Is Bolivia on the Edge of Revolution?

Bolivian President Carlos Mesa was driven out of office June 6 following weeks of escalating protests demanding nationalization of the country’s natural gas resources.

Who would succeed Mesa was still uncertain as Socialist Worker went to press, but it was clear that the popular movement against transnational corporate domination of Bolivia’s natural resources and the country’s own native elite had scored a huge victory.

The upheaval in Bolivia is the latest flashpoint in a wave of struggle crisscrossing Latin America-from Ecuador, where the government of Lucio Gutiérrez was toppled in April, to Venezuela, with the sharpening of anti-imperialist sentiment in the face of renewed threats from the U.S.

Latin America has become a crucible, where Washington-backed free-market policies known as neoliberalism are despised by the mass of the population. Capitalism and political systems that serve only the rich may be dealt a series of crippling blows.

Nowhere is the struggle for a society based on soliving the problems and meeting the needs of ordinary people more advanced than in Bolivia.

Tom Lewis is the co-author-with Bolivian popular leader Oscar Olivera-of the South End Press book ¡Cochabamba! Water War in Bolivia, on the struggle for water rights in one of Bolivia’s largest cities. Here, Tom explains the background to the crisis and weighs the prospects for revolution in Bolivia.
WHAT LED to the toppling of Carlos Mesa?

Mass protests have been underway in Bolivia since the middle of May, but they reached a new pitch at the beginning of June when leading sectors among Bolivia’s urban and rural workers rejected the idea of postponing the nationalization of natural gas resources until after a Constituent Assembly.

Bolivia’s Congress had said no to nationalization the week before, but was to consider convoking the assembly and holding a referendum on regional autonomy. As president, Carlos Mesa had already issued a decree calling for the assembly and referendum. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court ruled that only Congress could convene a Constituent Assembly.

But protesters refused to settle for the assembly and referendum-measures clearly aimed at breaking the momentum of the recent mobilizations.

As of the first weekend in June, the capital of La Paz came to a virtual standstill, with its gas supplies exhausted from almost two weeks of continuous roadblocks. Cochabamba and Oruro saw large demonstrations, including the occupation of gas refineries. At the end of the week, the government minister for economic development resigned, revealing a crisis in the Mesa’s cabinet.

In Santa Cruz, where a pro-neoliberal elite wants to secede in order to keep intact their lucrative contracts with transnational petroleum corporations, right-wing gangs violently attacked peaceful pro-nationalization marches by peasants, teachers and health workers. Pro-nationalization protesters encircled the city and cut it off from land access. All told, more than 55 road blockades disrupted the main highways and commerce in seven of Bolivia’s nine departments or states.

Meanwhile, after receiving the green light from Pope Benedict XVI, the Catholic Church in Bolivia called for a national dialogue-to unify the interests of the Bolivian land oligarchy and pro-transnational gas elite of the eastern states, on the one hand, with those of the moderate reform sectors of the popular movements, on the other.

The moderate reform sectors include Evo Morales’s Movement Toward Socialism party (MAS), which, with Mesa, has repeatedly called for Church involvement. Last Sunday, priests called from the pulpit for social peace, the abandonment of “extremism” and the reconciliation of rich and poor.

But unions, social movement organizations and the radicalized base of peasant and indigenous movements clearly rejected this initiative.

As they prepared for a new week of struggle, Mesa announced that he was resigning. Who will become president is unclear. The next two officials in the line of succession are representatives of the pro-neoliberal elite from the eastern provinces and are unlikely to be accepted.

The goal of the elites will be to find someone who can organize early elections-with the hope that Evo Morales will become president, so he can exert some control over the social forces he claims to represent.

But none of this is certain. Everything appears to be up for grabs in Bolivia, including state power. Every outcome to the struggle also seems possible-from a radical revolution that could overturn neoliberalism, to the fracturing of the popular movement, to a military coup, to a foreign military occupation under the auspices of the United Nations or Organization of American States.

What is the background to the current upheaval?

Ordinary working Bolivians are fighting to get rid of the stranglehold that transnational corporations have on Bolivia’s economy. They are also fighting to strip power away from a political elite who they view as in bed with the transnationals–as vendepatrias (corrupt officials willing to sell off Bolivia’s patrimony on the cheap).

