Bolivia: Mass movements frustrate opposition terror campaign

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On 10 August the mass of the Bolivian people gave President Evo Morales a resounding endorsement with a landslide 67.4% victory in a recall referendum which also saw the defeat of two ruling class opposition prefects. Robert Clough reports on the intensifying struggle that followed.

The result was a body blow to the Bolivian opposition and its imperialist supporters, who desperately hoped that Morales had lost support since he won the presidency with 54% of the vote in December 2005. The response of the secessionist bourgeoisie in the country’s four eastern departments was to step up a campaign of terror against government offices and indigenous people and embark on a programme of economic sabotage. On 11 September in the north eastern department of Pando, death squads under the direction of secessionist prefect Leopoldo Fernandez sent mercenaries to massacre 30 peasants as they marched to a meeting in support of Morales. Over a hundred are still missing. The response was an explosion of the masses: 600,000 were mobilised to march on Santa Cruz, the centre of reaction; 20,000 workers and peasants blockaded routes into the city whilst tens of thousands marched in La Paz.

Morales referendum victory
The scale of Morales’ referendum victory was staggering. Turnout was an exceptional 83%; in La Paz and Oruro departments, 83% of those voting supported Morales. In the eastern half of the country, 53% supported Morales in Pando department (up from 21% in December 2005) and 50% in gas-rich Tarija (32% in December 2005). In Beni, the proportion voting for him increased from 17% in December 2005 to 42%, and even in Santa Cruz his vote increased from 33% to 38%. Prefects in eight out of Bolivia’s nine departments also faced a recall vote: two allied to the opposition in La Paz and Cochabamba were defeated. Manfred Reyes Villa from Cochabamba had already been physically driven out of the department by the masses for his support for secession. However, prefects in four eastern departments were able to consolidate their local support, fascist Santa Cruz prefect Ruben Costas getting 67% of the vote compared to 48% in December 2005.

In the days following Morales’ victory the ruling class stepped up a campaign of ‘civic disobedience’, attacking Morales supporters, organising road blocks and threatening to occupy
gas fields in the east of the country. On 15 August Costas announced that Morales would not be allowed to set foot in Santa Cruz, and led a ‘civic stoppage’ on 19 August to protest at the government’s plan to use some of the extra gas taxation to pay for its new pensions plan. He denounced Venezuelan President Chavez’ support for Morales in racist terms: ‘No to the big foreign monkeys!’

Social advances of the Morales government
Behind Morales’ victory lie historically unprecedented social and economic advances. Until Morales’ election Bolivia had the highest illiteracy rate in Latin America. A literacy campaign that started in 2006 using Cuban materials with Venezuelan financial support will make Bolivia the third Latin American country after Cuba and Venezuela to eliminate illiteracy. Nearly 730,000 Bolivian adults had completed the three-month programme by July this year; only 100,000 are still to participate. Alongside this Cuban optometrists have treated 250,000 people with eyesight problems and distributed 200,000 pairs of spectacles.
Economically, the nationalisation of key foreign-controlled oil and gas companies has resulted in a huge increase in state income: from about $150m per annum in the years before Morales’ election to $1.93 billion in 2007 and $1.37 billion in the first half of 2008. State control of trade, transport and refining has undermined the position of private intermediaries and subcontractors in Santa Cruz and Tarija departments. The government has also started to invest in the farming sector, manage food prices and intervene in soya bean production and encourage the development of small and medium-sized producers. It has completely eliminated subsidies to large-scale agribusiness worth $140m per annum. High mineral prices mean that the value of mining exports have risen dramatically: from an annual average of $280m in the neo-liberal period to $1,200m by May this year, and mining overall has displaced agribusiness as the second biggest sector of the Bolivian economy. Such developments are eroding the political position of large-scale agribusiness, the principal force behind secessionists in Santa Cruz and the other eastern departments.

Fascists launch terror campaign
The reaction of the opposition to the referendum result was to embark on a programme of economic sabotage through the creation of food shortages through boycotts and roadblocks, but these measures petered out due to the losses suffered by producers and exporters. They therefore moved to direct violence – against indigenous people in Santa Cruz, and against government offices in Beni and Pando. In Beni, prefect Alberto Melgar, gave a ‘deadline’ of 48 hours for the commander of the army’s 6th division, Colonel Fernando Rocabado, to abandon ‘Beni territory’. The colonel declined. In Pando fascists seized a Bolivian air force plane and held three soldiers hostage.

On 15 August, when Santa Cruz prefect Ruben Costas declared that Morales would not be allowed to set foot in his department, he also said and that he would no longer accept a police commander who was neither from Santa Cruz nor approved by Costas. This was the prelude to the ‘civic coup’ as Costas attempted to wrest control of the police from the central government. The fascist militia Youth of Santa Cruz attacked police and troops, and organised raids against Plan 3000, where many of Santa Cruz city’s poor and indigenous people live.

