By Chris Harman
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The Bolivian Uprising

This article is over 16 years, 6 months old
The actuality of revolution in the 21st century. That was what was on display on the streets of Bolivia's capital, La Paz, last month.
Issue 298

Reports paint a picture like that of Petrograd in the summer of 1917, Berlin in January 1919, Barcelona in the autumn of 1936. They tell of general strikes; of columns of peasants marching on the city; of the occupation of oil wells and airports; of striking miners handing sticks of gelignite to striking teachers to throw against police lines; of attempts to invade the presidential palace; of threats by petrocapitalists in the east of the country to secede from the state; of workers in La Paz chanting, ‘Civil war, yes!’; of the congress replacing the president while intimidated by huge, angry crowds. Yet they also tell of a ‘truce’ between the two sides, with an end to the strikes and the departure of demonstrators from La Paz.

Revolutionary feeling, like lightning, often discharges itself in the most unexpected ways.

Economic devastation

The 1980s and 1990s were, for the mass of people in Bolivia, as in much of the rest of Latin America, terrible decades. Economic devastation accompanied neo-liberal reforms imposed by government economic adviser Lozada working in tandem with Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs. The working class was ravaged by closures, with the mass sacking of 20,000 tin miners (half the national total) in 1985. Politics was a game played between members of the white elite. The peasants, clinging to the plots of land given to them after a revolution in 1952, remained indifferent to calls for further struggle. The country’s left was a shadow of its former self. Bolivia had been one of the handful of places in the world where Trotskyism had implanted itself seriously in the working class, influencing many of the most significant activists among the miners. But now it seemed a relic from the past, its few supporters repeating old formulae that took no account of the changes taking place in the country.

Yet the changes were slowly, barely noticeably, creating new forces able to challenge the established order once something impelled them to do so. The peasantry began to find that its land was no longer secure, as the logic of capitalist agriculture began to work itself out with market forces making it difficult for the small farmers to hold on to what they had. The one crop with sure market potential, coca (from which cocaine is manufactured), was soon under threat from the US war on drugs. And the increasing penetration of even the most remote villages by modern communications increased the consciousness of and bitterness at oppression among the indigenous two thirds of the country’s population, the Aymara and Quechua peoples, whose first language is not Spanish. They began to organise against the inferior position imposed on them ever since the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire 470 years ago, recalling with pride risings in 1780 and 1899.

Finally, the decline of other, older industries was accompanied by the rise of a new working class, indigenous people who left the poverty of the countryside to find some sort of livelihood in places like El Alto, the huge impoverished conurbation which stands in relation to La Paz much as Soweto does to Johannesburg. So the number of manufacturing workers in the major cities rose from 117,000 in 1986 to 231,000 in 1995, with 38 percent in workplaces of more than 30 workers. These figures were matched by growing numbers of construction workers and of miners. By 1997 there were nearly as many wage earners – 1,400,000 – as there were peasants.

It was the logic of capitalism itself that gave active life to these new forces. The privatisation of water supplies in the Cochabamba region pushed up water prices for workers and peasants alike, causing tens of thousands to demonstrate, fight against the police and discover that by blocking roads they could bring the country as a whole to a halt. Success in beating privatisation in Cochabamba led to similar tactics elsewhere with protests and blockades by the coca growers and the indigenous organisations. This example in turn created a new spirit of struggle in working class areas like El Alto and breathed life into the previously quiescent union federation, the COB, with the election of new leaders.

A sign of the new radical spirit was the closeness of the presidential election of three years ago when the coca growers’ leader, Evo Morales, and his Movement to Socialism Party (MAS) came a very close second (he and Lozada both got about 20 percent of the votes and congress then picked the neo-liberal as the winner). Another was a spontaneous wave of rebellion in February two years ago.

News that Lozada’s government was selling off the country’s one great prospect for wealth, its recently discovered gas reserves, to multinationals brought the ferment to a head in October 2003. What began as spasmodic agitation suddenly erupted into mass strikes and confrontations after the police shot down scores of protesters marching towards La Paz. It was then that El Alto became the centre of the movement. It was then too that the miners rediscovered their old traditions and their old militancy by marching with gelignite in clenched fists to join the masses in the capital.

The spontaneous October rising caused President Lozada to flee the country in a helicopter (the third Latin American president to do so in three years). But there was neither the consciousness nor the organisation among the hundreds of thousands of protesters in La Paz and El Alto to determine who replaced him. His deputy, Mesa, took his place in the presidential palace, the mass of demonstrators departed believing they had won a great victory and the neo-liberal policies continued as before. The next day delegate after delegate at an expanded meeting of the COB union lamented the fact that they had not been able to raise the question of a workers’ and peasants’ government.

