Bolivia: Right-wing Bolivian secessionists use gas conflict to destabilize the Morales government

The need for the natural gas reserves to be fully nationalised under workers’ control becomes ever more obvious.

Last Tuesday, April 17, a conflict which has been smouldering in the Bolivian state of Tarija for more than a year about the control of the mega gas field "Margarita", has escalated. In order to gain control of the municipality of Chimeo, which contains the gas field, right-wing reactionary elements have organised the population of the villages Villamontes, Paracurí and Yacuiba to attack the gas plant of Transredes, a Shell subsidiary. The three villages belong to the province of Gran Chaco, but the municipality of Chimeo is part of the province of O’Connor (both provinces belong to the state Tarija).

During the attack, a 37-year-old man was killed by gunfire and 20 more people were wounded. Local authorities blame the army and police forces, who had been defending the gas plant for the killing, but troop officials claim they had strict orders not to use lethal ammunition. Additionally, government forces surrendered to the attackers in order to avoid more blood being spilled.

The taking of the plant was organised by local "civic committees", a type of organisation that has sprung up all over Bolivia since Evo Morales was elected president, and that are for the most part ultra-conservative. In this case, the civic committee was supported by the state governor Mario Cossío. He has refused to do anything to solve the conflict right from the time when the first claims were made by representatives of the elite in Gran Chaco province to gain control of Chimeo municipality. Cossío’s insistence that the national government is responsible for the situation was seen by the “civic committees” as a green light to violently takeover the Shell plant.

His pointing to the national government as being responsable was seen by the "civic committees" as a declaration that he would not hinder them in their violent measures. Cossío is a member of Camino al Cambio, one of the right-wing Bolivian parties, and apart from blaming the Morales administration for not intervening in a dispute which he is responsible, as state governor, for solving, he is promoting a "tenth department" (present-day Bolivia is organised in nine states called departments), i.e. a new territory intended to profit from the gas megafield without having to subsidise poor peasants and indigenous populations who form a large part of the inhabitants of today’s Tarija state.

On a national level, Cossío’s machinations are only one of many attempts to destabilise the center-left government of Evo Morales. Three months ago, an uprising of workers and peasants against the right-wing governor of Cochabamba state was brutally oppressed by paramilitary groups called Democratic Youth, who admitted being financed by the "civic committee" (see article on Mass protests demand right-wing Prefect’s resignation, 25 January 2007). Less than two months ago, there was a countrywide natural gas shortage (see article on From water war to gas war, 24 March 2007) in Bolivia, with one of the world’s biggest natural gas reserves, this is only possible if the supply chain is broken deliberately at some point.

Three weeks ago, at the beginning of a crisis of the national airline Lloyd Aereo Boliviano, LAB, opposition politicians claimed the state should "save" the company, which had been driven into bankruptcy by former capitalist administrations – but this would have meant the state would have to pay $180 million of debts of the company!

Of course, the state should save the company but by bringing it under workers control, refusing the pay the debt, and developing a plan for the national airline as part of a national transport plan for Bolivia.

Truck blocade

Two weeks ago, an organisation of truck drivers blocked the roads from the capital La Paz to the rest of the country demanding fewer taxes. Usually in Bolivia, prior to a road blockade there are negotiations with government officials, but this time the truckers blocked the roads immediately, causing chaos and shortages in La Paz and nearby El Alto. And so on, and so forth. All these incidents are used afterwards by the opposition (who, as usual, have the full support of the right-wing mass media) to criticize the governments "incapacity to lead the country", its "unawareness of the people’s needs" etc.

Reactionary elements are using existing discontent, for example in relation to the recent corruption scandals in the government (see High-Ranking MAS Officials Guilty of Corruption, 3 April 2007) to destabilise the Morales administration. This is only possible because the Morales government is trying to complete a balancing act between the demands and aspirations of the masses and its own insistence on developing Andean capitalism, i.e. a national form of capitalism that it falsely believes would be somehow more progressive.

As long as the Morales government refuses to nationalise the controlling heights of the economy, the ruling elite will try to use its economic power to unseat a government that is threatening their interests. The conflict in Tarija state is far from being resolved soon: When the government had finally agreed to host negotiations in the capital La Paz, the Gran Chaco province representatives as well as governor Cossío refused to participate, saying there was no conflict about the boundaries or that they were not able to make it in time for the meeting. Finally, this Monday, there was a meeting where representatives agreed to accept that a decision about the status of Chimeo municipality would be made by the state court of Tarija. However, in the last few days several attempts have been made to dilute the agreement by the reactionary elements involved.

The right-wing elements in the state administration have no interests apart from their own in this conflict. Representatives of the workers’ organisations in the gas industry and the local region, of poor peasants and indigenous peoples in the area, and of the social movements need to be democratically elected to a commission to draw up proposals for the future of the municipality and the gas field.

The only way this issue can be democratically decided in the interests of the workers and poor of Bolivia is through the nationalisation of the Shell plant, the gas field and the whole of the hydrocarbon industry. Such a measure would place the industry under the democratic workers’ control and management as part of a democratic plan of development of the whole of the Bolivian economy, in the interests of the majority not the parasitic rich elite.

The need to overthrow the capitalist system in Bolivia is shown every day as more and more of the poor slip even further into poverty. But the danger that reactionary political forces pose is shown in today’s Bolivia as well. The only way this can be avoided is by a decisive move to overthrow capitalism and fight to build a socialist society.

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