Bolivia at the crossroads

The Bolivian revolution is at the crossroads. The government has moderated its policies and retreated on many fronts. The reaction manoeuvres against the government and any of the reforms its attempts to implement. There exists a mood of confusion and anger amongst the masses, which at any moment could explode into a fresh insurrectionary movement.

The "people's government"...

In a previous article (in Spanish) we dealt in depth with the general economic and social situation in Bolivia. Our aim was to make a balance sheet of what the new Bolivian government had done and at the same time to offer a perspective and a programme for the movement. A balance sheet and perspectives could be valuable instruments in the hands of Bolivian militants to push the revolution forward.

As we explained, from the point of view of the Bolivian masses, the Morales government, beyond the limits of Morales' actual programme and the first actions of his government, is precisely the same workers' and peasants' government they strove for during the days of insurrection in the summer of 2005. That battle was lost because of the sectarianism and lack of preparation on the part of the leadership of the movement. From the point of view of the Bolivian masses, this task was finally achieved through the elections.

We stressed then and repeat now that this "privileged" link that Morales and his party, the MAS, managed to build with the workers and above all with the peasants' movement, could be a contradictory factor in the situation in the medium term. On the one hand the government's mistakes and retreats could provoke wide disorientation within the movement. On the other hand it is inevitable that Morales and the MAS - who were born out of the huge movements of the last decade - have in the mobilized masses the only real point of support. This means that the party and the government are not only heavily influenced by the masses but also in a certain sense they favour the development of the movement.

We defended and we defend what was achieved during these first months, especially in such fields as the struggle against illiteracy and the struggle to achieve better standards in healthcare and nutrition, the nationalisation of gas and oil and the first attempts at agrarian reform. We argued against those who were only able to stress the limited character of these steps but did not want to see their progressive character in the sense that these concrete measures were strengthening the masses in their titanic struggle against the misery of capitalism. At the same time we argued against the easy enthusiasm of those who saw a clear and linear path in front of the Morales government that would lead it from one reform to the next. We warned that given the weak position of a country such as Bolivia - subject to ferocious imperialist pressures from the US, Europe and on a regional scale from Brazil and Argentina - it would not be possible to carry out a programme of reforms and maintain social peace within the framework of capitalism. This would have led to the defeat of the revolution. From a Marxist point of view this was not difficult to foresee. Events are rapidly demonstrating that we were right in pointing out these dangers.

... faces an historic turning point

When society passes through a period of crisis there are times when events produce sharp changes and sudden turns. Then there are periods when an unstable equilibrium and an armed truce are reached. In a structurally fragile country like Bolivia these jerks can be particularly violent.

The government was formed just under one year ago and is already riddled by inner tensions and there is the very real risk of an implosion. These tensions arise from class contradictions which are reflected in the composition of the government. On the one side there are the majority of the ministers and vice-ministers that come from the MAS, the social movements and organisations linked to the party. They have developed a strong commitment to the movements that have developed over the last years.

On the other side there is the handful of so-called experts who head the key political, economic and finance departments. They have no links with the struggling masses and have been chosen by the bourgeoisie and imperialism as their partners within the government. The leaders of this faction are Carlos Villegas and above all Alvaro Garcia Linera (AGL), the vice-president, who is playing an absolutely negative role, as we have explained elsewhere.

AGL is admired and respected by the reformist left in Europe, which shares with him many intellectual meanderings. He, for example, believes firmly that the Bolivian government is the materialization of the "government of the multitude" described by Toni Negri. The crowd of intellectuals that are concerned about establishing a third way between capitalism and so-called 19th century socialism in order to struggle against globalisation sympathise with Negri's theories - unfortunately they do not deal seriously with either capitalism or socialism.

The theory of "Andean capitalism" that AGL developed is based on a pact between the indigenous communities, the unions and the government on one side and the multinational corporations and the national bourgeoisie on the other. The latter would honour this pact by giving up privileges in exchange for certain legal guarantees and in the name of social progress.

In the end the question of this pact is basically reduced to a 19th century debate between those who trust in the democratic and progressive role of the bourgeoisie - to the extent that they are willing to leave the keys of the economy in the hands of the bourgeoisie (with the corrective balance of the State) as well as the task of creating the conditions for the transformation of society (which is once again the theory of two-stages). On the other hand there are those who, like us, see that it is absolutely impossible to get rid of misery and imperialist exploitation without expropriating the means of production and the wealth of the ruling class and without the democratic planning of the economy under the management of the working class.

We are not the only ones raising this question. This is an essential part of the debate in Bolivia right now.

