Bolivia: Worker and peasant poor majority suffers as food prices rise

Food production and distribution should be controlled democratically by the worker and peasant majority, not by the right-wing opposition

Parliamentary brawls, lockouts, and violent attacks on Constituent Assembly members make international headlines, and the right-wing opposition in Bolivia has been making a lot of headlines recently. But since mid-July, the wealthy business elite and large landowners who make up the right-wing opposition have been attacking the peasant, indigenous, and worker majority in a way that causes more suffering and kills more people than all the brawls, lockouts, and violent attacks combined: by raising food prices.

Since mid-July, the prices of bread, beef, chicken, all dairy products, and most fruits and vegetables have risen dramatically in most departments in Bolivia. In Cochabamba, for example, the price of bread has risen 65%-100%. In La Paz, the price of both beef and milk has risen 4 bolivianos/kilo ($0.50 USD). This has caused an increase in the general inflation rate which rose 7% in July, exceeding even pessimistic predictions.

Bread producers and agro-industry leaders blame the increases on a rise in international wheat and grain prices and on floods during the rainy season which destroyed many crops, killed thousands of livestock, and created a shortage.

This is partially true on the surface, but does not at all address the real cause of the problem, which has its roots in two factors: 1) the production and distribution of food is controlled by privately owned businesses and large landowners who are not concerned about satisfying the basic food needs of the Bolivian people, but rather with making a profit and 2) these business and large landowners are the key forces in the right-wing opposition and by raising prices, they hope to destabilize Evo Morales’ Movement towards Socialism (MAS) government, weaken the social movements, and stop the process of change in Bolivia.

Food for profit, not for people

The businesses and large landowners who control the food industry have only one thing in mind when they produce food: profits. When international prices go up or natural disasters destroy crops and livestock, private businesses don’t want their profits to fall. The effect is always the same: they throw the burden onto the worker and peasant majority that can least afford it in the form of higher prices.

In Bolivia, 60% of the population is poor and 33% is extremely poor. 60% of Bolivian families were already unable to meet their basic nutritional needs before the rise in prices. The majority does not have extra money to offset the price increases so when prices go up, workers, peasants, and their children eat less.

However, higher international prices and flooding are not even the principal reasons for food shortages and higher prices in Bolivia. There is a food shortage because the majority of the food produced in Bolivia is exported to other countries where the private companies and large landowners can sell their products for higher prices and increase their profits. The eastern state of Santa Cruz produces 66% of Bolivia’s agricultural products and the vast majority of it is exported abroad (while 60% of Bolivian families lack basic nutrition!). When floods hit, instead of cutting exports and sacrificing profits so that the Bolivian people can eat, the food supply in Bolivia drops and the capitalists raise prices to maintain their profits.

Higher food prices also a tool of the right-wing opposition

The rise in food prices in Bolivia is not only caused by higher international prices, floods, and capitalist greed. Politics is also a powerful factor. The same business elite and large landowners who are currently raising food prices are also the principal leaders of the right-wing opposition.

At least in part, the shortages and the rise in prices are artificially created by these members of the opposition. Since bread prices began rising in mid-July, there have been reports from bread producers in Peru saying the amount of black market bread from Bolivia has skyrocketed. Workers in the beef sector in Bolivia have also reported a large increase in contraband beef being sold to Peru and Chile.

After bread producers sell their product illegally in Peru and raise prices in Bolivia, the right-wing opposition criticizes and organizes demonstrations against the MAS government, blaming it for not doing more to reduce international wheat and grain prices. Beef producers have also blamed the government for the rise in prices saying it did not do enough to offset the losses due to flooding during the rainy season.

By raising food prices and organizing demonstrations against the MAS government, the right-wing opposition hopes to destabilize the MAS government and weaken the social movements by creating suffering, frustration, confusion, and divisions amongst the worker, peasant, and indigenous majority, who are the base of the government and the social movements.

Response of the MAS government scattered, confused, and ineffective

The response of Morales’ MAS government has been scattered and almost completely ineffective. It is clear that, although this kind of attack should be expected from the very aggressive right-wing opposition in Bolivia, the MAS government has no concrete, planned program for solving the problem.

It has publicly criticized bread producers and large landowners for price speculation which makes Bolivians suffer. It has begun importing wheat directly from Argentina in order to try to increase the supply and push the price back down. It is also trying to stimulate more small scale food and livestock production by offering cattle to peasants at very cheap prices. Morales has personally appealed to large landowners (the most hostile opposition force in Bolivia!) to please produce more rice and grain to prevent shortages in the future. Lastly, the MAS government has stated that food sellers must display their prices publicly so that the consumer can see all the prices before buying and also warned that people illegally exporting food products abroad will be punished with jail time.

For the most part, these measures have had no effect at all. In some cases, small food sellers in the local markets have refused to raise prices and have themselves endured the financial loss themselves, but food prices mostly remain high.

Only a socialist economy democratically run by workers and peasants can ensure that the people’s basic food needs are met

Alternativa Socialista Revolucionaria criticizes the greedy manner in which bread producers and large landowners are making the poor majority in Bolivia pay the consequences for higher international prices and floods. We also assert that criminal attempts by the right-wing opposition to destabilize the MAS government and weaken the social movements by raising food prices should be punished harshly.

At the same time, we criticize MAS government’s confused and ineffective attempts to solve the problem. We need popular committees to check and control all price rises in order to stop speculation and profiteering. Such committees, together with the trade unions should open the book of the super markets and food distribution and production companies to inspection. Let the people see what profits they are making. To end the price speculation and profiteering the making food companies should be nationalized, with compensation only paid on the basis of proven need as part of a programme to ensure that food distribution and production is geared to meet the needs of the people and supply them with food they can afford.

There is only one way to guarantee that the worker and peasant majority in Bolivia has enough food to eat and at the same time ensure that the right-wing opposition is not able to use its control over food production to attack the Bolivian social movements: the production and distribution of food must be taken out of the hands of the elite business and large landowners and placed under democratic worker and peasant control. In other words, Bolivia needs a genuine socialist economy.

Under capitalism, if a flood occurs and the food supply drops, the capitalist class raises prices to protect their profits and the working class and peasant poor are the only ones that suffer because they cannot afford higher prices.

In a socialist economy, if a flood occurs and the food supply drops, the Bolivian people as a whole could decide democratically how to best solve the problem: by exporting less, cultivating more land, or importing food to meet the demand.

Bringing about a genuine socialist revolution in Bolivia will require the full weight of the organized social movements, mobilized, and conscious of the need to overthrow capitalism and bring about a socialist government democratically controlled by the workers, peasants, and indigenous majority.

This is a large task, but one that is necessary and entirely realizable. As the right-wing uses its control over food production to attack the poor working class and peasant majority, it is becoming clearer and clearer that the social movements have only two options: socialist revolution or continued poverty, inequality, and relentless attacks on those in the social movements fighting for change.

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