The Bolivian rebellion is the latest uprising to hit the region. The Latin American version of “regime change” is proving a major headache for the US, the multinationals keen to exploit the region’s resources and their allies in the region’s ruling classes.
Mass movements have brought down unpopular governments in Argentina in 2001, Bolivia in 2003 and Ecuador in 2000 and again earlier this year. Ecuador and Bolivia were among the countries where, US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice told the Organisation of American States (OAS), “the institutions of democracy have brittle roots”.
She also used her speech to attack Venezuela’s government led by Hugo Chavez. “We must insist that leaders who are elected democratically have a responsibility to govern democratically,” she said.
Rice planned to go from the OAS meeting to meet with Venezuelan exiles who want to overthrow Chavez.
Far from being an authoritarian figure, Chavez has been elected twice. His policy of using Venezuela’s oil wealth to pay for ambitious social programmes has made him one of the most popular leaders in the region.
Many Bolivians want to see this model adopted in their country, which, after Venezuela, has the biggest natural gas reserves in the continent. Western multinationals, including BP and British Gas, have made huge profits from Bolivian oil and gas since the energy industry was privatised under IMF pressure in 1996.
Two thirds of the Bolivian population live in poverty.
Protesters have also taken up rights for Indians who make up about 62 percent of Bolivia’s population, and who suffer disproportionately from poverty. But the Bolivian elite, and the multinationals who profit from the gas, are making demands of their own.
They have organised a referendum calling for autonomy for the gas rich regions of the south and east—including the wealthy city of Santa Cruz where most of Bolivia’s elite live.
In the parliamentary debate on the natural gas laws president Mesa opposed the new legislation because he did not even want to increase the taxes paid on gas exports.
Before becoming president, Mesa served in the US-backed government of Sanchez Lozada.
Lozada was overthrown in October 2003 after pushing neo-liberal measures.
In 2003 Mesa promised to nationalise the gas, enshrine the rights of Indians in a new constitution and put on trial those responsible for 67 deaths in the uprising against Lozada.
But Mesa continued to push a neo-liberal agenda and has faced more protests than he has had days in office.
The coca farmers’ leader, Evo Morales, who narrowly lost the last presidential election in 2002, ought to be the main beneficiary of the latest wave of struggle in Bolivia.
But Morales is barely keeping pace with the movement, and has tried to keep the movement within narrow constitutional channels.
The Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), which he leads, has not demanded the nationalisation of gas reserves.
In the radical US newsletter Counterpunch, Forrest Hylton writes, “Morales functions as a dam against a popular flood onto the nation’s highways, into its streets and perhaps even the presidential palace.
“The motive force of the current wave of protest comes from the rank and file and mid-level cadre.” Morales played a key role in defusing the 2003 protests, allowing Mesa to assume power.