David Broder went to Bolivia during April as part of the Bolivia Solidarity Campaign delegation of British trade unionists.
In Solidarity 3/90 I argued that while Evo Morales has failed to deliver what the masses demanded during the gas nationalisation protests of last summer, the trade unions and social movements have failed to come out strongly enough in criticism of the new Bolivian president.
Having seen more of the objective situation on the ground, I realise that such an analysis is only partly correct. While many trade union leaders are keen for revolution, they remain generals without armies — the masses are only in some cases living up to this hope.
Given that all of the trade unions called for a vote for Morales in the general elections last December, you might imagine that they at some level support his government, or at least are holding their fire until they see if he will make reforms. This is not the case. While the Bolivian masses have not turned towards any alternative to Morales – a poll in La Razón on 4 April showed 80% “support” – the trade union leaders have a radical position way to the left of the rank-and-file.
For example, Jaime Solares, general secretary of the COB (a bit like the TUC, except that it does stand up for workers) said at our meeting that “There are two paths for the Bolivian working class. The first is bourgeois democracy. The second is armed insurrection. At the moment, it’s the second that we are preparing for.” Imagine Brendan Barber saying that...
Of course, the COB, along with the groups such as the miners’ federation (FSTMB) and FEJUVE — a radical association of citizens of El Alto, a working-class sister city to La Paz — has not abandoned pushing for reforms entirely. Morales has promised to nationalise gas, and the fact that he has not done so three months into his tenure has not alienated his working class and peasant supporters. Solares said that the COB is still keeping up the pressure on the Movimiento Al Socialismo government, not just planning to overthrow it — while knowing full well that this is a process of breaking the masses’ trust in reformism, not really expecting that change will come under Morales.
Representatives of the Aymara indigenous community at Achacachi told us that they had good reason to believe that Morales had no interest in nationalising natural resources. During the 2003 Gas War, the MAS leader had apparently opposed the setting up of blockades by workers and peasants fighting the right-wing government of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada. While in the fight to nationalise gas the people of Achacachi had taken control of arms and successfully driven the army out of their town — killing only officers, and refusing to shoot the ordinary soldiers — Morales wanted to pass his party’s motion in Congress to tax 50% of multinationals’ profits.
Similarly, although credited by the BBC as “leader” of the movement, during the summer 2005 mobilisations against President Mesa, Morales was not even in the country. He reaffirmed his distance from the struggling masses on 11 April by telling a meeting of business leaders in the Chamber of Commerce “It is true, in the past I was against the oligarchs, but I recognize that it was an error, because we need bosses”.
Yet what is inspiring about the trade union movement in Bolivia is not just that its leaders are keen to talk about the inherent justness of a planned economy and the need for a socialist revolution. What struck me when El Alto COB leader Roberto de la Cruz talked of how he would like to see a “revolutionary, indigenous left” take power was that it was not just empty rhetoric from one radical leader. The social movements and unions really are organising to practise what they preach.
A strong example is the Constituent Assembly, which was a demand of the workers in the “agenda of October” — both according to their plans and Morales’ current rhetoric, the idea is a representative assembly of indigenous people, workers and peasants to rewrite the Bolivian constitution. Yet the electoral process has been engineered by the government so that anyone with a perspective towards working-class politics cannot stand for the elections to the Assembly — unlike the political parties of the right.
For example, representatives of the COB have had their candidatures refused by the electoral committee, while David Vargas, leader of police mutinies against previous right-wing governments, has had his name removed from three separate electoral lists by MAS. Roberto de la Cruz described Morales’ Constituent Assembly as a “tool of the oligarchy” — and the working class is fighting back.
Almost all of the social movements and unions are forming a parallel Original (i.e. Indigenous) and Popular Constituent Assembly, which will reflect the forces fighting back against neoliberalism. This shall draw up a separate constitution — while Vice President Linera has said that the MAS-controlled Assembly will “certainly only change about 10 or 20% of the constitution”, the parallel Assembly plans to refound the Bolivian state on an indigenous, democratic and anti-neoliberal basis.
AFURTHER sign of practical political opposition to the government is the COB’s official political strategy, a document called the “Revolutionary Power Strategy”, which was formulated soon before last December’s election. The plan is to bring together the indigenous peoples, workers and peasants into a “Political Instrument” which aims to build an (ultimately armed) party of proletarian resistance to bourgeois democracy, the oligarchs and the transnational puppet-masters.
The document sets out a detailed plan for how the Political Instrument would operate through democratic structures, local and inclusive decision-making bodies and permission for minority political tendencies to operate and publish freely within the party.
