“Gasolinazo” in Bolivia


The day after Christmas 2010, Vice-President García Linera, in the absence of President Evo Morales, who was on a tour of Venezuela, announced that the state subsidies of some fuels were to be removed. He also spoke of raising taxes on some of them such as gasoline, diesel and aviation fuel. As a result, petrol rose by 72%, diesel by 84% and aviation fuel by 99%.

The problem is that the measure (the “gasolinazo”) resulted in an increase in the price of basic consumer goods such as milk, bread, materials for construction and housing etc. Transport fares rose by almost 100% and this led to an increase in the cost of everyday products. People looked at their wallets, their homes, and realised an increase of such magnitude was unsustainable, leading to a feeling of desperation, disbelief, fear, anger and uncertainty in the whole population.

Morales returned from Venezuela and announced complementary measures such as a 20% increase in the salaries of four sectors: police, army, health and education. Private sector workers were left at the mercy of their employers and the self employed, who do not have any wage security, were left completely at the mercy of supply and demand with many of them also becoming unable to get any of their products on the market due to the increased costs involved.

The government said it was eliminating the subsidy only because of the economic bleeding the country was suffering from fuel being smuggled to neighbouring countries such as Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Peru and Paraguay, where the prices are two to three times higher than in Bolivia. The government definitively wanted to convince the people with numbers, saying that this process would generate increased revenue to the state, which would then be redistributed to improve people’s quality of life, above all in rural areas, but the people felt abused and cheated and took to the streets to demand that these measures were not passed. What is most shocking is that the government is punishing the people because of fuel smuggling, yet those responsible for this smuggling are mainly the police and the army.

In a very organised but independent way the people took to the streets to protest, to oppose this measure. But they didn’t just protest in the places with a tradition of popular rebellion such as the mining areas of Oruro and Potosi, it was all over the country. Even in Chapare, an Evo stronghold, villagers blocked roads. I think he saw that it was a very serious public response, which could threaten the stability of the government.

People were able to remember very easily what they did in 2000 with the Water War and in 2003 with the Gas War, when popular mobilisations succeeded in changing government policies or removing the government. With those memories and experience, people began to organise, and there was a possibility that Evo could be thrown out of government, which Morales was well aware of.

The government was left with no choice but to announce in a press conference on December 31st that it would repeal the decree, but at the same time warning of the consequences that would come later. In the end, the government was slightly afraid of continuing with a deeply unpopular policy, which was justified in a neo-liberal sense, but was unsustainable for the general population.

This article is adapted from an interview with Bolivian activist, Oliver Olivera, a veteran of the Cochabamba Water War of 2000, when residents there successfully resisted attempts to privatise their water supply.