Bolivia: Morales government clashes with workers and the poor

Concessions to the right-wing opposition, neo-liberal policies, and attacks on the social movements convince workers of the need to build an alternative to Evo Morales´ MAS party

In December of 2005, a tidal wave of popular support from Bolivia’s indigenous peasant, worker, and poor majority swept Evo Morales and the ‘Movement towards Socialism’ (MAS) party into power.

The driving force behind the election of Bolivia’s first indigenous president was a profound hope amongst these masses that Morales – a radical leader of the powerful coca-farmers union, known for his fiery anti-neo-liberal, anti-capitalist speeches – would bring about fundamental change and improve their lives.

The electoral victory of Morales and the MAS party was one more step in the Bolivian struggle against neo-liberalism which began years earlier 2000 when the masses expelled the multinational water companies in the Cochabamba Water Wars. It exploded in 2003 and 2005 when semi-insurrectionary movements, known as the Gas Wars, rallied around the socialist ‘October Agenda’. They were calling for the expulsion of the multinational gas and mining corporations, the eradication of the large landowner system and a revolutionary Constituent Assembly made up entirely of the social movements.

When the dust settled, two neo-liberal presidents had been forced out of office and fled the country, and the traditional parties of the Bolivian elite were utterly demolished. At the same time, however, there was a giant political hole which the social movements, due to the fact that they were not organized into a political party, were unable to fill.

Morales and the MAS government filled the void and during the first few years. They were able to enact reforms which, albeit extremely moderate in comparison to the demands of the Gas Wars and the ‘October Agenda’, did give the impression amongst the masses that real change was taking place and a better life was just around the corner.

Unprecedented support from indigenous peasants, workers and poor people for the MAS government

The partial nationalization of the gas industry (in reality a re-negotiation of the contracts with the multinational oil companies), a whole series of pro-poor subsidies and social programs, and the approval of a new constitution in 2009 are the hallmarks of what has been widely promoted by Morales and the MAS government as a peaceful social revolution.

In comparison to the neo-liberal governments which reigned for more than 20 years, privatizing all state industry, viciously attacking the social movements and its leaders (severely weakening the political consciousness and organization of the working class and oppressed masses in the process), the MAS reforms marked an important step forward and were enough to win the confidence and support of the masses.

This translated into seven consecutive landslide victories in electoral processes. The culmination was the presidential and congressional elections in December of 2009 which not only re-elected Morales as President but also gave the MAS party absolute, veto-proof control over both branches of Congress.

When the right-wing opposition – unsure at the beginning of where things were headed – attacked the MAS government, the social movements mobilized their forces, faced brutal violence head on, and crushed the opposition.

The MAS unwilling to break with neo-liberalism and capitalism, incapable of improving the lives of the impoverished masses

Along the way, however an uncomfortable truth became harder and harder for workers, indigenous peasants, and the poor masses to ignore. In spite of the election victories and pro-poor reforms, their lives hadn’t significantly improved and the MAS government had not brought about fundamental change.

The subsidies for the poor and wage increases for workers had been wiped out by high inflation, especially on basic necessities. The large landowners maintained their veritable monopoly over the land while the indigenous peasants toiled with very little or entirely without land. Radical sounding rhetoric about nationalizations notwithstanding, the multinational corporations, especially the oil and mining companies, continued raking in enormous profits through the wholesale exploitation and pillaging of Bolivia’s immense natural resources.

Moreover, in its attempt to avoid continued attacks from the right-wing opposition, the MAS government adopted an increasingly conciliatory approach towards the multinationals, large landowners, and Bolivian ruling class.

In reality, concessions to the right-wing were never anything new for the MAS government. From the beginning, it had refused to carry out the demands of the Gas Wars to completely nationalize the gas industry, under the democratic control of the state gas company, YPFB, and the Bolivian people.

"Gas for the Bolivians" A demonstration during the "Gas Wars"

The same is true of the mines, which have been left untouched, with the exception of one major mine, Huanuni, which was only nationalized after the miners themselves won a bloody battle against the MAS government including physical battles with the police which cost the lives of 16 miners.

