Bolivia: Morales heads for office

Elections show rejection of neo-liberal policies and hatred of imperialism on the Latin American continent

With 51.1% of the vote, Evo Morales, coca farmers’ leader and head of the MAS (Movement Towards Socialism) has decisively won the December 18 presidential elections and is set to become Bolivia’s first indigenous president. These elections were yet another sign of the radicalisation and move to the left of the masses of Latin America and represent just the first one of eleven important electoral contests which will take place in different countries across the continent over the next year.

In one of the poorest countries in Latin America, 85% of the population are of indigenous origin (30% Quechua, 30% Mestizos and 25% Aymara) and make up the vast chunk of the poor. Morales describes himself as a “nightmare for the US” and is under a lot of pressure from the Bolivian masses to nationalise the country’s hydrocarbons.

A defeat for neo liberalism

Long queues were reported outside polling stations in the poor areas of La Paz, El Alto and elsewhere. But the results also indicate that Morales has done well in parts of the city regarded as strongholds of his most serious and openly neo-liberal competitor, Jorge Quiroga, who admitted defeat before the polls closed. At the time of writing, it looks likely that Morales’ victory is not going to be disputed and that he is considered as the newly elected president. (According to Bolivian electoral law, a presidential candidate is considered as elected immediately if he gets more than 50% of the vote. If not, the congress [Parliament] decides on who is going to become president).

Hopes are high for Morales to take decisive action against the dominance of imperialism and neo-liberalism in poverty stricken Bolivia. However, the masses have more than once in the recent past shown their determination to resist en masse and bring down those leaders who have bowed to the demands of their imperialist masters. Mesa, Bolivia’s last president before Rodriguez took over as interim president in April 2005, says that he saw more protests than days in office. Mesa was forced to resign because he did not want to go as far as nationalising Bolivia’s gas reserves, the second largest on the continent. He was continually confronted with the impossible task of pleasing the multinationals while trying to keep the masses in check.

The question of nationalisation of the country’s hydrocarbons will be one of the key issues which will face the Morales presidency. The working class and the poor and indigenous want to see change and they will not patiently wait until it is given to them. They are prepared to rise again if Morales does not deliver.

The attitude and the mood amongst the most militant and combative sections of the working class is summed up by one of Bolivia’s famous miners who, dynamite strapped to his helmet, was quoted in the London based Observer as saying: “On 18 December we will crush the traitors who have sold our resources and lied to the people. Morales is our brother and we trust him, but he should beware of not delivering on his promises”.

An indication of the massive pressure that will be put on Morales by the masses was shown within hours of the election result. The powerful Bolivian trade union confederation, the COB, gave the new government an ultimatum that they had three months to implement their election programme, including the nationalisation of the energy resources or mass street protests will begin again. The teachers’ trade union confederation has given the government two months to increase wages by 20% and introduce a minimum wage of €700 or it will begin strikes. Even before the election, the General Secretary of the Peasants Confederation warned “If the new government changes nothing, it will have to go as well – and that can also happen to Evo”.

In fact, a joke went round during the presidential election campaign saying that the numbers given to the presidential candidates on the ballot papers correspond with the number of months they will last in office. Evo Morales was number 6.

Politics are not always as predictable as that but if there is any certainty at all, then it is the fact that from day one, Morales will be under enormous pressure both from the Bolivian masses, the capitalist institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank and from US imperialism.

Who is Evo Morales?

While Morales refers to himself as a nightmare for the US, they, in return, call him a “narco terrorist” (This stems from his roots as a leader of the coca farmers) Also, some of the press has have smeared hime with the nickname “Osama bin Laden of the Andes”. He came second in the presidential elections of 2002 and has his political roots as leader of the coca farmers. His key promises in this election campaign were the nationalisation of the gas reserves and the legalisation of coca leaf farming. Even though coca leaves are used for a variety of purposes such as the traditional and widely consumed coca tea, it will undoubtedly be used by US imperialism and others to discredit and “expose” Morales as stimulating cocaine production if this suits their agenda.

Undoubtedly, Morales has adopted radical rhetoric. He has spoken about the fact that the “people are finally in power”. He also said “MAS is looking to gain power through the ballot box, but if they [the corrupt elite] cannot guarantee the national elections there will be an armed insurrection, an uprising to liberate the people.” With regard to the IMF and World Bank he commented “If they want to support [us] they have to do it without conditions, without impositions. Let them firstly condemn the external debt because the poor have no reason to pay the debt of the corrupt ones”

On the day he secured victory, he sent a warning to Washington saying that he wanted ties with the US but not a “relationship of submission”. His radical rhetoric has caught the ear of the working class, the farmers and the poor. They have come out en masse in support of Morales and to celebrate the election victory. But Morales’s statements are often unclear and can be interpreted as suggesting that a compromise with capitalism is possible. For example he recently spoke of the fairer share he wanted the multinationals to pay to the Bolivian people.

