Battle for Bolivia

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On 6 June, President Mesa was finally obliged to submit his resignation following massive and escalating protests by the Bolivian working class and peasantry. That day, some 400,000 people had participated in a cabildo (open assembly) in the centre of the capital La Paz. Their demands, for nationalisation of the country’s hydrocarbon (gas and oil) reserves and the formation of a transitional government representing workers, peasants and sections of the middle class, were a complete rejection of imperialism and of a local ruling class which had sold their country’s wealth to foreign multinationals. Robert Clough reports.

The latest round of mobilisations started in the middle of May (see FRFI 185) when Congress approved a hydrocarbon law which fell far short of nationalisation. From 23 May, FEJUVE, the neighbourhood alliance from El Alto, led a general strike within the city in collaboration with the El Alto Regional Workers’ Confederation (COR), and, along with other working class and peasant organisations, placed the neighbouring La Paz under blockade. Daily demonstrations within La Paz attracted tens of thousands of supporters. Travel to and from neighbouring Peru and Chile was cut off. Elsewhere, demonstrations took place in Cochabamba, whilst the Potosi Departmental Workers’ Confederation called for an indefinite general strike to start on 2 June. In Santa Cruz, centre of the gas and agribusiness cartels, a 48-hour strike of bus workers took place, and a march of indigenous people was attacked by the fascist Cruzista Youth Union. Others, such as Oscar Olivera, leader of the Gas Coalition and Felipe Quispe, leader of the indigenous confederation CSUTCB, supported the El Alto general strike call. On 24 May, MAS leader Evo Morales was shouted down for not supporting the call for nationalisation. A truce took place on Thursday 26 May in observance of the Corpus Christi religious holiday, but Morales’ call for it to be extended to 31 May was ignored. The next day demonstrators were back in force.

The ruling class was in disarray. In desperation, it turned to the church; over the weekend Cardinal Julio Terraza tried to broker a deal with President Mesa, the right-wing Santa Cruz leader and Congress President Hornando Vaca Diez, President of the Supreme Court Eduardo Rodriguez and Evo Morales. The proposal, which Morales endorsed, was to agree to a Constituent Assembly at the same time as calling for a referendum on departmental autonomy – a key condition as far as the gas cartel in Santa Cruz was concerned. Meanwhile the Church called for an end to the blockades and strikes. On Monday 30 May, up to 50,000 people assembled in La Paz, and even more the following day. Miners threw sticks of dynamite, Aymara peasants tried to break up Congress. The answer of the masses was clear. Two Bolivian army colonels appeared on a private TV station supporting the demands of the people; they were hastily dismissed. It was evident that there were already divisions in the army, and reports were soon circulating about divisions within the police, with the 1st Regiment refusing to ‘gas our women and children’. Neither development was surprising: the rank and file of both is overwhelmingly indigenous in origin and would naturally support the demands of the people. On 1 June, Aymara people from Omasuyos province attacked one of their leaders, the radical Gualberto Choque, in a call for a more radical mobilisation, and then declared ‘We will sack this city tomorrow if there is no solution.’

By Friday 3 June, there were 46 peasant blockades in place across the country. Oil installations and refineries in Santa Cruz and Cochabamba departments (belonging to Repsol and BP) were under occupation by Guarani and Aymara peasants. Three hydroelectric power plants were also taken over, workers shut down valves on a pipeline taking gas to Chile, whilst peasants blew up a canal taking water to La Paz. All sectors of the population were caught up in the struggle. Mesa’s position was becoming untenable. He could not depend on military support even if he had wanted to. He had lost the support of the ruling class for his failure to repress the demonstrations. On the Monday, there was an expectation that he would have to resign. The 400,000 people who poured into the centre of La Paz to participate in the cabildo represented the working class, poor and oppressed throughout the country. Evo Morales was absent. There were now over 100 blockades in operation. A final effort to bring the two agendas together – that of the ruling class demand for autonomy, and that of the masses for a Constituent Assembly and nationalisation – failed. Demonstrators burned effigies of a cow to show that they would not accept Vaca Diez as a replacement for Mesa (Vaca is Spanish for cow). In the evening, Mesa cut and ran.

The problems of the ruling class were not over. Vaca Diez refused to withdraw his nomination for the presidency. Blockades prevented Congress from meeting in La Paz, so the meeting was adjourned till Thursday to be held in the historic capital Sucre. Immediately the Central Obrera de Bolivia (COB) mobilised 10,000 miners and despatched them to the city. When the meeting convened, crowds demanded nationalisation. Mesa’s resignation was accepted at 10.30am. But for hours, as Congress failed to agree on his successor, tension rose, and at about 5pm people tried to invade the palace. A miner was shot and killed. The crowds refused to disperse. The politicians realised that this was serious, and that appointing Vaca Diez would mean insurrection. Swiftly they moved to agree Eduardo Rodriguez as the least controversial choice, and by the end of the day he had been sworn in as president.

For the moment the Bolivian ruling class was able to stave off disaster. Politics returned to the discredited bourgeois institutions. The class-based anti-imperialist movements demobilised: the blockades had exhausted the people for the present, and their strategy for moving forward was not yet properly developed. As congressional deputies debated the next steps, it was evident that provisional arrangements for a referendum on autonomy in Santa Cruz set for early August would have to be abandoned. By mid-July, agreement had been reached for presidential and congressional elections to be held in December, with a Constituent Assembly and departmental autonomy referenda to be held in July 2006.

Workers, peasants, indigenous people continue to organise
There are now intense debates taking place within the anti-imperialist organisations about how to move forward. A second national meeting of the coalition supporting hydrocarbon nationalisation took place in Cochabamba on 17 July. It was attended by COB, FEJUVE, CSUTCB, COR Oruro, the Federation of Miners, the Federation of Rural Teachers, student bodies and many others. The meeting agreed that no bourgeois government could meet the demands of the people, particularly that for nationalisation. It had no trust in the bourgeois elections due at the end of the year. Instead it agreed that the way forward was to take power and establish a government of indigenous peoples, the poor and working class. In particular it spoke of strengthening the Asamblea Popular Nacional Obreros (Workers’ Popular National Assembly, APNO) which met for the first time on 6 June at the height of the struggle. It also declared that those leaders who agreed to December’s electoral game were traitors. The discussion about a Constituent Assembly acknowledged that the ruling class wanted an assembly which would be entirely toothless. The issue therefore was how to build a genuine one that reflected the interests of the mass of the people. The APNO itself is a possibility. These debates are set to continue throughout the next period, and will be vital in determining the basis for unity between all the various anti-imperialist movements. The latest battle is over; the Bolivian people are now deciding how they will win the war.

FRFI 186 August / September 2005