It is impossible to visit Bolivia and not be marked by the heady atmosphere of solidarity and popular political engagement. These elements continue to dominate the mass of the oppressed majority.
Cochabamba is Bolivia’s third largest city and the site of the heroic struggles against big businesses’ attempt to privatise the region’s water supplies in 2000. Every day its Plaza 14 Septiembre is transformed into a public forum of political discussion and debate.
This process reached fever pitch in the run-up to the recent recall referendum on radical president Evo Morales and eight opposition governors of Bolivia’s regions.
Labour militants addressed thick and eager crowds with defiant demands for economic transformation while local social projects maintained public information panels and free evening classes in radical social analysis.
As the vote approached, a tangible excitement developed as the population anticipated ejecting their hated regional governor, Manfred Reyes Villa, a fierce neoliberal politician with a shady past in Bolivia’s former military dictatorship.
“Tomorrow is in your hands and in your minds,” announced one board in Cochabamba, “together we can create a changed Bolivia, united, strong, and for all.”
Travelling through Bolivia’s Altiplano and the poverty-stricken deserts of the south the consensus would seem clear.
It is impossible to drive past a cluster of the most modest homesteads and miss the huge murals in support of Evo Morales.
“¡Evo, Si!” is the slogan of almost every village and town in the west, while in Cochabamba each wall on every street is plastered in left wing graffiti.
But there is also some frustration with Morales’ government.
Simply making your way around Bolivia in this period can be hard as striking teachers, impatient as Morales’ promises on pensions and reform dissipate, blockade the roads for whole days at a time.
Bus passengers have been forced to spend nights out in the open, in temperatures well below freezing.
And yet, to our astonishment, when we asked some of these Bolivians whether they sympathised with the teachers, they said yes.
It is this level of solidarity that has caused Bolivia’s neoliberals such problems in the past. The struggles of the future can only draw strength from it.
In the eastern lowlands, however, there is another story. Around the region administered by Santa Cruz, which controls wealth through its fertile agriculture and natural gas reserves, the political influence of the small European-descended elite is constant.
They preside over an unbroken chain of colonial oppression that stretches back five centuries and places the indigenous majority in conditions of misery.
Before the referendum chilling stories seeped through. In Sucre a group of small farmers are forced to set fire to the flag of the indigenous movement and read out abuses against Morales.
When voting day came, the streets of Cochabamba were deserted.
Everything was closed and people only travelled to vote. Those in the student and social movements were considering how to respond to governor Manfred, who has vowed to ignore his revocation if it is pronounced by the electorate.
The most radical elements began to consider occupying Manfred’s headquarters.
The results of the referedum were a resounding confirmation of Morales’ national mandate, and a rejection of Manfred and his right wing allies in La Paz.
It was not long before fire crackers were being hurled into the air and revellers arrived at the plaza chanting pro-Evo slogans and threats to Manfred.
Socialists should join in these celebrations as a blow against the right. Yet it must be recognised that Bolivia’s political divisions remain – the elites of Santa Cruz are as entrenched as ever – and retain support locally for political autonomy from the capital La Paz.
They still maintain their grasp over privatised energy resources which impede the country’s hopes for reform.
Equally problematic is the relationship between the left wing Mas government and the social movements.
The immense, and often unconditional, loyalty of poor farmers and other progressive element to the government inhibits political autonomy from below.
Mas reforms from above cannot deliver the economic and social transformations required to deliver dignity and agency to the majority of the population. Even after the election results, this sadly remains Bolivia’s political trajectory.
Only independent organisations of the working class and the peasantry are capable of defending and advancing the interests of Bolivia’s working poor and breaking the current impasse.