Bolivia: Workers’ and poor peoples’ uprising forces out President

Over the last weeks, a powerful movement of workers, peasants and the indigenous peoples – the poorest people in the poorest country of Latin America – has checked the neo-liberal plans of the Bolivian government and, on 17 October, forced President Gonzalo Sánchez de Losada to resign.

For the last two weeks, tens of thousands of workers and peasants have marched into the cities, including miners who carried sticks of dynamite, provoking a split in the government and, last week, Losada’s resignation. The ex-President was repellent to working people and the poor. A rich businessman, who was educated in the USA, he speaks Spanish with a US accent, earning the nicknamed ‘el gringo’.

They marched through the capital La Paz chanting, “We will not stop until he has gone.” Losada fled the Presidential palace by helicopter and went to Miami – the renowned playground for Latin America’s ruling elite. Vice-President Carlos Mesa has taken his place.

Bolivia is the poorest country in South America and suffers from abysmal social inequality. The economic catastrophe means that 5.6 million Bolivians – out of a population of 8 million – live in poverty. Every hour of every day 20 more people (8 in the countryside and 12 in the cities) plunge into conditions of ‘extreme poverty’. At the same time, luxury cars, trips to Miami and bloated salaries are the lifestyle of the big shots of the regime headed by President Gonzalo Sánchez de Losada, himself a millionaire and a boss of a mining company. They live this life while 3 million Bolivians have neither access to electricity or drinking water.

These statistics alone are reason enough for the workers, the peasants and the poor to hold huge demonstrations and to take to the streets, blocking motorways. For this, they have faced the repression of the state. Over 100 were killed during the uprising. They took to the streets to show their opposition to the government and the economic system, which has been incapable of solving unemployment and of providing land reform. Capitalism in Bolivia has allowed unlimited exploitation of the vast natural resources of the country at the hands of multinational companies. The protesters were resisting the power of the corrupt Bolivian ruling class that condemns the majority of the population to suffer a life of terrible poverty.

Despite violent police repression, the lies of the press and media and the threat of mass sackings the workers, peasants and the oppressed responded with daily mass demonstrations and barricading the motorways. The COB (Bolivian Workers’ Centre) called an indefinite general strike on 29 September. This movement lasted over two weeks, uniting all sections of the working class, peasants and small business people.

Demands of the movement

The main demands of the movement were: nationalisation of the gas industry, which the government has attempted to export to the USA, and the resignation of President Sánchez de Losada, who carried out neo-liberal policies and bowed to the interests of the multinational companies. Other demands of the strikers included the repeal of the Law of Hydrocarbons, which opened the way to privatisation (the exploitation of these resources gives fabulous wealth to the multinationals) and a programme for land reform that will also deals with the question of the coca leaf plantations. In addition to these demands, the movement called for the repeal of the Tributary Law through which the government is attacking pensions and salaries of workers to cover the fiscal deficit. The protesters also call for the repeal of Decree 21060 that allows workers to be sacked without any explanation or reason.

The government became increasingly isolated during this movement and eventually fractured. This powerful movement has forced out one President but has now given power to the former vice-President. The workers and peasants have not yet been able to decisively challenge the power of the capitalists and the landlords. It is clear that all the demands of this movement cannot be realised without challenging the rule of Bolivian capitalism.

Little or nothing is gained under capitalism

The only thing which prevented the working class taking over the running of Bolivian society was the weakness of organisation and the lack of a clear socialist objective by the leadership of the movement – the COB, CSUTCB (United Trade Union of Rural workers and Peasants of Bolivia) and the MAS (Movement for Socialism). Also, the masses have not yet embraced socialism as an alternative to the market, capitalism and landlordism.

It is necessary to unite and channel all of the demands of the movement in the struggle for socialism and the establishment for a workers’ and peasants’ government. Such a government would need to nationalise all the natural resources, the big companies (both national and multinational) and to introduce a programme of land reform under democratic workers’ control and management.

This tremendous struggle – a revolutionary process –could be dispersed if it is not urgently unified around a revolutionary socialist programme. The government was forced to resign but the ruling class remains in power and are attempting to divide the movement by negotiating with separate sections and using any sign of the movement becoming tired. Sections of peasants and workers have ended their struggle so as to “give the new government a chance”, although some sections of the COB remain on strike. The new capitalist government will not be able to resolve the social crisis facing Bolivia under capitalism. Further struggles are certain to erupt.

