A Balance Sheet of Bolivia’s ‘Rehearsal for a Revolution’

The following article is from the July issue of Socialismo o Barbaridad, the international magazine of the Argentine Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), one of the principal Trotskyist organizations in the Southern Cone of Latin America. In our previous issue, we reported that the mass uprising in May and June in Bolivia had been marked by calls for establishing a government based on the organizations of the masses. This struggle, however, ended with the installation of another bourgeois “caretaker” government, this time headed by Eduardo Rodriguez, chief justice of the Bolivian Supreme Court. The following article analyzes the situation since the end of the mass struggle from the standpoint of revolutionists in a neighboring country. It has been somewhat abridged for space reasons. Translation from the Spanish is by Socialist Action.

by Roberto Saenz

Bolivia has gone through a general rehearsal of revolution. Day by day, in greater and greater numbers, the masses took over the streets in La Paz
and El Alto, but also in Cochabamba, Oruro, Sucre, and Potosi—giving their movement a national scope. The quasi-insurrectional features that appeared in the last days were demonstrated by the setting up of embryonic forms of an alternative power to the formal state institutions.

[Interim President Eduardo] Rodriguez has made a point of saying that the demands for nationalizing the petroleum resources and for a constituent assembly will have to wait for the “new president.” But it is unlikely that the masses will wait until then, despite the work of Evo Morales, who has tried time and time again to entrap the process in the discredited constitutional channels, undermining the mass movement.

And despite also the truce granted by the leaderships of the COB [Bolivian Labor Confederation], Fejuve [Federation of Neighborhood Councils of El Alto], and the COR [Regional Labor Confederation of El Alto]. It is the time for balance sheets. The prevailing feeling is that “nothing was gained,” and “we went out for [nationalization of] the gas and not for a mere change of presidents.” There is a certain frustration. But at the same time, in these few weeks, the working people gained a new feeling of their tremendous power.
From organizations such as the Gas Coordinating Committee1 headed by Oscar Olivera, they are trying to put over a different balance sheet. They talk about a “triumph,” and how a “blood bath” was avoided, because that is what Hormando Vaca Diez [parliamentary representative of the reactionary land barons of eastern Bolivia] taking the presidency would have meant.

However, it is absolutely clear that the bourgeoisie did not dare to unleash a mass repression (to test its forces in an open clash with the masses). And so that argument cannot hide the fact that the objective of the mobilization was not a mere “change of personalities” through the mechanisms of the democracy of the rich but to get the nationalization of the gas:

“Bolivia seems to be approaching a complete collapse. The violent protests, the social split between the ‘whites’ and the peasants—and between the East and West—and the complete impotence of the Congress have been compounded most recently by blockades of roads threatening to create shortages in the cities. More than 60 percent of the roads are impassible, and the situation is getting worse hourly….

“From the early hours of the morning, the climate in this city seemed strange. A city that is more and more a ‘pedestrian town’ was paralyzed since dawn, as the 48-hour strike called by the transport unions went into effect….

“Toward the evening, the marches of peasants, indigenous people, students, and unions seemed to stretch throughout La Paz and El Alto. The legislators
could not achieve a consensus. … As we go to press, exploding dynamite sticks are again shattering the cold La Paz night. A difficult night has started for Bolivia.”2

As we have been pointing out, what happened in Bolivia was a real dress rehearsal of a revolution. Anyone who is unable to understand and draw the lessons of the social experience that has just occurred before our eyes will irremediably lose sight of one of the richest and most intense expressions of class struggle in recent decades.

Of course, between a “dress rehearsal” and a real social revolution, there are a series of major and acute problems that have to be solved. They may block
new “dress rehearsals” from becoming an outright revolution. And the tremendous paradox that for the time being the result of these revolutionary days is a miserable snap election is not a minor fact. As is well known, for the principled Russian revolutionists of the 20th century, the 1905 Revolution was an “anticipation” of the two revolutions in 1917. It posed all the questions and debates about strategy.

But what I want to stress here is what was indicated about the social, political, and organizational forces that prefigure the way a real revolution could develop in Bolivia in the conditions of the early 21st century. In order to be victorious, such a revolution would require a series of decisive “subjective” conditions that remain totally absent and that it is necessary to work to achieve.

A new element in these recent revolutionary days is that for the first time in years, bourgeois democracy was threatened with being outflanked both from the right and the left. The Santa Cruz bourgeoisie and the imperialists in fact hesitated to put Hormando Vaca Diez in the presidency in order to unleash a “legal” blood bath to suppress the mass movement and impose an outright turn to Bonapartism.3

They did not dare do it. The ruling classes were not united. It would have been hard for the army to withstand the pressure of a direct confrontation on
that scale. In El Alto, it might have meant house-to-house fighting.

