Bolivia: The Cockpit of the Radicalization in Latin America

by Gerry Foley / July 2006 issue of Socialist Action newspaper

The government of Evo Morales suffered serious setbacks in the elections for the Constituent Assemblies and in the referenda on autonomy held in the country’s nine departments. (In Bolivia, a department corresponds to what are often called “provinces” in other countries. The “provinces” in Bolivia are smaller subdivisions).

In the Constituent Assembly elections, Morales’ party, the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), got 135 out of the total of 255 seats in the Assembly, or a bare majority, not enough to make any major changes in the constitution. Morales had said that he expected a vote of more than 70 percent, as he had a right to expect given his approval ratings of over 70 percent in public opinion polls.

Instead, the MAS got about 51 percent. The result was a glaring contradiction and indicates either that the type of approval he is getting is superficial or that those who generally approve of him were not sufficiently motivated to vote.

Autonomy was rejected in the five highland departments in which the MAS (and the left historically) enjoy a large majority. But it passed overwhelmingly in the departments of Santa Cruz and Tarija in the southeast, as well as in the other southeastern departments of Beni and Pando. These are regions dominated by a right-wing, white land-owning oligarchy, which is seeking means to defend itself against the left and indigenous majorities in the highlands.

This is also the area in which the great bulk of the oil, natural gas, and other natural resources that constitute the main potential wealth of the country are concentrated. In this region, the oligarchy has threatened outright separation from Bolivia if the national government harms its interests.

In the Constituent Assembly elections, although gaining a slim majority of the popular vote, the MAS far outdistanced its nearest rivals. In the referenda on autonomy, nationwide, the “no” vote was 56 percent. That enabled the MAS and Morales to claim that they won both elections. But in reality they were denied any effective mandate in the Constitutent Assembly vote while the right wing strengthened its hold on vital departments.

Thus, the “victories” were Pyrrhic—that is, in reality, defeats. In Santa Cruz, the MAS actually slightly outdistanced Podemos, its major opponent in the popular vote. In that department also, MAS and Podemos got the same number of Constituent Assembly seats. But the “yes” vote on autonomy in that key department was 78 percent.

The path to both of these defeats was paved by Morales and the MAS itself. Morales waffled on the question of autonomy and only came out clearly against it at the end of the campaign. Immediately after his election in December, for example, he went to Santa Cruz, addressed the local oligarchy’s main club, and praised them for raising the proposition of autonomy. He now pledges to respect the mandate for autonomy that the oligarchy won.

In the case of the Constituent Assembly, Morales’ promises that it would “refound” Bolivia obviously did not electrify the masses. The Bolivia press commented before the election that there was general apathy.

In that respect, the promise by the vice president, Alvaro Linera, that the Constituent Assembly would only change 20 percent of the constitution certainly did not strengthen its appeal to the masses. It meant that the MAS intended to keep an essentially bourgeois constitution and thus would not fundamentally change the situation of the poor and oppressed.

In the wake of the July 2 elections, the right-wing parties are declaring that they accept that the MAS is the majority party in the country but emphasize that it does not have a sufficient mandate to impose its own program and therefore must rule by “consensus”—in other words, not implement any reforms that would seriously harm the interests of the capitalists and the landlords. That tightens the trap into which Morales has stepped.

On the other hand, having gained the presidency of Bolivia and a tenuous majority in national parliament on the back of three near insurrections in the past four years, Evo Morales is obviously under pressure to meet the material demands of the Bolivian masses.

For example, when he delayed in making good on his promise to nationalize the oil and natural gas fields, his approval rating dropped by 12 points in a matter of weeks. It is also clear that he and his government are trying to stay within the limits of the capitalist system.

When Morales finally nationalized the hydrocarbons, the nationalization was of an extremely limited type. It fell far short of the nationalization of the natural resources that followed the revolution of 1952 and that was liquidated by the privatizations of the 1990s. It did not go beyond the state control on foreign oil companies imposed by conservative oil-producing countries (like Saudi Arabia) that are bastions of world capitalism.

It did, however, substantially increase the Bolivian share of the profits from the previous pittance. That was welcomed by the Bolivian people and deplored by the oil companies. The latter are now pressuring the Bolivian government to cut even their modest losses. It is far from clear how much Bolivia will gain from the final settlement.

One of the most pressing demands Morales faces comes from the peasant movement, in particular since his party, the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), is mainly based on the peasantry. The second of the major reforms offered by Morale is a response to the demand from land from peasants who have little or none.

