Two weeks ago a popular uprising swept the president of Bolivia from office, and he was forced to flee to Miami. It was the culmination of a month of strikes and demonstrations after troops killed protesters in September. Workers, especially the country's tin miners, were the central force which confronted Bolivia's armed forces.
This was a tremendous victory. But Bolivian society has not been transformed. The old president, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozado (known as Goni or El Gringo), was replaced by the vice-president, Carlos Mesa. On 18 October hundreds of representatives from trade unions and other popular organisations came together to discuss the lessons of the great revolt.
The website of a radical news agency, www.econoticiasbolivia.com, carried a fascinating report in Spanish of the discussions. We print extracts which give a sense of the arguments which are continuing today.
The workers of the country came together at a special meeting of the Bolivian Workers Centre (COB). Jaime Solares, secretary of the COB executive, gave an outline of the conflict and called for a minute's silence for the 'heroes of the war'. Then delegates spoke by sectors, in front of an expectant, radical and unusually large number of leaders and rank and file delegates.
Those who had taken part in the civil uprising analysed the mistakes and limitations that prevented the masses taking power. These were the absence of a revolutionary party, the lack of a single direction to the movement and its diffuse objectives. This is what allowed Carlos Mesa to enter the presidential palace.
The meeting's main conclusion is applicable to virtually all the countries of Latin America. Why did the parties fail? One big factor is the collapse of each of the 'socialist' countries of Eastern Europe at the end of the 1980s. This seemed a death blow to the Bolivian and Latin American left.
So the parties that used to have a great influence in the social and union movements – like the Communist Party of Bolivia and the Revolutionary Workers Party-were not able 'to rise to the level of events'.
The social organisations that fought the regime and the army said that the Movement to Socialism (MAS) of Evo Morales and the Indigenous Movement (Pachacuti) have not fulfilled the role that was needed. The party and trade union leaderships were 'overtaken' by the 'fury' of the population.
That was the verdict from the leaders of the miners, industrial workers, construction workers, teachers, peasants, journalists, health workers, students, school students, artisans, pensioners, unemployed, small farmers, transport workers, neighbourhood committees, departmental workers' centres and other popular organisations.
'Those who consider ourselves revolutionaries cannot lie to ourselves. No leader and no political party led this popular rising. Bolivian workers, from below, kicked out the murderer Goni [Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozado],' said Jaime Solares, secretary of the COB executive. 'It was the infuriated masses who gave a slap in the face to American imperialism. No one, either individually or as a party, was able to take the leadership of this conflict. No one!'
The meeting enthusiastically applauded him. The secretary of the miners' federation said, 'No union, no left party, imagined the scope of the conflict that was to come. The massacre at Los Altos on 12 October was the detonator that made this war against the government and imperialism explode. 'From then on the conflict escaped from our hands. That raises the urgent need to organise ourselves better.'
The secretary of the Industrial Workers Federation, Alex Galvez, said, 'Carlos Mesa is a poodle of the bourgeoisie. He is the same person in a different clothes. The majority in parliament is still for neo-liberal policies. Are these opportunists going to pass laws in the interests of the people? We've changed the president, but his henchmen remain in power,' he explained, to enthusiastic support from the hall.
'Mesa is not going to find a way out of the crisis for the workers. Because of that, we must organise a unified response. We have won a battle, but we still have not won the war,' he added. On behalf of the construction workers, Victor Taca called for a response with 'class content'. 'Carlos Mesa is the representative of one social class and we are the representatives of another social class,' he said. 'That is why tomorrow he is going to shoot at us like Goni.'
The secretary of the urban teachers, Jaime Rocha, confronted calls to 'co-govern' with the new government so as to make it 'respect the rights of the workers'.
He underlined strongly that the COB must maintain its fundamental principle – 'the independence of the class' – in the face of any bourgeois government. Rocha added, 'The expulsion from the country of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozado was a great victory. The rising up of the masses is a process. If Mesa does not respect the demands of the workers, he will have to go like Goni. We have now got to lay down strategic revolutionary objectives.'
The secretary of the La Paz Peasant Workers' Federation, Rufo Calle, said, 'Only a government of our own is going to fulfil the demands of the Bolivian people.' The words of the young peasant leader were interrupted at various points by applause.
In this way participants showed their respect and admiration for the struggles of the peasants of the high plateau, who blocked the roads for a month. Calle asked delegates to keep up the pressure: 'We are not going to lift the blockade. Mesa will have to agree to all our demands – or go off to the United States with the Gringo murderer Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozado.' The peasant leader's words raised the temperature of the debate.
José Luis Alvarez, secretary of the urban teachers of La Paz, explained, amidst applause, that the rank and file had shown the leaders that they had to fight to change the government:
'Workers valiantly sacrificed their lives. But they only got mere constitutional change. Those who rose up wanted better conditions of life and a new sort of state.' He insisted that the government was incapable of resolving the structural crisis of the country: 'Therefore we need a platform of struggle that would allow the exploited to take power, and in this way to organise a revolutionary government of workers and peasants. There has to be renationalisation and socialisation of all the oil and gas resources. There must be a fight for the land and the cultivation and industrialisation of coca leaves by the peasants. The education and tax laws imposed by the World Bank must be liquidated. The miners must occupy all their mines,' he argued, to applause.
Remberto Cardenas of the Press Workers Confederation emphasised that the conflict gave birth to a 'social unity' between the exploited classes, the oppressed nationalities and the middle classes neglected by the neo-liberal model. He said this political unity must be widened, and put under the direction of the COB. One other thing that marked the meeting was the recognition of the role played by the US ambassador.
'The US, the Organisation of American States and the right wing governments of the continent and the world supported the massacre unleashed by the army and the government coalition,' a pensioners' leader reminded people.
This fact, according to Jaime Solares, showed how the US could act to prevent revolutionary developments. He said, 'For this reason we have also to think about how to respond to a possible invasion.' Another speaker explained that the only way to carry forward the present anti-imperialist process was 'through a return of the leaders to the rank and file' to prepare for future struggles.
In this way in the high plateau, in the Yngas, in the mining centres and in el Chapare, the rank and file were creating organs of power, of 'self defence', which according to some leaders, should be 'armed'. This delicate theme was not analysed in depth by the meeting, but was emphasised by various social organisations.
Jaime Solares emphasised that 'the rank and file have a thirst for justice and, in the next conflict, are going to go over the heads of leaderships that do not rise to the occasion'.
THE COB meeting, after more than six hours of debate, agreed the movement should make a 'tactical retreat' while demands were put to the new president. Eleven federations supported this view, eight were for pressing the government now to implement workers' demands, and ten federations did not take a clear position. There are still big struggles to come that will test every leader.
After the meeting COB officials met the new president and told Mesa, 'you will have our support as long as you fight boldly against corruption.' They asked the president to create more jobs and give workers decent wages. They also said, 'The president showed interest in the points raised and has said that the doors of the government palace are open to the COB leaders.'
They added that the doors of the COB 'will be open to Mesa as long as he comes in good faith'. The leader of the United Trade Union Confederation of Peasant Workers of Bolivia (CSTUCB), 'Mallku' Felipe Quispe, has given Mesa 90 days to solve the demands of the Indian peasants or 'he will call an uprising with the aim of taking power'. He said, 'Mesa will not abolish laws that are crucial for the neo-liberal model. Because he will not carry out these demands, there will be new social problems.' The La Paz peasants have decided to maintain their protests.