Bolivia: As class tensions rise in Bolivia, so does the possibility of civil war

Need for a revolutionary socialist party clearer than ever

The level of the class struggle in Bolivia has sharply intensified in recent weeks. Conflicts around the Constituent Assembly, agrarian reform, and basic food prices have made the political situation very volatile. Evo Morales’ Movement towards Socialism (MAS) government is facing increasing pressure from both sides of the political spectrum.

Those in the social movements are becoming increasingly frustrated and angered by the shortcomings of the MAS government’s reform program while the right-wing wants to destroy the MAS government’s reform program because it is hurting them economically and for fear that the government will not be able to control the social movements and the reform movement could turn into a revolutionary movement.

The Constituent Assembly has been a key source of discontent amongst the social movements. The August 6th deadline for the Constituent Assembly has passed and, far from having approved a new constitution, there isn’t even a draft to be voted upon. Instead, the MAS government was forced to make a crucial concession to the right-wing opposition on the constitutional voting procedures in order to get Congress to extend the Constituent Assembly by four months.

Many in the MAS party’s political base are frustrated, disappointed, and/or angry at the MAS government’s failure to pass a new constitution and the compromise it made with the right-wing. Indigenous peasant organizations, who are demanding a new constitution which guarantees autonomy for indigenous communities, were particularly upset. Two powerful peasant unions, La Confederación de Pueblos Indígenas del Oriente Boliviano (CIDOB) and Consejo Nacional de Ayllus y Markas de Qullasuyu (Conamaq) have publicly rejected the compromise and declared the Constituent Assembly dead.

This has had the positive effect of forcing some in the MAS party to publicly acknowledge their reliance on the social movements in overcoming the right-wing opposition to make fundamental changes. Undoubtedly, however, many of the more radical and frustrated grass-roots activists in the MAS party as well as the some of the more radical supporting campesino federations and trade unions will see this as a wake up call to begin mobilizing the social movements around a radical platform which calls for a deepening of the social revolution which the MAS party asserts is already in process.

Severe increases on basic food prices are also bringing pressure upon the MAS government from its bases in the social movements. In recent weeks, the prices of bread, beef, chicken, dairy products, and most fruits and vegetables have all risen dramatically and the price of public transportation will also go up in the near future. This has sparked a rise in the general inflation rate which approached 7% in July, surpassing even pessimistic predictions. This wiped out the government-mandated 5% wage increase for all workers which took effect early August.

According to official statistics, 60% of the Bolivian population is poor and 33% are extremely poor. 60% of Bolivian homes officially don’t have enough money to meet their family’s basic nutritional requirements. The poor majority does not have extra money to offset the rise in prices; if they go up, the majority in Bolivia eats less. The MAS party’s poor working class, peasant and indigenous base are becoming increasingly frustrated at the economic difficulties which the MAS reforms have not been able to resolve.

Aggressive Attacks from Bolivia’s Right-Wing Opposition

The most intense pressure on the MAS government is coming from the right-wing opposition, which is made up of the business and large-landowning elite, with the support of U.S. imperialism. It scored an important victory over the MAS party by preventing the Constituent Assembly from completing its work by the August 6th deadline. In the compromise to extend the Constituent Assembly by four months, it forced the MAS-controlled Congress to concede that each new article be approved by a 2/3 majority, which has been the key dispute in the Constituent Assembly from the beginning.

Some right-wing organizations and political parties are flatly rejecting the extension of the Constituent Assembly, calling it illegal and saying that the old constitution should be respected. A full page ad endorsed by many important right-wing organizations stated, "The current constitution is much better than any possible result from a Constituent Assembly illegally prolonged. Defend it!" saying later that they have "assumed the task of defending democracy, liberty, private property…" (Los Tiempos, 29 June 2007)

Jose "Tuto" Quiroga, head of the main right-wing party in Bolivia, Democratic Social Power (Podemos), has said that even a constitution approved by 2/3 of the Constituent Assembly should still have to be approved by a majority in each one of Bolivia’s nine states. If this does not occur, he says, "The people are going to call for and say: secession. We are separating. We are dividing." This is not just inflated rhetoric either. There is a very real possibility that a secession movement in Bolivia could emerge which could end in a civil war and/or dictatorship.

The opposition to the Constituent Assembly is just one aspect of a broader right-wing campaign to destabilize the MAS government and weaken the social movements which are putting the Bolivian ruling class’ economic interests at risk. There is a very powerful autonomy movement in the four eastern states of Bolivia known as the "Media Luna" (Half Moon). These states contain the vast majority of Bolivia’s oil reserves, they produce most of its agricultural goods, and they are more industrialized than Bolivia’s western states.

