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Stalemate in Bolivia

by FORREST HYLTON

“They can’t make me resign.”
Hormando Vaca Díez, June 9, 2005

“So that history won’t repeat itself, I resign the right to constitutional succession.”
Hormando Vaca Díez, June 9, 2005

I.

On June 9, one of the most eventful days of late in Bolivia, the neoliberal right that has run the country since1985 suffered its second historic defeat since national-popular forces overthrew President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada in October 2003. Indigenous peasant trade unionists and miners from Oruro, Potosí, and Sucre, arriving on foot and by minibus, surrounded Sucre’s Plaza 25 de Mayo to insure that head of the Senate, Hormando Vaca Díez, did not take over as president. Anonymous graffiti in La Paz — where mobilization continued, albeit at a lesser pitch of intensity — expressed a common sentiment: “Hormando ni cagando.”*

Using the tried-and-true tactic of vote buying, Vaca Díez tried to forge a parliamentary majority composed of discredited political parties (ADN, MNR, MIR, NFR) backed by the US Embassy. The embassy’s political advisor, Eduardo Sffeir, had been spotted in Sucre with Sánchez de Lozada’s son-in-law and chief domestic political operator, Mauricio Balcazar. In a meeting with US citizens, Ambassador Greenlee declared US government support for a constitutional succession. Evo Morales and MAS denounced a parliamentary coup with fascist leanings.

Because of the scale of mobilization, parliament — set to convene in Sucre for the first time since the opening salvos of the Federal War in 1898 — was unable to meet. Unionized workers from Avasa went on strike, so airports were closed, and Vaca Díez could not fly back to Santa Cruz, which his followers had been called on to “unblockade”; like all but a few of the departmental capitals (Trinidad, Tarija), Santa Cruz had been surrounded from the countryside.

With warnings of civil war — amplified in the international press ­ coming from right, left, and center, the US State Department recommended evacuation of all non-emergency personnel, and the Spanish embassy planned to evacuate 3,600 citizens. The IMF was also looking to get its people out, as imperial power was on the run. Neither commodities nor people — excepting miners and peasants on their way to join protests — circulated in most of the country. The planned evacuations had to be scrapped, though, and Vaca Díez had no choice but to hole up in his hotel in Sucre, where he gave a press conference accusing Mesa and Morales of directing the uprising that had forced him to be where he was.

 

II.

Though Mesa had resigned, he and Morales continued to dominate official Bolivian politics. On June 7, the day after tendering his resignation, Mesa had given an important radio address demanding that Vaca Díez surrender the privilege of becoming president through succession. Unsurprisingly, the odd couple of Mesa and Morales had incited no uprisings. In less than 24 hours, however, nearly 100 hunger strikes, led by mayors of the capital cities, spread to 7 of 9 departments, with more than 700 overwhelmingly middle class participants demanding nationalization of hydrocarbons, the resignation of Vaca Díez, and the convening of elections. Just as Morales failed to command radical-popular protest, Mesa did not direct the hunger strikes, which were most numerous in his home city, La Paz. As in October 2003, a progressive fraction of the middle class acted in the wake of radical-popular protest to put another straw on the failing neoliberal back.

The process of convergence that distinguished the October insurrection was visible only at the very end of Vaca Díez’ short-lived bid for power; it was not likely to last. In the absence of significant state violence, ties between the progressive groups within the middle class and the radical-popular forces were more tenuous and tension-filled than they had been in October. Furthermore, in June 2005, opposing groups of the middle class organized “self-defense” forces against an imagined enemy that in no way threatened it directly. Initially little more than a thousand people, the ranks of “self-defense” forces expanded rapidly on June 8-9.

Whereas neighborhood activists from El Alto spearheaded the overthrow of Sánchez de Lozada with help from indigenous peasants and miners, in May-June 2005, the latter groups were most prominent in the siege of La Paz and Sucre, while alteños focused on maintaining a general strike that lasted almost three weeks. It effectively crippled the capital, which ran out of fuel and experienced sharp price rises and partial food shortages. The sectors with the least contact with and respect for the “civic order” of the capital were at the forefront of the marches on the Plaza Murillo, and their anger inflamed sensibilities of the city’s well heeled citizens. Some of the latter had their neckties cut in acts of symbolic castration.

