Bolivia Remains a Powder Keg Following the Election of Morales

by Gerry Foley / February 2006 issue of Socialist Action newspaper

The election of Evo Morales to the presidency of Bolivia on Dec. 18 aroused a flurry of disquiet in the international capitalist press. It was described as a “new step to the left in Latin America,” or even a “new step toward socialism.”

It is true that Morales’ first moves after his victory included a visit to Fidel Castro and an embrace of Venezuela’s president Hugo Chavez, the two regional bogeymen of the U.S. government and press. Moreover, Morales’ victory came in the wake of two vast upsurges
that went to the brink of insurrection and in which the leading mass organizations in the country called for the formation of a revolutionary government based on the mobilized working people.

Morales’ vote came predominately from the communities that played the leading role in the upsurges. Obviously, these voters hoped that the candidate they supported would strike blows against the imperialist powers and corporations against which their rebellion had been directed. In fact, the mobilizations were focused against the sell-out of Bolivian natural
resources, in particular oil and natural gas, to foreign capitalist trusts.

Morales did make nationalistic statements after his victory, including a pledge to end the subordination of the indigenous majority in Bolivia to the white minority. The fact that he is the first Bolivian president of indigenous ancestry is no small part of his radical image. However, the rise to high positions by politicians of indigenous backgrounds is not so new or so rare in Latin America as the capitalist press suggested. In itself, such changes in the color of the
faces of the leading politicians have never brought any substantial alteration in the tradition pattern of racial domination.

While Morales identified himself with the opposition to the imperialist offensive (neoliberalism) in Latin America, he was also quick to reassure the national and foreign capitalists. His trip to Cuba was followed quickly by a tour of Europe, including a meeting with the Spanish president, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, which had a special importance.

One of the largest, if not the largest, petroleum trust operating in Bolivia is the Spanish corporation Repsol, which absorbed the privatized Argentinian state oil company YPF. Repsol by itself is estimated to control about a fourth of Bolivia’s oil and natural gas resources. It is a company with a particularly bad reputation. Its “downsizing” of the workforce in the Argentine oil industry and its “upsizing” of the prices for petroleum products were at the origin of the massive rebellion against neoliberal policies that led ultimately to the flight of the Argentinian president in 2001.

The Bolivian radical website Econoticias reported Jan. 4: “Morales said during his meeting with the president of Spain, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, and the managements of companies such as Repsol, Iberdrola, and others that have investments in the country that
‘the Bolivian government is going to exercise its right of ownership but this does not mean
expropriating or confiscating.’ His interlocutors indicated their satisfaction with his promises.
“Morales’ promise is to carry out a symbolic nationalization, which amounts to applying with minor adjustments the present hydrocarbon law [imposed by his predecessor Carlos Mesa, who was forced to resign in June 2005 by a mass rebellion], which retains the ownership of the hydrocarbons for the Bolivian state while they remain in the ground or as they come to the surface.

Once they come one meter above the ground, into the so-called mouth of the well, all the hydrocarbons become the property of the transnationals that operate in Bolivia, which will continue to be in charge of exploration, production, sales, exports, and refining of the hydrocarbons.”

In an article dated Jan. 26, the British Economist, one of the world’s principal capitalist business publications, stressed the threat of radicalism in the Morales regime, while at the same time noting his reassurances to the capitalists: “He also called for private investment, for an ‘alliance’ against the drug trade with the United States, and hinted that he might
support an Americas free-trade accord if it helped small business.”

The Economist article focused on some ministers in Morales’ cabinet with radical backgrounds, such as the minister of hydrocarbons and water. For some reason, it overlooked ministers as important as those holding the portfolios of mining and defense, who are hardly radicals.

Morales’ appointment of Walter Villarroel as the minister of mining provoked outraged protests from the workers in the industry. Econoticias reported: “The strongest protest came from the Miners’ Federation, which organizes the wage workers in the industry. It decreed a state of emergency and a mobilization opposing the nomination. It accused Villarroel of
promoting the destruction of the state mining company (COMIBOL) and privatizing one of the world’s biggest iron deposits.