As is often the case in revolutionary upheavals, the first successful uprising was followed by a period of precarious stability. There were attempts to divert popular anger into a nationalist agitation against Chile, which had annexed Bolivia’s coastal region and blocked its access to the sea more than a century before. Mesa held a referendum over the gas issue and managed to get away with phrasing the issue in such a way as to get a majority. Attempts at new mobilisations never seemed to get the head of steam to repeat the October events.

An important factor in the months of impasse was the way, as also in past revolutionary upheavals, that certain political figures and formations which had helped to lead the movement forward at previous stages no longer did. Indigenous leaders like Felipe Quispe of the Union of Peasant Workers had played an important role in articulating the indigenous grievances against the Spanish speaking white elite who dominated official politics. But they allowed justified resentment at past treatment by the mestizo (mixed race Spanish speaking) section of the masses to divert them from pushing forward the struggle against the common enemy.

Evo Morales and his MAS party were the other channel for indigenous bitterness, calling for a constituent assembly to remould the country’s political institutions so as to reflect its ethnic make-up. But dazzled by Morales’s vote in 2002, they followed a strategy of keeping Mesa in power so that Morales would have an eventual chance of succeeding him by ‘constitutional means’ in 2007 and urged a ‘yes’ vote in Mesa’s gas referendum.

The COB union leaders took a more left wing stance, denouncing the gas referendum and urging people to abstain or spoil their ballot papers. But their traditions were still very much that of the old working class, and had little influence among the new, radicalised, indigenous forces, treating as a ‘diversion’ their demand to be part of a new democratic political structure. As a result, Mesa not only stayed in office for 21 months, but for most of that period enjoyed a degree of support among many of those who had taken to the streets in October.

But things do not simply stand still when a mass movement gets stuck in an impasse. Those associated with the old order forget their fright and begin to assert the god-given right to rule. Mesa’s government became increasingly like the overthrown Lozada government, preparing a law which left the majority of the gas and oil profits in private hands. Meanwhile in the lowland region in the east of the country around the city of Santa Cruz, where the gas and oil reserves are located, capitalist interests asserted that they would declare autonomy if there was an attempt to use petroleum wealth for any purposes other than their own. And they looked for support to the US and the supposedly left centre governments of Brazil and Argentina, whose oil companies are involved with Shell and BP in profiting from Bolivia’s petroleum resources.

The country was paralysed

This was the spark which reignited the urban and rural masses. They saw the one chance they had of using the country’s wealth to overcome their poverty snatched away from them. They moved, as they had 21 months previously, to close down the whole country and besiege the presidential palace and congress.

It was not only the country which was paralysed. So was its ruling class. Mesa tried to hold on by balancing between the secessionists in Santa Cruz and the mass movement. He promised a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution in a way that would please Morales and his supporters and a referendum on autonomy that would please the Santa Cruz petrocapitalists. Condoleezza Rice pledged her support for him and Morales opposed driving him from office. But the movement on the streets was more powerful and more radical than ever. The nationalist language of October of opposing gas profits going to foreigners became the class demand for nationalisation in the interests of the workers, the peasants and the urban poor.

When it became clear Mesa was beyond saving, the congress decamped to Sucre from La Paz (just as the French Assembly decamped to Versailles in 1871 and the German Reichstag to Weimar in 1919) in the hope of escaping the siege and resolving things according to the wishes of its neo-liberal majority. They placed their hopes briefly in Mesa’s constitutional successor, Vaca Diez, a representative of the Santa Cruz oligarchy. But it was already too late. They were besieged in Sucre too, as the workers’ movement paralysed transport links right across the country. Congress passed over Vaca Diez to appoint as interim president Eduardo Rodriguez, head of the supreme court – but for six months only before elections.

Meanwhile, the hierarchy of the Catholic church urged a ‘truce’, the Brazilian and Argentinian governments applied pressure, and the US ambassador gave its seal of approval to the deal. After hectic negotiations, Evo Morales backed it too when he was assured there would be elections and the constituent assembly (a key factor in his decision, according to the reputable Buenos Aires paper Clarin, was a cell phone call from Hugo Chavez advising him to do so). It was enough to signal the end of the demonstrations and a return to work by most of the strikers, tired after three weeks of struggle and suffering from food shortages as the road blockages stopped food arriving in the cities.

