Bolivian working class on the march

Cochabamba! Water War in Bolivia, Oscar Olivera, South End Press 2004, ISBN 0-89608-702-6, £10.99

Patterns of protest: politics and social movements in Bolivia, John Crabtree, Latin America Bureau 2005, ISBN 1-899365-71-0, £7.99

The key task facing the Bolivian people is the completion of the national-democratic revolution in conditions where the ruling class – a tiny minority – has taken the country’s resources and handed them over to imperialism, and where the political institutions of the state have become the private clubs of these robbers. The questions that follow are: what are the key demands that express their class interests most clearly, and around which they can unite other social strata? And how will the working class and oppressed exercise their leadership in this process?

The people have already answered the first question: the nationalisation of hydrocarbon resources and the establishment of a Constituent Assembly were the slogans that united urban and rural workers, peasants and sections of the middle class in the insurrection that toppled President Mesa in early June. Nationalisation of hydrocarbon resources expresses the aspiration of the people to take back that which has been stolen by imperialism courtesy of the Bolivian ruling class. The call for a Constituent Assembly is perhaps less well understood outside the country, but those who want to know more about its background and significance should read Cochabamba! – Water War in Bolivia by Oscar Olivera.

Olivera, a factory worker and union leader, was the leader of the Coordinadora de Defensa del Agua y de la Vida which led the struggle against water privatisation in Cochabamba in 1999-2000. The victory of the people of Cochabamba against the US corporation Bechtel in April 2000 was a defining moment in the struggle, not just of the Bolivian people against imperialism, but also in that of the whole of Latin America. Olivera narrates the development of the struggle, the way new popular and democratic forms of organisation emerged, and how different sectors of the population were brought together to defeat the multinational and the Bolivian ruling class.

Water management had long been a major problem for people in and around Cochabamba. Farmers had established local committees for the purpose; these would invest in development of wells and agree how to distribute water for irrigation purposes. Within Cochabamba itself there were co-operative water houses for the half of the population which did not have piped water. Law 2029, which was the framework for privatisation, expropriated all this infrastructure without any compensation and then handed it over to a consortium led by Bechtel. It allowed the company to cap any privately-owned well. It even forbade the installation of cisterns to collect rain-water. Everything was to be handed over to the new company. The law itself was established at the behest of the World Bank, which had in June 1999 demanded the privatisation as a condition of new loans, and which had also insisted there be no ‘public subsidies’ for the poor of Cochabamba. The law was passed three months later, and in November Bechtel took control. This whole process was undertaken in conditions of great secrecy, necessary to obscure the immense corruption involved.

The entire experience was the stimulus for the concept of a Constituent Assembly which first gained expression in September 2000. Two essays in the book, ‘For a Constituent Assembly’ and ‘Petroleum and natural gas: reconquering our collective patrimony’, are particularly important in explaining this. The Assembly gives a ‘non-party content to the social movement of the last few years’; ‘through it, working men and women recover the ability to participate in, to discuss, and to decide collective issues in a direct manner, without intermediaries, and without the patronage of “advisors” or “experts”; it ‘should be understood as a great sovereign meeting of citizen representatives elected by their neighbourhood organisations, their urban or rural associations, their unions, their communes.’ (p136). Further, ‘The Constituent Assembly is a form of recovering and exercising political sovereignty, that is, of gaining the capacity to make and to execute public policy. This capacity is currently mortgaged to the political parties...The Constituent Assembly does not seek to become the government, but to create the space where the people can decide their own future. It recovers the very first premise of a republic “Sovereignty resides in the people”. In this way it sets in motion a general transformation of political institutions to correct the present situation of exclusions and lack of political rights of the citizenry.’ It should be noted that in the Bolivian context, those who are excluded – the working class and oppressed – also happen to be overwhelmingly indigenous in origin: the ruling class especially in Santa Cruz expresses itself in more or less racist terms.

Nationalisation – the recovery of economic sovereignty – has now been coupled with a Constituent Assembly – the recovery of political sovereignty: ‘During the last twenty years, the state apparatus has been administered directly by the business class, what could be called the different sectors of the Bolivian elite.’ This is one peculiarity of Bolivian politics: there is no class of politicians separate from the Bolivian business class. Former president de Lozada was the second richest man in Bolivia, the family of the President before him, Quiroga, has a stake in the country’s airports. Ministers in Bolivian governments are all business men, using their political power to advance their own individual economic interests, in a completely corrupt manner: having committed the greatest robberies during the period of privatisation, they are now no more than ‘vulgar pickpockets’ (p145). Political institutions and the parties that contest within their framework have therefore become completely discredited. Olivera is clear that the basis of the proposed Constituent Assembly excludes such parties with their powers of patronage, the mechanisms through which the tiny minority of the rich seek to extend their influence. Today there are intense debates about how to realise a Constituent Assembly and how to ensure it is a tool for confronting the ruling class. Olivera remains a leading figure in the class-based anti-imperialist movements in Bolivia today, and this book is a very timely reminder of how a single victory can transform the political landscape of a country.

Patterns of Protest sets out to show how new mass organisations have developed over the decade in Bolivia, whom they organise and represent, and the issues over which they have struggled. Not surprisingly, it covers Cochabamba and the Water War, but it also deals with, for instance, the resistance of cocaleros to US-sponsored coca eradication programmes; the fight of the landless and indigenous peoples in Santa Cruz against agribusiness and the Gas War of October 2003. It paints a rich picture of the mass activity of the Bolivian people over the last decade, and for that it is very useful. Yet its political perspective is limited, and that is expressed in its examination of the new popular organisations as mere social movements – as the title implies – rather than class-based anti-imperialist movements in the way James Petras, for instance, has described. The weakness of its theoretical framework – essentially a radical liberalism – means that when it addresses the question of the Constituent Assembly it speaks of it providing a route ‘to build a new social compact by reforming the country’s political institutions’ and hopes that ‘a frank and open dialogue between social and political actors may help create confidence and new institutional devices to mediate and mitigate conflict.’ The aspirations of the Bolivian people are thankfully of a completely different order: it is to sweep away these institutions and with them the system which has imposed such conflict upon them – imperialism.

Robert Clough

FRFI 186 August / September 2005


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