Bolivia: the masses will decide

Evo Morales’ landslide victory in the Bolivian presidential elections represents a significant set-back both for the ruling class and for imperialist interests in the country, and indeed across Latin America. Although some on the left have drawn pessimistic conclusions on the future from Morales’ ambivalent record in relation to the mass struggles of the past few years, it is the actions of the Bolivian masses that will be the deciding factor, together with the international support they receive, particularly from socialist Cuba and revolutionary Venezuela. ROBERT CLOUGH reports.

The scale of Morales’ victory was extraordinary. Opinion polls in the months leading up to the election on 18 December placed him in the lead, but with only about 35% of the vote, perhaps 5% ahead of his right-wing opponent, former World Bank economist Jorge Quiroga who had been a senior member of the government which privatised the Cochabamba water supplies in 1999. In the end Morales received 53.7% of the valid votes against Quiroga’s 28.6%. Even this figure masked the true extent of Morales’ support. Although there was an exceptional 85% turnout, the registered electorate numbered fewer than 3.7 million: up to 1.5 million indigenous people and therefore Morales’ supporters, were prevented from registering. In the poorer west of the country, La Paz, Morales won 66%, 62.6% in Oruro, and 64.8% in Cochabamba. In the richer east, Quiroga received the greater support: 45.3% versus 31.6% in Tarija, and 41.8% versus 33.2% in Santa Cruz. Despite a redistribution of seats favouring the east, Morales’ Movement for Socialism (MAS) swept the board in congressional elections, winning an absolute majority in the lower house (72 out of 130 seats), and 12 out of 27 seats in the upper house.

The May-June 2005 struggle
The roots of Morales’ victory lay in the near-insurrectionary movement which toppled President Mesa at the beginning of June 2005. Tired of Mesa’s and Congress’s refusal to nationalise Bolivia’s oil and gas industry, the anti-imperialist movements of the indigenous peasantry and working class mobilised in huge demonstrations throughout the country during May and blockaded roads connecting the principle population centres. La Paz, the capital, was under siege as hundreds of thousands assembled in the centre on an almost daily basis. On 6 June Mesa submitted his resignation. Congress fled to Sucre to appoint a replacement; under the constitution, it would have to consider senate leader Hornando Vaca Diez, an extreme right-winger from Santa Cruz. Tens of thousands of demonstrators followed the congressional deputies: on 8 June the first protester, a miner, was killed. The situation was now completely out of the control of the Bolivian ruling class: in desperation it turned to Morales who secured a deal whereby third choice Eduardo Rodriguez, head of the supreme court, was sworn in as interim president until elections were held under the constitution within six months.

Weeks of blockades and demonstrations had resulted in a partial victory: Mesa had gone, and the right-wing defeated. But at that point the anti-imperialist movements were unable to agree a way forward. The working class and peasantry demobilised as a debate opened up on whether or not to participate in the elections, or whether to press for the immediate convocation of a constituent assembly. The turning point was Morales’ agreement to campaign for the nationalisation of oil and gas resources; hitherto he had opposed it, calling instead for the multinationals to pay increased royalties and taxes. With this as a cornerstone of his platform along with the call for a constituent assembly, most of the anti-imperialist workers’ and peasant organisations gave him their support.

The ruling class in Bolivia is once again on the defensive, as are its imperialist allies. US imperialism no longer has the power to determine the political process within the country: its coca eradication policy has completely failed. The loss of US domination is not just political, however, but economic as well: for instance, the major investors in Bolivia’s gas and oil industry are Spain’s Repsol and Brazil’s Petrobras, ahead of both Britain’s BG Gas and US companies such as Enron. US imperialism’s efforts to retrieve both its political and economic position through treaties such as ALCA have yet to meet with any significant success. Its failure to quell resistance in Afghanistan and Iraq hamstring it further.

The consequence is that there is increasing political space opening up for governments in Latin America to pursue an independent course. These conditions have also greatly increased the political influence of both Cuba and Venezuela. Recognition of this led Morales to visit both countries within a few days of his election. On 30 December, he concluded an agreement with Cuba, the key elements of which are a 30-month literacy campaign starting in July; the establishment of 5,000 scholarships for Bolivians to train as doctors and other specialists in Cuba; and the extension of a Cuban eye clinic in La Paz to Cochambamba and Santa Cruz, capable of treating 50,000 Bolivians. Challenging imperialist charges that Cuba was interfering in Bolivian politics, Fidel Castro asked ‘Will the US government be offended if Cuba helps increase the life expectancy of Bolivians? Will they be offended if we help reduce infant mortality?’ Morales echoed this point by asserting that ‘these agreements we have signed are for life, for humanity, they are not a crime, even though they might be for the United States.’ The political and ideological effect of these agreements cannot be underestimated: for the impoverished people of Bolivia they represent a very practical example of socialist solidarity. For Cuba it means breaking down its isolation and strengthening its position against imperialism.

