'Natural gas is our hope, our future'
By Diego Cevallos*
"We are not looking for a coup. We are defending our fossil fuels," Evo Morales, a lawmaker and indigenous and peasant leader, said in dialogue with Tierramérica about the recent unrest in Bolivia.
MEXICO CITY - A natural resource -- gas -- is one of the causes of the unrest that has led to the deaths of more than 70 people in Bolivia and prompted the president to resign.
Evo Morales, 43, an Aymara Indian and a leader of the opposition movement, says that defending "the people's" ownership of Bolivian natural gas is the only means to overcoming the country's entrenched poverty.
But what began in September as the peasant movement's opposition to the government's plan to sell natural gas to the United States and Mexico turned into a massive uprising demanding the resignation of president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, blamed for the dozens of deaths in the security forces' crackdown on the protests.
Backed into the corner, Sánchez de Lozada announced on Oct. 15 that a referendum would be held on the issue of natural gas exports, but the protesters rejected the proposal and continued their demands that he step down. Vice-President Carlos Mesa succeeded him after his resignation on Oct. 17.
"We will not give up. Natural gas is our hope, it is our future," and it must not be handed over to the transnationals like the government planned, said Morales.
Morales, a leader of Bolivia's coca-growers, former presidential candidate in 2002 for MAS (Movement Towards Socialism) -- losing in a very close race -- spoke with Tierramérica in a dialogue via telephone last week from La Paz, just prior to Sánchez de Lozada's resignation.
-- The government's plan to export gas with the consortium Pacific LNG would generate more than 260 million dollars a year for Bolivia, according to various studies. Why are the Bolivian people protesting?
-- We can't go on being a country that sells raw materials without industrialization. Selling natural gas under the conditions that the government wants to, in the hands of the transnational corporations, would only benefit Bolivia with 50 million dollars a year. But if as a country we recover it, we industrialize and export the gas, Bolivia would see 300 million dollars a year. Natural gas is our hope. Natural gas is our future. That is why the protests have reached their current level. The people have taken on the defense of their fossil fuels.
-- What type of alternative management for natural gas do you propose?
-- The people have demanded that the government return natural gas and fossil fuels to the Bolivians. This would entail the revision of some laws, the annulment of decrees and, in particular, the revocation of contracts with the transnational oil companies.
-- Is this only about natural gas? There are demands for altering the country's economic model and the president's resignation. Democracy appears to be on tenterhooks.
-- Defending democracy means demanding the resignation of Sánchez de Lozada. Consolidating democracy is recuperating our fossil fuels. Imagine, the constitution says that the fossil fuels are property of the Bolivian state. But the government issued a decree that says the transnationals acquire those property rights. That is unconstitutional. If we talk about democratic institutions, it is the organized Bolivian people who defend institutions and democracy.
-- The government accuses you of being coup leaders and guilty of treason, and that you are only using the natural gas question as a pretext.
-- The only coup leader is Sánchez de Lozada, the only one who has committed treason is him, for all those deaths he has left as the result of a crackdown against a legitimate social movement.
-- There are also accusations that you are being financed by subversive groups from Peru and Colombia.
-- Where is the evidence? They have not proved it.
-- You see no other option than the president's resignation?
-- The response to our demand has been bullets and death and injuries, tanks, helicopters and massacres. It is the butchery of Sánchez de Lozada. That is why the people demand that he leave. There is no going back.
-- With the president's resignation, what comes next?
-- The people will decide who the next president will be, in the framework of the law. We are going to denounce Sánchez de Lozada national and internationally for genocide and crimes against humanity -- him and many of his ministers and former ministers. We want to see them in a maximum-security prison.
--Will the president be forced out? How much longer will he remain in his post?
-- In a matter of hours he'll abandon the presidency. The government is staking its bets on the exhaustion of the people, but I am convinced that they will not give in. The miners, the peasants, the entire population is rising up to seek vengeance against the assassins and to defend their natural resource. I want to tell Sánchez de Lozada and his family that they must not jeopardize the country, that they must stop the killing. He must resign; he must leave the presidency so that peace and tranquility return to Bolivia.