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In this ZNet Free Update we highlight a Question and Answer piece from ZNet
Commentator Justin Podur about the on-going critical events in Bolivia. An urgent
situation is unfolding and Podur provides a clear summary, plus links to additional
In accord with the developing crisis, we have also dramatically updated our Bolivia
Watch, which is at http://www.zmag.org/lam/boliviawatch.htm.
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And here, is the promised Q/A about events in Bolivia...
Q/A on Bolivia
By Justin Podur
What is happening in Bolivia?
A massive popular mobilization is demanding the resignation of the President, Gonzalo
Sanchez de Lozada, and several ministers, including the Minister of Defense. On
October 16 hundreds of thousands of demonstrators filled the main square in La Paz,
Bolivia's capital. The presidential palace, guarded by tanks and trenches, is
surrounded by demonstrators.
The mobilization arises out of a non-violent movement primarily involving Aymara
peasants, an indigenous group making up about a quarter of Bolivia's population, based
in El Alto, an Aymara city of some 700,000, but now extending according to Forrest
Hylton, a knowledgeable researcher on Bolivia, to"the hillside neighborhoods of Upper
Miraflores, Munaypata, Villa Victoria, Villa del Cármen, Villa Fátima and the Cemetery
of La Paz".
In September, the movement had grown, in Hylton's words, to encompass "Rural and urban
schoolteachers; students studying to be schoolteachers; parents of conscripts; retired
miners; Aymara peasant leaders; inter-provincial truckers; university students from El
Alto; the Bolivian Workers' Central (COB); all are on strike, some on hunger strikes.
In addition to sectoral demands, each organization clamors for popular sovereignty
over Bolivian gas and rejects the FTAA; most demand the resignation of Sánchez de
Lozada and his draconian ministers, Yerko Kukoc, Minister of Government, and Carlos
Sánchez de Berzaín, Minister of Defense, who are responsible for the massacre in
Warisata on September 20, in which six Aymara community members-including eight
year-old Marlene Nancy Rojas Ramos-were murdered after government forces moved in to
evacuate several hundred tourists stranded for five days in (the town of) Sorata by
road blockades. The massacre, let us note, took place the day after the National
Coordination for the Defense of Gas mobilized 30,000 people in (the city of)
Cochabamba and 50,000 in La Paz (the capital). In response to state terror, which made
use of planes and helicopters, poorly armed but strategically placed Aymara community
militias drove the army and police out of Warisata, Sorata and Achacachi." (2)
The movement's demands, in addition to the resignation of the President, are the
formation of a new Constituent Assembly and a repeal of the privatization and foreign
The movement has been met with terrible repression. There was a massacre in late
September, and dozens more have been killed by police and security forces over the
past week. About 60 people have been killed in the past month, with hundreds more
injured, nearly all by bullet wounds from security forces. (3, 4)
What are the immediate roots of the current crisis?
The crisis is being called the 'Gas War'. It began with the government's plan for a
$5.2 billion dollar natural gas pipeline project, controlled by a consortium of
multinational energy companies including Repsol/YPF SA, British Gas (UK), Pan American
Energy, BP PLC (UK), and Bridas Corporation (Argentina). This project was to export
Bolivia's natural gas to the United States, via Chile.
While much is being made in the mainstream media about popular resentment of Chile
(Bolivia lost its outlet to the sea in an 1880 war with Chile) and the possibility of
a Chilean port being used to export the gas, the movement's aims probably have more to
do with self-determination than with this type of nationalism. In analyst Tom Kruse's
"Bolivia has enormous reserves of natural gas. However, how the gas is to be
exploited, and who the benefits will accrue to, are heated political issues in
Bolivia. There is good reason for the heated debate: Bolivia has passed through 3
major cycles of non-renewable commodity exports: silver through the 19th century,
guano and rubber later that century, tin in the 20th century. These cycles for exports
never laid the basis for a prosperous, productive and just society. On the contrary,
Bolivia is one of the least prosperous and most unjust societies in Latin America. The
question Bolivians are rightly asking is, 'how will this next round of non-renewable
commodity exports be turned into real development?'" (5)
As Kruse notes, natural gas is now Bolivia's most important resource. But because of
privatization and the rules governing private investment, the country captures very
little benefit from the resource. Exporting $1.2 billion of natural gas to Brazil has
brings the Bolivian government $90 million in revenue. The sale of gas to the US
would benefit Bolivia little more.
The President, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada (also known as 'Goni'), has suspended the
natural gas project and declared that he would accept a referendum on the issue. But
after the massacres, the movement is refusing to stop short of his resignation. The
Vice President, Carlos Mesa has distanced himself from Goni.
