Bolivia: May Day protests over corporations’ exploitation of natural resources

Inspiring demonstration of unions, miners, women, minorities and youth

Denise Dudley, a member of the Socialist Party in Australia (CWI), gives an eyewitness report of this year’s May Day march in La Paz city, Bolivia, one of Latin America’s poorest countries.

May Day protests over corporations’ exploitation of natural resources

The May Day march in La Paz was mainly focused around a new law introduced only days ago by the Carlos Mesa government. This legislation was introduced to increase the tax paid by foreign companies for the exportation of Bolivia´s gas and other natural resources. Bolivia has the second largest reserves of natural gas in South America and there is a great deal of opposition to the exploitation and exportation of these resources by big corporations. Mesa’s law will tax these companies at around 15% but the opposition demands this tax is set at 50%.

In the lead up to the passing of this law many protest blockades were held throughout the country. As a result of this, and due to pressure from the opposition, Mesa resigned as president, on 7 March. Mesa stated in his resignation letter that Bolivia was “ungovernable” (!).

But he was then begged to return as president by Congress, and did so, only to attempt to resign again a week later!

This crisis is only the latest in along line of political problems in Bolivia. Since Mesa was elected in 2003 there have been over 800 protests. On taking office, Mesa pledged to address concerns of indigenous people, who make up two-thirds of the population of Bolivia and who were to the forefront of mass protests that overthrew the former government of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada. But Mesa has failed to meet the demands of the Indigenous people and the population as a whole. Wealthy elites of mostly Spanish ancestry continue to dominate political and economic life, while the majority of Bolivians are low income subsistence farmers, miners, small traders or artisans.

It is likely that this latest crisis over the tax on the exportation of natural resources will result in similar scenes to that which met a government water tax in 2001, in which over 100 people were killed during protests. Many Bolivians now refer to these big disturbances as a “civil war”.

Already nation-wide blockades are anticipated in protest against Mesa’s timid tax on big multinational companies. These protests, in effect, will paralyse the country.

Calls for socialism

Almost all the trade unions and left political parties on the May Day march I attended in La Paz called for nationalisation of the gas and petrol industries. Many also called for socialism, including large contingents of youth that appeared to be mostly associated with the Communist Party of Bolivia and with the youth wing of the opposition, MAS (Movement towards Socialism).

Evo Morales, the MAS leader, seemed to liken himself to Chavez, the radical leader of Venezuela, and uses the same type of rhetoric and calls for many similar demands.

The large number of youth on the May Day march was inspiring. Also inspiring were the diverse unions and community organisations taking part in May Day, including photographers’ unions, emergency workers’ unions, miners, minority groups and women’ organisations.

The march was very anti-imperialist. Several effigies of Bush were burnt, along with American flags.

Missing though from the march were coca farmers, who have been fighting the US-led ‘coca war’ for years. Perhaps they were taking part in demonstrations on other parts of the country and the city.

Bolivia is one of the world’s largest producers of coca, the raw material for cocaine. A ‘crop-eradication programme’ has outraged many of Bolivia’s poorest farmers for whom coca is often the only source of income.

In addition to the demonstration I attended in central La Paz, there were several others around the city. The march in El Alto will have no doubt attracted more people then in the centre.

El Alto, which sits on top of hills outside La Paz, is a slum city. It is the size of La Paz and, until recently, an outer suburb. One million people live there. Thousands of them do not have electricity or basic sanitation. Almost all the houses in El Alto are not completed on the outside because people that live in finished houses are required to pay higher taxes.

It is clear that what is missing in Bolivia is a mass revolutionary party. The potential for a socialist revolution in Bolivia is possibly the highest in all of Latin America (along with Venezuela). Unfortunately, without a real revolutionary force to lead and unite the working class, it will not come to fruition.

This has been seen time and time again in Bolivia, including during the 1952 revolution.

There are so many protests here, often involving workers and the poor risking their lives against the state forces. But nothing changes fundamentally. Some small reforms may be introduced to halt a mass working class movement, but then they are taken away. The huge water tax protests in 2001 shook the government and the ruling class. But water supplies and quality has not improved and it seems a water tax of sorts was still introduced.

Yet, despite the historic and recent set backs, the Bolivian people continue to fight!

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May 2005