Bolivian Populist Regime Goes Into Crisis

by Gerry Foley / October 2006

The government of Evo Morales in Bolivia was lifted into office in by two massive rebellions that drove two presidents from office and came to the brink of insurrections. It did not lead these uprisings but was able to benefit from them by offering itself as the only available alternative in last December’s elections.

Morales’ Party, the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), emerged as the party of the peasant coca growers who were threatened by the U.S. war on drugs. It has been a fairly typical Latin American populist party, a multi-class formation gathered around a charismatic leader.

Only nine months after it came into office as the bearer of the hopes of Bolivia’s impoverished and oppressed masses, especially the historically marginalized indigenous peoples, Morales’ government seems to have reached the sort of impasse that populist movements have repeatedly reached in Latin America, although more rapidly than most of its predecessors. It has antagonized the established economic powers without consistently mobilizing the masses of working people to combat them.

An article in the New York Times of Sept. 26 by Simon Romero began by noting the contradiction between the words and actions of the Morales government and the result that it is now in crisis: “Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera could not have been more explicit in a fiery speech last week calling on Bolivia’s indigenous groups to defend the government ‘with your chest, with your hand, with your Mauser.’

“Mr. Garcia Linera, an urbane sociologist normally known for his moderating influence, promptly apologized and said his comments had been misinterpreted. But his remarks underlined the heightening tension that is once again threatening to tip this Andean nation into turmoil.”

The MAS government is blowing hot and cold in actions as well. The hopes of the masses have been focused on the Constituent Assembly, which was inaugurated on Aug. 6.

Morales and the MAS promised that it would establish a new political, economic, and cultural order in Bolivia. But in the elections for the assembly, they failed to gain the two-thirds majority that the initial rules had stipulated was necessary to make major changes in the constitution. They got only a simple majority. Faced with the intransigence of the right, the MAS delegates tried on Sept. 1 to change the rules so that they could vote alterations with a majority only.

In response, the right, centered in the Departments (provinces) of Santa Cruz, Tarija, Pando, and Beni, the so-called Media Luna or Half Moon, the southeast fringe of Bolivia, mounted a civic strike in protest. The MAS responded by organizing its peasant base to seal off the region. And then they called the action off and apparently gave up the attempt to change the Constituent Assembly rules.

That is, the MAS delegates to the Constituent Assembly dropped the Sept. 1 resolution and passed a “temporary” one that left open the question of the rules, pending negotiations with the right.

The radical Bolivian internet news service Econoticias described the contradiction in a Sept. 25 article: “The government is demonstrating that it is incapable of stopping this siege [by the right]. Its policy is oscillating in the extreme. It goes from dialogue to greater confrontation.

“Thus, after a civic strike in the Media Luna that seems to have infuriated the government, it ordered a so-called ‘Siege of Santa Cruz,’ an action poorly organized by organizations in the orbit of MAS, as a sort of revenge. Then, Garcia Linera met with the prefects [governors of the provinces concerned], emerged embracing them, and immediately called on the Omasuyos peasants to take up arms, and then apologized for his blunder.”

In the Sept. 26 New York Times, Romero pointed out that Morales’ approval rating in the polls has fallen precipitously from 81 to 61 percent. A similar drop preceded Morales’ decision to sign an economic alliance with Cuba and Venezuela and carry out a partial nationalization of Bolivia’s oil and gas.

The semi-insurrectionary uprisings of 2003 and 2005 were in fact focused on the demand for the nationalization of the hydrocarbons. Morales’ predecessor, Carlos Mesa, was forced to adopt a law that called for a partial nationalization. Morales’ measure only revived it and strengthened it. But even that now seems to have collapsed.

Morales’ oil minister, Andres Soliz Rada, was forced to resign on Sept. 15 after the government abandoned its attempt to take over the two main oil refineries owned by the Brazilian state oil company, Petrobras (which is in fact dominated by private investors, largely imperialist capitalists).

In stepping down, Soliz Rada emitted a bitter lament that seemed to be the swan song of the hydrocarbons nationalization: “A lot of people find that the nationalization is almost perfect, with some limitations, as I noted. But they pose a condition for saying that the nationalization decree is a good one—that is, that it not be applied. If it is not applied, the nationalization decree is excellent.” That is to say, it is only nice words.

The nationalization decree had only been temporary. The actual relationship with the transnational companies was supposed to be negotiated over a three-month period. The government still has a little less than a month before the nationalization decree expires. But Soliz Rada raised the obvious question of how is the government going to get anything substantial out of the negotiations if it has already capitulated on one of the main points.