The fact that some sectors of the ruling class did have the perspective of avoiding head-on confrontation is shown by the statements of the president of the Confederation of Private Sector Employers, himself, the majority sector that was for an “constitutional solution”: “Let whoever assumes the presidency commit himself to holding elections. If one of the candidates
means more blood and confrontation, he has to put his hand on his breast and resign.” 4

If a massive repression had been unleashed, and the masses in the streets—and in particular in the El Alto Commune—had fought back, the situation would have risked an overwhelming tide from the left.

The popular masses and the workers in El Alto, joined by the urban and rural teachers, important contingents of miners, factory workers, and sections of the peasantry, with more and more road blockades, were moving into what in practice was a semi-insurrectional process. That is, they were on the way to setting up embryonic expressions of dual power that threatened to outflank institutions from the left.

In this regard, a right-wing journalist commented: “Social actions may be indirect or direct. … If it is successful, if it is not contained, direct action
becomes contagious. When it is seen that a sector is more ‘effective’ working outside the legal order, other sections will imitate it. And then, direct
actions may become an epidemic. … As George Sorel advised, Evo Morales is appealing the method of revolutionary mobilizations.5

“As Lenin demonstrated in Russia in 1917, the myth of the revolutionary strike is an unviable principle but it may prove viable if two conditions are present. The first is a generalized political crisis. The other is the failure of the state to apply the law. … The failure of a democratic state to use the legal force at its disposal against unleashed violence is an enigma of our time, which is not limited to Bolivia or Ecuador, but which has come home to us….

“Our presidents preferred to lose power rather than confront the demonstrators. They prevented a blood bath, but they also weakened the authority of the democratic state.”6

Of course this “enigma” is not so mysterious. It is a result of conditions in which the relationship of forces does not permit a solution “by force“;
conditions in which the rulers have to accept the presence of the masses in the street and their struggle with their methods of direct action while they try to take advantage of their “subjective” weaknesses—that is, the fact that the masses are still going through a crisis of seeking alternatives, a party, a leadership:

“There is another parallel conflict—the demand for a so-called referendum on autonomy pushed by the most conservative elites in the east and south. While in January the landowners and businessmen in the east demobilized the population with Mesa’s promise to authorize direct election of provincial governors, today it is clear that a referendum that approves ‘economic autonomy’ would establish ‘regional authority for deciding on the natural resources.’ “This means that every province could decide to impose its own regulations. And the elites that are promoting these autonomy schemes are the most determined defenders of continuing to sell the gas and petroleum
as is now being done.”8

Bolivia is going through an exceptional national crisis. What do we mean by this definition? It is a crisis of such a scope that it cannot be called simply
economic, political, or constitutional but one in which the national unity of the country is at stake. Behind the demand for autonomy is a rancid racist
oligarchy that identifies less and less with Bolivia as it is today and has very strong separatist tendencies:

“Here in Santa Cruz the situation is … the center of the right-wing operations. The bourgeoisie here is the most retrograde and fascist. During the conflict,
groups of the Union Juvenil Cruzenista (which normally operates in the cities) took up arms in the villages near the blockades. At the doors of the high schools, they were paying every boy who went to break the blockades (that is, beat up the peasants) 100 bolivars (12 dollars).

“It should be pointed out that the movement in the area … is mainly indigenous and peasant, but the city of Santa Cruz, the capital, has been taken by reaction. So, the conflicts were mainly rural; they wanted to promote clashes between the people in the urban areas and those in the rural areas.

“In the area where I work, there were sharp confrontations, in which there were casualties on both sides. But in other areas, people from the urban
centers did not dare go out against the peasants, no matter how much money they were offered. “The Union Juvenil Cruzenista is a group of more or less paramilitaries formed by the neo-Nazis. They are extremely racist, and play up the idea of a Santa Cruz nation, claiming, ‘we are a different race and a better one than all that trash.”8

It is not every day that a situation reaches the point when the national unity of a country is in question and when movements develop with openly fascist
characteristics (embryonic but very real). This is another expression of the fact that the situation is breaking out of the framework of bourgeois democracy, and of the extreme degree of social and political polarization the country is experiencing.

Historical analogies should be taken with caution when we analyze social processes and class struggles that always have their specific features. With this caveat, they can be used illustratively. In this sense, it can be said that Bolivia at the beginning of the 21st century has a series of characteristics that can be compared to the revolutionary process in Spain in the 1930s.

It is clear that Bolivia has not reached such an extreme (nor is it certain that it will), but this can also not be ruled out. That is, in the conditions of a country geographically, socially, and politically polarized, it is not impossible that the seeds or elements of civil war that appeared in the last weeks may develop fully. This is the result of the open crisis of rule and national unity that is dividing the ruling class itself, as well as the eruption of a mass movement with revolutionary potential, in particular in the western part of the country.