Land reform, consisting of several hundred thousand hectares distributed to indigenous communities, has always been more rhetoric than substance when considering that land inequality in Bolivia is amongst the worst in the world. One hundred families own 25 million hectares, five times more than the entire indigenous peasant population combined.

Sharp turn to the right: Concessions to the opposition, neo-liberal policies, and attacks on the social movements, especially workers

What is new, however, is the depth of the concessions to the right-wing, the increasingly neo-liberal nature of the political and economic agenda coming from within the MAS government itself. The MAS government is increasingly displaying an antagonistic attitude, and oftentimes outright hostility, towards any sector of the social movements that protests against the concessions to the right-wing and the continued poverty, inequality, and exploitation in Bolivia.

A turning point occurred in October of 2008 when the MAS government agreed to modify its draft of the new constitution so that land limitations would not be retrospective. It effectively legalized, instead of eradicating, the large landowners and closed the door on the primary demand and the only hope for real change of its indigenous peasant base.

In the process, the MAS government placated the most extreme and violent opposition forces while reassuring the Bolivian ruling class as a whole that it would “responsibly” remain within the confines of the capitalist system. This opened the door to political alliances with more moderate sections of the right-wing opposition.

For the Presidential and Congressional elections in December 2009, the MAS government courted big business, banks in particular, in an attempt to win their support or at least neutrality. But the low point came when it formed a pact with several leaders of the Santa Cruz Youth organization, a violent semi-fascist “collision group” responsible for numerous racist attacks on indigenous people. In September 2008 they played a leading role in a failed reactionary separatist insurrection by the elites of the eastern states of Bolivia. The alliances deepened during the State and Municipal elections in April 2010 when the MAS party ran several former members of right-wing parties as their own candidates.

MAS party members´ dismissal of these moves as simple electoral posturing don´t carry any weight. The policies of the MAS government in the last period show that the electoral alliances reflect a genuine shift towards the right.

In December of 2010, the MAS government tried to impose a blatantly neo-liberal solution to the growing energy crisis in Bolivia by withdrawing the government subsidies on petrol, thereby linking prices to the international market.

In doing so, it hoped to reduce demand and save money on the importation of petrol (which is required in Bolivia, in spite of its huge gas reserves, because it lacks the industrial capacity to refine large quantities). The MAS government also hoped to attract investment from multinational oil companies to explore for more gas reserves, which are expected to dry up in 15 years. Currently the state-run company, YPFB, does most of the costly and arduous exploration work, only to hand the reserves over to the multinational oil companies when it comes time to make a profit.

The immediate effect, however, was that the price of petrol and diesel fuel doubled literally overnight, popularly known as a “Gasolinazo”, which led to the a soaring of the price of public transportation, food, and basic necessities. This wreaked havoc on the lives of ordinary workers and poor people.

The MAS government issued the decree during the Christmas and New Year holidays, clearly hoping that holiday distractions would minimize protests. It was a miscalculation. Massive protests from workers, the poor, and nearly every other sector of society forced the government to rescind the decree after less than a week. The right-wing also tried to capitalize from this.

A demonstration against the changes to petrol subsidies

In recent months, Morales and the MAS government provoked mass mobilizations again with yet another blatantly neo-liberal proposal. This time, the proposal was to build a highway right through the middle of an indigenous territory and national park, known as Tipnis. Aside from the fact that environmentalists warned that such a highway would irrevocably harm one of the worlds’ most diverse and valuable ecosystems, the MAS government brazenly violated its own constitution, when it disregarded the vote by members of the Tipnis community against the highway.

The construction of a highway system to connect the western departments of Bolivia with the isolated but resource rich departments of the east is necessary. Currently, all roads must pass through Santa Cruz, which is incredibly inefficient and politically dangerous considering the right-wing´s clout there. But the decision to run the highway directly through Tipnis, in spite of the fact that at least two alternate routes exist of similar cost and much less environmental impact, was a case of political arrogance by the MAS government. It was also a case of pandering to Brazilian regional imperialism and its own coca farmer base, as well.

