Bolivia: Social movements on the march again

On 8 January, tens of thousands of supporters of Bolivia’s social movements fought police on the streets of Cochabamba city as they demanded the resignation of its governor, Manfred Reyes Villa. In December, Reyes Villa had declared his support for opposition ruling class parties which are demanding that every new article that the Constituent Assembly approves must have a two-thirds majority. In addition he called for a re-run of last July’s referendum on departmental autonomy in Cochabamba. Cochabamba had voted by 63% to 37% against greater self-government, along with the majority of the rest of the country. Reyes Villa wants to overturn this result so that Cochabamba joins the four wealthy eastern regions in moving towards a break-up of the country. The ruling class hopes that this Balkanisation strategy will defeat the government of President Evo Morales.

Morales responded by firing the Cochabamba police chief for the decision to fire teargas at protestors. Since then social movements have continued daily demonstrations and fought Reyes Villa’s overwhelmingly middle class supporters in the streets; two people were killed on 11 January and hundreds injured. Reyes Villa has fled Cochabamba and taken up residence in Santa Cruz; the social movements are now discussing the establishment of an alternative administration in Cochabamba – shades of Oaxaca. Reyes Villa, a very wealthy man, is notorious as the former Cochabamba mayor who signed a contract with Bechtel privatising the water supply, precipitating the 2000 ‘water war’.

The Bolivian ruling class has been caught out by the success of Morales’ limited reforms. The partial gas nationalisation has already been worth hundreds of millions of dollars to the economy, allowing Morales to raise teachers’ salaries by 10%. The land reform he has enacted is a threat to the 14 families who hold 12,000 square miles of mainly unused land in the departments of Santa Cruz and Beni. On 10 January, Morales announced that he would proceed with the nationalisation of the mining industry in 2007.

Ruben Costas, president of the Santa Cruz Civic Committee, announcing a ‘town meeting’ for 15 December voiced the separatist ambitions of the ruling class: ‘At this meeting, we will mark out the path of the “Nation of the Lowlands” and Bolivia. We will all be there, and together we will sing, as always, our shout of freedom, our shout of independence’. Cochabamba, however, shows that the social movements of the Bolivian working class and peasantry are mobilising again, and they will be pushing Morales to stand firm against the separatist machinations of the ruling class.

Robert Clough

FRFI 195 February / March 2007


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