Although the MAS government enjoys a solid majority on a national level, the right-wing enjoys a considerable majority in the "Media Luna" states. This is especially true with regards to the autonomy issue which was rejected overwhelmingly in a national referendum in July 2006, 62% against and 38% in favor, but which was supported by the overwhelming majority in the Media Luna states, by 69.5% of the population.

If the Media Luna succeeds in their bid for autonomy, it would insulate much of Bolivia’s economic elite and large landowners from Morales’ economic reforms. But the chance for an outright victory for the autonomy movement is small owing to the MAS government’s solid majority on a national level. Nonetheless, the movement has been used to build a very organized and mobilized right-wing opposition in the Media Luna states which could ultimately be transformed into a secession movement.

Leading the autonomy movement is Santa Cruz governor, Rubén Costas, and the Pro-Santa Cruz Civic Committee, which is funded by big business and large landowners but has widespread support in the middle and upper class as a whole. There is also an organized right-wing youth group, the Cruz Youth, which serves as the opposition’s fighting force at times causing demonstrations to turn violent. It recently put out a call to arms in response to Morales’ announcement that indigenous organizations would be taking part in the annual August 7th Military Parade saying that it was tantamount to a foreign invasion. The military parade occurred without incident, but the thought of an armed right-wing youth organization in Santa Cruz hangs heavy in the consciousness of those in the social movements.

Bolivia’s large landowners are another powerful force in the right-wing opposition. Recently, the MAS party began executing its agrarian reform program. In early August, it announced it was expropriating 600,000 hectares of unused land from the agro-industry (large landowners) and distributing them to indigenous communities. In response, the large landowners have announced the formation of "committees of resistance" and industry leaders have said they are prepared to use force to protect illegal expropriations of their property, "The quantity of force used will be proportional to the aggression we receive…we have the obligation and responsibility to protect ourselves" (La Prensa, 5 August 2007). Morales has responded by saying he will use the military to enforce the agrarian reform.

Lastly, the influence of U.S. imperialism plays an important role in right-wing opposition. U.S. ambassador, Philip Goldberg is coming to Bolivia fresh off a stint in the Kosovo where he oversaw the division Balkan states and the spiral of Yugoslavia into civil war. Decentralization and autonomy movements were the civil war’s predecessors. Within three months of his arrival, the Media Luna became noticeably more aggressive in its attacks on the MAS government.

Reformism: a Risky Business in Bolivia

Morales’ MAS government has put in motion a very radical reform program by today’s standards. Following the example of Hugo Chavez’ Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela, it has carried out a very well publicized program of partial nationalizations and land reform. Morales has succeed in swelling the government coffers by aggressively renegotiating the contracts with the transnational oil contracts from the 18% they paid in 2003 and 50% they paid in 2005, to the 82% they now pay. Because of high oil prices and the higher taxes, hydrocarbon industry income in Bolivia has increased more than fives! In 2005, oil income was $300 million USD. In 2007 it was $1.6 billion USD.

This money has allowed the MAS government to carry out many of its social programs which have benefited workers, peasants, indigenous, and poor people. Showing the perverted nature of the capitalist system, this influx of money has also contributed largely to the rise in the inflation rate. With so much new money flooding the Bolivian economy, the value of the money drops and the capitalist class pushes this loss onto the consumer. When we are dealing with basic foodstuffs and public transportation, this means the workers and peasants.

While pushing forward with its aggressive reform program, Morales and the MAS government have also done their best to assure the middle class and less hostile sectors of the capitalist class in Bolivia that they were not going to go too far with the reforms.

Vice president Alvaro Garcia Linera, who was imprisoned for some years during the dictatorships, is an important Bolivian theoretician of a reformist political philosophy which argues that the first task in Bolivia is to build Bolivian capitalism and then after about 30 years socialism will be possible.

As we are seeing now in the real life Bolivian struggle, this means that the Bolivian capitalist class will align itself with the needs of the international capitalist class and act as a domestic opposition force against all changes which benefit the working class, peasant, indigenous, and poor majority.

It also means that the social movements will mobilize to defend themselves against the right wing opposition and fight for their demands in the struggle on the streets. Now that the MAS party controls the government, the social movements are correctly demanding that the MAS party carry out their demands. However, being that most of the economy is still controlled by the capitalist opposition, and being that the capitalist class still sucks out a large portion of the profits created by the workers and campesinos, the MAS government is actually very limited in what it can concretely concede to the workers and peasants.

The social movements in Bolivia need a revolutionary socialist leadership

Trotsky said in The Transitional Program, "If capitalism is incapable of satisfying the demands inevitably arising from the calamities generated by itself, then let it perish. Realizability or unrealizability is…a question of the relationship of forces, which can be decided only by the struggle." Right now, relationship of forces is very beneficial to the Bolivian working class and peasantry. With a conscious, revolutionary socialist leadership to prepare and lead the masses into struggle, the workers and peasants of Bolivia could overthrow capitalism and create a socialist economy to address the basic needs of the poor majority.