So why did a movement that shook the country to its core seem to achieve so little in the end? The problem was that it paralysed the structures of power of society, but never posed an alternative of its own. And without such an alternative, even feeding its own supporters was an insuperable problem. As the Coordinating Committee of the struggle in Cochabamba put it:

‘We have seen two things in the May-June struggle. On the one side, the magnificent force of the social movements is capable of paralysing the country and dealing with the manoeuvres of big business and the bad governments. On the other side, we have not been capable of imposing our own decisions and objectives on these same governments, although they are in the worst crisis they could face…’

There was a moment in the June crisis when the whole question of who held power in society was in the balance. One can never be sure in such circumstances whether the workers’ and peasants’ movements could have taken it into their own hands. Discipline in the army and police in a potentially revolutionary situation can only be tested in practice by pushing to break it down. You engage in battle and then you see. But on this occasion the decisive battle was not engaged. The masses who had organised themselves to confront the government had not organised themselves to replace it. And so, when the right pushed for their nominee to be president, the movement accepted a replacement hardly different to Mesa, with the same ambiguous talk of a constituent assembly, and no concessions at all over the most popular demand of the movement, oil nationalisation.

The decisive factor here was the sort of leadership available to the movement at key moments. Morales continued with his essentially electoralist orientation. This meant that he did his best to keep Mesa in office until the last minute, even arguing that the movement should accept that only 50 percent of the oil and gas industry was nationalised. He can move left again if he feels it is necessary, but he cannot be relied on in any way to seize the chance of a genuinely revolutionary outcome to the political crisis.

The counterpole to Morales in La Paz was Solares, the leader of the COB union. He has used the language of workers’ and peasants’ power, but at a key moment in the crisis he spoke of throwing his weight behind a coup by middle ranking officers who, he said, might follow the example of Chavez in Venezuela. This substitution of socialism from above for socialism from below played straight into Morales’s hands. He was able to claim to stand for the democracy of the mass movement, given the repressive record of past military regimes in Bolivia, and for the indigenous peoples against the Spanish speaking elite who dominated the army.

The revolutionary left organisation, the POR (the country’s historic Trotskyist organisation), has played a part in the struggle, particularly through the very militant teachers’ union led by one of its members. But it still has to come to terms with the changing composition of the working class and with the fight of the indigenous peoples against oppression. Reports suggest that it has not grasped the elementary point that asserting their right to self determination is a preconditions for winning them to revolutionary socialist traditions which their leaders claim are ‘white dominated’.

The ‘truce’ has still left unresolved central issues which will raise themselves again in the not too distant future. The question of who is going to own the petroleum wealth is unresolved. So are the host of questions raised by the elections and the talk of a constituent assembly. Now the protesters have gone home, the president and the existing congress, with its neo-liberal majority, will attempt to influence the holding of the presidential election and to model any constituent assembly after themselves. Meanwhile, the oil interests may well find any compromise hammered out in La Paz too ‘left wing’ for their liking and push again to detach the Santa Cruz region from the rest of Bolivia.

In the last days of the June struggle some activists did begin to look towards creating structures from below that could provide the first elements of democratic forms of self-organisation for the variety of different forces and traditions involved in the struggle. There was an initiative in El Alto for a Popular Revolutionary Assembly to take control of the city, to defend it and to feed it. The Cochabamba Coordinating Committee drew the conclusion that there had to be discussion on how ‘little by little to create forms of our own self-government’. But without a live tradition of revolutionary activity rooted in socialism from below – and an understanding of oppression as well as exploitation – these initiatives came too late and with too little impetus to influence the outcome in June. People talked about an El Alto commune, but it never came into being. We have to hope that as people ponder on the lessons of the struggle they see what needs to be done in the next round.

Today the whole Andean region is in turmoil. A few hundred miles to the north mass protests have driven out the third Ecuadorian president in five years and the new one is supposedly committed to reversing neo-liberal measures and closing the giant US airbase at Manta. Between Ecuador and Bolivia is Peru where the neo-liberal president, Toledo, brought to power on the wave of discontent with the dictatorial behaviour of his predecessor Fujimori, is increasingly under pressure from waves of discontent over his neo-liberalism. And to the south and east are Argentina and Brazil, whose governments find their own supposedly ‘left of centre’ credentials put to shame by the Bolivian movement. They all panicked as the demonstrators besieged the congress and Bolivia ground to a halt.

We have had a glimpse of how workers’ power can suddenly become a real possibility amid the recurrent instability of globalised capitalism. And it will not be the last time. Let us learn the lesson and work so that next time there is mass insurgency, people do not merely knock on history’s door, but kick it open.

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