The Guardian October 22, 2003


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.

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