Tensions in Bolivia are reaching a high point. Unrest has shut down the city of Potosi in the south-east while president Evo Morales has used a press conference to denounce the United States for fostering tensions in the region with bases in Colombia.
At the weekend, Morales announced that the Bolivian army would offer free military training to civilians. Unfortunately for the president, his own party members are amongst the 30 hunger strikers who are supporting a general strike and road-blocking protests which have been going on for over 10 days in Potosi. Governor Felix Gonzales, who is amongst the strikers, is a member of the ruling Movement towards Socialism (MAS) party. They want Morales to travel to the city to negotiate a solution.
The Potosi Civic Committee are angry about boundary disputes with a neighbouring province. They want infrastructure projects and the preservation of the iconic Cerro Rico mountain, which is in danger of collapse. The siege has cut off rail and air links and cut the city off from the rest of the world.
It focuses attention on the difficulties facing one of Latin America’s poorest countries, which has a population of only nine million. In 2002 Bolivia ranked 104th out of a total of 174 countries in human development according a UN report. Since his re-election last December with an increased majority Morales has been treading a precarious balancing act.
His MAS party has continued to mobilise the poor indigenous people of Bolivia who form 80% of the population. The World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth held in the Bolivian town of Cochabamba last April encouraged a mass, democratic approach to ecological and social problems. MAS has also sought to develop a “just state” in which, as vice president Alvaro Garcia Linera put it, “indigenous communities and mestizos are included in a unified way”.
In seeking to develop Bolivia’s rich mining resources, including the world’s largest deposit of lithium under the Uyuni salt flats which are in the Potosi region, the government decreed in 2008 that the state would take full control of lithium exploitation.
Since taking office in 2006, the MAS government has nationalised the country’s power industries, including gas and electricity. Naturally this has brought Bolivia into conflict with those defending the interests of the global power corporations and those who defend the old status quo.
The strange case of an Irish mercenary, Michael O’Dwyer, reveals that there are indeed sinister machinations going on. O’Dwyer and two other men were killed last April during a shoot out with Bolivian police in Santa Cruz. Bolivian authorities claimed that O’Dwyer and two other men were involved in a plot to kill President Morales during 2009.
An investigation by journalists working for Irish television company RTE indicated that O’Dwyer was recruited by a right-wing Hungarian terrorist who wanted to overturn the Morales government. Paul Murphy and Oonagh Smyth’s report said that O’Dwyer’s paymaster was the Irish security company IRMS.
Other reports suggest that Dwyer was among seven men who had travelled from Ireland to Bolivia, supposedly for a bodyguard course. At least six and possibly all seven of these men had worked for IRMS, the company that provides security for Shell's controversial pipeline in Erris in Ireland. Up to the point of the announcement of Dwyer's death the IRMS website advertised its "special services" as including "international armed and unarmed security."
Shell to Sea, whose campaigners have been nearly killed by IRMS security thugs, is opposing oil giant Shell’s pipeline through Ireland. Fishermen and environmental campaigners say that IRMS was financed “to the tune of millions of dollars beyond the capacity of local business interests to raise alone” and traced the money back to oil and gas companies.
Opposing the interests of the power corporations is a dangerous business. But in the battle of David versus Goliath, there is no doubt where our sympathies lie.
A World to Win Secretary