<i>"The Name of Our Country is América" - Simon Bolivar</i> The Narco News Bulletin<br><small>Reporting on the War on Drugs and Democracy from Latin America
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Bolivians Demand Recovery of Gas From Foreign Corporations

With the Referendum Over, the Battle Moves to Congress and to the Streets


By Alex Contreras Baspineiro
Narco News South American Bureau Chief

July 19, 2004

COCHABAMBA, BOLIVIA: More than ninety percent of the people who actively participated in Bolivia’s binding referendum yesterday voted for the current government of Carlos Mesa to reclaim all hydrocarbons “at the mouth of the well” as property of the Bolivian State.

The phrase “mouth of the well” refers to the places where natural gas, petroleum, and other hydrocarbons extracted here are measured. Under ex-President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada’s Hydrocarbons Law 1689, these places were under the control of transnational corporations; now they must pass into State hands.

Despite threats from small radical groups of a boycott, roadblocks, and destruction of polling centers and ballots on the day of the referendum, these groups lacked the support of the people in both rural and urban areas.

Some of the social movement leaders who had threatened to block the referendum were the targets of criticism, reproach, and indifference from the majority of the population. Other leaders who had backed the democratic process were supported both at the ballot box and in the minds of the people.

“Someone said that the referendum would divide Bolivia, that it was a mistake because it would bring out our differences,” said Carlos Mesa as the voting ended. “But the referendum has been a celebration of democracy, an absolute ’yes’ to national unity.”

While the National Electoral Court has not yet released the official results of the five binding ballot questions, all the available information, including a quick count of all the ballots performed by the research firm Apoyo, indicate that the “yes” vote has won.

The first three questions won a majority “yes” vote in both rural and urban areas. On the other hand, the last two questions faced a marked resistance and a significant number of “no” votes, primarily in the countryside and the outskirts of the cities. Null and blank votes were not counted.

The “Yes” Vote Wins

The first question – “Do you agree with the repeal of Hydrocarbons Law 1689 passed by Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada” – received 86.6 percent support, with 13.4 voting against.

The second question – “Do you agree with the recovery of all hydrocarbon property from ’the mouth of the well’ for the Bolivian State?” – won the most support, with 92.1 percent voting “yes” and only 7.9 percent voting “no.”

The third question – “Do agree with re-founding Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales Bolivianos (state oil company), recovering state property held in Bolivians’ stocks in the privatized oil companies, in a way that will allow it to participate in the entire process of producing hydrocarbons?” – received 87.1 percent support, with 12.9 percent voting against.

The fourth question – “Do you agree with President Carlos Mesa’s policy of using the gas as a strategic resource to gain useful and sovereign access to the Pacific Ocean?” – met the most resistance. 57.5 percent voted “yes” and 42.5 percent voted “no.”

The fifth question – “Do you agree with Bolivia exporting gas in a way that covers local consumption, promotes the industrialization of the gas within the country, charges oil companies taxes and/or usage fees of up to fifty percent of the value of oil and gas production, and uses these resources primarily for education, health-care, roads and jobs?” – was also challenged. 64.8 percent voted in favor of the proposal, while 35.2 voted against.

Government spokespeople, politicians, journalists, and some labor leaders were surprised by the number of people who voted “no” on questions four and five, especially in rural areas. In the countryside, 59.2 percent voted “no” to question four and 54.3 percent voted “no” on question five.

Organization of American States (OAS) observer Miguel Ángel Trinidad pointed to the “order, civic responsibility, discipline, and care that the Bolivian electorate showed on the day of the referendum.”

Ángel, together a special 22-person mission from the OAS, called the referendum day a positive one throughout the country.

A False Discourse

While there is a tradition of high abstention rates in Bolivian elections, some social movement spokespeople, unsuccessful in their boycott of the referendum, claimed that the real winner of the referendum was the blank, null, and invalid vote, together with abstention.

According to the initial data, abstention was as high as forty percent of the electorate. Bolivia has 4,445,090 registered voters, and 2,646,323 are expected to have gone to the polls. Abstention in the 2002 presidential elections was 28.1 percent, while in 1997 it was 28.9 percent.

Neighboring countries have also shown marked abstention rates in such polls. In Venezuela, the referendum to approve the new constitution in saw 55.63 percent abstention, while in Colombia a recent referendum on a number of reforms saw more than 75 percent abstention.

“If we add the null and invalid votes with the number who abstained from voting,” said Jaime Solares, executive secretary of the Central Obrera Boliviana (COB), the country’s main labor federation, “we are talking about more than fifty percent of the electorate rejecting the five questions of this deceitful referendum.”

One must remember that Solares, along with Felipe Quispe of the Bolivian Farmworkers’ Federation (CSUTCB in its Spanish initials), Roberto de la Cruz of the El Alto Regional Labor Federation, and other leaders, called for the boycott, nationwide civil disobedience, and the burning of polling stations on the day of the referendum. Other social leaders, as well as the neoliberal New Republican Force (NFR) party, told followers to mark their ballots with a giant “X” or to write the word “nationalization” over them. They failed.

The Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party, led by coca growers’ leader Evo Morales Ayma, campaigned hard for a “yes” vote on the first three questions, and a “no” on the last two. The campaign received great support throughout the country.

“The only winner of the referendum and of democracy is the Bolivian people,” said Morales. “The men and women of both the countryside and the cities have won. Now, it falls on us to reclaim our hydrocarbons for the Bolivian State. If the government does not listen to the people, we will have to take it to the streets.”

Many expected the working-class city of El Alto to be a site of conflict yesterday. Seventy-two hours earlier, civic leaders had called for a total stoppage of all activities. The call was not heeded.

In the “gas war” of October 2003, before the ouster of President Gonzalo “Goni” Sanchez de Lozada and his government, security forces killed more than seventy people in El Alto, and injured around one thousand.

Juan Meléndres, leader of the El Alto Regional Labor Federation, said: “The referendum and the (upcoming) constituents’ assembly are victories won by the people, and are not a gift from the government or anyone else. That is why the people have actively participated and have rejected the boycott, burying a few bad leaders forever.”

A New Law

While some continue campaigning to nationalize the hydrocarbons, the government is preparing new legislation that will be presented to the Parliament in early August.

The Gas Coordinating Committee, one of the organizations promoting nationalization, hopes to collect a million signatures to support nationalizing the hydrocarbons.

“The struggle for nationalization has just begun,” said Oscar Olivera, a major figure in the social movements. “Regardless of the results of this referendum, the Bolivian people will go out into the streets to make themselves heard.”

For both the large corporations and civic leaders, the results of the referendum do not mean hydrocarbon nationalization, but rather immediate exportation.

President Mesa announced that the next task for his government will be to send a new Hydrocarbons Law to the National Congress based on the will of the people. These congressional sessions are expected to begin in early August.

The administration does not have a parliamentary bloc that supports it. The current legislature is made up mostly of congresspeople and senators from ex-president Goni’s coalition (MNR, MIR, UCS and NFR), representatives of popular organizations (MAS and MIR) and a few independents. But the president will need this body’s support to approve the new legislation.

The situation in Bolivia on the day of the binding referendum was one of complete normality. Now the battle to approve a new hydrocarbons law begins.

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The Narco News Bulletin: Reporting on the Drug War and Democracy from Latin America