Oscar Olivera takes stock of "gasolinazo" in Bolivia: "new ways of doing politics and economics have to be put in place"
The “gasolinazo”, through which the Bolivian government sharply increased fuel prices with the intention of preventing further losses to the economy as a result of smuggling in the porous border regions with Peru, Chile, Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, brought about a firm response from a people that showed that the Bolivians are not asleep. The wave of protests made it clear why the Bolivian people have been referred to as the most aware and politicised on the continent on more than one occasion: not only rejecting the measure, which exponentially increased the cost of living, but also rejecting the way in which it was done, consulting the technocrats without considering the impact it would have on the more humble, in a manner not unlike the actions of the neo-liberal technocrats which crippled our continent with hunger in the 1990’s.
Just as technocratic policies are the result of demobilisation and bureaucratisation, an aware and mobilised people is the only guarantee of policies being implemted in their favour.
What follows is a very enlightening interview with the veteran of the Cochabamba Water War of 2000, our colleague and friend Oscar Olivera, which was conducted on January 6th.
1. First of all companero, could you please explain the context of the recent demonstrations in Bolivia known as the “gasolinazo”?
The day after Christmas, Vice-President García Linera, in the absence of Morales, who was on a tour Venezuela, announced that the subsidy on some fuels was removed and talked about raising taxes on some of them such as gasoline, diesel and aviation fuel. Gasoline for cars rose by 72%, diesel by 84% and aviation fuel by 99%. It was very surprising as no-one imagined that during the Christmas period, when a sense of friendship exists and when people try to forget their own troubles and the bad moments of the year, the government would announce something so bad...a lot of people were in a state of disbelief - myself included. When I logged onto the Las Ultimas Noticias website and read a headline of “gasolinazo in Bolivia”, I thought I had mistakenly entered a date from 10 years ago. People could not understand that a government that claims to follow the demands of the people, that said it would always take actions in consultation with the public, had made decisions against them, which they now say had been studied with experts for seven months.
The problem is that the measure (the “gasolinazo”) resulted in an increase in the price of basic consumer goods such as milk, transport, bread, materials for construction, housing. Decree 748, which will go down in history, froze the price of natural gas and liquefied petroleum gas, which are used for transport and in homes, and also froze water rates, electricity and telephones, in no way at all reducing the enormous weight that a household budget puts on a family. Transport fares rose by almost 100%and this led to an increase in the cost of everyday products. People looked at their wallets, their homes, and realised an increase of such magnitude was unsustainable. Similarly, there was a total absence of the State, and with the price of everything being pushed up; this led to a feeling of desperation, disbelief, fear, anger and uncertainty in the whole population.
Morales returned from Venezuela and announced complementary measures such as an increase of 20% in the salaries of four sectors: police, army, health workers and education. Private sector workers were left at the mercy of their employers, the labour market as it is called, and the self employed, who do not have any wage security, and are completely at the mercy of supply and demand, these were the most desperate because they saw that people couldn’t get any of their products on the market, along with the brutal increase in the cost of a family shopping basket.
The government refused to admit that this was a “gasolinazo”, as it had become known as. There was even talk of a “gasolinerazo”, alluding to García Linera. Then the government said it was eliminating the subsidy only because of the economic bleeding the country was suffering from fuel being smuggled to neighbouring countries such as Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Peru, Paraguay, where the prices are two to three times higher than in Bolivia. The government definitively wanted to convince the people with numbers, saying that this process would generate increased revenue to the state, which would then be redistributed to improve people’s quality of life, above all in rural areas, but the people felt abused and cheated and took to the streets to demand that these measures were not passed.
What is most shocking is that the government is punishing the people because of the smuggling of fuel, yet those responsible for this smuggling are mainly the police and the army, who were rewarded in Decree 748. This is a reward for inefficiency and corruption.
In a very organised but independent way the people took to the streets to protest, to oppose this measure. But they didn’t just protest in the places with a tradition of popular rebellion such as the mining areas of Oruro and Potosi, it was all over the country. Even in Chapare, an Evo stronghold, villagers blocked roads. I think he saw that it was a very serious public response, which could threaten the stability of the government.
