Articles by: Emily Achtenberg
Christmas in Bolivia was short-lived last year, as tens of thousands thronged to the streets to protest thegasolinazo, a massive increase in gasoline prices provoked by the MAS government’s abrupt cancellation of fuel subsidies on December 26. Five days later, the government was forced to rescind the decree amidst the first massive popular uprising against a leftist government.
On December 10, President Evo Morales promulgated Bolivia’s new pension law at the headquarters of the Bolivian Workers Central (COB), the country’s militant national trade union federation. The unprecedented and highly symbolic event culminated a four-year negotiating process, during which the COB agreed to suspend its mobilization for higher wages in exchange for comprehensive pension reform.
The Bolivian government will commit $900 million to develop a state-run lithium industry, using the country's unexploited reserves which are estimated to hold 70% of the world's total of this metal. The potential of this industry (lithium is widely used in ceramics, glass, lubricants, pharmaceuticals, and batteries for portable electronic devices) has raised great expectations, along with many questions about Bolivia’s lithium strategy—including the role and choice of foreign partners, the market for Bolivia’s lithium products, and the potential environmental and political impacts of lithium development.
Recent massive protests in Potosí, a traditional bastion of support for Bolivia’s Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) government, have confronted President Evo Morales with perhaps the most significant challenge of his second term in office. Unlike past regional revolts led by conservative opposition forces in Santa Cruz, Potosí represents a new type of regional economic conflict led by coalitions of popular organizations demanding to be part of Bolivia’s “process of change.” These protests are taking place in the context of a new federalism that is raising expectations as well as demands for political accountability.
While the results of Bolivia’s April 4 regional and local elections are now officially certified, their significance—who really won and lost—continues to be debated. President Evo Morales's political party MAS has extended the geographic reach of its support, making important gains in the resource-rich lowland regions, a bastion of the right-wing opposition. But the vote also shows that MAS is far from a hegemonic political machine. Moreover, the major political challenge confronting them today is coming not from the largely discredited right, but from emergent new forces on the left, including strong, local grass-roots initiatives.
Proclaiming its lithium deposits to be a permanent reserve of the state, the Bolivian government last month authorized a new state company to undertake “the full chain of lithium production,” including “exploration, development, industrialization, and marketing.” At issue is the future of Bolivia’s vast Uyuni salt flats, the world’s largest untapped lithium reserve, holding at least 5.4 million tons—almost half the world’s known supply. Also at stake is a potentially significant source of wealth and an alternative development model that, if successful, could bring substantial benefits to Bolivia’s impoverished population.
“I won’t pay until the union workers return!” proclaimed 300 voices in unison on a recent Sunday in Mexico City, igniting a new campaign that joins consumer resistance in solidarity with the embattled Mexican Electrical Workers Union (SME). In October Mexican President Felipe Calderón forcibly liquidated the state-owned Central Light and Power Company, suddenly dismissing 44,000 SME union members to the ranks of the unemployed. The nascent No Pague (Don't Pay) campaign represents the newest phase of the SME struggle against this and has three basic demands: emergency rehiring of the 18,000 SME workers who have not accepted termination; a freeze on electricity rates and restoration of pensioner subsidies; and a halt to privatization of energy resources.