Ongoing fight for Independence

Today, almost 200 years ago, the women of Cochabamba found out that a Spanish colonial army was on its way to the small town determined to suppress a growing rebellion in favour of independence. Many of their men had already headed off into the mountains to join a guerrilla army.

According to a local chronicler, at a public meeting, one of the women said “If there are no men, then we must defend ourselves.” And they did, taking to one of the local hills with sticks, stones and a few small arms. Against a well-armed colonial army, the result was a horrendous bloodbath, but it became a crucial part of Bolivia´s patriotic history and now marks Mothers Day.

This week has seen indigenous women taking to the streets again with streets, bricks and small pieces of dynamite to face police with water cannons and tear gas. This time the rallying call for Independence has been focused on ending Bolivia`s exploitative relationship with private gas companies.

Thankfully, there has been no bloodbath, but it has been a tense week with demonstrations every day, the complete isolation of La Paz from the rest of Bolivia, blockades, and rumours of violent plots and military coups, and the resource-rich provinces of Santa Cruz and Tarija threatening to go it alone by unilaterally working towards autonomy.

Much of the opposition to the gas law has centred on La Paz, although on Wednesday this week thousands of people marched in Cochabamba. Last week, various organisations in El Alto (the adjoining city) blocked the whole city and thereby main access into La Paz, and then marched into La Paz to try and take Parliament. They were joined by miners (together with their dynamite), teachers and other social movements.

This week, a 200 kilometre-long march organised by the main opposition party joined protesting groups in La Paz. They continued to call for reforms to the law and a simple 50% royalties. However, their line is increasingly criticised by many other groups who are calling for outright nationalisation. The divisions amongst those against the law were openly on show in La Paz, even though the leaders of different factions agreed to continue working together in opposition to the new law.

Today, things were a bit calmer as the country marks Mothers Day and yesterday the public "Corpus Christi" holiday (even protestors need holidays, and Bolivia has a lot of holidays!) But leaders of those opposed to the new gas law have promised to up the pressure even more from Monday.

It is hard to guess what will happen next. It is difficult to imagine either the Government or Parliament agreeing to nationalisation, with the inevitable hostile response it would provoke from outside multinational companies, the international institutions and their backers including the UK as it would invariably mean that the State would have to confiscate private companies assets (as they could not afford to pay the required compensation)

It`s not easy to get a national picture of people`s views on both the protests and the new law. In Cochabamba, there seems to be widespread lack of enthusiasm for the new law and a mixture of support, opposition, and perhaps most of all weariness in response to unfolding protests in La Paz. But it all depends on who you talk to, and the largely middle class and urban group I am with here in Cochabamba are not very representative of the majority of Bolivia.

It is clear the protests have exposed a huge seam of anger amongst many indigenous groups (in particular Aymara people from the Altiplano) as well as many workers and campesinos against a gas law which is seen yet again to favour multinational companies above the interest of ordinary Bolivians.

Behind the call for "nationalisation" is a widespread belief that Bolivia needs to have proper control over its natural resources so it can strategically develop them for the long-term benefit of Bolivia. And the more that emerges on the new gas law, the more it becomes clear that it will return little control to the State. Multinational companies will continue to dominate both the use of and the prices of Bolivia`s gas and oil.

Earlier this week, I asked Vicenze, an Aymara woman from El Alto why her whole family was out on marches against the gas law when they had little chance of winning against both the State and the international community.

"For hundreds of years, we have seen our wealth being taken away, whilst we don`t have enough to eat," she said. "Even today, in El Alto, most people are struggling to get their daily bread, yet the international oil and gas companies extract our wealth to make huge profits for themselves. What can we do? The only thing we can do is take to the streets and say enough is enough. "

Hundreds of years on, women are still struggling for independence – not just for political sovereignty but economic sovereignty, for control over its resources. The road to Independence in a globalised economy is far from clear and like the women of Cochabamba in 1812, they face an equally daunting opposition. However many Bolivian women remain equally determined to resist even at times at great cost.


Leave A Comment