What are the historical roots?
The current conflict is a continuation of a mass mobilization that occurred in
January-February of 2003. At that time, a movement of campesinos demanded the
suspension of coca eradication, the repudiation of the Free Trade Area of the
Americas, and re-nationalization and an end to privatization. The security apparatus
nearly divided (as it may yet do), but in the end remained with the government and
repressed the movement, with over 20 killed and many more injured. (See Sebastian
Hacher's reports, and others, on Bolivia Watch.) (6, 7)
The elections of June 2002 set Bolivia on the road to the current crisis as well. In
those elections, a new party, the Movimiento Al Socialismo (MAS) led by Evo Morales, a
representative of the coca growers of the Chapare region, came very close to winning
the election. MAS is a coalition of social movements, including peasants and worker's
unions, with a strong stance against privatizations and corporate globalization. With
625 000 votes (22.46% of the registered voters), Goni's Movimiento Nacional
Revolucionaria (MNR) was able to form a minority government in coalition with some
other parties. MAS had won 580 000 votes (20.94%), after stern warnings from the
United States Embassy that there would be reprisals of Morales's MAS were to win the
elections. Despite his very shaky support and minority government, Goni treated his
election and his US support as a mandate for aggressive neoliberalism and the drug
war. Given that the popular movement's grouping, MAS, had just won a near-upset
victory itself, it was in a good position to mobilize against Goni's program.
Bolivia has been the site of remarkably resilient and powerful people's movements,
which managed to stop the privatization of water in Cochabamba in 1999-2000. (8)
Also important is the neoliberal 'opening' of the country itself in 1985. The decree
(now famous, numbered 21060) was passed by President Victor Paz Estenssoro to stop
inflation. It succeeded in stopping inflation by plunging the country into recession
and beginning the period of structural adjustment. The tin mines, the main source of
national revenue at the time, were sold to multinational corporations at very low
prices with no benefit to the population. The state industries, which had been the
basis of the national economy and its social welfare programs, were privatized. (9)
Paz Estenssoro was one of the presidents during the revolutionary period 1952-1964,
when the mines were nationalized, the national union central was created, and
universal suffrage enacted. It is ironic that he presided over the dismantling of the
socially progressive programs his government had enacted decades before.
Between 1964-1982, with only brief interludes of civilian rule, Bolivia was ruled by
repressive military dictatorships. The aspirations of the indigenous peasant majority
were suppressed, as was organized labor and dissent generally, even though these
powerful social sectors were never destroyed. Their rising expectations, especially
those of the indigenous who today refuse to be excluded as they have historically been
excluded, are crucial background in understanding Bolivia.
Who are the main actors? What are their interests and demands?
On the one side there are the popular movements, whose composition and demands have
been described above. Not only do they have powerful support from the MAS in the
parliament itself, but even the Vice President has renounced the violence of the
Goni is a multi-millionaire with diverse mining and business interests and a long
history in Bolivian politics (president between 1993-1997, for example, presiding over
various privatizations). He is famous for speaking Spanish with a thick American
accent and is known as 'the gringo'.
As for Goni's regime itself, its supports are the mainstream media, the United States,
and the repressive apparatus of the state. According to Forrest Hylton, even the
middle class is beginning to defect, repudiating the violence of the regime: "The
emergence of a middle class opposition is a new and welcome development that may tip
the balance in favor of the Aymara working class and peasantry in the epicenter of
Hylton sees two possible ways out of this impasse. The first is horrific to
contemplate: "Sánchez de Lozada is negotiating with Manfred Reyes Villa, leader of
the NFR (Nueva Fuerza Republicana, a party of the right that came in third in the 2002
election and is part of Goni's coalition) and once he has the support of Reyes Villa,
Sánchez de Lozada will most likely declare a State of Siege. The president and his
closest allies have calculated that by killing three to four hundred opposition
leaders, intellectuals and students, and detaining between one thousand and twelve
hundred, they can "pacify" the country. Though four US military officials are
directing operations on the ground; though thousands of troops have been flown in from
the eastern lowlands of Beni, Santa Cruz and Pando; and though the military high
command issued a communiqué on October 13 in support of Sánchez de Lozada, a massacre
of gross proportions a la Pinochet may be out of the question, because an important
current within the high command recognizes the democratic nature of popular demands
and would like to see the Minister of Defense, Carlos Sánchez Berzaín, dead. A State
of Siege entailing mass killings and detentions could easily divide the army, at which
point the war cry of the unarmed Alteños-'now for sure, civil war'-could materialize."