First of all, the highway was to be financed entirely by Brazil as part of an intercontinental transport system allowing Brazil to transport its products (prime materials mostly) to the Pacific Ocean en route to China. But any number of routes could serve this function. The insistence that it pass through Tipnis has more to do with the interests of multinational logging corporations and the MAS coca farmer base than anything else. Both of these sectors have been illegally encroaching upon Tipnis for years and viewed the highway as an opportunity to massively expand this lucrative “colonization”.

Once again, however, the MAS government underestimated the strength of the social movements, provoking a mass movement, this time from its indigenous base primarily. When all was said and done, the indigenous communities of Tipnis had marched 800 km march to La Paz, overcoming police aggression, sickness and even death to force the MAS government to withdraw its plans for the highway. In the process, it won the support of the Bolivian working class, which organized a general strike in solidarity with the marchers and to protest against government repression. It also garnered widespread international recognition and forced the resignation of a handful of MAS ministers. (See previous article on

Miners take part in the September general strike

While the electoral pacts, the Gasolinazo, and the highway through Tipnis are the most flagrant examples of the MAS government´s rightward shift and popular anger against it, they are part of an overall trend that goes much deeper.

Last year, indigenous peasants from Bolivia’s eastern departments, angry at the lack of real land reform, organized an important march of several hundred kilometres demanding more land for indigenous communities as well as greater economic control over this land.

Also, workers and poor people from the impoverished mining departments of Potosí and Oruro, 80% of whom voted to re-elect Morales, organized a massive general strike. Their street blockades lasted three weeks and they demanded that the government follow through on its promises to create jobs and increase department revenue through industrialization projects.

Workers face the most systematic attacks

Without a doubt, the sector of society that has suffered the most from, and fought the hardest against, the MAS government’s move to the right has been the working class. For two consecutive years, while businesses in Bolivia enjoyed solid growth and increased profits, in spite of the global crisis, the MAS government’s annual salary increase proposal for workers has fallen far short of what would be needed to compensate for the rise in the cost of living. Although the official inflation rates have been relatively low, prices of basic necessities like food and transportation have risen 30-40% in the last year. Many products like bread, sugar, cheese, and many meats have more than doubled in recent years. Housing prices and rent in the cities have also exploded, rising 100% in the last three years in Cochabamba, for example.

Consequently, for two consecutive years, workers have been forced out onto the streets, compelled to take strike action in an effort to win salary increases that compensate for the rise in the cost of living. Both years, the strike action has enjoyed broad support amongst the working class, but has been relentlessly vilified and attacked by the MAS government which has first portrayed workers as greedy, then as tools of U.S. and European imperialism (through USAID and NGOs). It has not hesitated to mobilize the police and even its coca farmer and poor base to confront and attack workers physically.

Additionally, in recent years the MAS government has proposed legislation which directly attacks the interests of the working class. It has proposed a new "labour code" that prohibits strikes amongst public sector workers and emphasizes the individual rights of workers while subtly undermining the importance of their collective rights.

It has also passed a new pension law that technically places the pension system under state control. However, this law leaves the vast majority of working people (in the informal sector and the countryside in particular) completely outside of the pension system. It also guarantees miserable pension payments to most of those that qualify. Workers are forced to finance most of their retirement by contributing 13% of their wages, while placing minimal responsibility on the shoulders of the business owners by requiring contributions of only 3% of the worker’s wage. The state is exempted completely from all responsibility, paying nothing.

Workers have also come up against corrupt and pro-business MAS officials in the Labor Ministry. For example, in Cochabamba recently, factory workers carried out a symbolic occupation of the Labor Ministry, forcing the resignation of the corrupt departmental director who, almost without fail, ruled in favour of the company against the workers in labour disputes.

"President Evo Morales enemy of the poor"

Changing consciousness amongst workers and the masses

The lack of fundamental change creating a better life for the poor majority, the alliances with the right-wing opposition, the Gasolinazo, the highway through Tipnis, and the numerous attacks on the social movements have all had a profound effect on the political consciousness of the working class, indigenous peasants, and poor majority.

The tidal wave of hope that swept the MAS government into power has been steadily losing its momentum for some time now, giving way little by little to a counter-current of popular frustration and anger. Growing sections are withdrawing their support for the MAS government. Some are being drawn in by the opportunistic and hypocritical support that the right-wing and center political parties have given to the mass movements in the last period, while many more have begun the woeful descent into political disillusionment, skepticism, and apathy.

