Bolivia: Bolivian Politics Heating Up Once Again

Right-wing opposition to left-leaning Bolivian president, Evo Morales, and his governing party, Movement towards Socialism (MAS), has increased dramatically in the last week as potential conflicts that have been brewing for months have recently come to a boil.

Two issues in particular have sparked opposition from the Bolivian right. One concerns a vote in the Constituent Assembly (elected to rewrite Bolivia’s constitution) which allows each article of the new constitution to be approved by a simple majority instead of the two-thirds majority called for by the current constitution. Since Morales’ MAS party won 54% of the assembly seats, this gives them the power to unilaterally write each article of the new constitution, although the final draft must still be approved by a two-thirds majority.

Also provoking resistance are modifications to Bolivia’s agrarian reform law (INRA), the most controversial of which would allow the Bolivian government to expropriate land that is not fulfilling an economic, productive, or social function and distribute it to indigenous groups. These modifications passed through the MAS-controlled House of Representatives last week, but still have to pass the Senate which is controlled by the neoliberal Social Democratic Power party (Podemos).

Although these changes were legal and modest compared to the demands of the social movements which swept Morales into power less than a year ago, the response of the Bolivian right has been enormous. In recent days:

Neoliberal Senators from Podemos and the National Unity party (UN), who hold a slim majority, are refusing to open the next senatorial session, a move which would bring all government business to a virtual standstill.

Six out of Bolivia’s nine department prefects (equivalent to state governors) have officially broken off all ties with Morales’ government and have called for a national meeting to be held in Cochabamba, “to debate the dangers to democracy that exist in Bolivia and to defend the institutionalism, the law, and unity of Bolivia” (Los Tiempos, 11/19/2006)..

Seven UN assembly persons have gone on hunger strike, taking out full page adds in Bolivia’s major newspapers calling on people to join them.

Podemos is supporting the hunger strike and has said it will register a formal complaint with the Organization of American States and the European Union.

Leaders of Bolivia’s agro-industry have declared a state of emergency, called for demonstrations, and are threatening to stop sending goods to the Western half of the country if the agrarian reforms are passed.

The opposition is painting Morales as a grave threat to Bolivian democracy. The Podemos party has said it will, “…resort to regional, judicial, and international measures so that [Morales and MAS] cannot threaten our democracy and to preserve unity” (Los Tiempos, 11/21/2006). The UN party has taken out ads in newspapers, warning people that “Our rights, our children’s rights, our property at risk” (Los Tiempos, 11/19/2006). And Bolivia’s large landowners have promised a “hard battle” to fight “the totalitarian actions of the governing party” (Los Tiempos, 11/17/2006).

Morales has issued stern responses to those opposing the change to the Constituent Assembly voting procedures, saying “…they can say what they want to say and do what they want to do to oppose the Assembly, the absolute majority will stand….and by August 6, 2007, you can count on a new constitution…with or without…the opposition” (Los Tiempos, 11/21/2006).

Meanwhile, for the past several weeks, thousands of peasants and indigenous people have been marching from Santa Cruz to La Paz (851 km/528 miles) picking up people along the way, saying they will shut the Senate down if it does not approve the modifications. Morales has so far lent his tacit support, saying that “If some people, like before…do not want to change the law, the people will rise up to modify the rule by force so that it benefits the majority” (Los Tiempos, 11/17/2006).

While nobody can be sure exactly how these events will unfold, it is clear that Morales’ governing strategy to date—his attempts to pacify the transnationals and Bolivian elite on the one hand and the social movements made up peasant, indigenous, and worker organizations on the other hand is in reality trying to reconcilable the irreconcilable, by attempting to get the revolutionary mass movement to cohabit with the forces of reaction. In doing so he is allowing the most reactionary forces in society the ability to organize and prepare themselves to strike against the working class.

When Bolivia’s social movements kicked out two neoliberal presidents, in 2003 and 2005 respectively, and forced the election which brought Morales to power, they had three key demands: 1) Nationalize the hydrocarbon industry so the Bolivian people can benefit from their most valuable natural resource, 2) Convene a Constituent Assembly so that the Bolivian people can write a constitution that benefits the majority, and 3) Abolish the latifundios (large estates) and distribute the land to the indigenous peasantry so the indigenous majority (62% of Bolivia’s total population) can benefit from Bolivia’s immense natural resources.

So far, Morales has taken half steps in carrying out all three demands. Instead of nationalizing the hydrocarbon industry, he created joint ventures with the transnational oil companies, giving the Bolivian people control of their oil on paper and forcing the oil companies to pay higher royalties. But it does not give Bolivian people the real control needed to industrialize the Bolivian oil company so they can sell expensive refined oil directly to other countries instead of the cheap raw material to transnationals.