Unfortunately the reformist ideas of the MAS are confusing many workers. It is not possible to improve the living conditions of the masses in Bolivia by only reforming capitalism step by step. It is not possible to eventually arrive at socialism as the leaders of the MAS, like Evo Morales, say they are doing along with the other MAS MP’s. Evo Morales suggested calling in the United Nations as advisers to resolve the question of gas! Moreover, since the resignation of the former President, Morales has urged that time be given to the new government.

The idea of “Refounding” the country is being argued by sections of the Bolivian ruling class – an idea that has also been made by the MAS. This reflects the precarious situation the ruling class now finds itself in. In Santa Cruz – one of richest regions where massive oil reserves and fertile lands are found – employers and landowners are calling for a “federal” division of the country, with greater autonomy for its parts. They argue this only to protect their own class interests and to divide the workers’ and peasants’ movement.

Sections of the ruling class also seem prepared to accept the idea of calling an election to a Constituent Assembly, as a way out of the crisis. This is the position of one of the governing parties, NFR. However, it will need a revolution, and the establishment of a workers’ and peasants’ government to guarantee a genuine constituent assembly – a revolutionary constituent assembly. This would consist of representatives from the workers, peasants and indigenous peoples, and from small traders and soldiers to discuss the measures needed to resolve the main problems facing the country and to begin the socialist transformation of the country.

The working class and the general strike

The COB called the general strike to force the resignation of the President and to stop the sale of gas to the USA. But the indefinite character of the strike, and its popularity, posed the question of who holds power and who really governs society. It is not enough to call a general strike and then hope that the capitalists and the government will just fall.

It is also necessary to establish a clear plan and objectives that will result in a victory for the working class. The COB leadership did nothing to prepare for this when they called the strike.

It is essential that strike committees are elected in all areas at a local, citywide, regional and national level in order to co-ordinate the struggle and to unify the movement. These bodies could deal with issues such as the lack of basic supplies in the cities and the rural areas, to prevent vandalism and the wrecking actions of provocateurs etc

Above all, it is the working class that has the decisive role to play in this struggle. Due to its social cohesion, this class can provide leadership to other oppressed sections of society.

A programme for the army

The army was beginning to be affected by the massive social movement. Many reports warned that officers and soldiers were sympathetic to the demands of the protesters. Some even spoke of a split being threatened this week – a factor that may have hastened the resignation of the President in order to allow the ruling class to try and regain control of the situation. The movement needed to make an appeal to the rank and file of the army (mainly the soldiers) – workers and peasants in uniform – to refuse to obey orders to repress the movement. The soldiers should be invited to form their own committees and to join the strike committees. There is massive discontent within the ranks of the army and a revolutionary policy linking their problems to the movement is needed.

Most of the army come from the families of workers and peasants. Conscripts have been used as servants in the houses of the rich elite millionaires. They have been used as cheap labour to build motorways. Little surprise then that a section of the army is sympathetic to the movement. Parts of the army could be won to the side of the workers and peasant’s movement, which should give them the right to organise and form committees to begin to struggle for better conditions.

For a real revolutionary leadership to end capitalism

Without a revolutionary leadership with a Marxist programme that will unify all sections of workers, the vacillation of the present leaders can have serious consequences for the working class. The struggle cannot carry on indefinitely if the workers and peasants feel that it is not going anywhere. Tiredness and hesitation can set in. A sense of defeat and frustration will allow the ruling class to re-organise its forces and to establish ‘order and control’ over society, possibly using violence.

It is urgent that the movement adopts a programme that includes the establishment of a workers ‘and peasants’ government. This means a struggle to overthrow Sánchez Losada, to end the rule of the capitalists and landlords, to expel imperialism and to begin the socialist transformation of the country.

A revolutionary socialist victory by the workers and peasants of Bolivia would automatically give a massive boost to the confidence of the workers of Latin America, as they search for an alternative to neo-liberal policies. The workers and youth of the continent would energetically support the struggle for a socialist Latin America. Nationalist sentiment is something that the ruling class has used historically to defend its privileges and above all to divide the working class. The integration of the continent, and the ending of poverty in Latin America, is only possible in the struggle for a socialist society.

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October 2003