Thousands of poor farmers and indigenous activists marched through the Bolivian city of Sucre last week in support of constitutional changes proposed by President Evo Morales.
The march followed clashes in the same city over recent weeks between right wing opponents of the government and the police.
Ever since its election in late 2005, the government of Evo Morales has been under siege. Morales, leader of the Bolivian coca farmers, was carried to power by a mass movement which threw out three presidents before him.
After a decade of brutal neo-liberal policies, the resistance of Bolivia became a symbol and an example of how to turn back the assaults of the global market.
That struggle was led by organisations of Bolivia’s indigenous people who had been the victims of those strategies.
The key to the support that Morales enjoyed was his promise to take back control over Bolivia’s major source of wealth – its oil and gas reserves.
A new hydrocarbons law promised the nationalisation of those resources while agrarian reform would restore land to the original communities.
The income from oil and gas, it was assumed, would raise the living standards of the majority and finance new social provisions.
At the same time, and central to the Morales project, was the prospect of a new kind of democracy in which those who had been marginalised from power – the indigenous peoples above all – would finally enjoy genuine democratic rights under a new constitution.
The Constituent Assembly which met a year ago was designed to make that possible.
A year on, however, the assembly has taken no decisions. In fact it has been paralysed by a sustained campaign by the old ruling class to undermine the new government.
The apparent issue is regional autonomy. The reality is a campaign by the wealthiest Bolivian provinces, led by Santa Cruz, to paralyse the Morales government.
Santa Cruz has for many years been a favoured area for foreign investment in agriculture and minerals – the boom economy of the region is the result.
The campaign by the rich has not been limited to parliamentary opposition.
Those who control the mass media have reinforced and supported the Santa Cruz lobby. And across the country groups of thugs have attacked government supporters.
The indigenous peoples are largely in the highland regions. The “autonomist” lobby is based in the plains of the east, and their campaign has been vociferously and openly racist. In the last year there have been a number of deaths at their hands.
Yet there is a paradox here. The reality is that conditions for private and foreign capital in Bolivia are very good.
Multinational companies are investing in every area of the economy. While a new hydrocarbons law was passed, it only raised the tax rates that foreign companies must pay for the gas they extract.
The largest steel plant in Bolivia has been sold to a foreign multinational.
The economic statistics for 2007 show rising state income (around 11 percent), higher profits for private capital (at around 20 percent) and falling living standards (down 7 percent) for the mass of the people.
Against that background the declaration by vice-president Garcia Linera that Bolivia’s future development will be negotiated with capital, including the capitalists of Santa Cruz, sounds like good news only for the wealthy minority.
For the poor, the struggle from below will continue, as it has done throughout 2007. What advances there have been have been largely the result of highway blockades, land occupations and strikes.
That struggle remains the only way forward – for the enemies of the Bolivian revolution have shown that they will defend their interests by any means necessary.
Mike Gonzalez is professor of Hispanic Studies at the University of Glasgow. His books include A Rebel’s Guide to Marx and Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution. They are available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Go to » www.bookmarks.uk.com or phone 020 7637 1848