This is a dangerous trend which could potentially lead to the return of the right-wing in Bolivia. This would have disastrous implications for the social movements given that any right-wing government would be compelled to assert its authority and violently repress any opposition whatsoever. This is a role it is very comfortable and familiar with.

There is hope for the Bolivian struggle, however. There exists another layer of the social movements which views the degeneration of the MAS government as a challenge to learn from its mistakes and weaknesses of the past, regain control of the struggle that it began in the Water and Gas Wars, and fight for the real change outlined in the ‘October Agenda’.

It calls for expulsion of the parasitic multinational corporations, the full nationalization of the gas and mining industry, and the eradication of the large landowners as first steps on the path towards a socialist revolution in Bolivia.

The Bolivian miners, living up to their long-time reputation as the vanguard of the Bolivian working class, are leading the way. The political document approved in recent weeks at the 31st Congress of the Trade Union Workers´ Federation of Bolivian Miners (FSTMB), expresses the thinking of this crucial and steadily growing minority. Some highlights:

  • “As miners we declare that there was a time when we supported the aforementioned progressive governments. We have supported them not just in words, but with active revolutionary militancy.”
  • “The current process is contradictory: while the [MAS] government, on the one hand, proclaims some anti-imperialist and progressive measures, on the other hand, it adopts pro-business measures against the interests of the nation and people. The workers support every positive step towards the emancipation of our people and, at the same time, criticize and combat those measures which run contrary to the interests of the masses, struggling to impose new anti-imperialist measures that drive us towards a genuine revolution on the road towards national emancipation and socialism.”
  • “There isn’t any real reason why workers and the people should maintain illusions in the current government if we are not concretely advancing on a road in which we ourselves take control of the process with the perspective of creating our own government: a government of workers, peasants and the impoverished middle layers.”

The idea that the MAS government was an important step forward in comparison to the reactionary neo-liberal governments of the past, but that it is no longer capable of taking the Bolivian struggle further, is a sentiment shared by broad layers of the social movements, especially workers. The same layers also feel the only way forward is through the mobilized masses themselves.

For some time now, Bolivian factory workers have been taking concrete steps to accompany the miners and give organized expression to the need for independent struggle. The betrayal of the confidence that factory workers had in the MAS government, instead of leading to a withdrawal from the struggle, is fomenting its revival.

Factory workers in Cochabamba are a prime example of this. In the wake of the struggles for higher wages, and armed with a new constitution which explicitly guarantees the right to organize unions, several factories, representing hundreds of workers, have formed unions, many of them after years of bitter failed attempts.

These mostly young workers are not content with the perspective of a life of low wages and terrible labour conditions. They are grasping for knowledge not only of how to fight to improve conditions in their factory, but to understand and struggle against a capitalist system which always leaves them with the short end of the stick and to fight for a socialist system which serves their interests.

This kind of enthusiasm is contagious and has spread throughout the entire Factory Workers´ Federation of Cochabamba. It now includes ‘socialist political formation courses’ as part of its weekly general assembly meetings.

We need a workers´ party and socialism in Bolivia!

Hopes in the MAS government are diminishing and the understanding that only the masses themselves can move the struggle forward is taking root. Consciousness of the need for a workers´ party that fights directly for workers´ interests, combats the rightward degeneration of the MAS government, and puts the Bolivian struggle firmly on the course towards socialism, grows with each passing day.

Three years ago, only a small minority of Bolivian workers would have agreed with the need to form a workers´ party, placing their hopes instead in the MAS government. Even if it wasn’t a workers´ party in and of itself, they still viewed it as fighting the interests of the poor and oppressed, workers included. Now, from Federation assembly meetings to union halls on the factory floor and in day to day conversations with union leaders and rank and file workers alike, the vast majority agree: we need a workers’ party!

