by David Werner; written in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, October 2003

I Picked the Wrong Time to Go to Bolivia

I had been invited to speak in La Paz at a national seminar on Communications and Disability with a focus on Human Rights, scheduled for October 15-16, 2003. On the 13th I flew from California to Miami and there boarded American Airlines flight #922 to La Paz. But the flight never landed in La Paz. Because of “social disruption” in La Paz and El Alto (the huge slum city above La Paz where the International Airport is located), the Bolivian government had prohibited all landings. Instead, we landed in the lowland eastern city of Santa Cruz, in the upper reaches of the Amazon basin.

The “social disturbance,” of course, was rapidly escalating into the massive protest to oust the existing pro-US, pro-Free Trade government. Spearheaded by an indigenous movement (mostly of coca farmers) and miners from the surrounding countryside, the protest was soon joined by poor people of El Alto and the vast “septic fringe” of La Paz. University students and opposition parties—and even middle-class housewives banging on pots and pans—also joined in. At first the massive demonstrations were relatively peaceful. But when the president ordered the police and army to open fire with heavy machine guns, things became more chaotic, driven by what the New York Times described as the “Bolivian Peasants' ‘Ideology of Fury.'” On October 14th and 15th—the most heated days of the protest—63 people were shot dead, among them women and children, including three infants in arms. Hundreds more were injured. Before it was over, more than 80 people were killed.

What Triggered the Protest?

The issue that sparked the massive protest was export of natural gas. But behind the gas lay a smoldering history of grievances related to an economic system—national and global—that increasingly favors the rich and marginalizes the poor.

Gas has become an explosive concern in Bolivia, partly because relentless deforestation of timber for export has made firewood for cooking increasingly scarce. Today most of the population, even in rural areas, is dependent on natural gas (propane in canisters). The unbridled growth of the timber industry that has plundered Bolivia’s forestland was abetted by the so-called Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to promote “economic recovery.” Since the mid-1980s the Bank and IMF have made big loans for the “development” of industries that export the country’s marketable natural resources, including timber. (SAPs put pressure on poor countries to increase production for export in order to generate dollars to make payments on their enormous foreign debts.)

The story of natural gas parallels that of timber and of tin. Bolivia has one of the largest natural gas reserves in the world, second only to Argentina. With the demise of the tin industry, natural gas has become the country’s leading export.

The recent angry protests in La Paz emerged to oppose the plan of Bolivia’s President, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada (known to Bolivians as “the butcher” and nicknamed Goni) to vastly increase the export of natural gas, to be transported through a proposed 5 billion dollar pipeline to a Chilean port. The gas was to be exported to the US and Mexico at an incredibly low price of US $5 per cubic meter - while maintaining the current price within Bolivia of US $60 per cubic meter. In sum, impoverished families in Bolivia would have to pay 12 times as much as the export price to rich countries! (To the peasants in Bolivia, the poorest country in Latin America where 51% of the people lack electricity and the average income is US $3 per day, even Mexico seems like a rich country.) The protesters see this disparity in pricing as outrageously unfair. They demand Bolivia reduce the price of gas to its citizens to equal the export price, and that the gas be used for local development, not foreign profits.

High Price of Gas Reduces Health

The protesters see the current high price of gas for domestic use not only as an economic problem for the poor, but also as a health problem. The legal minimum wage in Bolivia is about 2 US dollars per day, so little that millions of families cannot adequately feed their families. Over 60% of Bolivian children are chronically undernourished (stunted in both bodies and minds) with an under 5 mortality rate of 77 per thousand (nearly one in ten!). Aggravating this situation, unemployment in Bolivia is around 25%, underemployment over 60%. As the main cooking fuel, gas is essential for preparing the staple foods of the poor: maize, beans, rice, quinoa (amaranth) and yucca (cassava). Money that families must spend on fuel reduces what they might otherwise spend on food. Thus the high gas price contributes to child undernutrition, which in the long run is a setback to the development of the nation.

It is also, assert the protesters, a crime against humanity. Having enough to eat is a fundamental human right, declared in the International Rights of Children. Pricing an abundant local resource out of reach of the people, and thereby increasing hunger, violates that basic right.

But why, then, doesn’t the Bolivian government follow the humane and health-protecting option of selling its natural gas at an affordable price to its own citizens, rather than exporting it at a giveaway price? The revenue, some argue, could be as great or greater, and the people healthier. Why should the president risk social unrest and (as it turned out) his own overthrow, when a more popular, more health-conducive solution seems so obvious? I asked these questions of a small group of Communications students of Cumbre University in Santa Cruz, Bolivia.