The MAS government has not done anything to organize, raise the consciousness of, and lead the social movements towards the victory over the right wing opposition that they are clearly capable of winning. It has not assisted in organizing them into democratically run committees of struggle, much less begun the process of linking these committees democratically on a state, region, and national level as well.

This is in spite of the fact that their influence in the social movements is still very high. Last July 20th, the MAS government in La Paz, organized the largest demonstration in Bolivian history of 1.5-2 million (out of a population of under 10 million) to counter attempts by right-wing constituent assemblypersons to move the capital to Sucre (which is not in the "Media Luna" but the conflict has further served to derail the Constituent Assembly).

The demonstration actually took place in the neighboring city of El Alto where the MAS party has more than 80% support. These same El Alto residents were the dominating force in the Gas Wars which kicked out two neoliberal presidents. A revolutionary socialist party is needed to turn this militant, radical population into a revolutionary socialist population which would be the key force in overthrowing capitalism in Bolivia and creating a democratic socialist government and economy.

Instead of promoting the revolutionary development of the social movements, the limitations of the MAS government’s reformist program has forced it to have to actively work to demobilize the social movements. In some cases the government has even used the military to repress sectors which are making demands they are not able to fulfill or which do not fit within their long-term timeframe for change.

This puts both the social movements and the MAS government in a very dangerous position. By weakening the social movements, the MAS government is weakening the only force which is capable of protecting it from right-wing opposition. At the same time, the government needs to press forward with the reforms which are angering the opposition because they need to make the reforms to maintain even the least bit of support from their peasant and worker base.

The possibility of civil war in Bolivia in the upcoming months is very real. Being that a significant 20% indigenous minority (570,000 people) lives in the Media Luna, a civil war could bring with it a campaign of ethnic cleansing and forced relocations. The fact that the military is still controlled in large part by the same old guard and the possibility that the wealthy eastern states could convince a number of military officials to break with the national government makes the possibility of a military dictatorship in Bolivia very real as well.

The key task of the social movements in Bolivia right now is to begin the process of organizing themselves into democratically run defense committees and then link these committees up democratically on a state, regional, and national level. It must also democratize the military, giving soldiers and the Bolivian people the right to elect and immediately recall all military officials. These officials should also be paid the average salary of a rank and file soldier and their private finances strictly supervised by the public.

The beginning stages of carrying out this task will have to be done by small revolutionary socialist organizations with a correct socialist analysis of concrete events and a principled orientation to the masses.

The Bolivian revolution has been at a crossroads for some time now, balancing the left wing forces of the social movements with the right-wing capitalist opposition. Pre-revolutionary situations never last for very long, especially when the political and economic conditions are as volatile as they are in Bolivia. In the next period, there is a very good possibility that we will see the balancing act crumble and a new, more revolutionary, movement emerge or a period of intense conflict and the possible emergence of a civil war and/or a right-wing dictatorship. In order to defeat the threat of counter revolution and take the struggle forward to victory it is necessary to struggle not only to defend the reforms of the Morales government but to link this with a fight for a workers’ and peasants’ government with a revolutionary socialist programme to overthrow capitalism.

The CWI members in Bolivia, Revolutionary Socialist Alternative (CWI-Bolivia) has laid a small part of this foundation through its work in Cochabamba, Bolivia.

When people linked to the right wing prefect hired thugs to attack and intimidate activists in city’s central plaza, the Revolutionary Socialist Alternative was the key force in building the People’s Plaza Defense Committee. Our small size prevented us from making full use of the opportunities at hand, but we succeed in organizing four predominantly youth revolutionary organizations into a temporary defense committee which successfully organized a small demonstration to "retake the plaza" and brought national attention to the right-wing attacks in the plaza. The prefect himself, Manfred Reyes Villa (who was chief of police during the Banzer dictatorship when massacres occurred) called the People’s Plaza Defense Committee and the CWI-Bolivia two of the city’s most dangerous organizations.

We are also working to spread revolutionary socialist ideas by putting out the information panel in Cochabamba’s central plaza. On a daily basis, hundreds of people stop to the daily news for free along with a detailed revolutionary socialist analysis of events.

We are young, mostly student/worker activists with very little economic means. We will need to count on the international solidarity of socialists throughout the world, especially in European countries and the U.S., to provide financial support so we can turn the revolutionary socialist potential of the movements in Latin America into a revolutionary socialist movement.

Keep your eyes open for an International Solidarity Appeal to those who want to support the very inspiring socialist movements in Latin America.

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