People were able to remember very easily what they did in 2000 with the Water War and in 2003 with the Gas War. The people, organised, demonstrated that they had the ability to change the things or put a stop to the irrational policies that threatened the interests of the population as a whole. With those memories and experience, people began to organise, and there was a possibility that Evo could be thrown out of government. The government, as always, has publicly denied and underestimated this possibility, but we are down in the midst of the people and we know that there was a very strong decision made saying that if the government does not reverse on this, then it should go. I think the government was tactful enough to realise that this could happen. The government and certain civil society organisations were well aware that the departure of Morales would be a tremendous setback to the process which began in 2000, because they understood that the remnants of the fascist political right, landowners and landlords had the ability to take advantage of the protest.
The government was left with no choice but to announce in a press conference on December 31st, but in a very arrogant manner I have to say, that it would repeal the decree, but at the same time warning of the consequences that would come later. I think this victory against a policy which was made without the consent of the people was something that the government did not like and it used a certain amount of PR to make a dignified exit from the conflict, saying it had heard the voice of the people and it would obey - words of the Zapatistas, but just words. In the end, the government was slightly afraid of continuing with a deeply unpopular policy, which was justified in a neo-liberal sense, but was unsustainable for the general population. The consequences will come later - at the moment, in January, many companies that had been doing construction work for the municipalities have broken their contracts as everything has gone up by 100%, and this is having a great impact on the people.
2. The government said it would listen to the people, but at the same time it said it would consult civil society organisations to re-implement the same measures. Do you not think that this promise is just a pantomime given that the decision has already been made and that consultation with the people is little more than for the appearance of social consensus?
Today we heard a statement from Morales from Patacamaya, in La Paz, where he said that yes, the subsidy has to be removed, and that it’s going to be done with the consensus of civil society organisations. This attitude, a blind in my opinion, which has nothing to do with a new economic model for change, is just an extractive model, mining, will lead to two things: large popular discontent at the base of Morales’ support, and creating a major confrontation between city and countryside, and between the social sectors bribed and taken over by the government and the social sectors that are fighting for their survival. The losers in this confrontation will not be those in power. What this government has done is to weaken and fragment the social fabric that was built up in a very industrious, steady and dignified way since 2000. This can be seen in the cities, in the countryside... The government talks about the anti-racist law, but authoritarianism is evident, it is arrogant and it despises those who are not subordinate to MAS, and I think that attitude is creating a certain model of behavior amongst the middle class which has led to a lot of discontent, fragmented the social fabric which took a lot to build up and has led to a confrontation against a neo-liberal economic policy which would definitively not benefit the people.
3. How do you think the people, at the base, can avoid this confrontation?
Well a process of information has to be generated among the people about the reality of this country. All the government has done is lie about the economic situation of the country. The fact that they say this decree has to be implemented shows us that there is a great secret which the government are trying to hide, and that is that this current economic model, based on oil, gas and mining does not work. The government has said it will provide an economic incentive to the oil companies to compensate them for oil exploration work in the domestic market, as a result of the price difference that exists with the external market. The government speaks about fiscal reserves of 10 billion dollars, which it says is strong enough to prove that the country has economic and financial stability. There is talk of increasing health care for mothers and so on, but there is no change in the economic model. There is an external debt which has doubled, and a domestic debt of nearly five billion dollars…
4. But in an earlier interview, at the end of 2008, you told us that one of the achievements of Evo’s government was a more dignified relationship with multi-national companies ... Do you think that these proposed incentives for oil companies reverses that trend?
Let’s see, if we have to evaluate the government, we can say that it has negotiated in a more dignified manner with multi-national companies. With this in mind however, we can say that the least affected by the policies of the government have been powerful economic groups such as bankers, oilmen and miners. They have made great profits and have grown considerably. These groups are the most concerned that there might be a substantial change to the economy, as demanded by the people. These renegotiations with the multi-national companies, while having some positive aspects, have not been enough to change the economic model.
