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Legerdemain and Imperial Puppetry:
The Gas Referendum in Bolivia

by toni solo
July 17, 2004

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The Bolivian referendum will go ahead on Sunday July 18th after a relentless government publicity campaign and amid repressive legal and security measures aimed at trying to intimidate people into voting. People refusing to vote or attempting to boycott the vote face penalties which include disqualification from holding public office or even opening a bank account. They can also be fined - simply for refusing to vote in the referendum. The authorities are also empowered to refuse passports and identity cards for the "offence" of not voting or for opposing the vote.

The government had tried to push these oppressive measures through the national legislature. But legislators wanted people to be free to vote or not, as they chose. When they defended that basic right successfully, US government protegé President Carlos Meza turned to the Supreme Court to get the verdict he needed so as to be able to impose the referendum on voters - like it or not. The justices duly obliged. Subsequently, Meza's enforcer, Minister of Government Alfonso Ferrufino, announced that protesters against the referendum will be imprisoned. (1)

The government tailored referendum puts five questions on proposals to restructure national policy on the country's gas reserves. Whether voters choose "yes" or "no" is largely academic. The one question not on the ballot is the only one the majority of people in the country think would protect Bolivia's vast natural gas reserves for the benefit of the Bolivian people: should Bolivia nationalize its energy resources?

Like the rest of Latin America over the last 15 years, Bolivia has been subjected to neo-liberal policies designed to fail the poor and benefit the rich. Hypocrisy at the imperial centre and in the neo-colonial periphery about poverty reduction in Latin America has never been clearer or more obnoxious. In Bolivia, the US marionettes are now openly criminalizing legitimate protest in order to cover up popular rejection of their policies.

What kind of democracy has to be militarized so as to repress legitimate protest and force people to vote? It only happens in colonies and dictatorships. Imagine the corporate international "news" headlines if Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez were to criminalize protest in Venezuela. The US and its allies reward repression by their own marionettes in countries like Bolivia while lambasting "tyranny" in Haiti, Cuba or Venezuela.

Indigenous people's UN representative, the Bolivian aymara Nolasco Mamani has said,"The referendum of July 18th is designed for external use so that interventionist governments and international bodies can use it a a legalistic device. Those who wrote the referendum have contrived that the main thing is not the questions, much less the percentage reached by each reply, but rather that it takes place at all so as to have legal validity. This fact will serve so that the government can argue that what was left out of the questions has been accepted by the electorate by the simple fact that they took part in the vote.

The holding of the referendum achieves its central objective: the legalization of oil companies' control of the country's hydrocarbons. Once reached they want this objective to have the following convergent effects:

* to permit the oil companies to resist by legal means any political change that affects their interests. That's why the government made the referendum binding;

* to allow international bodies like the InterAmerican Development Bank, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund the Organization of American States and others to impose the policy line to be followed by the Bolivian State;

* to provide a legal basis to justify foreign military intervention if a future government with principles opposed to those of President Mesa Gisbert, tries to counteract the anti-national laws implicit in the referendum;

* to support the current government's attempts to force the country to take the decisive step towards harder neo-liberal dominance, making it irreversible for several generations;

* to provide a precedent so that the corruption and murder trials against former government members are set aside since it (the referendum - trans.) will have justified their past actions." (2)

Another Bolivian indigenous leader Felipe Quispe has said "no one is going to be in agreement, nobody is going to tamely vote." (3) Quispe is the leader of the Movimiento Indígena Pachacuti and resigned from Bolivia's national assembly recently in protest at the government's refusal to take popular opinion into account. Many opposition political leaders have spoken out like Quispe against the anti-democratic nature of the referendum. They condemn the way the referendum questions were formulated and the repressive measures forcing people to vote.

They have reason to be deeply suspicious of President Meza's intentions. His predeceesor Sanchez de Lozada was forced to flee Bolivia in October last year when faced with overwhelming popular protest at his giveaway deals to foreign oil companies. Some idea of Sanchez de Lozada's largesse in favour of oil multinationals can be gauged from reports that the Bolivian government is seeking recompense from Repsol, France's Total and Brazil's Petrobras for underpaid tax from the San Alberto field exporting gas to Brazil and Argentina. Repsol's "Andina" subsidiary only paid 18% tax on the value of its production, while older fields negotiated before Sanchez de Lozada's neo-liberal jamboree paid up to 50% tax. (4)

A major objection made to the referendum is that it leaves intact for 30 or more years precisely those kinds of preferential deals negotiated with the oil multinationals under the discredited Sanchez de Lozada regime. Repsol's enthusiasm for Bolivia was made clear by its President Julio Gavito in an interview in May this year when he likened Bolivia's gas potential to Norway's North Sea bonanza. (5) Repsol, British Gas and BP Amoco are anxious for the referendum to go ahead so as to be able implement plans to sell Bolivian gas in Mexico and the United States.

Meanwhile, Repsol's share price has risen around 30% in European markets from 14 euros to over 18 euros since October 2003 when President Sanchez de Lozada was forced out of office. The rise maps the increasing confidence of markets that the oil companies' representative in La Paz, President Meza, will deliver the goods on July 18th. It is very clear that the popular opposition in Bolivia has other ideas. July 18th may signal the start of another chapter in the growing resistance to the empire's extortion of wealth from the peoples of Latin America.

toni solo is an activist in Central America.  Contact him via


1. Bolpress, July 13th 2004

2. Econoticiasbolivia, July 13th 2004

3. Bolpress,July 15th 2004

4. UPI Energy Watch, July 8th 2004)

5., May 31st 2004

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