Bolivia: Revolution and counter-revolution

Right-wing offensive radicalizes masses and provokes land occupations

Revolution and counter–revolution

Evo Morales’ MAS (Movement towards Socialism) government won a crushing victory in the re-call referendum, which took place on 10 August 2008. He gained a landslide in the poll, winning 67.41% of the national vote, on a turnout of 83.33%. The recall referendum was not a “stand-off”, as claimed by the right-wing. In the crucial areas of Cochabamba and Chuquisaca, which were disputed between left and right-wing forces, Morales won 70.90% and 53.88%, respectively. Even in the right-wing controlled ‘media luna’ (‘middle moon’) provinces, Morales won 52.50% in Pando, 49.83% in Tarija, and in Santa Cruz 40.75%. This was higher than the votes achieved by Hugo Chávez and much higher than the votes for Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity coalition, which governed Chile in 1970-73.

The landslide victory won by Evo Morales reflects the demand of the Bolivian masses for a radical transformation of Bolivian society, and their opposition to neo-liberalism and the ruling class. This victory, therefore, terrified the ruling class, who fear pressure will increase on Morales to adopt more radical measures.

Following this victory, the right-wing reactionary forces in the eastern provinces of the “media luna,” went on the offensive. The struggle between revolution and counter-revolution dramatically intensified. The need for bold revolutionary socialist measures is of even greater urgency; to defeat the increasing threat of counter-revolution. This offensive by the right-wing radicalized important sections of the working class and peasantry, leading to land occupations.

Following a week of intense struggle, negotiations are currently taking place between representatives of the eastern provinces and the central government. While these negotiations seem to have resulted in a temporary calming of the situation, they will not resolve the underlying cause of the crisis. It is a matter of time before further clashes erupt. Such is the pressure from the masses that the government was compelled to arrest the Governor of Pando, Leopoldo Fernandez, during the negotiations. He is charged with hiring hit men to murder sixteen peasants on their way to a pro-government rally. Unfortunately, the failure of the leadership of the MAS and Evo Morales to use the victory in the re-call referendum as a springboard to take the revolution forward and to overthrow capitalism, allowed the forces of reaction to grab the initiative.

“Civic coup” in Santa Cruz

On 8 September, a “civic coup” was organized in Santa Cruz,. Central government buildings, including the offices of the Impuestos Internas (Tax office), the Instituto Nacional de Reforma Agraria (Agricultural Reform) and the telecommunications company ENTEL, were taken over and ransacked. The local airport was seized and road blocks set up to cut off road links to the city. Access to the airport was only possible after passing through check points controlled by right-wing groups. Right-wing thugs, from the semi-fascist youth organization, Unión Juvenil Crucenista (UJC), entered the poorest shanty town, ‘Plan 3,000’, where Morales has massive support. They were dressed in military fatigues and terrorized children and youth. They also threatened to close the valves and cut off the gas supplies to Brazil.

This reactionary “civic coup” took place following the bloody massacre of the peasants in Pando. The slaughter was clearly carried out with the involvement of local land owners and the provincial governor. The total death toll is currently standing at 30 – all the victims were peasants and pro-Morales supporters.

Morales sent the army to the Santa Cruz region and the country was taken to the brink of civil war. Morales expelled the US ambassador for actively backing the right-wing organizations in ‘media luna’. This was followed by the expulsion of the US ambassador from Venezuela, by Hugo Chávez, in solidarity with Morales. The Honduran government then refused to accept the diplomatic credentials of new US ambassador. The US has responded with the expulsions of the Bolivian and Venezuelan ambassadors from Washington.

This crisis in Bolivia has had regional repercussions and implications. The ruling classes of the Latin America are terrified that the outbreak of civil war in Bolivia will spill over into the whole of the continent.

