For Bolivia, Neoliberalism is Not an Option
Date: Friday, June 10 @ 15:21:48 UTC
Topic: Bolivia - Evo Morales

by Gretchen Gordon,
June 9, 2005

As the Organization of American States completes its three-day session debating the role of free trade and neoliberalism in fostering democracy for the continent, the country of Bolivia is on the brink of a civil war over that very question.

The sound of firecrackers and dynamite blasts punctuated the beginning of the fourth week of paralyzing protests in the Bolivian capital of La Paz, Wednesday. Tens of thousands of indigenous, miners, workers, students, and others once again flooded the streets to vocalize two immediate demands: a new constitution, and the nationalization of Bolivia's oil and gas resources.

"We want our oil and gas nationalized, so that our children can have them one day," said Japth Mamani Yanolico, an indigenous leader from the Omasuyos Province near Lake Titicaca, as he stopped to take a break from the tear gas in the streets of La Paz. "And we want a Constituent Assembly."

Meanwhile, in Broward, Florida, George Bush addressed the General Session of the OAS Monday, advocating increasing free trade and neoliberal policies for Latin America through trade accords which would open markets and increase privatization in the region. Bush spoke of the benefits of free trade in buttressing fragile democracies and increasing living standards.

"In the new Americas of the 21st century, one of the surest ways to make opportunity real for all our citizens is by opening our doors to trade," said Bush.

Bush's proposals, however, received a cold welcome from the majority of representatives of Latin American countries where, after two decades of neoliberal reforms, one in four people live in poverty.

Bolivia, as many countries in the region, has been following International Monetary Fund (IMF) neoliberal mandates for the last 20 years, primary among these, the privatization of natural gas exploitation which occurred in the mid 1990s.

The current upheaval in Bolivia centers around the question of who controls, and who benefits from Bolivia's natural resources, one of the only economic lifelines of what is the poorest country in South America. The overwhelming majority of Bolivia's 9 million inhabitants are indigenous, and almost two-thirds struggle to survive far below the poverty line. For this majority, the analysis of the impacts of neoliberal policies is clear.

"Neoliberal policies together with privatization are a very important part of the current crisis because they've resulted in poverty, unemployment, underemployment, and discrimination," said Sacha Llorenti, President of the Permanent Assembly on Human Rights, Bolivia's preeminent human rights organization. "Bolivians are in a much more vulnerable state than they were ten years ago; we're in a vulnerable state because of the application of neoliberal policies."

While earlier this month, Congress made some moves to increase the taxes and royalties paid by corporations extracting Bolivia's natural gas, the escalation of demonstrations has signaled that for those in the streets, nothing short of full nationalization is acceptable.

President Carlos Mesa, who resigned from office late Monday night, handing the reigns over to Congress to determine how power would be transferred to the next President, appeared before Bolivians on national television late Tuesday night in an urgent plea for a full change of government as the only way to avert a civil war.

"The country can not continue playing with the possibility of splitting into a thousand pieces. ... The only solution for Bolivia is an immediate electoral process," Mesa said. "This is coming from a president who is on his way out. ... It is a call to a country on the brink of civil war."

Mesa, a moderate free trade proponent himself, came to power in October 2003 when previous president Gonzalo Sanchez Lozada was overthrown by public outcry over plans to use Chilean ports on the Pacific coast to allow private exportation of Bolivia's gas.

The popular contender for the next presidential election is Evo Morales, leader of the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) and a vocal opponent of US-backed neoliberal reforms. If Morales comes to power, Bolivia would become the seventh Latin American country to move to a leftist government, opposed to U.S. neoliberal policies, in recent years.

In the Broward County Convention Center, the OAS closed yesterday with a resolution to "facilitate dialogue" over the current crisis in Bolivia. The final OAS Declaration also contained significant wins for Latin American countries by recognizing continuing poverty as one of the greatest threats to democracy, and rejecting a U.S. proposal to create a "democracy-monitoring" mechanism within the OAS, which many in Latin America viewed as a means for greater U.S. control over development in the region.

Meanwhile, in the capitol city of La Paz, completely blockaded by protesters, Bolivians are beginning to run out of water, gas, and food, and tensions in the streets are escalating rapidly.

"Bolivia is in a complete and profound crisis, not just a crisis of this moment, but a structural crisis" said Llorenti. "We're at the point of defining what model of accumulation of wealth we're going to use, and what model of redistribution of wealth we're going to use."

"There will be a resolution. But right now we're at the crossroads of whether there will be a peaceful resolution, or a violent resolution."

While social movement leaders and political actors scramble to find some sort of resolution before a war erupts, the only thing that is certain right now is that for Bolivia, a return to neoliberalism is not an option.

Gretchen Gordon is a writer and consultant on globalization issues, writing from La Paz, Bolivia. She can be reached at

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