President Evo Morales

The miners give voice to this sentiment in their document when they state, “The problem that Bolivian workers are faced with is to constitute themselves into a powerful social force that participates in the present process to conquer and consolidate power for the people.” It goes on to call for, “The formation of a Political Instrument of Workers as a political organization with the purpose of carrying out the historical and revolutionary proposal of the Bolivian people.”

The formation of a workers´ party would bring tremendous gains for Bolivian workers and open up new possibilities for the Bolivian struggle. Given that the working class currently has no formal political representation, having worker candidates running in parliamentary elections with a real chance of winning several seats, would immediately strengthen workers’ position in their struggle for higher wage increases and improved labour conditions.

They would have candidates and representatives openly advocating a working class perspective during campaigns and within parliament as part of the national political debate. Moreover, it would also provide a clear left working class alternative to voters fed up with government policies that favour the multinationals as well as the business and large landowner elite. Any working class representative would also have the job of exposing the rotten and corrupt practices of the capitalist politicians and their political system.

But much more important than its participation in electoral and parliamentary politics, a new workers´ party would play a key role in uniting and mobilizing workers in the struggle for concrete demands, not only on economic but on political issues as well. It would also open a space where workers could engage in lively debate and political formation around the economic, political and social issues that affect their lives. Along the way, this would promote the formation of a whole new layer of working class leaders and help recover the class consciousness which was slowly eroded by the 20 plus years of neo-liberalism.

A workers’ party would mobilize workers to win a salary increase that surpasses the rise in the cost of living, to pass a labour law that ensures that all workers are protected by a union. A pro-worker labour law would also facilitates instead of impinge upon workers’ right to strike to improve conditions by winning higher wages, production bonuses, vacations, sick days, safer job sites, etc. It would declare war on unemployment, fighting for jobs that allow all workers to have a decent home, health care, good education for their children, and a dignified retirement.

But unlike the MAS government, a workers’ party would need to explain the limits of Bolivia’s potential economic and social development within the capitalist system. It would demonstrate the impossibility of industrializing Bolivia and providing the basic necessities to the whole population as long as the multinational corporations continue systematically sucking out the vast majority of the country’s natural resources.

It would show workers that as long as we live in a system based on exploitation, they will never enjoy a just portion of the wealth that they produce and will always have to fight tooth and nail just so they and their families can survive.

A workers’ party would also need to reach out to other oppressed sectors, explaining to indigenous peasants, for example, that they cannot escape grinding poverty until they control the land which is currently monopolized by the large landowning elite. It would argue for loans with low interest rates for poor small business owners, like street vendors, and for genuine autonomy under democratic student control in the universities.

March against the "Tipnis" highway this year

In doing so, a workers’ party could play the leading role in the formation of a real union between all oppressed sectors of Bolivian society under the concrete banner of a Broad Socialist Front with the aim of taking power and forming a government of workers, indigenous peasants, and the poor masses which strives to implement the demands of the ‘October Agenda’ with a clearly defined socialist program.

It would mobilize the worker, indigenous peasant, and poor masses to nationalize the multinational gas and mining corporations and eradicate the large landowner system, under the democratic control of workers, peasants, and the Bolivian population as a whole.

This would be the first step towards the nationalisation of all the multinational corporations, big businesses and private banks that currently dominate the Bolivian economy and the creation of a socialist economy that democratically plans production with the sole purpose of satisfying the basic needs of the entire population.

At the moment, the lack of a workers’ party severely limits the influence of the working class in Bolivian politics and society. But Bolivia has a long and magnificent tradition of independent class struggle. The historical significance of the once power Bolivian workers’ movement, known for its bold revolutionary socialist character, still pulses through its veins. The experiences and lessons of the Water and Gas Wars are still fresh in the minds of even the youngest workers.

The failure of a better life to materialise along with the rightward degeneration and constant attacks from the MAS government, act as a thrust upon the Bolivian working class, driving the freight train into motion. Once it starts moving, its course will become clearer and clearer to workers. As it picks up speed, it will have the power to carry the whole of Bolivian society along with it, coursing an unrelenting path towards its ultimate destination: first stop: a Workers´ Party, next stop: a Broad Socialist Front, third stop: a Government of Workers, Indigenous Peasants, and the Poor Majority, destination: Socialism.

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November 2011