Bolivia is again in the grip of a major political crisis, marked by parliamentary deadlock and street fighting. Huge marches, thousands strong, have descended on La Paz all week. In the ensuing battles indigenous protesters throw dynamite, stones and bottles, while paramilitary police shoot tear gas and rubber bullets.
The basic question is this: Who will control the nation’s massive natural gas reserves, which has jumped to 53.3 trillion cubic feet from just 5.6 trillion cubic feet in 1999? The deeper issue, of course, is the unwillingness of the highly organized and politicized majority indigenous population to suffer through another generation of brutal high-altitude poverty.
The rolling protests and road blockades around La Paz come a week after Congress passed a law raising taxes on the foreign oil companies that have controlled Bolivia’s petroleum wealth since a sweeping privatization in 1996. The companies cast the new law as far too severe, while the largely indigenous left decry the law as too weak.
Part of the opposition, led by MAS (the Movement Toward Socialism) and its leader, Evo Morales, is calling for 50 percent wellhead royalties rather than the new law’s combination of 18 percent royalties and a 32 percent tax on more easily hidden company profits. MAS also wants an aggressive renegotiation of all contracts with foreign companies, as well as four other major amendments to the new law. But many more sectors in the popular movement are calling for outright nationalization and an overthrow of the government.
As I write, for the third day in a row the city of La Paz is under siege–the two major highways linking it to the world are closed by a series of peasant roadblocks. No supplies are getting in or out. The international airport is functioning only sporadically; it has been closed by a strike. And for the third day running, tens of thousands of protesters–peasants, teachers, miners, shopkeepers, factory workers and unemployed people–have marched on La Paz. A smaller subset of this force has repeatedly tried to take Plaza Murillo, location of both the Parliament and presidential palace, a space rarely occupied by protesters since the populist revolution of 1952.
The vanguard sector in this struggle is the well-organized Aymara peasants, who have descended en masse from the altiplano, above the capital. Joining them are 800 miners. In heavy jackets, fedoras, bowlers and wool hats, their faces lined and buffed by years of wind and cold, the Aymara columns march fast and hard, carrying sticks, pipes, shepherds’ whips and wiphalas, the rainbow-colored banner of indigenous self-determination.
All week I have had a front-row seat to the action. On Tuesday, as the columns circled around the police, who had barricaded Plaza Murillo, marchers smashed minibuses and cars that they found in their path, tossed rocks at journalists and then threw dynamite into police lines. The frightened, penned-in cops responded with volleys of rubber bullets, tear gas and sometimes water cannons.