The newspapers suggested that “Nothing can stop the Santa Cruz movement.” The peaceful protests in La Paz on the 28th of January and all over the country yesterday suggest otherwise. Pro-government protests like the one in La Paz, are taking place all over Bolivia. Why protest to support the government, one might ask?
Powerful forces are at work in Bolivia in these past two weeks that threaten to tear the country apart. In the east of Bolivia, in the relatively affluent, white and influential boomtown of Santa Cruz the people have been mobilized for more than a week now. Tactics include newspaper advertising, marches, street blockades and other forms of propaganda. The people of Santa Cruz have been exerting relentless pressure on the government in La Paz. Their threat to separate from the rest of Bolivia is being taken seriously by the central government in La Paz and some concessions are being offered.
The organizers of the Cruceño protests (as the people of Santa Cruz are called) have both overt and covert agendas. As is often the case in Bolivia, many of those that protest in the streets have only a vague idea of the covert agenda. These issues are hidden deep behind the populist rhetoric.
So who are these people and why do they want to exert such urgent pressure on the central government in La Paz?
Santa Cruz is both a city and a department (state) in eastern Bolivia. The department represents about one third of the land mass of Bolivia (370,000 square kilometers). Its population has tripled since 1976 to over 2.1 million now. Eastern Bolivia is one of Bolivia’s richest areas and the main centre for the oil and gas exploitation industry. Santa Cruz itself has 10% of Bolivia’s known gas reserves, second only to Tarija, in the south. It is also a growing agricultural and industrial power centre.
Many of the rich landowners, some of whom received generous favors from dictatorial President Banzer in the last five years, are among those who are behind the “protests” in Santa Cruz. The Cruceño elite benefitted generously from almost twenty years of disproportionate influence in Bolivia until a popular revolution in October 2003 brought much of this influence to a halt. In effect, the Cruceños lost the gas war. Their ex-president, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada (´Goni´ to his friends and foes alike), is currently under indictment. Self-exiled in Washington, D.C. Goni had to flee the country when his neo-liberal policies became radically unpopular.
The urgency being exhibited by the protest organized by the Cruceño elite is directed toward the current transitional government of President Carlos de Mesa.
President Mesa and the Bolivian parliament are very busy these days rewriting critical laws that will govern the economics of Bolivia’s oil and gas. They are also planning for extended devolutionary democracy. Trying to satisfy the various national and international constituents that are present in Bolivia is proving difficult work and the laws are way behind schedule. The latest schedule plans for a new law of oil and gas by April 2005 and a new law governing power devolution (the proposed Constitutional Assembly) in June.
Such important changes in government do not happen in a vacuum. The Bolivian people made them happen. In 2003, they angrily demanded change and drove Goni into exile with great unrest and considerable loss of life. In the third and poorest city of Bolivia, in El Alto, 49 people died and 500 were injured when Goni called in the troops to quell the unrest of his poor neighbors, a further 21 died when they marched on La Paz. It proved to be a foolhardy move and the political crisis deepened, forcing Goni’s departure.
His vice-president, Mesa, distanced himself from his president thereby increasing his popularity and making him the compromise transitional President. Just days before his abdication, Goni signed into law one of the most generous laws privatizing Bolivia’s considerable petro-chemical resoursces being exploited by foreign oil companies. This law reduced the government’s take to a mere 18% of the profits. Goni had also already signed laws that removed the need for government controlling equity interest. The legitimacy of 18% law is in serious question as it was executed by presidential decree, by-passing congressional approval. Still a big player in Bolivian politics Goni he faces a judicial process that threatens to freeze his considerable mining assets in the country. His friends are not happy.
Meanwhile, back in Bolivia, January 2005. Gas is a major issue. Exports to Brazil are doubling in the short term and huge contracts to supply gas to Mexico have been put on hold for three months while the government works on a more equitable law to govern the country’s considerable petro-chemical resources. A lot hinges on the new oil and gas law not least the profits of foreign transnationals working in the extraction inducçstries in Bolivia.
Bolivia has South America´s second largest reserves of natural gas (after Venezuela), a natural resource that represents 23% of the world’s chemical energy reserves. Natural gas is becoming increasingly important as oil reserves dwindle and the negative reprecussions of oil and coal burning are felt worldwide. As one of the world’s cleanest source of energy, gas is becoming increasingly important as a in the world’s mega-cities such as Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires, Mexico City and Los Angeles. Used to generate electricity, it is used to power (clean) buses, trucks and automobiles. It is also an essential portable fuel mainly for cooking, heating and light.
The loudest requests emanating from the Cruceño propaganda machine are a reduction in the price of diesel and increased devolution of power to the regions (particularly the region surrounding Santa Cruz). The populist rhetoric calls for cheaper transport costs. Beneath this lies a desperate shuffle for political power between the new east and the traditional power base in La Paz.
The powers-that-be in Santa Cruz do not want to wait for a new law governing the extraction of oil and gas. Cheaper diesel may mean 5 cents off the daily bus ride for the commuting poor, but more importantly, large landowners with their agri-business interests can maintain a healthy margin in their soy bean production and transport interests. A new law that will lead to a healthy devolution is being brought to the streets of Santa Cruz, but this will also mean devolution for all of Bolivia’s regions and the re-drawing of borders. These may not quite align so well with the interests of the Cruceño elite. Rather than wait for democratic change, they are pressing hard for immediate action on devolution which may mean that the governments comprehensive plans may be still-born.
The leftist leader Evo Morales has described the speech given by the Cruceños leader Ruben Costas to a crowd of over one third of a million in Santa Cruz yesterday as fascist and cynical. He plans a counter demonstration in Cochabamba on Monday in support of national unity, the government and the constitution.
Perhaps the last word should be left to those Cruceños who have been there the longest. Manuel Dosapey, president of the Eastern Indigenous organization (mostly of the Guarani tribe) in an article in the La Paz newspaper La Razon today said, “[they] never spoke of the Constitutional Assembly (the government plan for devolution), [neither did they speak of] oil and gas, they have forgotten about them and insist instead of obstructing both”. He also added that the Cruceños never spoke of the land issue. The National Assembly for the Guarani people (a local indigenous group) purchased a full-page advertisement in the Santa Cruz de la Sierra newspaper today which denigrated the Cruceño movement and argued their own agenda for devolution.