Indigenous peasant road blockades jumped from 61 on June 6 to 90 on June 7, to 106 on June 8, reaching a high point at 119 on June 9, although no one political force or social movement controlled their implementation. Seven gas fields — property of Repsol YPF (Chaco) and British Petroleum (Andino) — were taken over by the Assembly of the Guraní People and indigenous frontier settlers, while highland peasants shut off the valves at stations in Sayari (Cochabamba) and Sica Sica (La Paz). According to the head of what remained of the state-owned hydrocarbon enterprise, YPFB, takeovers at Los Penocos, Sirari, Víbora and Yapacaní on June 6-7 reduced the provision of petroleum by more than 3,000 barrels per day. The stock of Repsol, a consortium of Spanish, Argentine, and US capital with fixed assets of $1.2 billion, plus 2,000 square km of territory under exploitation, and 10,000 under exploration, dropped by 1.4%.** Production of cement and beer — two of Bolivia’s only remaining national industries — was also brought to a halt because of blockades and takeovers.

Non-violent but militant protest had proven itself a formidable threat to the reproduction of capital. The rebellion was larger and more broad-based than any other since October 2003, but in spite of the esprit de corps of indigenous peasants and miners, there was no political center of gravity or strategy for self-government. On June 9 in El Alto, the radical-popular bloc — made up of the miners’ union (FSTMB), regional trade union central (COR), neighborhood association federation (FEJUVE), the indigenous peasant union (CSUTCB-Túpac Katari), the national trade union central headquartered in La Paz (COB) — established a five-point program. In a mass assembly held in the offices of the FEJUVE, it was decided:1.) That El Alto was to be the “general barracks of the Bolivian revolution of the twenty-first century,” 2.) To conform an Indigenous Popular Assembly (Asemblea Popular Originaria) as an instrument of national power led by the above-mentioned organizations, 3.) To form self-provisioning, self-defense, media, and political commissions, 4.) To keep up incessant struggle for the nationalization and industrialization of gas, 5.) To form of Popular Assemblies at the departmental level under the direction of the Regional Workers’ Centrals (COR), 6.) To reject elections or a constitutional succession.

The political profile of radical-popular forces was becoming clearer over time, but as is generally the case in Bolivia, rhetoric outstripped action, and neither the head of the COR not the leader of the FEJUVE was present for the drafting of the final document; once President Rodríguez met with movement leaders in El Alto on June 12, all except for Aymara peasants agreed to demobilize. Perhaps most remarkable about the meeting of the ASPO and its final document, however, was the tendency it expressed toward greater organic unity between miners, alteños, and Aymara peasants from the provinces of La Paz, who had led the fight to remove Sánchez de Lozada in October 2003. Less certain were the chances of forging cross-class/ethnic alliances on the basis of a maximalist program, or sustaining the revolutionary momentum.

Yet without maximalist pressure, it is doubtful that even moderate change would have happened. In a veiled threat against the reactionary bloc represented by Vaca Díez, the head of the Armed Forces, Admiral Luis Aranda, declared on the afternoon of June 9 that “society is demanding profound transformation.”*** The military’s announcement was decisive in preventing Vaca Díez from assuming power, for a State of Seige, and hence military support, would have been necessary to “pacify” insurgent social movements led by miners and peasants. Earlier on June 9, Juan Carlos Coro Mayta, a 52 year-old mining leader and father of four, was shot and killed in Salancachi, Chuquisaca, when miners clashed with police and soldiers. Lethal force had not been authorized by former president Carlos Mesa, who had secured his place in history by refusing to use state violence in order to maintain a neoliberal order to which he was deeply committed. It made little sense to begin killing after he had resigned.

Though Vaca Díez blamed Mesa and Morales for the death of Coro Mayta, the mayor of La Paz, Juan del Granado, assigned responsibility to Vaca Díez and the “machinery of death” he wielded, as did Morales, miners, and the rest of Bolivian social movements. Political polarization in a growing vacuum, with the added element of state violence, only weakened rightwing forces from the southeast that were ultimately unable to impose their collective will on a majority that rejected their right to govern. Late into the night of June 9, thousands of peasants and miners held cabildos and vigilias in Plaza San Francisco in La Paz and Plaza 25 de Mayo in Sucre, awaiting their victory. For they, much more than progressive sectors of the middle class, had determined the balance of political power that forced Vaca Díez to eat his words. When Vaca Díez effectively turned over power to Eduardo Rodríguez, President of the Supreme Court, at 11:30 PM on June 9, he did not bother to disguise his rage. To everyone’s astonishment, though, he also railed against international financial institutions, which he named as the culprits of Bolivia’s misery.