Profits Before People

The students gave me several reasons. One, they said, was that Bolivia’s [now exiled] President Sanchez was on the dole from the US government. He was strongly supported by transnational corporations and beholden to the International Financial Institutions (World Bank, IMF), which pressured him to export gas at a “competitive” price. Another reason, they said, relates to Bolivia’s huge foreign debt. The debt must be serviced with dollars, not an unstable local currency. Sale of gas to citizens, no matter how large, doesn’t generate dollars. Hence the Bank’s “conditionalities” require that debt-burdened countries “adjust” their economies toward export. If that means less food or fuel to meet the people’s basic needs, too bad. It’s part of the cost of international economic development.

This strategy for servicing foreign debt has been imposed on many economically struggling countries in exchange for loans. In the past the World Bank and IMF have insisted that such “temporary hardships for the poor,” are necessary for long-term economic growth. However, as UNICEF has pointed out, such “short term austerity measures” translate into long-term consequences for millions of children, namely stunting, disability and death.

‘Adjustment With a Human Face’—But No Structural Changes

The World Bank—partly in response to strong criticism by international “watch-dog” groups—asserts it has now reformed, adopting what UNICEF has called “Adjustment with a Human Face.”

The Bank has recently revised its mandate (less than its practices) to prioritize “eradication of poverty.” Some of its “Poverty Reduction Programs” have some excellent features at the community level (as I witnessed in Andhra Pradesh, India; see our Newsletter # 48).

Yet with rare exception, these community-level programs meticulously avoid demanding the macro-economic policy changes that would allow poor countries to restrict export and regulate import so as to allow better use of their local resources to meet their people’s basic needs. Rather than tackle the entrenched systemic inequities that drain poor countries of their resources, the Bank opts to help poor people in poor countries fight poverty by promoting “local cost effective projects” such as “micro-enterprises.” Using all the old revolutionary jargon, it designs “self-help” initiatives to “empower the people” to “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.” Sometimes these “self-reliance engendering” projects seem to work, at least on a limited scale. But faced with the global pandemic of falling wages, rising unemployment, and routine downsizing of corporate industries, too few destitute people can afford even sandals, much less boots with which to pull themselves up by the straps. True, a handful of the more innovative poor folks may benefit temporarily from these self-help income-generating ventures. But as their numbers grow, competition with one another tends to drive down prices. In any case, the vast majority of the poor—including as ever the most vulnerable—still fall between the cracks. And as ever, the root causes of persistent poverty—many of which lie in the increasingly deregulated and globalized market system—remain largely unaddressed.

Despite all the back-patting rhetoric of poverty alleviation, the dominant, inequitable paradigm of economic development is still determined, undemocratically and largely behind closed doors, by a relatively small but extraordinary powerful ruling class.

Small wonder, worldwide, the gap between rich and poor is growing by leaps and bounds! In Bolivia, 20% of the people receive 49% of the income, while the poorest 40% make merely 13%.

Tension with Chile

The gas issue in Bolivia is also rooted in national—and increasingly indigenous—pride, as well as historical tension with Chile. The plan of President Sanchez and the transnational corporations to run a pipeline to a Chilean seaport prodded an old wound. Many Bolivians see Chile as “the enemy,” not to be trusted. This antagonism stems from an old dispute between Bolivia and Chile over national boundaries. In the mid 19th Century the British government helped Bolivia build a railway line from La Paz to Antofagasta, a port on the Pacific Ocean, then part of Bolivia. The railroad would expedite export of tin and other natural resources to England. But after the railway was completed, in 1879 Chile invaded and took possession of the coastal territory, leaving Bolivia landlocked. The British government backed Chile, in part so that Chile would sell the rich coastal resources of seabird guano to England at greatly reduced prices. As a result, Bolivia lost all access to the sea, and to this day remains beholden to Chile for access to shipping ports. It also must pay Chile duty for use of what was its own railroad. This travesty, Bolivians assert, is one reason why Chile has prospered through international commerce, while Bolivia remains the poorest, most foreign-aid-dependent country in Latin America. The open wound and resentment persist. As with the railroad, most Bolivians are convinced Chile will heavily tax the proposed pipeline, further widening the gap between rich and poor, and deepening the weaker country’s dependency on the drain of international “free trade.”

