For the second time in three years, the Bolivian mass movement has brought down a president. Carlos Mesa resigned on 6 June as peasants, workers and students continued to demonstrate their strength and their resolve in the streets of La Paz, Sucre and other major cities.
Today, as in 2003, the real enemy stood in the shadows behind the Bolivian government. Global capital was at both Mesa and his predecessor’s right hand, pressing for access to Bolivia’s main source of wealth — its oil and gas reserves.
In 1999 it was water that they had in their sights, as huge private companies such as Bechtel tried to take control of the national supply. In 2005 it was British Gas and the Spanish oil company Repsol that wanted to control Bolivia’s gas.
Six years ago, a mass movement from below reversed water privatisation. The popular rising in Cochabamba drove out the multinationals, and today water is distributed by an elected board of management. That victory marked the beginning of a new movement of resistance in Latin America’s poorest country.
The struggle developed on several fronts. The coalition that had successfully driven out the multinational water companies inspired a new coalition to nationalise Bolivia’s oil and gas.
At the same time the struggle for indigenous rights reached new levels of militancy.
When these two forces came together in September 2003, the government reacted with extreme violence. About 60 people were killed — but the confrontations continued until president Lozada, the infamous “gringo” who spoke Spanish with a heavy American accent, was driven from office.
His successor, Carlos Mesa, promised a referendum on the issue of gas. But he had no intention of nationalising the industry — he would not break existing agreements with multinationals, he announced.
Then in March this year the Bolivian congress passed a new law which added 32 percent taxes to the 18 percent royalties those companies paid. It was still far from what the movement demanded — but it was too much for Mesa, who tried to veto the law.
By mid-May, the mass movement grew weary of the wheeling and dealing and launched a new protest movement with a clear and simple demand — nationalisation.
In the city of El Alto, which has a wholly indigenous population of a million and sits on a plateau a thousand feet above the capital, La Paz, an indefinite strike marked the beginning of a new phase. The people of these communities have a long history of organised resistance.
Many of them came from the exhausted mining areas, the heartland of Bolivia’s trade union federation, the COB, and the site of some of Latin America’s most heroic struggles.
At the same time, they were central to the growth of Felipe Quispe’s movement for the rights of the Aymara people, who make up the bulk of Bolivia’s population.
Now, once again, El Alto was at the heart of a national movement. But there was an important difference between 2003 and 2005. This time the COB and the trade unions, particularly the teachers organisations, were at the heart of the broad coalition that also included students, housing cooperatives and community organisations.
As the crisis has developed Evo Morales, the charismatic leader of the coca farmers of Chapare, has come to play an increasingly central role.
A member of MAS (the movement towards socialism), Morales came to public attention as a leading figure in the battle over water privatisation. In 2002 he stood for the presidency and came second with 22 percent of the vote.
Since then, however, he has moved into the centre ground of politics. He has not taken up the demand for nationalisation, but instead has argued for 50 percent royalty payments. While this would bring more money into the coffers of government, it would leave control with the multinationals.
As events accelerated, the Catholic church produced a report in late May calling for a recognition of indigenous demands, a constituent assembly, and a referendum on regional autonomy. This was presented as a compromise solution — and Morales supported it.
In fact, it was a way of undermining the clear demands of the movement. The innocuous sounding demand for regional autonomy, for example, comes from the powerful business interests of eastern Bolivia, around Santa Cruz, where most of the gas is to be found.
For Morales, the real issue is what happens in the next elections — and his anxiety not to compromise his support among the middle ground. This all has an eerily familiar ring.
It was the argument put forward by president Lula in Brazil and president Kirchner in Argentina. But much more dramatically, it was the position of Lucio Gutierrez, who came to power in Ecuador in 2000 with the support of the mass movement.
It is only a matter of weeks since Gutierrez was driven out of power by massive popular protests as he too tried to renege on his promises and do deals with global capital.
Carlos Mesa’s resignation was some time coming. The attempt to replace him with Senate leader Vaca Diez, a central figure in the Santa Cruz business coalition, failed under mass pressure.
The new interim president is Eduardo Rodriguez, head of the supreme court. He is presented as a sympathetic reformer, especially by those like Morales who have placed all their hopes in elections and would prefer not to rock the boat.
But the Bolivian movement has a long memory. Today the slogan that is rising from the marches and protests across the country is simple and clear.
First for the nationalisation of its estimated reserves of 1.5 trillion cubic metres of natural gas. Second, for a revolutionary popular assembly, to ensure that that wealth will be used for the benefit of all Bolivians.
This assembly, a body of elected delegates from the grassroots organisations who have now been in constant mobilisation for a month, would represent a different kind of power, and a different kind of state.
The reality is that, no matter who is in control of it, the government exists to negotiate the terms of survival under capitalism. We have already seen that new faces in the presidential palace can change nothing — that the kind of democracy the movement is demanding is a revolutionary vision of a socialist society.
And the seeds of that have been sown over these weeks in the streets of La Paz and El Alto.
Mike Gonzalez is the author of Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution. He will be among the speakers at Marxism 2005. For the full timetable go to www.marxism2005.net