Bolivian Protesters Bring La Paz to a Halt

(International Relations and Security Network, 16/09/2005)


Protests again brought the Bolivian capital La Paz to a halt on Wednesday as students and labor union members took to the streets to demand jobs and a greater share of the country's oil and gas revenues.


Bolivia's new hydrocarbon law raises royalty and income percentages levied on foreign gas companies to a combined total of over 50 per cent, and protesters are concerned how that windfall of wealth is going to be spent.


The government's current plan designates 42 per cent of the revenue for the Bolivian state treasury, while the rest is earmarked for Bolivia's regional governments. Departmental governments are slated to receive 33 per cent, municipalities 20 per cent, and universities the remaining 5 per cent.


Part of this national treasury boon is expected to go towards an international highway that will pass through Bolivia to link Brazil's Atlantic coast with Peruvian Pacific ports. Planners have broken ground on the superhighway, whose total cost will come close to US$810 million, the Associated Press reported on 9 September. The project is scheduled for completion by 2010.


Bolivia's limited number of highways has continuously been a weak point exploited by any organization willing to throw enough rocks and debris to span the width of a two-lane road.


"The power structure in Bolivia is set up to represent the elites," Founding Director of The Democracy Center, Jim Shultz, told ISN Security Watch, adding that, "The government will not listen to anything less than [road blockades]."


Hundreds of peasants caused a traffic jam 300 trucks long on 30 August when they blockaded the highway that links Santa Cruz with Cochabamba. The group demanded the immediate release of four suspects jailed for lynching two thieves on 28 July in the Bolivian town of Yapacani. This highway accounts for some 80 per cent of Bolivia's internal trade traffic.


In the lead-up to former Bolivian president Carlos Mesa's removal from office, organizers successfully blockaded La Paz to the point where supplies of food and gas were not allowed to enter the capital, home to nearly nine million inhabitants.


Meanwhile, presidential officials announced on 24 August that Bolivian interim president Eduardo Rodriguez had approved negotiations between the government and foreign oil companies to restructure their existing agreements so they would be legally within the bounds of Bolivia's new hydrocarbons law.


Officials noted that six international oil companies, including Repsol YPF, British Gas, and Total CPF, had announced they would leverage bilateral investment treaties signed between their respective governments and Bolivia to protect their assets in Bolivia. Due to the volatile nature of Bolivian politics, it may be difficult for the Bolivian government to accept the terms of what may be perceived as outdated treaties.


In the run-up to December elections, shifts in party alliances on the left, represented by Evo Morales, and a lack of popular support for the right, represented by Jose Quiroga, have led observers to worry over the increasing possibility that no single candidate will win enough votes to ensure a strong mandate.


With out a clear victory for one candidate, the Bolivian Congress will choose Bolivia's next president, a process that in the past has historically favored conservative candidates.


"If [Quiroga], or any politician like him, wins, I am sure he will have the same luck that Carlos Mesa had," Ayamara indigenous organization leader Felipe Quispe told ISN Security Watch. In the event that Quiroga takes the helm, Bolivia's future will be in jeopardy, as many Bolivians are sure to hit the streets in protest.


"Quiroga is somebody who feels very comfortable with the bullet," Shultz warned, adding that, "in his first eight months in office [as president], he killed 13 people.