The natural gas proposal is the latest in a long series of policy shifts and inequitable economic adjustments that the poor of Bolivia say have increased their hardships. Under strong international pressure, the Bolivian government—like economically strapped nations the world over—has been aggressively privatizing its national industries and public services, including mines, electricity, telecommunications, airlines and water. One privatization that triggered a huge nationwide protest a few years ago was the sale of Bolivia’s national oil industry to a private corporation based, of all places, in Chile! Old resentments exploded, but the protest was soon squelched.

Some such protests, however, have succeeded. When a previous president took steps to privatize the railroad system, tremendous popular resistance forced the government to give in, at least for the time being. And when water distribution in Cochabamba was privatized and handed over to a subsidiary of the U.S. company Bechtel, the uprising in response forced Bechtel out and the government was forced to renationalize the water. Today Bechtel is suing Bolivia, South America’s poorest country, for $25 million, for profits it wasn’t able to earn as a result of the public uprising.

Nearly everyone I talked to in Bolivia was sympathetic to the October uprising, and openly hostile toward President Gonzalo Sanchez. As by far the wealthiest man in Bolivia, el Goni was already deeply resented by the poor majority. He and his family made their fortune in gold and silver mining. Many say he has an income of more than 600 million Bolivianos a year (about 80 million dollars).

Low Intensity Democracy

I asked my hosts in Santa Cruz: What percentage of the population backs President Sanchez? They estimated 20%. Then I asked: “If Bolivia is a democratic nation, how did a man with so little popular support get elected?”

I got many answers. Some laughed at the suggestion Bolivia is democratic. Others noted that “Goni” has been strongly backed by the United States and transnational corporations. He certainly has the leverage to sway the corporate-owned mass media, which systematically brainwash the citizenry. Others pointed out that Goni won the last election with only 22 percent of the vote, just one percent more than Evo Morales, head of the National Coca Growers Federation. By pulling several of the smaller parties into an ad hoc coalition, Goni was able to sneak the lead.

One of the professors reminded me that the United States carefully oversees the political environment of Bolivia, and will take the necessary measures to keep in power the party that best serves its purposes. Presidential elections in Bolivia take place every 5 years. Evo Morales, a self-educated indigenous Aymara, is the highly popular candidate of the “Towards Socialism Party” and head of the prestigious Coca Growers Union. He is also a thorn in the side of the White House in Washington. If elected president, he promises to reverse privatization of public services and utilities, to increase minimum wages, and to regulate foreign investment so as to better serve human needs. But what angers the White House most is that Morales stridently opposes the forthcoming Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, which the Bush Administration is pushing no holds barred.

From the perspective of the US power structure, a pro-people candidate such as Evo Morales is as dangerous as Fidel. Informed people I talked to are convinced that if Bolivia’s elite need help in sabotaging the democratic election of Evo Morales, the US will take the lead, using whatever overt or covert action is needed to neutralize him. I was reminded how the US has effectively eliminated other democratically elected presidents in Latin America, including Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954 and Allende in Chile in 1973. Informed Bolivians have little doubt that the recently attempted overthrow of the “poor people’s president” Hugo Chavez in Venezuela was kindled by the transnational oil industry with help from the CIA.

I was told by university professors, in fact, that Bolivia’s Ministry of Interior has two permanent CIA “advisors,” and is sarcastically dubbed the Bolivian “Departamento de Inteligencia” (i.e. Bolivia’s CIA).

Does Bolivia Have a Free Press?

Does Bolivia have a free press? Constitutionally, yes. But during the recent protests, any media that dared to objectively report on government abuse were subject to heavy-handed censure. Or worse. The government was especially aggressive in suppressing radio reports. Radio is the primary means of communication to the nation’s poor majority. In the first days of escalated protest, two major stations were “bought off” (their silence paid for) and one radio station in the highlands was dynamited. (I learned this from a friend in La Paz who works in communications and has links with a non-government watchdog group called the Defensoría del Pueblo. (My friend and his colleagues worked round the clock trying to keep news communications open and uncensored.) Even an Internet news board—a critical source of full and accurate political reporting in Bolivia—mysteriously ceased to function. Several newspaper offices were raided and closed down.

