at the long Rococco state room we are meeting in - at the ormolu chairs we are sitting on. He has installed a portrait of Che Guevara in the presidential suite but, apart from that, the palace remains as it was under his neo-liberal predecessors.

"It's been a great victory - now this is a stronghold for the indigenous people. And we're not going to stop," Mr Morales says.

"The most important thing is the indigenous people are not vindictive by nature. We are not here to oppress anybody - but to join together and build Bolivia, with justice and equality."

In truth, the Morales presidency is fast getting beyond the "peace, love and understanding" phase. The first indigenous leader to run Bolivia has been two months in office, but he does not feel like he is in power - yet.

"You want to issue a decree to help the poor, the indigenous people, the popular movements, the workers... but there's another law. Another padlock. It's full of padlocks that mean you can't transform things from the palace... I feel like a prisoner of the neo-liberal laws."

For a man who rose to prominence as a union leader, and to office on the back of social movements with mainly economic grievances, economic policy has hardly figured in the first 60 days.

Instead, he has used the parliamentary majority that came with his 54% landslide to push through a law convoking a Constituent Assembly, and allowing regional referendums on autonomy.

"In last year's election we only captured government - with the Constituent Assembly we want to capture political power.

"Who makes the decisions here - the poor and indigenous people or those families who've done so much damage to our country in the past? They discriminated against, marginalised, oppressed, hated and totally disregarded the indigenous people. It's a political fight - it's a fight for power."

If the economic conditions Mr Morales has inherited are relatively benign that is because of Bolivia's newfound hydrocarbon wealth.

The trillion-cubic-metre gas field was discovered in the late 1990s and, originally, leased at what Mr Morales sees as knock-down prices to the oil and gas corporations.

He has got a judge beavering away at declaring the original contracts illegal, and plans to nationalise the gas and oil industries.

But here is the problem. Most of the gas is in the Chaco region, administered from the city of Santa Cruz, which represents 33% of the country's GDP and 25% of the population.

Santa Cruz is the traditional base of the Christian right-wing parties - it is the centre from which the US anti-drug operation is run, it is where Repsol, Petrobras and British Gas are headquartered.

Now Santa Cruz wants autonomy and the right to all but 10% of the hydrocarbon revenues.

President Morales appears unfazed by veiled threats of disinvestment.

"Of course, there could still be sabotage - we've just heard the news that some transnational companies are putting $2m into a campaign to boycott my government. It doesn't matter - we're monitoring the problem," he says.

Meanwhile, his own mass base is restive.

The miners of Huanuni, buoyed by the rising international price of tin, paralysed the southern quarter of the country with a series of roadblocks, enforced with dynamite. Their demand? Fifty-five extra teachers in their local schools.

Mr Morales' response - to announce he would provide 3,000 extra teaching posts, paid for by closing embassies and scrapping "decorative" civil service posts.

He seems to sense there is only so long you can go on like this, but as the first indigenous leader in the continent, he has some unique cards to play, the first one being himself:

"I have a lot of trouble understanding all the detail of finance and administration - but if you combine intellectual and professional capacity with a social conscience, you can change things: countries, structures, economic models, colonial states."

That position has visceral support in a place like El Alto, the shanty-city of one million Aymara people which dominates the high plain above La Paz.

There the talking point is not whether the president should nationalise the gas and neutralise the opposition - but what they will do to him if he fails.

They will tolerate Evo, one tells me, for a year or two - though they will never move against him if it weakens the united front against "the whites".

Mr Morales, for now, is more than capable of meeting the wave of rising indigenous cultural consciousness with concrete reforms. But soon the crunch will come - the form and costs of nationalisation for the hydrocarbons industry must be concretised.

How it all pans out now depends on whether he can forge his political party, the Movement Towards Socialism - until now more of a federation of disparate social movements - into a disciplined political force.

It scored a big election victory not only because it mobilised the poor but because the young, white, foreign-educated middle class mobilised themselves to vote for change.

Their vote was more of a rejection of the failure of their fathers' generation than an endorsement of Evo Morales.

"We hope the delegates to the Constituent Assembly will represent not only the indigenous people and popular movements but patriotic professionals, intellectuals and business people. If these patriotic sections take part we'll succeed," Mr Morales tells me.

What happens if they drift away, if the foreign gas companies play hardball, if the rumours of paramilitary arms stockpiles around Santa Cruz turn out not to be scare stories?

Well, at that point the farce played out at the palace gate between the president's ceremonial guards and the muscular remnants of regimes past may turn nasty, on a national scale.


Monday, April 03, 2006

“Urban Social Movements as Engines of Political Change”

New York City -- April 3 -7, 2006
Felix Muruchi Poma
-- Bolivian Labor Leader & Political Activist --
  • MONDAY, April 3rd
Columbia University
Noon – 2 p.m
School of International and Public Affairs
420 W. 118th Street, Rm 802

New York University
5:00 p.m. – 7:00 p.m.
University Settlement
273 Bowery, Room 1
  • TUESDAY, April 4th
    An activist's history of Bolivia
    7:30 p.m.
    @ The Brecht Forum
    451 West Street
  • WEDNESDAY, April 5th
    City University of New York
    Graduate Center
    4:00 p.m. - 5:30 pm.
    365 5th Avenue, Rm 6112
  • THURSDAY, April 6th
708 Broadway
Fordham University
Rose Hill Campus
Walsh Library Auditorium
441 East Fordham Road
  • FRIDAY, April 7th
    WBAI 99.5 FM

    Radio interview@ 8:00 a.m.
    “Wake-up Call” w/Mario Murillo

Who is Felix Muruchi Poma ?
An ex-mineworker and union organizer, Felix has been politically active in Bolivia since the 1970s – surviving life as a political prisoner and in exile. He has actively participated in some of the most important processes in contemporary Bolivian history, including the recent uprisings in the Aymara city of El Alto. He is currently a union and university leader while studying law at Bolivia’s Universidad Pública de El Alto.