Strikes rock Bolivia: President forced to resign
Bolivia's President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, in an increasingly desperate effort to quell the massive strikes, demonstrations and peasant roadblocks that have virtually paralysed Bolivia for over a month, announced on October 13 that he was temporarily suspending his plan to export natural gas through Chile to the United States. Then last weekend, with his government in crisis and Bolivia virtually paralysed he was forced by massive popular pressure to resign. Union, peasant, student, and indigenous Indian groups have opposed the proposed gas export plan, arguing that Bolivia's vast natural gas reserves should be used in Bolivia for the people's benefit. They denounced Sanchez de Lozada's "free trade" policies and many called for the nationalisation of the oil and gas industries. But the President's announcement did nothing to stem a rising tide of rebellion and a deepening crisis of his regime. Despite his announcement, thousands marched in La Paz, the capital, demanding Sanchez de Lozada's resignation, and a public transit strike — combined with continuing highway and road blockages by militant peasants and miners — brought the city to a standstill. Food and gasoline were in increasingly short supply in the capital. Tensions were brought to a boiling point after the government called out thousands of troops backed by tanks to suppress the rebellion, particularly in the city of El Alto, a poor, industrial suburb of La Paz. El Alto, which has a population of 750,000, was a major centre of the general strike. Most of its residents are of Indian origin. The city was put under martial law and the population was brutally suppressed. Over 55 people have been killed in the violent military crackdown in recent weeks, many of them in El Alto. Clashes have been intense in other towns, too, notably Cochabamba, Oruro and Potosi. While the natural gas export plan was the immediate cause of the crisis, its roots go much deeper. Bolivia, a Texas-sized country with a population of eight million, is one of the poorest nations of Latin America, with over 70 percent of its population mired in extreme poverty. Bolivia has long been under the economic and political domination of the United States. Its workers have been subject to extreme exploitation. Many thousands of its peasants have been driven to bankruptcy and ruin. Its mineral resources, including its vast natural gas reserves, crude oil, zinc, tungsten and gold, have been subject to systemic plunder by US mining and petrochemical companies for decades. Sanchez de Lozada, 73, was born and grew up in the US. He is a millionaire businessman and a close ally of George W Bush. He took office in August 2002 after winning only 22 percent of the vote. In February of this year, he tried to push through an IMF- inspired austerity program that would have drastically cut the living standards of the workers and peasants. That plan, too, sparked a major rebellion and claimed at least 32 lives before the government was forced to make concessions. This time around it appeared that Sanchez de Lozada was in even deeper trouble. His vice President, Carlos Mesa, openly criticised his superior's policies, and four of the 15 cabinet members resigned in protest. Evo Morales, an indigenous union leader and member of the Bolivian Congress, said "the only political solution to this crisis is the resignation of the President", according to the Associated Press. Roberto de la Cruz, a union leader in El Alto, said "We will not stop until he (the President) goes away". The unrelenting pressure of the strikers and peasant demonstrators eventually forced Sanchez de Lozada out. Ominously, the US warned last week prior to the resignation, that it would "not tolerate" any move to topple the current regime. "The American people and their government support Bolivia's democratically-elected President in his bid to build a more prosperous and just future for all Bolivians", a State Department statement said. The Bush administration is increasingly nervous about the mounting turmoil in Latin America — particularly in Bolivia, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Argentina, and Brazil — and the growing opposition to the US-backed Free Trade Area of the Americas.
* * *Adapted from an article by Mark Almberg from the US communist paper People's Weekly World.