I was still in Bolivia as I wrote this section:

It is now October 16. Yesterday, on the 15th, the protest was largely confined to La Paz and El Alto. But today it has spread to other parts of the country. Because I could not get to La Paz and because the National Seminar I was to speak at there was canceled, the organizers of the Seminar made stop-gap arrangements with colleagues here in Santa Cruz for me to speak at two local private universities. I willingly did so. But attendance was far less than anticipated because public roads were blocked by protesters and many students were afraid toventure onto the streets. Others joined the march.
In Santa Cruz, so far, the demonstrations have by and large remained peaceful and police have not been overly abusive. Nevertheless, many shops and restaurants have remained closed, their owners fearful. (In previous protests in Santa Cruz, events have sometimes gotten out of hand: shops vandalized and looted. Some shopkeepers lost everything.)
I asked my hosts at Cumbre University if they thought the nationwide protest would be effective in changing the government’s position. They shook their heads, stating that “El Goni is stubborn as a mule. Instead of yielding to popular demand, his typical response is to step up police and military repression." Which he did.

For a while, however, the President indicated he would consider a compromise, and the protestors in La Paz stood their ground more peacefully. But it soon became clear that the Goni was just trying to buy time, and had no intention of significant policy change. So the protestors revised their tactics. One large group started a hunger strike. This mobilized yet wider resistance and renewed demands. The President declared that all who took part in the protest were drug traffickers and seditionists. Violent repression was stepped up. But it proved counterproductive. The gas protest escalated into a demand for the President to resign. Which on October 17 he did. Fearing for his life, he fled La Paz. It was rumored that he secretly took refuge in Santa Cruz. Then he turned up in exile in Miami.

Goni’s gone. Now what?

What remains to be seen is if and how the US will intervene in the fast evolving politics of Bolivia. If the Bush Administration thinks that the opposition leader, Evo Morales—whom it regards as a threat to Free Trade and its holy War on Drugs—might win the next presidential elections, will the hawks in the White House take “preemptive” action? Currently in El Salvador, for similar reasons, the CIA is said to already be working hard to undermine the pro-people, anti-free trade agreement FMLN candidate who shows a strong lead in the polls. And in April of 2002, when Hugo Chávez, the democratically elected president of Venezuela, was briefly deposed by soldiers supported by an elite and the media, the US quickly recognized the coup on the false pretext that Chávez had “ordered fire on his own people.”

Latin America has become the battleground for the economic struggles of the present. To Ecuador’s ousting of Jamil Mahuad in January 2000, Peru’s overthrow of Alberto Fujimori in November of the same year, and Argentina’s ejection of Fernando de la Rua in December of 2001, we now add Bolivia’s forcible rejection of Gonzalo Sanchez.

But we must not kid ourselves. Surely, “preemptive regime change” did not start, nor will it end, with the Bush Administration. The US military-industrial complex has a long history in Latin America and around the world of covertly undermining, or if necessary, forcefully overthrowing, governments it considers a threat to US business interests and global dominance.

Now Goni’s gone. Despite his resignation, few people I talked to in Bolivia were optimistic that any major socio-political change will happen in the near future. Bolivia is just one small struggling country within a globalized power structure that puts profit before people.

Strength through unity? Perhaps the most likely chance to significantly address (or at least regulate) the structural causes of poverty lies in the efforts of poor countries to come together in solidarity. Working together and speaking with one voice will strengthen their demand for international policy based more on human and environmental need.

The most encouraging, if controversial, example of such Third World strength-through-unity took place at the global summit of the World Trade Organization in Cancun, Mexico in September, 2003. There an ad hoc coalition of weaker states succeeded in blocking, or at least postponing, the attempt of the rich industrial countries to pass further international laws that favor rich countries and transnational corporations at the expense of the poor. The poor countries joined forces to successfully block an accord that would have sanctioned the subsidized export of rich countries’ agricultural surplus, arguing that such subsidies make it harder for poor Third World farmers to compete, thus deepening poverty. The industrial powers were, for the first time, thwarted by this united resistance by the economically weaker nations, a critical first step toward healthier global economic policies!

A poor country like Bolivia, acting alone, stands little chance of successfully challenging the unjust international policies of powerful industrialized nations and the international financial institutions. Nor is it likely, on its own, to bridle the exploits of unscrupulous transnational corporations.

But through “globalization” from the bottom up there may yet be hope. In unity lies strength. Cancun was a groundbreaking first step.

Note: Additional information and discussion on Bolivia can be found in our web site: This includes a powerful letter by Evo Morales, in response to scathing accusations against him by the newly exiled ex-president Gonzalo Sanchez.