Moreover, a possible break-up of Bolivia, with the eastern provinces of “media luna” separating and taking the gas and energy supplies, would trigger a series of border disputes, involving Chile, Brazil and Argentina. Fearing these consequences, the governments of Brazil, Chile, Argentina and others declared support for Morales and the opposed right-wing in ‘media luna’. Through this intervention they hope to exert further pressure on Morales to hold the mass movement in check and apply the break to further revolutionary developments. This international pressure, and the immediate balance of class forces in Bolivia, is probably why the right-wing agreed to negotiations with the government – for now!

US imperialism has clearly been backing the reactionary forces in ‘media luna’. Significantly, the Bush regime has not condemned or criticized the recent “civic coup”. The crisis in Santa Cruz erupted within hours of Branco Marinkovic’s, president of the reactionary, Comité Civico pro- Santa Cruz, return from Miami. There he met with former Bolivian minister, Sánchez Berzaín. Berzaín was known as the ‘hard-man’ of the deposed right-wing government of Gonzalo Lozada, which was overthrown by a mass uprising in 2003. Berzaín now resides in exile, in Miami, and is wanted for “genocide” in Bolivia, following his role in repressing mass protests on 17 August 2003. During these clashes, 67 protesters were killed and over 300 injured.

Counter revolution planned

The recent counter-revolutionary offensive was clearly planned and prepared for, following Evo Morales’ crushing victory in the re-call referendum. After this electoral landslide, Morales announced plans to go ahead with a referendum on a new constitution, in December 2008. The reforms included in this draft constitution would increase the influence of the indigenous peoples – who form an overwhelming majority of the population – and also introduce important reforms for a minimum income, pensions and health schemes. Crucially, it would also establish a limit on the amount of land that can be held by the big latifundistas – to either 5,000 or 10,000 hectares. Today, many of the large landowners have hundreds of thousands of hectares of land. A massive land reform programme, which would inevitably result in a bitter struggle, would be necessary to enact this clause in the new constitution. This was, undoubtedly, one of the proposals that most caused fear and outrage amongst the right-wing.

Immediately following the re-call referendum, the righ-wing in Santa began to go onto the offensive. Following his ratification as Prefect, Ruben Costas, denounced Morales as a “dictator” and, in a clearly racist insult, referred to Morales as a “monkey.” Costas condemned the governing party, MAS, as “state terrorists”. As a portent of events to erupt within a few weeks, Costas also announced plans to elect a new Autonomous Legislative Assembly, and to establish a parallel police force and departmental tax agency. On 15 August, Costas led a demonstration, which ended up with his supporters beating up the local police chief and his deputy. The semi-fascist, UJC, also marched on a meeting of the local council. According to reports, they intended to lynch the sole elected councilor who is a member of MAS.

This offensive by the right has, so far, been limited to the provinces of the ‘media luna.’ Yet these developments are an omen of the threat of counter revolution that exists. This could take the form of an attempted coup by dissident sections of the armed forces, in conjunction with the right-wing-led provinces of the ‘media luna’.

The initiatives taken by the right-wing in Santa Cruz were supported by the right-wing opposition, PODEMOS, in the national congress. Its leader, Jorge Quiroga, openly declared that events in Santa Cruz were a “democratic coup, a call to civil war. Morales is now acting as a dictator and not a constitutional President.”

The alarm should be sounded following the declaration by retired army colonel, Joaquín Rejas Ledesma, who made an open appeal to: “My comrades in the Armed Forces. The role and responsibility of the armed forces is to fulfill the Political Constitution of the State, respect of private property…with a firm opposition to the anarchist struggles of the social classes that are attempting to destabalise the constitutional order…We can have no doubt that the intention of this government is to destroy the democratic social system and the rights of private property…”, (La Opinión, 30 August, 2008).

Alternatively, the counter revolution could take the form of the provinces of ‘media luna’, in effect, splitting away from Bolivia, taking with them the gas and energy reserves and the lush estates owned by the latifundistas. The right-wing in ‘media luna’ have used the demand for greater “autonomy”, including a higher share of the income from gas and energy resources, to spearhead their counter-revolutionary agenda.

