Bolivia: Standing Tall in El Alto

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Bolivians are fighting to protect their natural resources.

Bolivia may be the second poorest country in Latin America (after Haiti), and one of the least known outside the region, but in the struggle against neoliberalism it is playing a key role. In 2000, in the town of Cochabamba, a mass movement of small farmers, market traders, workers and indigenous community groups reversed a government decision to sell off the regional water supply to Bechtel.

While the privatisation of water was part of the price for World Bank and IMF support for the Bolivian economy, the Bolivian popular rising began as a defence of basic resources. Ninety percent of the population were already living in abject poverty, and without a fight they would have lurched into a deep social crisis. And there was a more far-reaching agenda. Water privatisation was only part of a larger strategy of neoliberal measures opening Bolivia's resources to external involvement.

Part of that strategy was the so-called 'drug war' which basically targeted small highland coca growers (the cocaleros) cultivating what was and is a legal crop. More significantly still, many of these small farmers were recently transferred miners given land grants as the tin mines of the highlands closed down.

The important thing was that many of these emigrants had grown up in areas marked by a long and heroic tradition of working class struggle and resistance. And there is little doubt that they brought those collective memories with them, and that they were an important component of the Cochabamba rising.

That rising was also the signal for a growing resistance to the strategies pursued by the then president, Gonzalo Sánchez de Losada or 'El Goni' (he was also known as 'El Gringo', ostensibly because of his heavy North American accent while speaking Spanish, but perhaps more because of where his allegiances lay). El Goni was a faithful servant of the market, as his privatisation strategies for water and natural gas, and his new oil law, eloquently testified.

The Cochabamba rising proved to be the beginning of a spreading movement of social protest which embraced every section of the population affected by these new economic measures - indigenous communities, workers groups, small merchants, farmers and students, among others. In 2003 they came face to face with him again in El Alto, the indigenous city above the capital, La Paz.

On 20 September 500,000 people marched throughout the country to defend national economic control over Bolivia's scant natural resources. The next day security forces killed four civilians.

On 8 October the centre of conflict spread to El Alto, where a general strike was declared. The confrontations intensified, and in El Alto and elsewhere new organs of popular power began to emerge - assemblies meeting in permanent session and bringing together many groups of protesters. On 12 October, 31 people were killed during a march. As tension grew it became clear that Losada would be driven out - and that this would be a victory for the popular movement, whose most visible leaders were Evo Morales, head of the cocaleros, and Felipe Quispe, 'El Mallku', a dominant figure among the indigenous organisations.

Losada was replaced by Carlos Mesa, who represented himself as a voice of national consensus. Yet as the months passed, Mesa did nothing to reverse the situation, and by mid-2004 the marches, strikes and blockades were under way again. Mesa responded with a referendum on the oil law, which in October made clear that the majority of the population wanted oil to be under state control. And as always this was only the first in a list of unsatisfied demands from the social movements.

Mesa's decision early this year to honour promises to the multinational oil corporations, and in particular to BP Amoco and Spain's Repsol, to provide cheap oil and gas provoked new resistance. Mesa's threats to resign and call new elections in August were merely a tactic designed to buy him time and space. Yet, confusingly, his manoeuvres seem to have won him support (albeit temporarily) from leaders like Morales - in the name of 'social stability'.

Nothing will change Mesa's policies, however, other than a continuing and deepening movement of popular resistance, whose demands centre on national control of oil and the punishment of those responsible for the October massacres of 2003. And they are a direct and frontal challenge to the economic strategies of neoliberalism. So despite the poverty and desperation of most of its population, Bolivia stands at the forefront of a struggle that has dramatic implications for the whole region. The anxiety of Brazil's Lula and Argentina's Kirchner to find a political solution that will keep Mesa in power are perhaps the clearest testament to Bolivia's challenge to the economic policies that dominate today's global capitalism.