Ever since the popular victory achieved during Cochabamba’s Water War in April 2000–when mass struggle defeated a plan to privatize the city’s water system–the struggle of the Bolivian people has focused mainly on reclaiming workers’ and citizens’ control of Bolivia’s natural resources. The experience of throwing U.S.-based Bechtel out of Cochabamba–and of then turning the city’s water service over to the elected representatives of a citizens’ and workers’ self-management team–inspired the confidence and determination of Bolivia’s disenfranchised majority.

Natural gas and oil have been the rallying point of the social movements, unions and indigenous organizations since 2003. In September 2003, a re-launched Coalition for the Defense and Recovery of Gas–the successor of the Water Coalition that led the Cochabamba struggle in 2000–held large demonstrations across the country for the nationalization of natural gas.

These actions coincided with the government’s lethal repression of demonstrations in favor of indigenous rights in the altiplano–the densely populated region surrounding La Paz. Indigenous and gas groups quickly combined forces to carry out intensified mobilizations against the government.

Altiplano peasants, alongside workers from the mostly indigenous “rim” city of El Alto, spearheaded the mobilizations. Over the course of three weeks, some 60 protesters were murdered by troops and police following the orders of then-President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada.

Street battles erupted in La Paz demanding Sánchez de Lozada’s resignation and prosecution. Eventually, the armies of protesters proved overwhelming. After then-Vice President Carlos Mesa and other political figures repudiated the use of lethal force, Sánchez de Lozada fled to safe haven in Miami.

Mesa took over as president and named a cabinet of non-partisan “technocrats.” During an address to an assembled throng in La Paz’s Plaza de San Francisco, he promised to hold a popular referendum on natural gas in 2004.

Why have the social movements continued to oppose Mesa?

When Mesa made known the options to be listed on the 2004 ballot, it became clear that the gas referendum was a trap. The word “nationalization” appeared nowhere, and choices were worded to let Mesa interpret the results in any way he wanted. At that point, the majority of the left, including many of the social movements and the main trade union federation (COB), urged people either to boycott the referendum or deface their ballots by writing “nationalization” across the front.

As expected, Mesa used the referendum results to justify his own neoliberal policies on the gas issue. He vowed that he would neither break nor renegotiate existing contracts with the transnationals. Mesa did agree to have Congress draft a new Hydrocarbon Law, but he expected it would not be much of a blow to the transnationals’ mega-profits.

Last March, however, Congress passed a Hydrocarbon Law that took Mesa by surprise. The new law not only kept an already existing requirement that levied 18 percent royalties on the profits of transnational gas corporations, but it also tacked on another 32 percent in taxes.

Mesa fumed that the law was too anti-transnational. The left saw it as not anti-transnational enough, since the new law left open a number of loopholes. The left also objected to the 18 percent-plus-32 percent formula, preferring a straight 50 percent royalties. There is a crucial difference in Bolivian law between royalties and taxes. Royalties are distributed equitably among Bolivia’s states, while taxes flow directly into the national treasury–leaving the discredited national political elite to decide how to spend them.

Mesa refused to sign the law, but a provision in the Bolivian Constitution allowed the Senate president to promulgate it in the Congress’s name. During the legal contest between the transnationals, the legislature and the executive branch that followed, the Supreme Court shocked the country by declaring all existing contracts with transnational gas companies to be null and void. The Constitution apparently required Congressional approval at the time the contracts were signed, but no one brought them before Congress.

Meanwhile, gas protesters grew tired of the technical debates over royalties. The social movements and unions also mistrust the ability of the various government branches, which are all controlled by the political elite, to resolve the gas issue in the interests of ordinary working people.

Activists began to mobilize around the demand for “nationalization.” This slogan resolved the reigning political confusion by orienting protests on the fundamental question of who finally would control the fate of Bolivia’s natural gas: the Bolivian people or the transnational corporations?

How did the latest phase of the struggle start?

The week of May 16 saw a series of protests directed at Mesa, including a “symbolic takeover” of a gas refinery near Cochabamba and the encirclement of La Paz with road blockades. The mobilization in La Paz involved tens of thousands of people and was coordinated by the El Alto Federation of Neighborhood Associations (FEJUVE), led by Abel Mamani.