Nationalisation on paper

The confirmation that our warnings were correct came from the frontlines of the battle for the nationalisation of gas. As our readers will remember, on May 1, 2006 Morales issued the decree that established the state ownership of all the hydrocarbon resources of the country and allowed for the occupation of fields, wells and refineries by the army. This was a decision that had many limitations, firstly because it did not propose the expropriation of the multinational corporations but only redefined their range of operations. This put them back in the position of being service providers in relation to the extraction of gas. However, the decree considerably raised the taxation levels of the multinational corporations. We supported this move of the Bolivian government as a step forward - a prelude to further developments. The corporations certainly would not have given way but would have begun to exercise the most ferocious pressure on the Bolivian government, with the active support of the governments that represent their interests.

They began to blackmail the Bolivian government. While participating in discussions to reach an agreement all the corporations, including Petrobras, simultaneously cut their investments and stopped importing diesel fuel. This was designed to provoke social unrest because Bolivia has no reserves of diesel, which is sold at lower prices thanks to state subsidies.

Heading the government's delegation at the negotiation table were Jorge Alvarado on behalf of the national hydrocarbon company (YPFB) and the government minister, Andres Soliz Rada, the main author of the decree on the nationalisation of gas. Rada, a left nationalist, who became active in the defence of the nationalisations carried out by the Ovando and Torres governments, was a member of "Patriotic Conscousness". As a journalist in the 1980s Soliz Rada denounced the predatory practices of the multinational gas corporations in Bolivia. He exposed, amongst other things, the scandalous behaviour of these companies which declared to their investors at the New York Stock Exchange that they owned the reserves of gas in Bolivia. These companies had an agreement whereby they could extract the gas, but they did not own the gas. However, in saying this they were able to raise the value of the shares of their companies.

Soliz Rada, in agreement with Alvarado, tried to sign a secret deal with a group of minor multinationals: gas in exchange for diesel. This was meant to break the dangerous diesel blockade which in January of last year allowed for the bourgeois offensive in Santa Cruz. But the secret deal violated Bolivia's transparency laws and Alvarado was forced to resign, in spite of Morales' strong defence of him. Alvarado was betrayed by the same state bureaucracy which in the past did not bother trying to prevent governments from carrying out unconstitutional sell-offs of national resources but now suddenly defends "transparency".

In August, Soliz Rada issued a ministerial directive that organised the handing over of all refineries to the state, in accordance with the decree of nationalisation. The sharpest reaction came from Brazil where Lula's government, with the tone of a conquistador, imposed the freezing of any such measure. In Lula's view any decision had to be postponed until after the signing of new contracts, and more importantly, until sometime after the elections in Brazil.

AGL and Villegas supported this position within the Bolivian government and Soliz Rada was forced to resign "for personal reasons". However, two days later he openly denounced the multinationals, explained that their aim was to abort nationalisation. In another press release he made it even clearer, stating the following: "... many of the things we have achieved have been carried through against a section of the government..." Rada also exposed some of the plots that this section of the government had been involved in. In the meantime AGL was successful in his plan to nominate a former manager of Petrobras, a Brazilian company which is partly state-owned and which is leading the offensive against the nationalisation decree, to the head of the YPBF, the state-owned hydrocarbon company of Bolivia. Villegas himself took over the position of Minister of Hydrocarbons and Energy.

It now looks like the first steps have been taken towards the final liquidation of an important achievement which only a few weeks ago seemed guaranteed.

The trap of the Constituent Assembly

And that is not all. For many years we have been the only ones to explain that the demand for a Constituent Assembly was absolutely counterproductive and misleading from a revolutionary point of view. In every revolutionary situation anywhere on the planet where this demand has been raised, it has always had the same pernicious effect. In the end this demand only serves to give time to a weakened and shaken ruling class as well as giving way to the most moderate elements of the movement.

Bolivia is no exception. In order to get backing for the convocation of the Constituent Assembly, AGL reached a compromise deal with the right wing. He did this behind the backs of Morales, who was abroad at the time, and of ministers such as Soliz Rada, who was not informed of the deal. The deal was on two points. The first was that the right-wing governor of Tarjia would be able to continue operating according one of the last laws passed by the Mesa government, which gave the governor the right to exercise complete control over the gas resources of the region. On top of that, it was agreed that a two-thirds majority would be needed to pass any decision through the Constituent Assembly. Given electoral law in Bolivia, this concession gave the oligarchy the power of veto on any decision. This position would have led to a complete paralysis. The MAS leadership, perhaps naively, was confident that it could overcome this obstacle by winning a two- thirds majority in the elections. However, what happened with the elections on July 2 was a different story. The MAS was able to gain a broad and absolute majority, but it was still not enough to get out of the impasse.

