El Alto, Bolivia
“Gringo dictador, andate a Washington,” was the chant in the streets of tens of thousands of Bolivians. It was directed at their now ex-president, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, who resigned last week under immense pressure from the protesters. Translation: Foreign dictator, go back to Washington.
Known here by his nickname, “Goni,” Sánchez de Lozada was an inviting target. He grew up in the United States and still speaks Spanish with an American accent. A millionaire owner of Bolivia’s largest private mining company, as the former President of the country from 1993-1997 and Planning Minister in the late 1980s, Goni was responsible more than any other Bolivian for installing the neoliberal model in this country.
So it was no surprise that a protest, started in mid-September to oppose the nation’s privatization and export of natural gas, soon transformed into a nationwide rebellion against Goni and the economic and social malaise he did so much to perpetuate.
It was the latest, most important installment in the battle raging over privatization and International Monetary Fund-inspired free-market reforms in Latin America. The resignation of Goni now makes Bolivia the third country in the region (Ecuador and Argentina are the others) in which sitting presidents have been pushed out in as many years by a populace angry over neoliberal policies imposed on their countries by Washington.
In Bolivia, the “gas war” was only the most recent boiling point for resentment over the economic model. Three years ago Bolivians kicked out the San Francisco-based Bechtel corporation after it took over the city of Cochabamba’s water system and raised prices by as much as 200 percent for some residents.
Human rights groups say more than seventy people have been killed and at least 400 have been injured in clashes with Bolivia’s armed forces and police. Started by Bolivia’s indigenous farmers, the nationwide actions mushroomed to include a broad cross-section of this country’s 8.5 million people: Teachers, miners, health workers, butchers, bread makers, taxi and bus drivers, and more participated.
Although Sánchez do Lozada eventually began making concessions, his opposition, well aware that it was during his prior administration that most of Bolivia’s state industries were sold off, was tired of the bloodletting and broken promises and refused to relent from its demand that he be removed from office.
The gas issue is of profound importance for South America’s poorest country. Bolivia’s abundant reserves of natural gas–the country’s principal source of economic wealth–are the second-largest in Latin America, after Venezuela. But so far, the 1996 privatization of the state gas and oil company, YPFB, has rained down little benefit.
Employment in the heavily automated gas sector has fallen to nearly half of previous levels. The annual royalties and tax income are estimated at $200 million, less than 3 percent of the gross domestic product. Before privatization, the state company earned about $300 million annually. That’s even more striking when considering that Bolivia’s known gas reserves have grown ninefold since privatization.
What’s more, Bolivians perceive that their government lost its dignity by proposing to export gas through a port in their neighbor to the south, Chile, which snatched 108,000 miles of seaside territory from Bolivia in the 1879 War of the Pacific and has not returned a sliver of it to this day. Bolivians attribute many of their continuing economic development woes over the past century to the lack of a port on the Pacific Ocean.
The nation’s indigenous population, which number up to 70 percent of the country’s citizenry, are also reminded of their estimated 2-8 million ancestors who died in the silver mines of Potosi in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The silver was dug out and shipped abroad with only a few wealthy Bolivian families of European origin coming away the better for it.
This century, ordinary Bolivians want to do better with their nonrenewable natural resources. There is a growing consensus on restoring greater state control over the gas in order to receive a higher percentage of the royalties (50 percent instead of the current 18 percent) and steer some investment toward domestic gas-related projects, like supplying energy–still lacking in many areas–to all Bolivians and creating jobs in value-added industries such as plants to convert gas into fuel cells.
Only after ensuring a more equitable distribution of the benefits of gas at home are Bolivians interested in entertaining offers to sell it abroad. In the poverty-stricken, predominantly Aymara Indian city of El Alto, where the gas protests first began, the man who began the revolt, indigenous leader Roberto de la Cruz, said Bolivians are not just recovering their gas but regaining control of their destiny. “We will no longer permit the transnational corporations to benefit more than Bolivians from our own natural resources,” he said.
Gonzalo “Goni” Sánchez de Lozada personally benefited throughout his political life from the system and contacts he cultivated. But for others, poverty and misery persist, and it’s past time for a new era. The protests, road blockades and strikes have brought new hope to Bolivia.