Four weeks of strikes, protests and blockades have thrown the South American state of Bolivia into turmoil, and forced president Carlos Mesa to offer his resignation.
But Bolivia’s grassroots protest movement is unlikely to receive the kind of support George Bush offers to those demanding the US version of democracy elsewhere in the world.
Successive Bolivian governments have driven through unpopular neo-liberal measures — a status quo that the US would like to see restored.
Speaking at the meeting of the Organisation of American States (OAS) last Sunday, US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice singled out Bolivia as a country that needed to “overcome its instability”.
Addressing the OAS on Monday of this week, Bush explicitly linked the imposition of neo-liberalism and democracy.
But in Bolivia it is neo-liberal measures — felt by most Bolivians to run against their interests and democratic wishes—that have sparked the mass protests.
The recent wave of struggle began in mid-May when Bolivia’s congress approved a new law governing the country’s huge reserves of natural gas.
The law increased taxes on gas exports, but failed to nationalise the reserves — a long-standing demand of Bolivia’s mass movements and trade unions.
Protesters responded by blockading the streets, piling rocks and logs onto roads.
Last week they poured into the capital, La Paz, from the high plateau and the impoverished city of El Alto, which overlook the capital. Their chant was “Mesa go home — power to the people.”
James Lehrer, in La Paz, wrote in the Australian Green Left Weekly magazine, “On 30 May, behind the banner of the El Alto regional workers’ federation 10,000 workers and street merchants descended on La Paz, their determined approach announced by dynamite blasts.
“This contingent was followed by a similarly sized contingent of Aymara indigenous peasant farmers.
“Thousands more cocaleros (coca farmers) also reached La Paz to join the 10,000 who had arrived the week before.”
The next day, as congress met, numbers swelled to about 50,000.
Miners threw sticks of dynamite at riot police outside the congress building and the presidential palace.
Students from the Autonomous Public University of El Alto tried to break through barricades. Police retaliated with teargas, water cannon and rubber bullets.
By Wednesday of last week there were signs that discipline in the country’s poorly paid police force was breaking down.
A police officer from the capital called a radio station saying that his regiment had decided to stop going into the streets “to gas our women and our own children”.
He also demanded the nationalisation of Bolivian natural gas reserves.
The protests rapidly spread across the country.
Two thirds of the country’s highways were blocked, effectively closing off seven of Bolivia’s nine regions.
Lehrer writes, “Large demonstrations were held in Cochabamba, and the workers’ confederation of the Potosi region called for an indefinite general strike.”
Teachers, healthcare workers, transport workers, bakers and miners all supported demands for the nationalisation of Bolivia’s gas reserves.
Powerful “neighbourhood organisations” called a general strike across El Alto.
Luis Gomez has been filing eyewitness reports for Narcosphere, a radical online forum.
He wrote on Friday of last week, “This morning the meatpackers came down from El Alto.
“The residents of the Viacha region (both urban and rural Aymara) were also present, together with a thousand peasant farmers arriving from Bolivia’s northern highlands.
“To the rhythm of saya (African-Bolivian) music, the workers summed up their answer to the government’s actions — ‘Now there will be civil war.’
“A group of youths carried a pair of dolls representing Carlos Mesa and congress president Hormando Vaca Diez. After marching for an hour through downtown La Paz, the dolls were burned.”
By Monday of this week there were about 500,000 on the streets of the capital. They chanted, “A people united will never be defeated.”
Bolivian state television reported that Mesa had left the presidential palace. In a late night television broadcast he offered his resignation.
It was unclear as Socialist Worker went to press whether congress would accept it.
Mesa clung on to power in mid-March when he made a similar offer in order to calm an earlier series of mass protests.
Nor was it clear whether the overthrow of Mesa would be enough for protesters on the streets.