Marxists and the right to self-determination

Marxists defend the right-of self-determination, up to and including the right of secession, if supported by a majority of the peoples concerned. This democratic right forms a part of the revolutionary programme of the working class. However, a general defence of the right of self determination is not sufficient for Marxists or the working class. It is necessary to also see the concrete situation which exists in each specific situation. Support for the right to self-determination does not mean that this democratic demand is put above the over-all interests of the working class and the struggle for socialism. It is subordinate to the rights and interests of the working class, as a whole. There are important examples from historic struggles of the international working class which have lessons for Marxists on how to approach this issue.

Following the First World War, the Saarland (a German region on the western border with France) was placed under French rule. In 1935, a plebiscite took place over its re-incorporation into Germany. Although there was a clear national issue, Trotsky opposed the Saarland being re-incorporated into Germany (at that time) because it would have meant putting the people of the Saarland under the iron heel of fascism and it would have strengthened Hitler’s Nazi regime. In other words, the national aspirations were subordinate to the over-all interests of the working class.

During the Russian Civil War, following the October 1917 Russian Revolution, the counter-revolutionary forces in Ukraine, in the “white guard”, raised the banner of ‘Ukrainian independence’. They used this demand in a counter-revolutionary way; as means of combating the socialist revolution. This was opposed by the most politically conscious workers and peasants who welcomed the intervention of the Red Army, from Russia, to assist the workers’ and peasants’ revolution in the Ukraine. Following the victory of the revolution, Lenin and Trotsky, prior to the emergence of the Stalinist regime, supported the democratic and national rights of the Ukrainian people, as part of a Socialist Federation.

In the concrete situation which exists in Santa Cruz and the ‘media luna’, the ruling elite raise the demand for “autonomy”, as a means of defending their own privileges and to gain domination in society. In these provinces, the elite try to rule with an ‘iron fist’ and to oppress the indigenous peoples. They established a Bolivian “social apartheid”. In the centre of Santa Cruz, bars and restaurants carry signs refusing entry to the indigenous peoples! The defence of “autonomy” by the reactionary right-wing in ‘media luna’ has nothing to do with the democratic aspirations of the oppressed peoples, which are defended by the working class. The ruling elite want “autonomy” to continue their exploitation, to rule over the indigenous peoples and to maintain control over gas energy reserves.

Amongst a layer of the down trodden in Santa Cruz, the ruling elite have partly succeeded in sowing confusion on this issue and have been able to win some layers to support them. This is largely because of the weakness of the programme of the MAS and the central government to address this issue and to offer these peoples an alternative, either in relation to the national democratic demands or to the economic demands of the peoples concerned. The failure of the government to break with capitalism and landlordism re-enforced this because it has imprisoned the MAS government to what is ‘possible’ within the capitalist system. This has been used by the right-wing regime in Santa Cruz. They promised, for example, to nearly double the minimum wage, if “departmental autonomy” was secured.

At the same time, the real position of the ruling elite was shown during the “civic coup”, when they imposed a bosses’ lock-out of many workers. The massacre of the peasants in Pando is a warning of what “autonomy” would mean, in reality, in the ‘media luna’. The fact that over 40% voted for Morales in the recall referendum, in Santa Cruz, illustrates that large sections of the indigenous peoples and poor understand this. With a more decisive and clearer appeal to the masses of Santa Cruz, the basis of the right-wing could have been further undermined.

At this stage, the indigenous peoples of Bolivia are not demanding the right to secede but cultural, language and land rights. Marxists would defend the rights of the Guaranies, Weenhayek, Tapieté, Ayoreode and Chaquenos peoples to defend their culture, language and other indigenous rights, including granting autonomous rights for these communities, if they wanted them. Yet the ruling elite do not offer such a programme to these peoples. Instead, the ruling class want ‘autonomy’ for Santa Cruz and the ‘media luna’ but with the elite having a free hand to rule and exploit these and other peoples and, of course, also having full control over gas and other energy reserves concentrated in these areas. The genuine democratic and cultural rights of the indigenous peoples in these areas can only be secured by a workers and peasants’ government in Bolivia and the overthrow of landlordism and capitalism.

