In clashes with police which have killed six, laborers, students and farmers are protesting against exports of gas to the US through Chilean ports. Bolivia became a landlocked state in 1879 after the "Pacific War" against Chile, which cut its access to the sea
Leftist unions, university students and farm labor Indians went on strike Monday to block the Government's decision to export natural gas - the country's major product - to the United States through Chilean ports.
Protesters took to the streets to express their anger at President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada’s decision, viewing Chile as a national enemy. The neighbor state took Bolivia's coastline in 1879's "Pacific War".
The debate over whether gas will travel through Chile has convulsed capital city La Paz and its environs over the past 10 days, with opponents blocking highways into the capital and provoking one confrontation that left six dead. After the shootings, Bolivia's Workers Confederation called a general strike that started Monday and will continue until the government sets back its decision, union leaders said. Observers believe that behind the strike, there is a hidden intention to use the gas controversy to topple the government of President Sanchez de Lozada, who has a tenuous hold on power. The issue has become a catalyst for all controversies in Bolivia. Farmers have been fighting for years to be legally allowed to grow the coca leaf, but the well-educated elite running the country wants to destroy their production.
Sanchez de Lozada said he will wait until December to take a definitive decision on the gas issue. However, analysts say Chile is the natural route to take the country's huge gas reserves out to US ports - the only feasible channel for a $5 billion trade that could eventually help Bolivia reduce hunger and create jobs in this long-impoverished South American nation.
Protesters filled the capital chanting anti-Chile songs and carrying banners with slogans against the government: "Chile will steal the gas from us", "Chile is our enemy" were the favorites. They say the government will only receive 18 percent of gross revenues as gas production and exportation is controlled by foreign companies such as British Gas, Repsol-YPF (Spain and Argentina) and Pan American Energy (USA). The strikers demand construction of a petrochemical plant inside Bolivian territory to liquefy the gas, currently processed outside the country.
The government fears essential supply shortages as groups of Indians block main northern roads and resist police orders. Though prices began rising on Tuesday, it is expected that food will reach La Paz through southern highways held by the authorities.
Bolivia is South America's poorest country. More than 70% of its people lives below the poverty line, almost the same as during its days as a Spanish colony in the 18th and 19th centuries. Just as then, a European elite - a mere 10% of the population - controls a country mostly populated by indigenous farmers.
Bolivia has a long tradition of foreign exploitation, beginning with Spanish masters sending home riches of the Potosi silver mines and leaving them exhausted. Bolivian antagonism towards Chile is traditional as lost coastline access was probably the biggest defeat its people ever suffered. Much of its southern lands were also lost in the conflict.