Morales and the leadership of the MAS feared that the years of struggle for a new Bolivia were about to be frustrated. As a result they tried to force the passing of a rules and regulations law during the first sitting of the Constituent Assembly based not on a two-thirds majority but on a simple fifty-plus-one majority rule. The reaction of the right wing was violent. During the plenary session a group of representatives of the MNR and Podemos, two right-wing parties, attacked Roman Loayza, a leading figure in the MAS and a former leader of the peasant union CSUTCB, sending him to hospital in a coma.

In Santa Cruz the local media are waging an all-out battle against the "authoritarianism" of the central government. The Civic Committee has recovered from the blows it received with the nationalisation of gas and the first steps of the agrarian reform and is now trying to launch a new mobilisation in the cities, leaning on the divisions that developed within the regional union structures.

The reaction of the masses from the nearby cities and neighbourhoods was to launch a counter-offensive and place Santa Cruz under a state of siege. Once again it was AGL who threw water on the fire by proposing mediation which might have allowed for a quick resolution to the conflict. AGL is trying to hide the irreconcilable class conflict that divides the mass of the population from the oligarchy. The only thing that will be achieved by these methods is the postponing of the inevitable clash which will take place under even more difficult conditions. At worst, this could mean the preparing of the defeat of the revolution.

According to the terms of the new agreement all non-controversial articles of the new constitution will be passed by a simple majority vote. The others will need to be passed by a two-thirds majority. An agreement like this will not solve anything. What a magnificent result!

A return to mobilisations

The President and his supporters understand that the situation is getting bad and once again have started to call or participate in public meetings all across the country. Their aim is to reconnect with the rank and file of the movement. Morales himself took part in a meeting of the People's High Command, the union of a number of indigenous and peasant organizations. This is the movement from which Morales himself comes from. However, as we have already explained, the sudden zig-zags in the policies carried out by the government and the contrasting positions that have often been expressed by different ministers have had an effect on the confidence of the masses and introduced an element of disorientation.

The following anecdote is taken from a report in La Razon, a centre-left liberal daily in Bolivia. During a tour of the country one of the vice-ministers of the MAS held a meeting on agrarian reform near Santa Cruz. He invited the peasants and all the people at the meeting to take to the streets once again in defence of nationalisation, the government and the Constituent Assembly. A union delegate from the colonizadores, the peasants who occupied state-owned lands finally lost his patience and stood up. He shouted: "Yesterday we laid siege to Santa Cruz and AGL told us to go back home! What kind of mobilisation do you want from us? Tell us once and for all!"

After this the meeting became so stormy that the vice-minister had to provide an answer directly to the journalists that were present in the form of a press release, saying that "we must pursue non-violent forms of struggle."

It is not an easy task to convince men and women of this point - especially people who feel they are so close to achieving their goal yet also feel that they are also watching slip from their hands something they thought they had a tight grip on. These people have struggled hard and spilled blood to gain something important and one of their recognized leaders lays in a coma in a hospital.

This sentiment - a mixture of rage and confusion - is widespread in Bolivia. In the meantime they are faced with a former army general, Antezana, who continues to release obscure interviews about hypothetical coups and secret plots. Antezana is the same man who, just before Morales came to power, handed over a whole set of new Chinese missiles owned by the Bolivian army to the US. On top of that there is hysteria from many sources, including the Catholic Church, about the possibility of civil war.

"Andean capitalism" in crisis...

As more than one analyst has pointed out, the government of Bolivia has made a turn to the right, moderating its policies and retreating on many fronts. This is true not only in relation to the multinational gas companies such as Petrobras, which refuses to meet Bolivia's demand to set the price for gas in Bolivia at international market levels, but also in relation to the large landowners and the Catholic Church, which has openly sided with the reaction, and managed to effect a partial change in the reform of the education law. The church was able to have the section of the law that would eliminate the teaching of religion in schools removed. This concession was won despite the mobilisation of the teachers, amongst whom the MAS has broad support.

The general mood of uncertainty and the constant hysteria about the threat of civil war or a coup d'état does not fully explain why the right wing has been able to gain such prominent positions within the government. Vice-president AGL, as the mediator between the classes, sometimes manages to outshine Morales.

The actual situation confirms what we have argued over the past period and marks the failure of the plan to build a peaceful coexistence of social reforms and capitalism, whether it be "Andean capitalism" or capitalism with a "human face".

In the meantime it must be said that as far as it was correct to criticise those that believed the Bolivian government would have an easy time passing reforms, it must now be pointed out that this turn to the right is far from irreversible. There are many factors that must be taken into consideration when forming our perspectives, one of which is the role that Morales himself and his supporters in the government will play.