By midweek, Roberto de la Cruz of the El Alto Regional Labor Confederation (COR) had called for an indefinite “civic” or general strike to begin May 23. The Gas Coalition’s Oscar Olivera, Jaime Solares of the COB, Felipe Quispe of the Bolivian Peasant Workers Union (CSUTCB), and the leaders of a dozen other organizations, including La Paz miners and teachers, quickly pledged their forces. Marchers paralyzed La Paz from Monday, May 23 until pausing for a truce to observe a religious holiday on Thursday, May 26.

On May 24, indigenous Aymara protesters tried to occupy the Plaza de Murillo and enter the Congress building. At first, they were repelled with police batons and tear gas, but they eventually pushed to within 60 feet of Congress. Government snipers then appeared on top of nearby buildings. The demonstration included large numbers of mineworkers, who responded by hurling dynamite sticks at the snipers. The battle continued throughout the day.

Following the Thursday truce, the MAS called for an extension until May 31. But peasant and indigenous organizations vowed to return on May 30, as did the COB, the COR and the Gas Coalition, in order to keep pressure on the government for hydrocarbon nationalization.

Over the weekend of May 28, Bolivia’s Permanent Assembly for Human Rights (APDHB), proposed a national dialogue virtually identical to the one later presented by the Church. The APDHB urged a “compromise” package that attracted support from the Mesa government and Evo Morales’ MAS. The package called first for the government to guarantee democratic freedoms and human rights. It then went on to call for a dual process of holding an official referendum on regional autonomy and of convening a Constituent Assembly.

The autonomy referendum is obviously meant to placate the transnationals and the wealthy political elite of the oil-rich eastern states of Bolivia, especially Santa Cruz. Local capitalists with ties to the transnationals have threatened secession since October 2003 as a way of avoiding the nationalization of oil and gas.

Last week, the eastern elite announced that their provinces would hold their own autonomy referendum on August 12. They want to hold the referendum before the Constituent Assembly meets, since they would be able to demand a greater share of delegates.

The Constituent Assembly is a promise Mesa made to the social movements and unions as long ago as October 2003, but he has yet to make good on it. Many left groups support the idea of a Constituent Assembly in general, but they disagree on whether the assembly should be convened by the state–as the APDHB and Church proposals provide–or self-convened by the social movements.

Leading sectors of the left, including the FEJUVE, the COR and the COB, see any attempt to convene the Constituent Assembly at this moment as little more than a trap–much like the gas referendum proved to be. The fear is that it will divert energies presently directed at nationalization and revolution into a parliamentary cul-de-sac, enabling neoliberal forces to control the proceedings. This would result in compromises to insure the continued dominance of Bolivia’s economy and society by imperialism and its partners in Bolivia’s ruling class.

Could Mesa be toppled?

The Mesa government is extraordinarily weak. If a fully organized popular alternative existed, the government would have fallen by now. It can still fall in a matter of minutes. Even debates at the top of society over what to do in order to quell the mass rebellion include holding early elections.

Many people outside of Bolivia think that the Evo Morales’s MAS represents the country’s salvation from capitalism’s chokehold. But a glance at the MAS’s actions during and after the Gas War shows this is not the case.

The MAS could have led or formed part of a new anti-neoliberal government in the wake of October 2003. Instead, it lobbied for Mesa’s succession, knowing full well that Mesa differed not one whit from Sánchez de Lozada on economic policy. During the Mesa administration, the MAS has, in fact, acted as a pillar of support for the Mesa government at key moments.

Unlike the rest of the left, for example, Morales campaigned in favor of the July 2004 gas referendum, telling people that voting “yes” on the two key questions would mean imposing 50 percent royalties on transnational oil companies. Of course, Morales was wrong, and it is hard to believe that he didn’t know this beforehand.

The only thing that explains the behavior of Morales and the MAS is their slide into electoralism. Ever since Morales garnered second place and 22 percent of the vote in the 2002 presidential elections, the MAS has directed almost all of its energies into Morales’s upcoming bid for the presidency in 2007.

This means that the MAS has repeatedly sought to contain Bolivia’s social rebellion. If the MAS were thrust into power on the wave of popular revolt, it would risk a dangerous confrontation with U.S. imperialism. The MAS wants to be voted into office instead.