US support for the secessionists was demonstrated by the activities of its ambassador Philip Goldberg. Earlier this year it was revealed that the US embassy had approached Peace Corps volunteers (of whom there were about 150 in the country) asking them to inform on the activities of Cubans and Venezuelans in Bolivia, with whom they were working. USAID has spent huge sums of money on projects within Bolivia, $89 million in 2007 alone, the details of which have been shrouded in secrecy. One project, how–ever, was to ‘help build moderate, pro-democracy political parties that can serve as a counterweight to the radical MAS or its successors’. On 25 August Goldberg had a private meeting with Ruben Costas and then with the opposition prefect of Chuquisaca. The US State Department pointedly failed to offer congratulations to Morales on his victory, nor to condemn the opposition’s violence. In such circumstances, it was not surprising that Morales declared Goldberg ‘persona non grata’ on 10 September, nor that the US retaliated in kind, expelling the Bolivian ambassador, withdrawing its ‘Peace Corps’, and then decertifying Bolivia for aid for its alleged failure to control cocaine trafficking.

However, the US is not in the same position to impose its will as it has been in the past. Only 11% of Bolivia’s exports went to the US in 2006; 46% went to Brazil and 10% to Argentina. Bolivian imports tell a similar story: in 2006, 24.6% were from Brazil, 18.8% from Argentina and 12.2% from Chile, with the US accounting for 9.2%. More important in the longer term will be relations with Venezuela, and with countries such as China, South Korea and India whose Jindal Steel company has secured a joint deal with the Bolivian government to mine the world’s largest existing reserves of iron and manganese in El Muntun.

Massacre in Pando
On 11 September, a band of fascists which included both Colombian and Brazilian mercenaries machine- gunned a march of peasants in the Pando town of El Porvenir on their way to a mass meeting in support of Morales. Although the international media portrayed what happened as a clash between pro and anti-government forces, in fact it was a deliberate massacre. Video on Indymedia Bolivia shows both the unarmed marchers and the death squad, armed to the teeth, preparing its attack, and then firing on the peasants as they tried to escape by swimming across a river. The known death toll stands at 30, although dozens are still missing. After the massacre, Morales declared a state of siege and sent in the military to regain control of the department, ordering the arrest of prefect Fernandez who had been denounced for training a paramilitary force in 2006. Fernandez is now in detention in La Paz on charges of genocide. Initial investigations show that he had turned Pando into a private fiefdom, his prefecture armed to the teeth; he has admitted giving orders to forcefully suppress the protesters.

The response of the Bolivian masses to the massacre was immediate. The umbrella organisation of the workers and peasants, CONALCAM (National Coordination for Change), mobilised hundreds of thousands throughout Santa Cruz department, and established a blockade of Santa Cruz city cutting it off from the rest of the country. Hundreds of thousands demonstrated in Cochabamba where opposition prefects finally agreed to meet with President Morales on 21 September. When the prefects protested at the mass mobilisation, Morales told them that the social movements were not his to control. A situation of dual power has emerged, with the masses determined to ensure that Leopoldo Fernandez faces justice, that no concessions are made to the secessionists during the course of the negotiations, and that there is no sabotage of a referendum on the country’s new constitution.

On Monday 15 September, a UNASUR meeting of nine South American presidents in Santiago de Chile pledged ‘decisive backing of the constitutional government of Evo Morales’, and said they would ‘energetically reject and will not recognise’ acts which break the constitutional or territorial order of Bolivia. Even Colombia’s President Uribe had to agree to the declaration! UNASUR also agreed to send a commission to investigate the Pando massacre. Behind this lies the growing importance of Brazil as a regional power with interests that do not always coincide with those of the US.

Opposition in disarray
The strength of the UNASUR response has rocked the secessionists. A leading Santa Cruz newspaper, El Deber, has announced that this must force the opposition to rethink its tactics, whilst another, El Mundo, has criticised Costas and his ally Branko Marinkovic for underestimating Morales’ drive to retake the departments. Earlier in September a number of representatives of the PODEMOS party were evicted from a meeting of the opposition’s National Democratic Council for criticising the violent tactics of the secessionist forces.

As FRFI goes to press, two factors are now crucial: first, the determination of Morales to continue with his government’s progressive programme, and in particular the extension of land reform to the east of the country, and second, the continued mobilisation of the anti-imperialist social movements. On 24 September, CONALCAM agreed to suspend the blockade of Santa Cruz as a gesture of good faith in the Cochabamba negotiations. However, the secessionist prefects have tried to play for time, insisting that they will not reach any agreement with Morales unless he concedes some further autonomy in advance of a referendum on a new constitution later this year. On 27 September, frustrated with progress in the talks, the United Federation of Workers of the Indigenous People of Chuquisaca decided to re-establish their blockade of Sucre, the department’s capital city. The masses are not prepared to retreat.

Politically the struggle in Bolivia is now of central importance for progressive developments in Latin America. The Bolivian masses are showing that it is possible to construct a new social order, that it is possible to change the world. Socialists must support them and the Morales government.

FRFI 205 October / November 2008