From the point of view of the ruling class Morales is still an enemy. During the Expocruz, the annual trade fair in Santa Cruz, the bosses associations stated publicly that the "indio" President was not welcome. For the first time in its history the main trade fair began without the presence of the Prime Minister. Their basic idea is not to try to use this government for their own purposes but to wipe it out as soon as possible before it attempts to implement the agrarian reform.

The trade union and militant background of Morales and the MAS Ministers still threatens the ruling class, but what worries them more is the government's attempt to strengthen its links with the masses. A referendum on administrative autonomy took place on July 2. In the lead-up to the vote the MAS did not take any official position, however, AGL made several speeches in favour of administrative autonomy. His position was that this autonomy should be less radical than that which was being demanded by the Civic Committee in Santa Cruz. It was only the open call by Morales for a "No" vote that saved the situation, and just in time. The "No" vote in the western part of the country was overwhelming but in the eastern part of the country and in Santa Cruz itself the 30% to 40% support for "No" was below what could have been achieved.

On the other hand any accident, whether it be a moment of particular weakness on the part of the government or an open provocation from the reaction, could cause the general confusion amongst the masses to explode once more into an insurrectionary movement.

International developments will also play an important role in determining the perspective for Bolivia. The Brazilian elections, the elections in Venezuelan, the magnificent movement of the Mexican people against electoral fraud, the big wave of social movements that shakes the whole of the Andean region, amongst which Bolivia still is the key country, will all play a role in the events to come. The nationalisation of gas in Bolivia has been used by miners in Ecuador to demand the chasing of Petrobras from their country as well.

... and the crisis of the revolutionary leadership

What is the actual role of the revolutionary vanguard in Bolivia? The COB has come out of its recent congress with a less belligerent position on the government after their strategy of abstention failed and they were unable to raise a social opposition to the government.

The statutes of the union declare that the general secretary of the COB must be a miner. The MAS has some support amongst the miners, but not much more than that. However, in the absence of this statute, which meant the election of Pedro Montes, who claims to be sympathiser of the government, it is clear that a supporter of the MAS could have won the position.

The main problem was that the discussion on the composition of the leading bodies of the COB nearly paralysed the congress. The factional struggle waged by the POR and other groups of the Bolivian Trotskyist tradition to limit the growing influence of the MAS and the dispute with the COR of El Alto, which because of the outstanding role it played in the movement asked for more representation, were the main issues at the congress.

There was also a discussion on how to keep the union independent of the government and how to reorganise the ranks of the organisation, but a discussion on how to defend the revolution and how to build the union in those workplaces where it has had difficulty entering would have been more effective. But the leaders of the COB are blinded by the fact that they do not understand the contradictory nature of the Morales government, a product of the revolutionary process. They also consider Morales as the gravedigger of the revolution. Thus the COB could again play a major role in the mass movement and give voice to the anger of the Bolivian working class. But this will only happen if the leaders of the COB answer the government's calls for mobilisations, extend them and provide them with a programme, and put forward the demand to form workers' militias to defend the revolution against the aggression of the oligarchy.

Storms to come

Nothing is lost yet, but there is not an endless amount of time for the Bolivian revolution. A survey of Bolivian newspapers over the last few days gives an indication of why. La Razon explains that there is an analogy between the current exponential growth in the number of workers' and peasants' struggles and the failure of the UDP (Democratic Popular Unity) government of the 1980s. The UDP government was overwhelmed by the explosion of inflation and of popular struggles. Its collapse gave way to the bourgeois offensive that got rid of all the gains of the working class made in the previous period.

The cracks in the government's project are deepening. In a previous article we raised the demand that all forms of administrative decentralization, which were taking resources from the state, had to be abolished. A few days ago the Finance Minister made an official statement in which he complained that massive transfers of funds to some local authorities, such as the regional authority in Santa Cruz (which uses state funds to prosecute peasants that have occupied the land) have expanded the debt of the government considerably and could possibly undermine the financing of new contracts for state employees as well as the implementation of new social reforms. The house of cards could collapse at any moment, leaving a huge vacuum, which would open to door to any number of possibilities, including the possibility that the reaction could temporarily prevail. This is only a possibility at the moment, but if this happens we must be ready to react.

We must take up the question of the Bolivian revolution with strength and determination. We must bring the discussion on the perspectives for the revolution to the organisations of the working class around the world. We must support the revolution against the false and dangerous policies of gradual reforms, the possibility of a third way, etc. This is what the Bolivian revolution demands.

October 2, 2006

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