The alternative is "that with the backing of the opposition movements, and before
it's too late to stop the bloodshed, Vice-President Carlos Mesa calls an extraordinary
session of Parliament to demand Sánchez de Lozada's resignation, the repeal of the
laws regulating privatization and multinational investment, and the formation of a
Constituent Assembly. Fifty-one years after its first national revolution, which
brought the MNR to power, Bolivia is ready for another-one which will bury the MNR
once and for all." (10)
What is the role of the United States?
The United States is backing Goni, who has accepted US drug war policies and IMF
economic prescriptions wholeheartedly. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher
said the US ``will not tolerate any interruption of constitutional order and will not
support any regime that results from undemocratic means.'
This is a rather far cry from the US's behavior in April 2002, when it endorsed the
military coup against Venezuela's president Chavez. At the time, the Venezuelan
opposition shot several Chavez supporters and claimed that Chavez was responsible [see
Wilpert's eyewitness account and material since (11)], claiming that Chavez should
resign because of his responsibility in the deaths. The US repeated the Venezuelan
opposition's claim that Chavez should resign because of these deaths, and that they
essentially legitimated a military coup. But when Goni's regime is undoubtedly guilty
of what Chavez's regime was accused of without such unequivocal evidence, the US
insists that it "will not support any regime that results from undemocratic means."
Meanwhile, as Hylton noted, US officials are helping to direct the repression on the
The US's drug war policies have helped bring Bolivia to a boiling point. Coca leaf
has been a key crop in Bolivia and throughout the Andean region for centuries, because
of its nutritional value. During the centuries of mining exploitation, chewing coca
leaf was indispensable for the survival of workers at high altitudes. After the
neoliberal opening, coca became the only crop that enabled campesinos to earn a living
- other crops did not fetch an economic price on the market and price supports were no
longer available. A Foreign Policy in Focus review said of the US policy of
eradicating coca farms that "aside from destroying the country's economy without
providing alternatives, it has led to a greatly increased military presence in the
Chapare coca-growing region and to widespread harassment, torture, and even murder of
its indigenous people." (12)
The repression of coca growers was a 'success' in Bolivia: it displaced most coca
production from Bolivia to Colombia. Now, Colombian peasants are being fumigated by
the US drug war, while Bolivian peasants have been left with no livelihood and no
recourse but to mobilize, and there has been no appreciable effect on drug consumption
or abuse in the United States.
Also, historically, the US has trained some of the most repressive dictators in
Bolivian history at its School of the Americas, among them Hugo Banzer, whose
remarkable career and long links to the US are detailed in a story by Jerry Meldon (13)
US intervention in the region, based in Colombia and Ecuador, is increasing, targeting
popular movements like that of Bolivia and regimes like that of Venezuela.
What is the role of the IMF?
The conflict is, at its core, about corporate 'globalization' of the type prescribed
by the IMF. The IMF's structural adjustment programs, demanding reductions in public
services, privatizations, and recessionary policies that throw people out of work,
have been crucial in bringing the country to the crisis point. Neoliberalism is
partly responsible for the 70% poverty rate in Bolivia. The natural gas exportation
project itself was one encouraged by the IMF.
The struggles of Bolivia's popular movement are for self-determination against the
outside control of institutions like the US, multinationals, and the IMF.
What is Bolivia's makeup?
Bolivia has about 8.5 million people. The indigenous are a majority in Bolivia, with
the Aymara about 23% and Quechua 27% (statistics cited in Herbert Klein's 'Concise
History of Bolivia', 2003). Despite its wealth of resources, it has long been one of
Latin America's poorest countries with some of the lowest human development
indicators. Neoliberalism has not helped in this, destroying the important state
sector, reducing employment in a country wracked by unemployment and underemployment,
and reducing social protections.
What can people outside do?
If a solution is not found, this crisis could end in a terrible repression. The
United States seems to have vowed to back Goni to the end, but he is immensely
unpopular. This is a case where international attention and solidarity can make a
difference. A handful of US citizens have prepared a sign-on letter to the US
Indigenous activists in Colombia and movements elsewhere in the region are working on
actions in solidarity with the Bolivian movements. Predictably, the mainstream media
has been paying almost no attention to these incredibly important events. Breaking
that silence and communicating what is happening is crucial now, as it was in the
'water wars' of 1999-2000.
Where can I learn more?
ZNet's Bolivia Watch is presenting the analyses we can find in English . Other sites
are posting analyses by writers like Forrest Hylton, Ben Dangl, Kathyrn Ledebur, and
others. Translations are becoming available at Indymedia Bolivia
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