Negotiations and future struggles

The negotiations currently taking place between the right-wing leaders from ‘media luna’ and the government may result in a temporary stand off but this will not last long. New conflicts and clashes are inevitable, as the underlying clash of interests between the mass of the population and the reactionary, privileged elite, remain unresolved.

The overwhelming support for Morales in the re-call referendum reflected the demand for a radical transformation of Bolivian society. To fulfill these aspirations, and also to decisively defeat the threat of reaction, it is urgent that the struggle is taken forward, through a revolutionary socialist transformation of Bolivia.

Evo Morales enjoys massive support and there are high expectations of what his government will do to end the poverty and misery which blight the lives of the mass of the population, in what is Latin America’s poorest country. Social programmes, like the payment made to all school students, through the Juancito Pinto project, and Renta Dignidad, which aims to provide a minimum basic quality of life for every child, elderly and poor person, are very popular. They have aroused higher expectations amongst the masses. The partial nationalization of Petrobras, and other muli-national oil interests, won huge support amongst the masses, who are now demanding more radical measures are taken.

However, these popular but relatively limited reforms have not ended the miserable poverty which exists for the mass of the population. Yet they have aroused the bitter hatred of the ruling elite, particularly the proposals of Morales to use the resources of the hydrocarbon energy resources which are concentrated in ‘media luna’ provinces. The outrage of the ruling elite at these reforms reached new heights when the proposal to limit land ownership to 5,000 or 10,000 hectares was announced.

All of these minimal demands of the masses have come into collision with the interests of the ruling class, especially those sections of it making up the ‘media luna’. The clash of class and social interests, as recent events have demonstrated, are irreconcilable. The continuation of capitalism and landlordism will not allow the reforms that have been implemented to be maintained and they will be under conttnued attack. The poverty and lack of development of the Bolivian economy cannot be resolved with the continuation of capitalism and landlordism; against the back ground of the serious world economic recession now developing, this is even less of a possibility. The corruption of the ruling class, its domination by imperialism and the world economy, mean that it will not be possible to develop capitalism. To maintain the social reform programmes, to develop Bolivian society and to raise living standards and the quality of life of the masses, a conclusive break with capitalism and landlordism is necessary. The threat of reaction means this is now an urgent and necessary task for the working class, poor peasants and other exploited by capitalism.

‘Humane capitalism’ or a bold socialist programme

Unfortunately, this is not the programme of Evo Morales or the MAS. They have looked towards building a more “humane” form of capitalism before the socialist revolution. What the vice President, Alvaro García Linera, called “Andean capitalism” – a ‘necessary stage’ before the socialist revolution could be posed. Yet the central issues in Bolivia are the development of industry, a radical programme of agricultural reform, winning democratic and national rights and independence from imperialism.

The government is attempting a series of incremental changes and reforms that address most of these issues. Yet these measures still leave economic power concentrated in the hands of the ruling class. These reforms have come into a head-on collision with the interests of the ruling elite who bitterly oppose them because they feel their interests threatened.

The limited land reform programme carried through by the government illustrates the contradictions that exist. Since Morales came to power, 500,000 hectares of land have been taken from the large landowners and given to the poor peasants or peasant co-operatives. Most of this has been unused, lower quality land. Five million hectares of land is owned by two million poor peasants. Yet, one hundred families own a staggering twenty-five million hectares! These one hundred families are never going to accept the proposed reform in the new constitution to limit land ownership to between 5,000 and 10,000 hectares.

By allowing itself to be imprisoned in capitalism, the MAS has already begun to come into conflict with the demands of the mass movement. Demands from the trade unions for a guaranteed state funded pension and retirement at 55 (life expectancy in Bolivia is 62 years) were criticized by the government as “unviable”. In the run up to the re-call referendum, when some workers’ called strikes and mass protests to demand these reforms, they were attacked by the government as “agents of the right-wing”.