“Villarroel is a former member of the right-wing UCS. … He is the president of the Federation of Cooperative Miners [that is, miners who work as individual entrepreneurs], an organization that supported the ex-president Carlos Mesa and today is trying to cooperativize the ore deposits instead of supporting state companies and nationalizing the centers that are in the hands of the big mining companies.

“The new minister, who gained office through an electoral agreement that his sector signed with Morales, assured that during his term of office he would give priority to giving out a license for exploitation of the huge iron deposit at El Mutun, which is in the process of being handed over to the transnational companies.”

Morales’ appointment of Walker San Miguel as minister of defense, encharged with controlling the military that has repeatedly established right-wing military dictatorships, immediately touched off a scandal, forcing the president to publicly demand explanations
from his appointee.

Agence France-Presse reported Jan. 31: “Bolivian President Evo Morales today asked his minister of defense, Walter San Miguel, to clear up a series of accusations about his role in the privatization of the Bolivian state airline, the Linea Lloyd Aereo Boliviano, during the government of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada between 1993 and 1997.”

Sanchez de Lozada was forced to flee in 2003 by a mass uprising against his plans to sell off Bolivian natural gas to foreign trusts. He took refuge in the United States. The labor movement is demanding his extradiction and trial.

Even Morales’ water minister, Abel Mamani, a leader of the Federation of Neighborhood Councils in El Alto, was particularly decried by The Economist article. But Econoticias reported

that Mamani’s acceptance of the job was regarded as a betrayal by the working people of El Alto who he is supposed to represent:

“One of the appointments that drew the most criticism was that of the leader of the Federacion de Juntas Vecinales of El Alto (Fejuve), Abel Mamani, appointed minister of water. An El Alto council member, Roberto de la Cruz, said that in naming him they had spared him from being thrown out of the organization that led the popular uprising of 2003:

“‘Abel Mamani should have asked permission from the neighborhood councils to take the portfolio for water. But he didn’t, and there is discontent among the people of El Alto because of this.’

“In the same vein, Fejuve leader Jorge Chura said that Evo Morales had made a mistake in appointing Mamani as minister of water. ‘Mamani is being very much questioned; what is more, he has been disavowed by six districts. We are not against having somebody from El
Alto being named minister, but this appointment should have been discussed in an expanded meeting of the councils. Mamani used Fejuve for his personal objectives.’”

In fact, despite the fact that Fejuve formally took a position in support of forming a revolutionary government based on the mass organizations, Mamani tried to get a place on the slate of Morales’ party in the parliamentary elections.

Other ministers were rejected by various unions. The fact that The Economist ignored Morales’ right-wing appointees and the rejection of them by the mass organizations probably reflects the briefings the capitalist press is getting from imperialist government officials.

And this in turn probably reflects the pressures these governments are bringing to bear on Morales and their lack of confidence that he can control the mass movement in his country.

In fact, following his election, the COB union federation announced that it was “besieging” the new government, campaigning for it to meet demands for a real nationalization of the country’s natural resources, a breakup of the big landed estates, and an immediate increase in the minimum wage. On Jan. 27, Econoticias reported that the Morales government denied it had ever promised an increase in the minimum wage but that there was documentary evidence that his party had.

It is clear that Morales is just another populist politician in a long Latin American tradition. His objective is to keep the mass revolt against imperialist and capitalist exploitation within the bounds of the existing economic and parliamentary system. But he is facing a more dynamic and conscious mass movement than similar populist leaders in the past.

Thus Bolivia remains a powder keg, and the imperialists have good reason to be worried.
Supporters of the right of self-determination and the rights of labor have to remain alert to oppose imperialist threats to Bolivia and attempts by the capitalist press to project an image of the developments in the country designed to justify imperialist pressures and even eventually intervention.

Related Articles