On 3 January, Morales met President Chavez who promised that Venezuela would supply Bolivia’s entire diesel fuel needs of 150,000 barrels a month, a deal worth $180m annually. However, Bolivia would not need to pay cash, but in kind through agricultural exports. In addition Venezuela will donate $30m for social projects. Furthermore, Venezuela will open offices of its state-owned companies in Bolivia, including PDVSA, the oil company, BIV, its main industrial bank, and Bandes, its development bank. Such steps will limit the impact of economic sanctions that oil and gas companies that are faced with nationalisation could seek to impose on Bolivia. As Chavez himself said, ‘we can’t lose a day in supporting Bolivia in any way we can’.

Within Bolivia itself Morales faces a number of challenges. First, there is the question of nationalisation of the oil and gas industries. The mass of the Bolivian people will not accept delay. Yet the oil and gas monopolies and their allies, the ruling class based especially in Santa Cruz, will be determined to frustrate such a move. Shortly after the election Morales went to Santa Cruz to tell local leaders ‘I do not want to harm anybody, I do not want to expropriate or confiscate any assets. I want to learn from the businessmen’, promising to speed up the development of a privatised mining project in El Mutun which contains 70% of the world’s known reserves of manganese. On the other hand, he has said he would nationalise the country’s national resources, and speaking of the existing oil and gas contracts said ‘Many of these contracts signed by various governments are illegal and unconstitutional. It is not possible that our natural resources continue to be looted, exploited illegally, and as the lawyers say, these contracts are legally void and must be adjusted.’ Prior to privatisation in 1997, the nationalised oil company YPFB contributed $350-400m annually to Bolivian state coffers; in 2005, foreign companies contributed only $110m during a time when proven gas reserves had quadrupled.

Second, there is the constituent assembly which is scheduled for August 2006. Along with nationalisation, its convocation has been a central demand of the anti-imperialist workers’ and peasant organisations. The political institutions in Bolivia are irredeemably racist. In a country where 65% of the population are indigenous, Morales is the first indigenous person ever to have been elected president. During the campaign, Quiroga referred dismissively to the possibility of an ‘Indian’ achieving such office. The institutions are also completely corrupt: deputies and senators are usually businessmen who use their political influence to further their financial interests. The anti-imperialist organisations see the constituent assembly as a vehicle for establishing a popular democracy; what however has not been agreed is on what basis it should be convened, and with what forms of representation.

Third, there is the land question. According to the October 2005 United Nations report, 100 families in Bolivia control over 25 million hectares of land, while two million campesinos have five million hectares. Internationally, the average wealth discrepancy between the richest 20% of the population and poorest 20% is 30:1; in Bolivia it is 90:1. In Santa Cruz and Tarij, state grants of land under existing agrarian reform laws in the 1970s were allocated to cronies of the then president, Hugo Banzer. Some individuals and families received grants in excess of 100,000 hectares. However, these lands were not unoccupied: indigenous people lived there. Since then there have been campaigns uniting indigenous people and poor settlers moving in from the west; in 2001-02 10 campesinos were murdered in land settlement campaigns. The struggle has continued with demonstrators being attacked viciously by fascists in Santa Cruz city during May 2005.

Lastly there is the coca eradication campaign that the US has imposed on the country as a precondition for $150m annual aid. Morales came to national prominence as a leader of the coca growers in the 1990s, and he has always made it clear that he will stop the eradication campaign which impoverished many coca growers unable to make a living out of substitute crops. This will mean that the government will ask US anti-narcotics forces which have been in the country since the 1980s to leave. A further $598m in aid is at stake from the US Millennium Challenge Account, which the US gives to those countries which it regards as on the right development path.

In a recent Counterpunch article (4 January 2006), James Petras paints a very pessimistic picture of the outcome of the Morales government. Starting with Morales’ equivocal record during the great struggles of the last three years: his support for Mesa in 2003 and for the gas referendum in 2004, his attempts to demobilise the struggle in March 2005, and then to cut a deal in June to defuse the crisis, Petras argues that Morales will not offer a serious challenge to neo-liberalism. However, there is no mention of the role of the anti-imperialist workers’ and peasant organisations and the forces they organise. In December 2005, these came together in the first Congress of the National Front for the Defence of Water and Basic Human Services. It included the Cochabamba Water Co-ordinating Committee and El Alto FEJUVE. As the leader of the struggle against water privatisation in Cochabamba Oscar Oliveira said, ‘we are creating a movement, a non-partisan social-political front that addresses the most vital needs of the people through a profound change in power relations, social relations’. Petras also neglects to consider the increasingly important role that Cuba and Venezuela are playing in pushing forward a process that is taking place across the whole of Latin America. An increasing assertion of political and economic independence is creating conditions where the masses can find the way to solve the problems of poverty and decay that are the legacy of neo-liberalism and imperialist domination. Above all, whatever Morales’ intentions might be, the future of the struggle lies with the popular organisations of Bolivia.

FRFI 189 February / March 2006


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