We said the nationalisation of oil was just a speech and a delusion, and what we said in 2006 is reinforced by what is now happening, and the government is taking measures which will favour multi-national companies and be detrimental to the people who put them in the Quemado Palace. I do believe that there has been a decline in the dignity of the negotiations with multi-national companies. Sometimes Evo calls them the imperialist multi-national companies in his speeches, but we can see now that they are good partners, and that’s how he refers to them on other occasions. One of these good partners are the owners of the San Cristobal mine in Potosi, a company that has caused serious damage to mother earth and to the local communities - communities which have asked for changes to these policies. Talk is one thing, and what happens in everyday situations is another thing.
5. If these sectors linked to the mining and financial industries have benefited, what then are the forces that feed the fascist-right?
Those groups are landowners, traditional businessmen, former political leaders. These sectors have not benefitted from the government. They are not dormant, but they are hidden and are working in Pando, Beni, Santa Cruz and will generate a process of confrontation while the government, from another situation, will create another stage of confrontation.
This is very serious. These polititians, defeated by the government, are being very clever in finding areas of discontent ...... we must be very careful because the right can take over popular areas of struggle. There are also some efforts to do this from the left but they are quite radical, Trotyskyites, Stalinists - out of touch with the state of politics today, particularly in Bolivia......
What the right is trying to push is a militarisation of the country, using the drug trafficking and paramilitary groups. Drug trafficking is a scourge that is growing in Bolivia, which is something that worries the government. It is increasing dramatically, which may destabilise the country.
6. Do you believe that generating a process of information can address these problems?
The fundamental thing, which we have always said in a simple and rational way, is that the government is lying, that the economic reality is different and there is a need to do what we did in 2003 - to regain the ability of the people to make decisions, to establish new economic proposals, to respect and create a balance with the Pachamama, not relying solely on the mining economy and the construction of dams and roads which bring nothing good to the environment and affect the ecosystems in Amazonian areas.
The good thing is that this situation has led to a period of reflection, discussion and a mobilisation of the grass roots, and I think the good thing about this situation is that the people are becoming more informed. They have relied too much on the government, which has a lot of credibility. Some people believe that this government can be saved, that it will improve things. I hope that the government has the ability, generosity and humility to listen to the people, and recover this process, which is not owned by Evo or MAS, but rightfully belonging to the Bolivian people.
7. Do you think the government will be able to do this?
8. And if not the government, then who?
I’m not worried about the government as such. I am worried about the government in relation to the current situation. Nobody wants a return to the fascist right, but the government is creating the conditions for this to happen. The most alarming sign of this is the complete lack of a political reference apart from Morales. There are no other credible references, either at the top, or at the bottom, or in the midst of the government’s social and political structures. Everyone is the subject of the caudillo. The government has been able to destroy and discredit many social alternatives. The people don’t believe in anyone anymore because the government has been determined to discredit those who encourage the independence of social movements. That is a crime. The government has not allowed for anyone other that Morales to continue the current process in the future ... that is very serious. But now, with the demonstrations and the period of reflection and discussion, it is once again in the hands of the people to establish objectives and long-term collective leadership... once again in the hands of the people, there is no other way...
The other serious thing is that Evo has generated hope for many people across the world, and it seems the government has not taken into account this enormous historic responsibility the people gave him - a government which today is unfortunately dominated by a leadership that was never part of the struggles and uprisings of the past.
9. Do you think this problem you describe is due to the contradiction between the demand for new institutions, which the people have been asking for in their movements, and organisations, versus the existing institutions?
The government was able to weaken the fighting spirit of the strong social movements, say for example the indigenous people of the Altiplano of La Paz, mainly those from Omasuyos, from the neighbourhood organisations of El Alto and a large group of young people from Plan 3000 in Santa Cruz. I think this government made efforts to eliminate any possibility of the strengthening of political autonomy, and well, what’s more is that the government devoted itself to attacking the opposition at the expense of the economy. And when it wanted to make an economic policy like the “gasolinazo”, it had a setback. What the civil society organisations are demanding now is less politics, more economics. I think we are reconsidering not just a new way of doing politics, but above all a new way of managing our economy. In this, it is the people who are making it possible.
Thanks from LASC to Simon Wallace that did the translation of the interview.