At a roadblock on the Bolivian altiplano, a group of indigenous tin miners in brown fiberglass helmets, their jaws bulging with coca leaves, lounge around on an empty strip of road. Suddenly the thin, high-altitude air shakes with a quick explosion. Everyone laughs. The comrades are killing time by tossing lit dynamite into a field. Tomorrow they will march across these high empty plains, through the sprawling, impoverished, majority Indian city of El Alto and over the edge of a steep canyon down into the capital of La Paz, and there lay siege to the government.
The miners have held this road for the past twenty-four hours. Both main arteries linking La Paz to the outside world are shut down. The Bolivian economy is beginning to sputter and stall; before long the restaurants, hotels and offices of the capital will start to run out of food and fuel; uncollected garbage will pile up in the streets. Soon six major cities will be sealed off by more than eighty blockades.
“The Congress is dominated by the transnational corporations. We are fighting to recover our natural resources. It is our right,” says a stern miner named Miguel Sureta.
The social movements–a host of mostly indigenous organizations representing Aymara and Quechua peasants, miners, teachers, urban community organizations, coca growers and the oldest national labor federation–are demanding nationalization of the country’s massive natural gas reserves, now estimated to be the second-largest in the hemisphere, at 53 trillion cubic feet. Their other plank is a constituent assembly to reformulate Bolivia’s political system and give greater power to the majority indigenous population.
Throughout South America, center-left governments are taking power, with Uruguay and Ecuador being the latest to join the trend. Bolivia, home to some of the most well-organized and radical popular movements on the continent, could be next. But the challenges facing the Bolivian left are enormous: Despite all its strength, it is riven by ideological disputes, pervasive Quechua versus Aymara ethnic factionalism and the constant clash of leadership egos.
Meanwhile, the right is also mobilizing. European-descended elites in the gas-rich lowland provinces of Santa Cruz and Tarija are agitating for autonomy or possible secession. The major oil companies operating in Bolivia are all threatening disinvestment if the industry is restructured. There are also rumors of a possible military coup.
On June 6 the centrist president, Carlos Mesa Gisbert, resigned. For a tense week it seemed the next president would be Hormando Vaca Díez, president of the Senate, a right-wing cattle rancher who warned that continued protest would “end in authoritarian government.” But now Eduardo Rodriguez, head of the Supreme Court, has been sworn in as Bolivia’s president. He is obliged to hold elections within six months.
The recently departed Mesa inherited his job in October 2003, the last time the issue of natural gas exploded. In that conflict his predecessor, then-president Gonzalo “Goni” Sánchez de Lozada, ordered troops to open fire on demonstrators. At least sixty-seven people were killed, and in the outrage that followed, Goni fled to the United States.