Morales has convened a Constituent Assembly and fought to ensure that each article be approved by a simple majority, but by accepting that the final draft be passed by a two-thirds majority, the MAS majority has effectively handed control over to a one-third minority who will never support the radical changes demanded by the majority.

The modifications to the agrarian reform will begin to address the most heinous injustices caused by the latifundio system—speculation on fertile land while huge sections of the population suffer without land, food, and work—but it will do almost nothing to end Bolivia’s deeply ingrained latifundio system, in which 90% of the population owns only 7% of the cultivatable land. In fact, even in spite of their recent threats, Morales has still tried to appease large landowners, saying “productive land will have legal protection” and “…will never be taken” (Los Tiempos, 11/19/2006).

The events of the past week have revealed a truth that Bolivia’s social movements have long known, but that Morales’ government seems determined to ignore: the interests of transnational corporations and the Bolivian elite are diametrically opposed to the interests of Bolivia’s vast majority peasant, worker, and indigenous population.

Those who have enriched themselves during the past twenty years by selling off Bolivia’s national industries and natural resources at criminally low prices, and the transnational corporations who have benefited from this corruption, will protect their interests at all costs: including political and economic sabotage and military intervention.

As long as the social movements allow Morales to channel their radical demands into half-hearted parliamentary reforms, the right-wing opposition will step up its attempt to reorganize and try to crush the Morales administration. The rich elite is terrified of the working class and poor peasantry who stand behind Morales and this is why they are determined to destroy the MAS administration. Through their attempts at sabotage they hope that the Bolivian masses will become demoralized and that they can sow divisions amongst the population. The tiny Bolivian elite in connection with a handful of transnationals still control the Bolivian economy. And the military hierarchy which just a couple years ago was murdering Bolivian protesters by the dozens still has control over significant portions of the military.

While the Bolivian elite have been severely weakened by a series of defeats at the hands of Bolivia’s social movements, its forces and ability to act is still intact. U.S. imperialism’s ability to intervene in the region has also been seriously hampered by the quagmire in Iraq and the rapid spread of the anti-neoliberal struggle throughout Latin America as a whole. Any attempt at foreign military intervention would carry with it the risk of sparking a region-wide explosion of protest which could lead in a revolutionary direction. However, this is not the only possibility – US imperialism can attempt a proxy intervention in the form of the right-wing parties and their paramilitary gangs in the country. It is also possible that when the Bolivian elite are confident enough, they will attempt to foment the break-up of Bolivia and in the process this could lead to a civil war. As far as the right-wing opposition parties are concerned this would have the aim of crushing the Bolivian masses, opening the way to repressive rule and brutal neoliberal policies.

It is true that the social movements have never been more confident of their power to change society through organized struggle. But this favorable balance of power will not last forever.

Urgent steps need to be taken now to defend the gains of the previous revolutionary struggles. In the six provinces whose governors have broken links with the central administration, it is vital that the social movements and trade unions organize committees of action to defend the reforms that have been won so far. These committees should be elected democratically in every workplace, town and on a regional level, drawing on the best activists from the factories, social movements, schools and colleges. They should be the first step to spreading such committees throughout the country. The demands of these committees should be:

  • For opposition to the right-wing oppositions attempts to sabotage the reforms so far.
  • For the maintenance of the unity of Bolivia and no to the threat of civil war.
  • For the takeover and occupation of the factories and the land of the big farmers as the first step towards genuine nationalization of the economy under the democratic control and management of the working class.
  • For the convening of a genuine revolutionary constituent assembly of the Bolivian masses to draw up a democratic constitution for the creation of a socialist Bolivia as a first step towards a socialist confederation of Latin American states.

Such a development could act as the focus to take the mass struggle to a new level, using regional and national political general strikes to push home their demands. Such a movement should demand that Morales arm the people in the face of the danger of the paramilitary groups and for the self-defence of the majority of the population. It would also make clear to the MAS government that either it calls for a decisive break with capitalism or the masses themselves would carry out this task.

Without a socialist revolution to take the economic and military power from the hands of the capitalist class then all gains won through struggle are only temporary and will be under constant attack until they are eventually lost.

As the events of the past week show, the Bolivian elite will not tolerate even modest threats to their power. The need for a revolutionary socialist organization that can identify and link the demands of the social movements with the need for socialist revolution—and one that can link the struggle in Bolivia with the struggle throughout all of Latin America—has never been greater.

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November 2006