 

III.

The possibility of a neoliberal restoration in the country with the highest percentage of indigenous people in the Americas lasted less than a week, for militant direct action — marches, blockades, takeovers, and strikes — prevented it from becoming a reality. The scope of mobilization forced the military to decide whether it was willing to repress popular protest, and since it was not, Vaca Díez had no chance of assuming the presidency. The bloc from Santa Cruz that angled for a restoration has a material basis in soy, logging, cattle ranching, and to a lesser degree, oil and gas exploitation controlled by the multinationals. Politically, MIR, ADN, the fraction of the MNR aligned with Sánchez de Lozada, as well as the Civic Committee of Santa Cruz, entrepreneurial associations, and the multinationals supported parliamentarians from Santa Cruz. These had made every effort to obstruct discussion of the October Agenda in parliament in order to push the January Agenda through.

The southeastern-based neoliberal right was reactionary in two senses: first, the January Agenda responded to radical-popular protest and organization in El Alto against Suez, the French multinational water giant. Second, it defended a racist, unrepresentative status quo favoring a tiny white minority at the expense of the indigenous majority. The January Agenda of regional autonomy for Santa Cruz (and, by extension, Tarija) would keep potential revenue from natural gas exploitation in the hands of multinational companies and comprador oligarchs. This would prevent them from being used to fund infrastructure, land reform, health care, education, and other public services (water, electricity, gas, sewage) a la venezolana. In a cruel irony, the cruceño elite had benefited from massive state subsidies to agro-business from the late 1950s through the 1970s, then profited from neoliberal reforms in the 1980s and 90s, and benefited from large budget deficits and accumulating foreign debt after 1999. One unexpected but entirely foreseeable consequence of neoliberal reforms was the narcotics boom, in which lowland elites made much greater economic gains than the coca growers’ movement. As deliriously out of touch as ever, in June 2005, Sánchez de Lozada pinned the blame for the country’s regional, ethnic, and class divides on Colombian narcotraffickers, who were said to be plotting a return to Bolivia.

More than any other party, MIR — with its notorious ties to the drug trade (narcovínculos) — symbolized the “old corruption” of the 1980s and 90s, and Hormando Vaca Díez was the best (and worst) the decaying neoliberal order could muster. Though as mentioned, the US Embassy reportedly supported a constitutional succession, it may have been wary of betting on a dead horse. The US government looks to create a “stable investment climate” for petroleum capital, and aspiring rulers like Vaca Díez have to prove they can provide the requisite guarantees. If they cannot, imperial support tends to evaporate. Vaca Díez had badly overestimated his own reach, but he may be able to make good on threats to obstruct parliamentary proposals on nationalization and the constitutional assembly. Hence he may yet prove useful to the maintenance of the decrepit political system.

The resignation of Vaca Díez demonstrated the extent to which radical-popular, extra-parliamentary mobilization could set limits from below — in partial articulation with the parliamentary opposition (MAS) — on elite machinations. In that sense, it marked a clear victory for the radical-popular bloc, the second most important after the defeat of Sánchez de Lozada. The same cannot be said of Mesa’s resignation. Though his inability to govern was manifest in May and June, there is no reason to suppose that elections in December will resolve the apparent impossibility of bringing together the conflicting agendas of January and October. The coalition represented by Vaca Díez had called for Mesa’s renunciation on several occasions, and saw early elections as a way of derailing the October agenda.

 

IV.

While protests, blockades, takeovers, and marches had been temporarily suspended by Monday, June 13, demands for nationalization of hydrocarbons and a constitutional assembly had yet to be addressed, and nothing indicated that they would be through elections. If radical-popular creativity is channeled along electoral lines, MAS may benefit at the expense of insurgent social movements, the strategic unity of which would likely remain at the level of diffuse desire without a program for self-government. Radical democratic energies could easily get diverted into liberal democratic avenues (with the promise that under MAS leadership, liberal democracy would some day move toward radical democracy). This would probably be temporary, since parliament has thus far proven incapable of handling nationalization or the constitutional assembly.