We have pointed out on other occasions the “geographical uncertainty of power,” given the crisis and breakdown of the Bolivian bourgeoisie state, with its epicenter in El Alto [in the west], while the ”modern” economic axis has shifted to the east [where the oil and gas are].

We stress that the situation has not yet reached this extreme. The decisive political and social forces of the ruling class are opposed to this scenario, as is also true of Yankee imperialism (which nonetheless has a clear crisis of orientation for the region), of the present governments in Brazil and Argentina, and the Bolivian army itself (whose raison d’etre is to defend
the unity of the country), of the Church, and so on.

For the immediate future, the fight is against the renewed “normal” constitutional trap, the attempt to channel the whole process through snap elections, a road that will not lead to the real solution of any of the problems. It will only put them off, and, the rulers hope, put the masses to sleep.

This fight is also against the stabilizing role of the MAS [ironically Morales’ party has the same name as Saenz’s party, although it has nothing to do with
socialism] and Evo Morales, who are constantly striving to isolate the more radicalized sectors in El Alto and La Paz.

A power vacuum has appeared, even in the mouths of the various leaders, beyond their lack of a real political will to resolve this problem. Here we see a classical problem. Immense mobilizations of the masses by themselves cannot pose the question of taking power in a “spontaneous way.” Taking power is a science and an art that demands planning and organization. Without this, talking about “workers and peasants” power, as do Jaime Solares of the COB [Bolivian Workers Confederation] and Abel Mamani of Fejuve, is pure hot air.

The reflections of those who know these leaders well are interesting: “This third alternative (workers’ and peasants’ power) runs up against serious problems both in the political and ideological field, as well as in organization. Up until now, the verbal radicalization of the leaders has not led to any unified and coordinated work to develop the potential and consolidate the seeds of people’s power that have emerged spontaneously….

“This can be key to their defeat. We have not seen either any signs of revolutionary work to divide or neutralize the police and the army. There is no talk of arms and insurrection. There is no united revolutionary leadership. In many sectors … there is an unfounded confidence that gigantic mobilizations
are sufficient to defeat the bourgeoisie. Others put their confidence in elections, and many still believe that the solution proposed by the MAS … is the surest.”9

Without really posing the tasks involved in the seizure of power, or taking up the democratic demands of the masses (which have been left, criminally, in
the hands of the MAS), the “leftist” boasting of Solares cannot solve the question of power or achieve the organizational and political conditions for taking it. That is, it cannot develop the embryonic forms of alternative power, taking up the democratic banners of the broad masses, to be able to draw these masses beyond the most advanced contingents of the workers and poor.

It is these conditions that explain the paradox that the revolutionary days reached such heights but led only to the calling of a snap election. Undoubtedly, the Rodriguez government is much weaker in taking
office than [the ousted president] Mesa was. It has a mandate of only six months.

It is also clear that the first attempt at a bourgeois-democratic reabsorption of the revolutionary process failed with Carlos Mesa. Today, the bourgeoisie is resorting not simply to another president but to calling general elections.

In any case, we have to offer a double explanation for the second attempt to divert the process through bourgeois-democratic channels. On the one hand, there is the role of the MAS, which is today virtually the only national party in Bolivia, and which, in general terms, is seen by the masses (especially by the peasants and indigenous) as the incarnation of their

The more radical leaderships, both in the COB and Indian nationalist party of Quispe, have been unable to offer any coherent alternative to the clearly
electoralist project of the MAS. At the same time, the MAS has been able to exploit the genuine democratic sentiments of the indigenous masses, who aspire to make their numbers count, as in elections.

This is the basic explanation of the paradox we have been pointing out, and which has to be resolved in order for Bolivia to become a historic lever of class struggle. This involves the task of building a new revolutionary socialist party made up the most experienced and advanced of the present vanguard in an arduous political and strategic struggle against the dominant leaderships of the indigenous movements and the COB.

1 The recent statement of the Coordinadora del Gas, led by Oscar Olivera, who is close to the MAS.
2 La Nación, Buenos Aires, June 3, 2005.
3 That is, resorting to a regime that balances between the classes on the basis of the armed forces and police.
4 “Tres fuerzas se disputan el poder en Bolivia,” Econoticias bolivia, June 8, 2005.
5 Of course, it was not only Morales who appealed to “the method of revolutionary mobilization” but also the mass organizations in El Alto and La Paz. Morales’
tragedy is that although he is a total reformist, the imperialists still see him almost as a “Commie.”
6 Mariano Grondona in La Nación, Buenos Aires, June 12, 2005
7 “Las piezas de un rompecabezas”, Bolpress, May 27, 2005
8 An anonymous account of a young man in Santa Cruz.
9 Econoticias bolivia, June 8, 2005.

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