A central aim is inclusiveness — the importance of uniting all the Bolivian peoples in struggle is recognised. While explicitly revolutionary, the party also has a perspective towards electoral work and “making sure our voice is heard in their Congress”.
This all sounds great — the political wing that’s needed if the economic struggles of diverse movements are to be truly yoked together with a political agenda which can take on the popularity of the reformists, and, ultimately, state power. The problem is that, even if this is the official programme of a trade union federation which represents more than two million Bolivian workers (the population is only nine million, and around half work in agriculture), it has no meaning if it is not being played out in reality.
The leaders of the regional COB in Oruro were sharply critical of Jaime Morales for not carrying out the Revolutionary Power Strategy — not only did the Political Instrument miss out on competing in the presidential election, but it did not even attempt to stand in the Constituent Assembly elections. It has not been put in place, even though the high level of strikes in Bolivia, the failure of reformism and the Constituent Assembly debacle all show the need for such a revolutionary leadership — the political wing of the COB remains the pronouncements of its leaders. So even if the parallel Constituent Assembly will once again unite Bolivian social movements and unions, there remains no basis for long-term political cohesion.
Part of the reason for this is simply that the masses are not angry enough with Morales to go out into the streets again. While almost no-one in Bolivia appears to believe that the government is ever going to nationalise gas, the level of militancy at the moment is nowhere near what it was last summer. Most people critically support Morales, and recent evidence suggests that their patience may last for some time.
A recent dispute over the national airline LAB resulted in a number of occupations of airports and fights between police and workers on picket lines. Linking this to a call for higher wages, the COB conference (18th-19th April) called for a general strike on the 21st in order to support the LAB workers’ own actions on that day. COB executive members posed this as life or death — the workers would show their muscle on the 21st, then the government would hold a counter-demonstration on the 1 May to display that it still held power.
IN reality the mood of most Bolivian workers towards the government is skepticism rather than anger, and people only want to follow COB's calls during times of uprising — COB’s conference was small and had little to say with any concrete impact. Given the evident public faith in MAS, COB is clearly rash to call mass mobilisations on economist demands so often — this is why a credible political alternative to Morales is needed to help change the Bolivians' outlook on reformism.
Bolivian Trotskyism, a 40,000 strong movement before the Pabloist leadership of the POR made a “pact with the devil” with the bourgeois nationalist MNR party during the 1952 Revolution, lacks any answers. It is softer on the government than the trade union bureaucrats! I was told by comrade after comrade how Morales has a “popular” government which is a bulwark against the right. None of the six splinter groups from the POR has grown during the three major upsurges of struggle in the past five years — they have lagged behind the masses, and followed the COB Political Instrument strategy rather than beginning such a political initiative to bring together radical movements themselves.
The most significant party of the left other than MAS, the MIP, offers even more dead ends than the various PORs do. The party, led by the “Mallku” Felipe Quispe, calls for a separate indigenous Aymara state, renamed “Qollasuyu”. This approach was widely attacked during recent mobilisations, since it focuses too much on national divisions and too little on questions of class.
MIP members who we met in Achacachi have a sort of “romantic reactionary” approach that glorifies the communitarian societies of indigenous peasants before the Spanish invaded in the early 16th century – rather than recognising that Bolivia’s economy is developing and the fact that equality and justice must be built from the basis of an increasingly industrialised society. The economic structure is in fact gradually breaking down indigenous-peasant community relations in favour of a burgeoning working class — but they say that Marxism is only something appropriate to “the west” and that indigenous people must find their own path, reforging the golden age of the past
However, when they fight for the nationalisation and industrialisation of gas, and for a new democratic state for the whole of Bolivia, the indigenous people are implicitly rejecting the MIP outlook. In the presidential elections, Quispe received just 2%, down from 6% in 2002.
So are there further revolutionary possibilities in Bolivia? Yes and no. The failure of reformism to deliver is yet to play itself out entirely, as the MAS government has not explicitly refused to meet all of the demands of the social movements. General strikes to bring down the government are not a realistic project at the moment, whilst the COB also needs to sort out its promised political wing if it is going to make the opposition to Morales as credible as possible. But the Bolivian workers are highly politicised, and as the LAB staff have shown, not slow to go on strike to fight for their rights when the government attacks.
Yes, it is increasingly clear that the government will not nationalise gas. And yes, Morales will never live up to his image of a “popular government”. But the real left is yet to intervene into this volotile situation and yet to build a serious revolutionary alternative.