There's A Lot Of It About
editorial - SchNEWS, 17 June 2005
While the worlds eight richest leaders prepare to meet in Scotland, hundreds of thousands will be protesting in the streets. The neo-liberal model of privatisation, cut backs and corporate plunder is held up by the rich and powerful as the only way to run the world. We disagree - and last week so did the people of Bolivia, who once again showed that we don't have to take this economic model lying down.
"Will the people allow a rerun of the old story of the country's riches evaporating in foreign hands? The people demanded and continue to demand that the gas be used for Bolivia and that the country not submit again to the dictatorship of its underground resources. The right to self-determination, so often invoked, so rarely respected, begins here." - Eduardo Galeano, Uruguayan journalist
Bolivia is Latin America's poorest country precisely because its people have been force-fed the neoliberal reform agenda for such a long time. The imposed policies of privatisation, cuts to welfare and other business friendly reforms are only designed to help the multinationals and their pals in government make shed loads of money. The poorest 20% of Bolivians own less than 2% of the nation's wealth, yet the top fifth own a whopping 62%: and these neo-liberal policies are widening this gap. The debt relief promised by G8 plc is a con. It comes laden with the same conditions as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) loans that got the countries into debt in the first place. One of the demands: privatise your state owned industries until nothing's left. In Argentina they even sold off the state zoo!
With a history of over two hundred coups or revolutions since independence in 1825, the Bolivian people are, once again, sticking two fingers up at the political elite. Just under five years ago, during the Cochabamba 'water war', a collective rebellion wrestled back control of the water supply from the grip of the Bechtel Corporation which had even managed to persuade the Bolivian Congress to introduce a law banning people from collecting rainwater! With Betchel out of the picture and a victory under their belts, protesters are now reclaiming control of their gas supply, kicking out the likes of British Gas on their way.
Back in March, demonstrators derailed a deal that would have made the Pacific LNG consortium, which includes British Gas, ten dollars for every one they invested in the country. The rich elite were keen to get the 1.5 trillion cubic metres of gas out of the ground and down to the coast, to be shipped off to California as quickly and as profitably as possible. Others, notably the indigenous majority, thought that the Bolivians should be able to use the gas for themselves. Tens of thousands protesters forced the shutdown of four oilfields and access to seven of Bolivia's nine regions, demanding that a tax of 50% be levied against the gas companies. Over the past month protesters have firmly rejected the 32% 'compromise' tax suggested by Congress and are now calling for the re-nationalisation of the gas system. Bolivians are officially "off message" and G8 leaders are non-too pleased.
Carlos Arze, an NGO worker from La Paz, says that the demonstrators are looking to "break the 20-year old neo-liberal economic model that has allowed transnational corporations to control the policies and economy of this country." And the latest victory came last Tuesday (7th June) when President Carlos Mesa, bowed to pressure and quit his job. The new president, Bolivia's Supreme Court head, Eduardo Rodriguez is the country's third president in less than two years.
In a country where 30% of the population lives on less than 60p a day, G8 policy has been more concerned with privatisation and profit than poverty. The current economic system, invented by US economists in the 1980s, has destroyed the country's agricultural and industrial sectors, bringing hundreds of thousands of workless but highly politicised families to live at the gates of the capital city, La Paz. It is from here that they have been able to hold the country to ransom: only one road connects La Paz with the outside world and it's been blockaded by the irate indigenous population of El Alto since May.
Meanwhile, a powerful business elite - mostly of European descent - in the south-eastern city of Santa Cruz has been pushing for far greater regional autonomy and a bigger share of the region's gas and oil wealth. Leaders there, where most of the country's gas is located, have pledged to hold a referendum on increased autonomy this August - with or without the approval of central government, setting the stage for future conflicts. Despite such attempts by the rich to grind them even further into poverty, the majority of Bolivians have shown the world that there is no need to simply accept the economic agenda pushed by the G8. Resistance works and the head honchos of this system are congregating at Gleneagles this July...
* Recommended reading "Cochabamba - Water War In Bolivia" by Oscar Olivera (2004) South End Press.
- SchNEWS (17th June 2005)