In the past, Morales has used his position and authority as a mass leader to channel the anger of the armed uprisings of the poor into safe lanes for imperialism. At the time of the “gas war” in 2003, the insurrectionary uprising in the working class city of El Alto, Morales backed future President Mesa’s proposal for a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution as a means of finally deciding on the issue of who actually owned the country’s gas reserves. This was a clear attempt by Mesa to win time and extinguish the revolutionary nature of the uprising in order to defend in the final analysis the interests of the multinationals.

The uprising in May-June 2005, during which the working class in El Alto for a period effectively took over control and ran the city, was very significant. If this situation had spread countrywide it could have laid the basis for a struggle which could have meant the nationalisation of the hydrocarbons. Given the correct leadership this might have marked the start of breaking the chains of imperialist rule in Bolivia. The uprising had a radicalising and electrifying effect on the masses involved, including members and supporters of the MAS. While in words calling for nationalisation at the time, Morales supported the referendum which was meant to decide the future of the hydrocarbons. However, the referendum did not mention nationalisation of the hydrocarbons as an option and therefore in effect diffused the possibility of further struggle.

Militant working class traditions in Bolivia

Bolivia has been a laboratory for neo-liberal policies and privatisation since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Tens of thousands of jobs were lost when a lot of the county’s tin mines were shut down in 1985. Huge battles evolved around the question of privatisation of water and gas reserves which are referred to as the water war in 2000 which struck a victory and the gas war which developed in 2003.

Bolivia is a country of enormous contradictions. It is a typical example of the development of a country held in chains and exploited by capitalism and imperialism. It is rich in natural resources which are in the hands of foreign multinationals while the majority lives in devastating poverty. The crass inequality in Bolivia is underlined by the fact that it is the indigenous people who make up the majority of Bolivia’s population happen to be hardest hit by poverty.

The disparities in wealth as well as the crude domination of the country by US imperialism are so stark that the Bolivian masses have a rich tradition of struggle. Its huge tin mining industry laid the basis for radical and militant trade union and working class organisation. Unlike other Latin American countries, Bolivia does not have a tradition of strong guerrilla movements but of movements based on trade unions and the working class. Socialist ideas were rooted in working class peoples’ consciousness. Despite the closure of the majority of the tin mines, the COB (the Bolivian trade union federation) is still to this day one of the most powerful working class organisations which played an important role in events over the last few years.

These rich traditions of struggle are an enormous advantage. The working class and the poor masses are aware that they need to fight for what they want.

Social explosions on the agenda

The election of Morales does not open a new period of stability but demonstrates a further radicalisation of the masses on the Latin American continent. Unfortunately, Morales does not have a clear programme to break with capitalism and imperialism. This will undoubtedly leave space for attempts by US imperialism in particular to buy off Morales and to involve him in betraying the struggles of the working class and the poor masses. It is possible that Morales will try to take the road of the Brazilian president Lula who has developed into one of the most reliable allies of US imperialism on the continent. However, this will provoke massive social explosions.

At the same time, it cannot be ruled out that Morales – under pressure from below and given the depth of the social crisis – will shift further to the left and will strengthen his ties with Chavez in Venezuela and Castro in Cuba in particular.

However there are no guarantees. US imperialism is clearly worried about the developments in Latin America. They are aware of the rich traditions of struggle of the working class and the poor masses in Bolivia and will do their utmost to keep the movement in check. They will first of all try to do this by bribing Morales, using their economic power and other politicians in Latin America to put pressure on him. Confronted with the threat of losing their grip on Bolivia and potentially of Latin America as a whole, there is also a danger that US imperialism and reactionary bourgeois forces in the country will try to whip up national tensions between the East and the West of the country. There is increasing pressure for greater autonomy from the rich parasites of the Santa Cruz region which accounts for 30% output of the national economy. The outbreak of a civil war was a possibility in the aftermath of the revolutionary uprising in El Alto in 2003 and the danger is not off the cards today.

The need for a mass revolutionary party of socialism

In order to achieve the aspirations and hopes of the working class and poor and unite the masses to counter the threat of a sell-out and civil war, a strong, mass revolutionary socialist party that is rooted in the work places and communities is needed in Bolivia. This party needs to challenge, tackle and break with imperialist and capitalist rule in Bolivia and would need to start off by campaigning for the immediate nationalisation of the hydrocarbons and other key sections of the economy.

This could be the starting point of breaking the dominance of imperialism and capitalism in Bolivia which can be a trigger and an example for the whole continent towards establishing a socialist federation of Latin America.

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December 2005