Parliament could become the absent center around which mass politics of the left and right turn. The executive branch is almost certain to be even weaker than it was under Mesa. The neoliberal right talks of carrying out its own referendum on autonomy in Santa Cruz if the central government does not, while the indigenous-driven left in the western highlands threatens to hold its own popular assembly if a more inclusive, representative assembly does not materialize in parliament. Alternative poles of sovereignty could easily emerge, further debilitating the state’s fragile power over civil society. If the right relies on the obstructionist tactics recently employed in parliament, radical-popular forces may pressure the president to issue executive decrees. President Rodríguez, however, has already declared his unwillingness to take action on these issues, and has no agenda other than calling elections in December. That may not be enough to halt the dynamics of political polarization, and is more likely to prolong the agony of stalemate, especially given that Congress has agreed not to touch either the January or the October Agenda.

The current impasse calls to mind the UDP period, in which a center-left coalition came to power on the back of mass protest against General García Meza, the last and most criminal of Bolivia’s military dictators. The UDP began with a national-popular victory, but the coalition quickly splintered, leaving President Hernando Siles isolated and powerless in the face of rising strike activity. On the left, strikes were led by miners, students, and indigenous peasants, and on the right, by the Santa Cruz Civic Committee and entrepreneurial associations. With annual inflation at 24,000%, Siles was forced to call early elections and Victor Paz Estensorro, “father” of the national revolution of 1952, took over with his fraction of the splintered MNR regime. Paz Estenssoro united elites across the country and pulled the middle class — including many of its progressives — into the fold as he repressed miners and entrusted the design of neoliberal architecture to a young, American-educated technocrat, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada.

The parallels are sufficiently obvious so as not to require comment. Changes are less apparent, but perhaps more striking. When Paz Estenssoro won the presidency, he was a figure of enormous political stature, a god among mere mortals, and the MNR, in spite of its bitter internal divisions, was still a party with a formidable clientelist machine. Elites were united rather than divided, and there was a blueprint for change that brought Bolivia more tightly into the orbit of the Washington Consensus. Now, there is no hegemonic plan because of elite fragmentation, which cruceño elites have only fomented. Since caudillo politics are unlikely to disappear from popular movements with indigenous and peasant roots, horizontal alliances among the movements will have to confront personalist projects if they are to capitalize on intra-elite discord. There is now no COB (its current incarnation being a shadow of its former self) to mitigate sectoral, regional, and ethnic-class differences within the radical-popular bloc. The formation of an Indigenous Popular Assembly would represent a hopeful development, but elections could short-circuit the kind of dedicated organizing needed to help it succeed.

Although protest politics in Bolivia are more effective and better organized — especially among the rank-and-file — than elsewhere in Latin America, it is difficult to see how they could serve as a model for social transformation in a region where 220 million people live in poverty. Nevertheless, since Latin America currently displays stronger tendencies toward radical social change than any other region of the world, outcomes in Bolivia will give us a better sense of what gains are possible for popular insurgencies in an age of permanent planetary warfare. Struggles in Bolivia thus reverberate beyond national and regional arenas; their significance is global.

FORREST HYLTON is author of An Evil Hour: Colombia in Historical Context (forthcoming from Verso), as well as co-editor of Ya es otro tiempo el presente: Cuatro momentos de insurgencia indígena, the second edition of which is forthcoming from Muela del Diablo. He can be reached at forresthylton@hotmail.com.
Notes:

* Rough translation: “Hormando not even while shitting.”

** In a previous article, it was asserted that Repsol YPF would suspend its investments in Bolivia. That decision was amended: by June 8, Repsol was “studying the possibility” of investing. The article described the company as being dominated by US shareholders, but its website lists 27.1% of shares controlled by Spain, 21.7% by the US, and 24.1% by investors from the rest of the world (mainly Argentina). Which raises the question: who owns the remaining shares?

*** In a previous article, Marcelo Antezana was named as head of the Bolivian Armed Forces. Antezana is head of the Army’s Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Sources: BBC Mundo, Bolpress, Canal Universitario, CNN en Español, private communication with Linda Farthing, The Financial Times, The British Guardian, Indymedia Bolivia, private communication with Tom Kruse, La Prensa, Narco News, The New York Times, Página 12, PAT, Radio Erbol, RPT, The Scotsman, Telepaís.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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