On Thursday 30 March, at Cochabamba airport in Bolivia, police attacked protesters with tear gas, rubber bullets and riot batons.
The protesters were demanding that the country’s new president, Evo Morales, step in to nationalise the failing airline Lloyd Aéreo Boliviano.
Among those attacked was Oscar Olivera, leader of the Cochabamba Factory Workers’ Union. Seven years ago Olivera led a crucial struggle against water privatisation in the city of Cochabamba.
That successful struggle marked the dawn of a new era of popular mobilisation in Bolivia. Two mass risings followed, in October 2003 and June 2005.
Each brought down an unpopular president, and each threw up powerful new forms of organisation from below.
The victory of Morales in presidential elections held in December 2005 was, above all, a reflection of those mass movements.
But, at Cochabamba airport, as police attacked those occupying the runway, a weary Olivera turned to a reporter and said, “Evo is tear gassing his brothers.”
Two trade union militants, Samuel Segas and Demeizio Sirito, spoke to Socialist Worker about the dispute. They said, “After years of mismanagement and corruption the airline has a debt of over $60 million.
“The action was started by pilots and co-pilots but spread to all sections of the workforce. We started with a hunger strike and moved on to occupy four main airports – Cochabamba, Tarija, Santa Cruz and La Paz.
“In Cochabamba we are discussing how we can seize control of the company as workers. We hope workers across the world will support us in this ambitious project.”
In many ways the Cochabamba airport struggle is an exception – most recent protests have been met with dialogue from the government and Morales remains popular. Recent polls have suggested that he has an approval rating of around 80 percent.
His support is even greater in areas with a large indigenous population, made up of descendents of the original inhabitants of the region, who have faced oppression and exclusion for over 400 years.
Morales is the first wholly indigenous president in Latin America.
Even more importantly, he is seen as representing a break with the neo-liberal policies of privatisation, deregulation and the rule of the corporations, which have dominated the region for 20 years.
Hugo Blanco, a left wing Peruvian peasant leader, was invited to the Bolivian president’s inauguration.
He wrote of the mood in the country, “An atmosphere of revolutionary process floated in the air and imbued the people...
“Evo spoke clearly against neo-liberalism. This atmosphere is also reflected in the fact that the ministry of justice is headed by a woman domestic servant who suffered physical, psychological and sexual abuse, which are a sort of ‘custom’ in our countries.
“It can be seen by the fact that the ministry of labour is occupied by a trade unionist.”
However, other ministries, including the ministry of defence, the finance ministry and the ministry of public works and services, are firmly in the hands of the right.
Having risen to power on the back of a powerful popular movement, Morales faces a dilemma. He feels the pressure from the movement from below.
But he also faces pressure from other forces – the Bolivian elite, those surrounding him in the state, the White House and the multinationals.
Morales told Newsnight’s Paul Mason in a recent interview, “You want to issue one decree to help the poor, the indigenous people, the popular movements, the workers... but there’s another law. Another padlock. It’s full of padlocks that mean you can’t transform things from the palace... I feel like a prisoner of the neo-liberal laws.”
As well as the airport protest, recent weeks have also seen a two-day general strike across Cochabamba, a national two-day stoppage by health workers demanding a 10 percent wage rise and action by teachers and transport workers.
These are signs that, while much of the movement is happy to coexist with Morales and the government led by his MAS party, it has not gone away.
In particular, those in the movement are watching to see whether Morales will fulfil two key promises. The first is the demand for nationalisation of the country’s huge gas resources, and the channelling of the revenue into poverty alleviation programmes.
The second demand is for a constituent assembly to rewrite the country’s constitution. Such an assembly could draw together the social forces that have led the battle against neo-liberalism.
Some of those in the movements involved in the earlier uprisings are waiting until the assembly is convened in August before seriously pressing their demands.
Special report by Guy Smallman, Valerie Mealla and Roger Cox in Bolivia, and Joseph Choonara in London
‘We have to continue the mobilisations’
Oscar Olivera is a leader of the successful struggle in 1999-2000 to stop water privatisation in the Cochabamba region
‘The most important consequence of the 1999-2000 struggle has been the development of hundreds of organisations that have been gaining victories small and large.
I believe the people have a much greater capacity to organise today. People are not prepared to accept injustices from governments any more, not even that of Evo Morales.
There are four main demands. Firstly there’s the fundamental point of nationalisation – not just of oil and gas but of other previously state-run industries. The second thing is the constituent assembly – the opening up of a space where people can decide how this country is run.
The third point is redistribution of land. The fourth is immunity – preventing the rich from robbing and killing people and bringing justice for earlier crimes.
Evo Morales is someone who used to be our brother, who used to struggle with us. What has his government done on these points?
It is clear that he will not nationalise in the way we are demanding. On the constituent assembly he has made an agreement with the right wing to exclude the social movements and grassroots trade unions.
On redistribution of land he will not take on the landowners. Only on the subject of immunity are things moving, but far too slowly.
We are pessimistic about what any government can do. We know that to achieve our demands we have to continue with mass mobilisations.’
Translation by Shaun Dey