The outgoing oil minister did offer polite praises of his successor, Carlos Villegas. But the latter is known in Bolivia for negotiating the sell-out of El Mutun, which is estimated to be the biggest iron deposit in the world, to the Indian trust Jindal.

Another contradiction of the Morales government has emerged dramatically in the conflict between the miner cooperatives and the unionized miners. The vice president has offered the perspective of “Andean capitalism,” essentially a more democratic form of capitalism based on small businesses, as the hope of solving the country’s economic problems.

The privatization of the mines carried out by previous neoliberal governments created a layer of “cooperativistas,” that is, miners who contract as private entrepreneurs to do mining work. Their organization is linked to Morales’ party, the MAS.

The “cooperativistas” are now trying to take over the mines still under the aegis of the state mining company, COMIBOL, and are assaulting the positions of the miners belonging to the Bolivian Federation of Miners, historically the vanguard of the working class in Bolivia. The focus of the conflict is the Huanuni tin mine, the major tin mine in the country and a historic fortress of the working class.

Econoticias reported in a Sept. 27 article: “Opening up lists for hiring 1500 new workers and blocking roads to force new investment and provision of equipment, the Huanuni miners have begun to impose workers control on the mines and the dynamization of the state enterprise, vital links in achieving the expulsion of the transnationals and the nationalization without compensation of all our mineral resources.

“The action of mine workers is designed to put an end to the transnational mining companies’ plunder of Bolivia, which makes it possible for foreign consortiums to concentrate two-thirds of the production and export of minerals in their hands, leaving only poverty and marginalization in the center of South American. Every year, the mining companies get a little more than $500 million for the exports of raw materials, paying the state only $11 million in taxes and royalties.”

The article served as an introduction to the manifesto adopted by the Huanuni miners in the July 4 assembly, which declared: “Facing the imminent danger that the cooperativistas will invade the precincts of the enterprise, a general assembly meeting in … issues the following message to Bolivians….

“Today when prices for minerals on the world market have started to pick up again, we find our nationalized mining totally destroyed and assaulted by new bloodsuckers who are desperately trying to gain profit for themselves at the expense of depriving the country of the right to live in better conditions, with free health care, better education, living wages of the workers. Again the transnationals are eying the country’s rich mineral deposits in order to ruthlessly exploit our resources and leave us with empty holes in the country.

“For all these reasons, we Huanuni miners call on the exploited workers of the country to organize and fight for … consolidating and strengthening COMIBOL as the only nationalized mining company that takes charge of working all the country’s mineral resources so that the surplus they create will benefit the exploited of Bolivia.

“Applying effectively collective workers’ control to prevent COMIBOL from again being robbed by the state, which remains bourgeois, as well as by imperialism and Bolivian private enterprise.
“The immediate nationalization of all the mineral deposits that today are in the hands of the transnationals and Bolivian private enterprise without paying a cent or converting the state into a partner of the present usurpers of our mineral resources.

“Intransigently defending our mineral resources and the mining enterprises that are still in the hands of the state from any attempt to seize them by a layer of new rich who are increasing their fortunes by exploiting their comrades who are not lucky enough to be ‘partners.’

“All the country’s cities, work centers, universities, native American communities, etc. must become trenches in the battle to defend the nationalized mining industry, to force the government, by popular mobilizations, to carry out the objectives noted above.

“Bolivians have to understand that their destiny depends on the way today that they defend their natural resources from the predatory action of imperialism, national private enterprise, and the new rich who are emerging in the shadow of the newly rising prices for minerals.”
Econoticias reported Oct. 2 that the Huanuni miners lifted their blockade of the installations after winning promises from the government that the nationalized status of the mine would be confirmed, 1500 miners would be hired, and that the state would invest $43 million in developing the mine.

As the MAS government comes under increasing pressure from both left and right, as could be expected of such a multi-class party, there are more and more reports of internal divisions. In a Sept. 19 article, Econoticias quoted a MAS deputy to the Constituent Assembly, Raul Prada—who it said was in charge of the MAS policy toward the body until recently—as saying that Morales was the victim of a “whitish-mestizo” cabal that was responsible for paralyzing the assembly.

The service also reported that there was a conflict between the peasant Native American MAS delegates and those coming from urban areas (presumably middle class) over whether or to press for changing the rules of the Constituent Assembly so that constitutional changes can be made by majority vote.

It seems that the process of radicalization is reaching another crisis point in Bolivia that will decide whether it goes forward or is thrown back. The Bolivian working people have not yet been defeated. But if they win, it is clearly not going to be under the leadership of Morales and the MAS.

A new leadership will have to be built that can unite the oppressed and exploited and fight consistently for their interests. It is this relationship of class forces that will determine the future of Bolivia.

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