Unfortunately, Evo Morales and the MAS are adopting policies aimed at appealing to the ruling elite and at reaching a “compromise” rather than a policy and programme to overthrow the elite. They are repeating the same mistakes of Salvador Allende, in Chile, in the early 1970s. Allende went a lot further than Morales has done, so far, in encroaching on the interests of capitalism. However, while a series of national and multi-national companies were nationalized in Chile, capitalism was not overthrown in Chile. Allende attempted to secure agreements with the ruling class and military. He even took Augusto Pinochet into his government – the same Pinochet who then led the military coup on 11 September 1973. This policy only gave the capitalists and military time to prepare the ground to overthrow Allende and to crush the working class under the iron heel of a military dictatorship.

In scenes tragically reminiscent of Santiago 1973, (when 500,000 workers demonstrated in front of Allende demanding arms to fight the coup plotters), hundreds of thousands marched in La Paz following Morales victory in the re-call referendum. They chanted: “Evo, mano duro; mano duro” (literally translated “Evo, hard hand, hard hand”). They were answered by Evo Morales, who declared: “I want to take advantage of the opportunity to salute and express my respect for the ratified prefects [in ‘media luna’] we respect the legitimacy that you have and I call on them to work in a unified manner.”

The ‘respect’ they, in turn, showed Morales and the mass of workers and peasants, only a few weeks later, was shown in the massacre of peasants in Pando and the “civic coup” in Santa Cruz.

Rather than confront this reactionary movement, by taking all the necessary steps to take the revolution forward, through mass mobilizations, the government announced it would challenge reaction by “all the legal measures necessary.”

There is nothing wrong in exploiting any legal or parliamentary openings that exist. Yet these must be accompanied by the necessary steps to mobilize and organize the mass of the population against the threat of reaction. To merely rely on parliamentary and judicial procedures, in such a confrontation, is a recipe for a repetition of the Chilean tragedy, in 1973.

A programme of struggle

The convening of mass demonstrations to oppose the “coup” in Santa Cruz throughout Bolivia would have helped to prepare and raise the confidence of workers, poor peasants and the social movements. In particular, it would have raised the morale of the masses in Santa Cruz to confront the right-wing, face to face. Mass mobilizations could have been a launching pad to appeal to the masses, to link together all of the social movements, workers and peasants organizations in committees of defence and struggle, in all localities. Such committees of struggle should be elected on the basis of all delegates elected and subject to re-call by the assemblies that elected them. Local committees could also elected representatives to city, provincial, regional and national organizations to co-ordinate the struggle.

In Santa Cruz, and nationally, democratic defence militias to protect communities from attacks by right-wing para-military groups, such as the UJC, is now an urgent task for the movement.

At the same time, it is urgent for the movement to reach out to the rank and file of the army, who are overwhelmingly from the working class and rural poor, and who are sympathetic to the social struggles of the people. The election of soldiers’ committees, and a purge of coup plotters and supporters of the right-wing, is essential to stop a victory of the counter-revolution.

These tasks need also be linked to the need for the formation of a workers’ and peasants government, with a revolutionary socialist programme, including the seizure of the land owned by the richest 100 families and its redistribution to poor peasants and peasants co-operatives; nationalization of the multi-national banks and companies and the major companies dominating the economy. These steps, together with the introduction of a democratic system of workers’ control and management of the economy, are the way to ensure reaction is decisively defeated and to open the way to introduce a democratic socialist plan of the economy.

Important elements of this programme have been formally adopted, in the past, by the main workers’ trade union federation, the COB, and the peasants’ federations. Following the recent right-wing offensive, the COB and peasant federation called for the formation of defence militias and for the occupation of estates owned by the land owners involved in the “civic coup”. These declaration need to be urgently implemented, along with other steps to overthrow capitalism and landlordism.

Linked to an appeal to the workers’ of Venezuela, Cuba, and the rest of Latin America, to join together and to struggle to overthrow their own ruling classes to create a democratic Socialist Federation of Latin American States, these are the steps needed to defeat reaction and to take the socialist revolution forward in Bolivia.

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September 2008