However, in this area also, the Morales reform is quite limited. It calls for the distribution of 2.2 million hectares of state-owned land to peasants and small holders, without touching the 25 million hectares owned by 100 big land-owning families. (By comparison, 2 million peasants hold only 5 million hectares.)

Moreover, the government has responded to the fears of the landowners that these meager land grants will encourage the peasants to seize more land by insisting that it will repress any land occupations.

El Mundo, the main paper of Santa Cruz province, where the most desirable available land is concentrated, reported June 8: “With respect to the seizure of land by peasants and presumed activists of the MAS, the authority [INRA, the agrarian reform agency] reiterated that it would not permit such illegal practice, ‘regardless of where it comes from, either in the east, the highlands, or the valleys.’”

What this means was made clear on June 13 when the police attacked peasants in the highland region of Oruro who were occupying land and blocking roads to press their demands. The Bolivian radical website Econoticias reported: “Bolivian police forces this Tuesday attacked landless peasants, beating up the leaders and clearing the highland highway. Three persons were arrested, including the main leader of the Movimiento Sin Tierra, Angel Duran, who was jailed.

According to El Mundo (June 15), “Reports from the city of Oruro, where a landless peasant was shot to death on Friday, recount that yesterday evening, dozens of police dispersed the peasants and local people with teargas.” One of the peasant leaders arrested was Felipe Morales, a first cousin of the president. Duran was later charged with “sedition” and advocacy of “armed rebellion.”

The daily El Diario, published in the capital city of La Paz, reported June 8 that joint action of the police and military were planned to prevent land seizures and conflicts over land. It noted that the intervention of the army would be necessary because of the inadequacy of the police.

In addition to their fear that Morales’ land reform would uncontrollably arouse the land appetites of the peasants, the landlords were worried by its proposal to distribute land illegally acquired by rural bosses and “unproductive” land. The latter two categories are subject to different definitions, notably by the landlords and the land-hungry peasants, and also by the MAS government, which accuses a number of rightist politicians and rural strongmen of having illegally acquired land under previous neoliberal governments.

The question is complicated by the fact that most of the available land is in the southeastern provinces of Santa Cruz and Tarija, which are controlled by the rightist opposition. The right wing got a large majority of the vote in those two lowland provinces in the December elections. Morales was put in office on the basis of the high vote he and the MAS got in the highlands.

Although Santa Cruz contains a number of strategically situated forest Indian communities, the population is largely of European origin and culture. (In fact, many of the landowners are German and East European refugees from the fall of Hitler’s empire.) The landless peasants largely are indigenous people living in the more populated highlands, where the revolutionary tradition of the country has been centered, mainly among the miners and in the working-class areas.

In addition to the conflict between the landowners and the peasants in general, there is also a division between the local peasants in Santa Cruz and newcomers from the highlands.

El Mundo reported June 14: “In the early hours of this Tuesday, the Federacion de Trabajadores Campesinas de Santa Cruz [Santa Cruz Rural Workers’ Confederation] opened its lists to sign up rural workers so that they will get ‘a piece of land’ in the department [province] before migrants from the interior, the executive secretary of this organization … noted: He also said, by way of denunciation, that the government party … already has lists that provide from a massive immigration from the west to occupy land in Santa Cruz.”

The Santa Cruz landlords have organized their own armed gangs to defend lands that they claim against peasant occupations. Despite the government’s assurances, they do not trust Morales’ ability to repress peasant occupations. And in this respect, they have reason to fear. The previous national upsurges in 2003 and 2005 came to the brink of shattering the armed forces.

And the MAS is essentially a peasant-based party. Morales is unlikely to be able to use the army and police consistently or on a large scale to repress the peasant movement. In fact, the Mexico City daily La Jornada reported June 24 that Morales has pledged not to repress social protests. And the peasant movement itself is apparently not ready to subordinate itself to the MAS and its government.

La Jornada reported June 14, “The Movimiento de los sin Tierra [MST, Landless Movement] decided to give President Morales’ to the end of the month to proceed in distributing the state-owned lands. Otherwise, they will initiate a series of mass land occupations.

“The MST is also demanding that the handover of the land be accompanied with plans for community development and the granting of titles for the lands occupied by the MST throughout the country. Another demand is for the freeing of the indigenous people who have been imprisoned just for fighting for a piece of land.”

Morales is obviously caught between two fires. His statements and gestures have been more radical than his concrete actions. Recently, he has accused the U.S. of smuggling in intelligence agents disguised as students and tourists. The U.S. is no more likely than the landlords to trust Morales.

In its June 23 issue, the Bolivian daily La Razon noted an article in the Miami Herald that had given an account of a report presented to the U.S. administration by the Latin America USAID director for Latin America, Adolfo Franco: “According to the article, Franco said that ‘Evo Morales and his Movimiento al Socialismo have constantly vacillated in their economic policy, the fight against drugs, and their attitude to democracy.’

“The functionary suggested that ‘the patience of the White House is beginning to be exhausted,’ although various U.S. authorities have declared that they continue to intend to establish dialogue with ‘the Aymara indigenous leader.’”

The article said that the U.S. feared that Morales would use the constituent assembly that is about to be elected to impose an “antidemocratic” constitution modeled on the Bolivarian Constitution of Venezuela. It is, of course, reactionary propaganda to call the Venezuelan constitution “antidemocratic.” It is the most democratic of bourgeois constitutions. But it does offer a lot of rights to working people that go against the grain of the U.S. imperialists and their Latin American clients.

However, if the U.S. rulers have decided that they want to move against Morales’ regime, they have much more deadly instruments at their command than a few intelligence agents that they might smuggle in as tourists or students. They have the rightist oligarchs of the southeast in their pocket, the threat of Santa Cruz separatism, and troops in neighboring Paraguay.

They also have the threat of not renewing the current trade treaty with Bolivia, which is worth $300 million to the country, almost equal to the Bolivian state’s income from hydrocarbons before the partial nationalization. Bolivian Vice President Alvaro Linera was scheduled to visit the U.S. in the last week of June to negotiate a renewal of the treaty.

If the U.S. rulers have decided to mount an attack on the Morales government, it will soon be revealed by large events. If that happens, it will be important to mobilize the masses in Bolivia and throughout Latin America against it, as well as to arouse world public opinion. But that can be done more effectively if Morales goes beyond words and actually moves to meet the demands of Bolivian working people—taking actions that inspire active mass support.

Unfortunately, Morales has weakened his position relative to the oligarchy in Santa Cruz by taking a vacillating position on the autonomy referendum that they are pushing in order to gain weapons against a central government that they suspect will go against their interests.

According to Morales’ statement reported in the La Jornada article of June 24 mentioned above, it seems that he has begun to become alarmed at the machinations of the Santa Cruz strongmen. But he previously tried to accommodate them.

In the meantime, how much maneuvering room Morales has depends to a large extent on the result of his campaign to win control of the country’s major trade unions and mass organizations. He needs to be able to control the mass organizations to keep them from going beyond the limits he clearly wants to maintain.

During the runup to the July 2 elections, a battle was fought for control of the Confederacion Obrera Boliviana (COB), the country’s national trade-union confederation, which had called for the rejection of bourgeois parliamentarianism and the establishment of a government based directly on the mobilized masses.

With the support of the state institutions, MAS supporters sought to wrest control from the left. It appears, however, that they failed at least to win a decisive victory.

Econoticias said that they won “halfway” control and that the new chair of the organization, Pedro Montes, “a former Trotskyist,” was a sympathizer of the MAS. However, both Montes and the COB as a whole rejected the Constituent Assembly elections as a deception, a clear defiance of Morales and the MAS leadership.

Prior to this fight, the MAS failed to win control of the La Paz teachers’ union, another union that supported the demand for a people’s assembly. The union continues to be led by a Trotskyist party, the Partido Obrero Revolucionario.

The political situation in Bolivia thus remains very volatile. Overall, the country is a laboratory for tactics and strategies to take the radicalization that has arisen in Latin America in the last decade beyond populism and toward socialist revolution. If there were a major advance in this direction even in this small and landlocked country, it could change the history of the world.
The stakes are very high and rapidly rising. It is likely that the mass movement will overstep Morales’ limits. But it is unlikely that a socialist revolution can be achieved by backing into it. Such a process needs to be led. Without consistent leadership it risks falling victim to a counterrevolutionary onslaught from imperialism and its local clients.

There are revolutionary nuclei in Bolivia, and there is an extensive social vanguard that emerged in the near insurrections of 2003 and 2005. These forces are now being tested.

The revolutionary party that is needed could emerge very quickly. But that depends on both the consistency and the tactical flexibility of the present nuclei, on their ability to base themselves on the mass movements without subordinating themselves to Morales and his heterogeneous peasant party, the MAS.