But it is paying a high price in the weakening of its ties to the social movements and its growing “moderation” in order to appear “respectable” to international capital. Morales’s support for Mesa and Bolivia’s existing political system cost the MAS in fall 2004 municipal elections. Despite two years of an electoral focus, it polled only 11 percent nationwide–half of its 2002 total.

This was a wakeup call for the MAS. Morales had to shift left in order to recover at least part of his base among anti-neoliberal activists. He sought to jump to the forefront of the gas struggle in the early months of this year, defending the position of 50 percent royalties over and against the 18-percent-plus-32-percent formula.

Morales’s reunion with the social movements and labor organizations has proven short-lived, however, since he has refused to support the slogan of “nationalization.” Why did he refuse? “Nationalization” flies too much in the face of U.S. and transnational corporate interests.

Indeed, the MAS has latched onto the APDHB/Church proposal and a speedy move toward a Constituent Assembly with relief. The Constituent Assembly, at least as contemplated by the government and the bulk of the reform-minded NGOs, would give both Mesa and Morales what they desperately want: Each could survive politically until the presidential elections of 2007.

What are the prospects for the revolutionary left in Bolivia today?

A broad revolutionary left does exist in Bolivia, but it is only now finding effective ways to work together.

One advantage in Boliva is that unlike most other Latin American countries, the unions and large sections of the organized working class are deeply involved with the struggles of the social movements. The COB and de la Cruz’s wing of the COR are among the most revolutionary sectors in Bolivia. This is a relatively recent development, arising from the ouster back in April 2003 of a corrupt union leadership in bed with the government.

Small revolutionary parties also exist and have made important contributions to the ideas and debates that have emerged in the course of struggle. Most still have difficulty communicating effectively within the social movements, however, because of decades of working in isolation.

The main weakness of Bolivia’s “anti-capitalist” forces has been the lack of clarity about the need to fight for and win state power outside the electoral arena. This seems to be changing rapidly at present. The electoral road is clearly seen as a dead end by large numbers of the rank and file of the social movements today, as well as by movement leaders such as Abel Mamani, Jaime Solares, Roberto de la Cruz and Oscar Olivera.

The shift to the center by Morales’s MAS demonstrates why people increasingly see the MAS as a brake on the struggle. This is same trajectory of betrayal that accompanied the election of Lula and the Workers Party (PT) in Brazil.

Another weakness of the left is the unsettled issue of the place of indigenous self-determination and autonomy in the social revolution. More and more, indigenous organizations and the trade-union and social-movement sectors of Bolivia’s social rebellion are working together to coordinate their actions.

The fight for nationalization and popular control of natural resources has identified neoliberalism as the common enemy and provided the basis for unity in action. Yet unambiguous and universal support for the indigenous right of self-determination has not developed. A clear policy of support is key to a successful revolution in Bolivia, since indigenous peasant workers who were betrayed by the urban-based revolutionaries in the revolution of 1952 and the Constituent Assembly of 1970 still harbor suspicions.

Finally, there is no agreement among the left concerning the goals of the struggle. Many indigenous fighters want to re-establish their historic society. Many “anti-capitalist” protesters fight instead for “nationalization” and a return to the nationalist welfare state that characterized much of Latin America (both in populist and dictatorial forms) from the 1940s through the mid-1980s. This form of state capitalism is remembered for providing close-to-full employment and access to basic services.

Still others are fighting for socialism. Sometimes it is hard to distinguish what some mean by “socialism” from what others mean by “nationalization.” But there are growing numbers who identify “socialism” with urban and rural workers’ self-government; with workers’ self-management of industry, land and natural resources; and with the deepest democracy possible–including the right to self-determination for Bolivia’s indigenous peoples.

Much still remains to be done to win the majority of Bolivians to this idea of socialism, but the events of the next few weeks will offer many opportunities to advance. Success will require consciously revolutionary organization, in which fighters who share such a view of socialism come together in order to strategize and to intervene in struggles–with the aim of winning ever-broader layers of Bolivian society to understanding revolutionary, democratic socialism as a real alternative to U.S. imperialism and Bolivian capitalism.

ALAN MAASS is the editor of the Socialist Worker.

ALAN MAASS is the editor of the Socialist Worker and author of The Case for Socialism. He can be reached at: