September 2007  
“Andean Capitalism” vs. Permanent Revolution

Bolivia: Evo Morales Against
the Workers and Oppressed

Unionized miners at Huanuni defend themselves with dynamite against attack by government-backed
“cooperativistas,” 5 October
2006. Battle ended in victory for union workers. (Photo: Dado Galtieri/AP)

When Evo Morales won Bolivia’s national elections, becoming the first indigenous president in South American history, the international left almost unanimously hailed this as a victory for the oppressed. Yet as the League for the Fourth International (LFI) warned before, during and after the December 2005 elections, political support to Morales’ regime of “Andean capitalism” is counterposed to the most fundamental interests of the workers, peasants and indigenous peoples. Below is an expanded version of the presentation by Abram Negrete at a forum of the Internationalist Group (U.S. section of the LFI) in New York City on May 7.

Evo Morales’ government in Bolivia is now approaching a year and a half in power. Understanding what this government is and is not, what it has and has not done, is important for understanding the situation not only in Bolivia but in Latin America as a whole.

The Morales government has posed again, in some cases very sharply, the questions of reform or revolution and the nature of social change in Latin America; the relation between democratic issues and the class struggle; the question of how to fight against the oppression of indigenous peoples that goes back to the inception of Spanish colonialism in Latin America. It poses anew the question of how to defeat and uproot imperialist oppression, not just in Bolivia and the Andes, but throughout Latin America.

To put it another way, an understanding of the situation in Bolivia and what the Evo Morales government represents raises all the questions addressed by Leon Trotsky’s program of permanent revolution, a phrase that is featured on the flyer for today’s program. That is, the conception that to resolve each of the issues that I’ve mentioned in favor of the oppressed, the working class must take power at the head of the poor peasantry and the exploited layers of the urban population, seizing the land and industries in a socialist revolution, that in order to survive must extend itself throughout Latin America and into the United States, which is the dominant military, political and economic power in this hemisphere.

A History of Upheaval

One of the most interesting things about Bolivia, and one of the reasons it’s important to look at the current situation, is that Bolivia has been a testing ground for the validity of just about every kind of political program in Latin America. This includes the oligarchic rule of the Liberal elite at the beginning of the 20th century; something called “military socialism” in the late ’30s, with its different flavors of populism; the classic populist regime that came to power in 1952 under the leadership of the Revolutionary Nationalist Movement (MNR – Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario); the guerrilla strategy of Che Guevara in the 1960s; military dictatorships and civilian neoliberal regimes. And now a government that claims to represent a particularly “indigenist” standpoint, that is, one that supposedly uniquely reflects the interests and outlook of the indigenous masses. These are some of the different recipes for managing Bolivian society that have been attempted.

In that sense, because of the convulsiveness of Bolivian society, because of the sharpness with which all social issues are posed, it has also been a laboratory or testing ground for the validity of the conceptions of the permanent revolution posed first by Leon Trotsky in the context of the Russian revolutions of 1905, February 1917 and October 1917. This revolutionary program stands opposed to all the recipes for tinkering with capitalism, from the “two-stage revolution” schemas pushed by Stalin to all the varieties of bourgeois nationalism, whether they dress in a three-piece suit or indigenous attire.

Bolivia is the poorest country in South America and the second poorest in the hemisphere; only Haiti is poorer. By most calculations it is the most indigenous country in Latin America, with about 62 percent of the population referring to or categorizing itself as indigenous and most of the population speaking as its first language either Quechua, which was the language of the Incas, or Aymara, the language of some of the people who have lived in that region since before the Incas conquered it, or Tupi-Guaraní, a complex of languages mainly in the eastern regions.

The indigenous population includes the overwhelming majority of the peasantry and has been historically excluded and oppressed in the most brutal ways. During the heyday of the old regime in Bolivia before the revolution of 1952, if you picked up a newspaper and opened it on just about any day, you could see pictures of Indian people in chains being turned over to the authorities, with a caption about “savages” being imprisoned for infringing this or that regulation. Until the 1952 revolution, indigenous people were often not allowed to enter many of the main plazas and streets of La Paz and other cities.

From out of this indigenous peasantry there arose a working class, centered on the tin miners. It was – and continues to be, despite premature announcements of its supposed demise – one of the most militant proletarian sectors in the hemisphere, which has overthrown one government after another. Its political outlook has been shaped in part, in incomplete and contradictory ways, by concepts derived from Marxist class politics.

In 1952, Bolivia experienced what was called the National Revolution. This was the most extensive revolution in Latin America between the Mexican Revolution of 1910-17 and the Cuban Revolution of 1959. The 1952 revolution nationalized Bolivia’s main tin mines and, under enormous pressure from the peasantry, carried out a land reform. For the first time, it gave the vote to the majority of the population, which had been excluded on the pretext that you had to be able to read and write – in Spanish – in order to vote. There had been very few schools in the countryside and the elite had no interest whatsoever in the indigenous majority learning to read and write. Quite the contrary.

Despite the tin mine nationalization, the land reform and the formal enfranchisement of the indigenous majority, the 1952 National Revolution did not in fact resolve any of Bolivia’s main problems. It did not break its subordination to imperialism, particularly United States imperialism, which soon rebuilt a murderous army for the Nationalist government. It did not lift the country out of its poverty. It did not resolve the question of the land, nor did it change in a fundamental way the racist oppression of the indigenous majority; and it not change the fact that Bolivian miners, as was the case at the beginning of the 20th century, continued and still continue to die on average before the age of 40 because their lungs are shredded by what they call the mal de mina (mine sickness), which is silicosis and basically makes you drown in your own blood.

I do not want to read a long list of facts and figures, but a few may give you an idea of the situation. According to the World Bank, over half of indigenous Bolivians live in what it calls extreme poverty; in the rural areas this rises to 72 percent. The average income for indigenous people lucky enough to have a job is US$63 a month, compared to the average wage for non-indigenous people of US$140 a month. So we are talking, literally, about starvation wages. Indigenous women workers face an unendurable triple oppression that really cannot be affected by the kind of timid reforms proposed by reformist organizations.

As for the land, one hundred families own 25 million hectares of land (that’s about 100,000 square miles). Meanwhile, two million work five million hectares of land (under 20,000 square miles). In other words, even after the land reform carried out and trumpeted by the Nationalist regime that took power in 1952, the concentration of land in the hands of the wealthy has been spectacular. The land hunger of the poor peasantry remains a pressing issue.

Thus it is no accident, given such conditions together with the protagonism of the indigenous-derived miners in national life, that Bolivia was a country where movements claiming allegiance to Trotskyism gained more influence than anywhere else on the continent. We will be talking more about this soon.

Morales’ Election No Victory for the Exploited

So what about Evo Morales? Everyone here probably remembers the coverage he got from different parts of the political spectrum when he won the December 2005 presidential election. Predictably, big-business newspapers denounced him as representing part of what they called a general “lurch to the demagogic left” in Latin America, as the New York Times (24 December 2005) put it. For its part, the international left was bubbling over with enthusiasm for “Evo,” saying that he represented a new kind of radicalism, even a new kind of socialism – a new, non-Marxist, non-class, special kind of radicalism.

They saw him as part of a supposed left-wing realignment in Latin America that included Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, a very vocal supporter of Evo Morales, and Lula’s popular-front government in Brazil. Morales also had the support of Cuba’s Fidel Castro, as we saw at the beginning of tonight’s forum in video footage that included “Fidel and Evo” going around shaking hands, kissing babies and so forth. According to this view, the realignment also included populist-flavored bourgeois regimes in Argentina, Ecuador, Peru and elsewhere.

People who put forward this enthusiastic vision of Evo Morales pointed to the fact, which is indeed significant, that he is the first indigenous president in South America. He is not, as some claim, the first indigenous president in Latin America as a whole: that was Benito Juárez in Mexico, almost a century and a half before Morales. And they point to the fact that “Evo,” who is mainly known by his first name in Bolivia, became a political figure as leader of indigenous peasants who were fighting to defend what they view as their right – and what we as revolutionaries very emphatically view as their right – to cultivate the coca leaf and sell it to whomever they can find to buy it.

The peasant unions fought, sometimes in the face of enormous repression, to defend that right to grow and sell the coca leaf, in the face of the United States’ so-called war on drugs. This “war” is a pretext not only for repression in the ghettos and barrios here in the U.S. but for military intervention in many countries of Latin America, including Bolivia. And it has included the forcible eradication of coca crops, sometimes by Bolivian troops on their own, sometimes together with U.S. “advisors” and soldiers.

With the social base he developed among the coca-growing peasants in particular, Morales formed a nationalistic political party, first called the Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples and then adopting the name MAS (Movimiento al Socialismo–Movement Towards Socialism). As running mate in one of his early presidential campaigns he chose Antonio Peredo, brother of Coco and Inti Peredo, two famous guerrilla combatants who had fought with Che Guevara.

Vice President Álvaro García Linera outside Palacio Quemado in La Paz, January 2007. (Photo: El Internacionalista)

In his most recent, successful presidential campaign, Morales’ candidate for vice president was the country’s most prominent leftist intellectual, Álvaro García Linera, who was once a member of the Tupac Katari Guerrilla Army, named after the Aymara rebel who led a major uprising at the end of the 18th century that encircled the city of La Paz. That rebellion is still on the minds of almost all sectors of Bolivian society. Two years ago, when I was there during the overthrow of then-president Carlos Mesa, rich people who considered themselves part of the “white” elite were talking fearfully about what happened during the Tupac Katari rebellion of 1781 and indigenous people were talking proudly about the 1781 uprising. This history is still very much a part of the country’s political vocabulary.

In any event, Morales chose as his running mate this intellectual who had been imprisoned for quite a while, was badly tortured because of his participation in the guerrilla movement named after Tupac Katari, and subsequently became a social-democratic-tinged ideologue of the MAS political party.

During the 2002 elections, the U.S. embassy had inadvertently boosted Morales’ popularity when it openly warned against voting for him. You can see some of this in the recent film Our Brand Is Crisis.1 In Bolivia the American ambassador has traditionally acted as an imperial proconsul, whose approval was needed for just about everything. If he said “don’t do that,” ministers and presidents were expected to obey, or else. But when U.S. spokesmen repeatedly attacked Morales as a supposed narco-terrorist, this backfired and strengthened his credentials as somebody seen as an anti-imperialist. In the December 2005 elections he won by an absolute majority, with 54% of the vote, something quite unheard-of in Bolivian elections. This was an indication of the degree of popularity he had gained among the indigenous population in particular.

Now according to most of the left internationally, Morales’ election was a victory of the Indian population, of the Bolivian peasantry and the laboring masses in general. They pointed to his wide popularity among that majority, who hoped he would fulfill their aspirations for fundamental social change. At the same time, a number of writers in the big-business press worried that if Morales didn’t make some serious changes pretty quickly, he could be outflanked on the left, with sections of his social base becoming more radical and impatient with the pace of change.

With few exceptions, most currents on the left claimed that Morales’ victory was a victory of the working people of Bolivia. We – as Trotskyists, as Marxists – went very strongly against that rosy view of Evo Morales. We said, on the contrary, before, during and after the election, that his government would not in any sense be socialist. We said that it would betray the aspirations of the indigenous majority; it would emphatically not represent the interests of the Indian population of Bolivia, the working class, or the laboring and exploited population in general.

The League for the Fourth International (LFI) emphasized that the government of Evo Morales would not and could not defeat the aggressive racist campaign waged against the indigenous peoples of the altiplano (the high plateau around La Paz, Oruro and the main mining regions) by the elite sectors concentrated in the eastern part of the country and centered on the agribusiness interests of the Santa Cruz “department” or province.

Not only would Evo’s government not free the country from imperialism, we insisted, but in fact the new government would act as an enforcer for imperialism and the rule of private property, in other words of the ruling class in Bolivia itself. In Marxist terms, despite the illusions spread about it, this would not be some sort of indefinite regime or hemi- semi- demi-radical/whatever government with no class character. It would be a bourgeois government.

This assertion produced gasps of horror at our alleged sectarianism, ingrained intransigence and stubborn unwillingness, through sheer cussedness and overall nasty ultraleftism, one supposes, to recognize this “victory” and the supposed radicalism of the Morales regime. We stated in the publications of the LFI, The Internationalist and El Internacionalista, that we would not give a single vote to Evo and would have absolutely no confidence in his government; on the contrary, we would present a revolutionary opposition to that government.

We pointed out that Álvaro García Linera, an elegant figure often seen in the fashionable cafés of La Paz, had coined a special phrase to describe the program of the MAS. He said it stood for something called “Andean capitalism,” a very special kind of capitalism adapted to the high altitude and special conditions and cultural milieu of the Andes. Sometimes they would add the lowland areas and call it “Andean and Amazonian capitalism” (see “Bolivian Elections: Evo Morales Tries to Straddle an Abyss,” The Internationalist No. 23, April-May 2006). Morales’ vice-presidential running mate said that because of the nature of Bolivia, this Andean capitalism would last for many decades, maybe even a hundred years.2

García Linera is not a neophyte in politics, he is a top-flight intellectual who is famously prolific in his reading and his writing, so he justified this in the vocabulary of those who claim to have gone beyond Marxism to some higher, “postmodern” plane. One of the venues was at a university in Mexico City where he gave a speech and some of our comrades had a kind of debate with him from the floor. García Linera said, listen, you have to understand that there is no more working class in Bolivia – a claim that is echoed, surprisingly enough, by one international tendency that calls itself Trotskyist, as we will see. What you’ve got to understand, he said, is that in Bolivia there is no class struggle any more; instead we have the action of “the multitudes,” las multitudes, which have no particular class character, and this is actually a really good thing. So these multitudes or ever-shifting, amorphous masses have replaced the clash of class against class.

These are some of the rhetorical devices that are swallowed hook, line and sinker by a significant number of ex-leftists. Anyone who recognizes that class struggle does go on is denounced as a dogmatic doctrinaire, and those who persist in participating in it are liable to find themselves repressed (undogmatically, no doubt) by the police and armed forces.

The MAS promised that Bolivia’s problems would be resolved by calling a Constituent Assembly, that is, a convention to rewrite the constitution for the nth time – Bolivia has had a lot of constituent assemblies throughout its history. Evo Morales and his followers said that in some unstated way, this Constituent Assembly would refundar el país (refound the country). Today they say this is part of a “democratic and cultural revolution,” which they sometimes subdivide into “four revolutions,” consisting of a supposed agrarian reform, fomenting “Andean capitalism” rather than the “neoliberal model,” reformulating educational policy, and so on.

When the government reached its one-year mark García Linera thought it was a good time to underline that the so-called revolution “will continue its work so long as we can guarantee the support of workers, small businessmen, peasants, businessmen, the Armed Forces and Police” (La Razón, La Paz, 31 December 2006). In other words, so long as they can subordinate the working people to their exploiters and the armed forces that have carried out so many massacres to defend their rule. So no, this is not four revolutions, or one revolution, or any kind of revolution at all; it is a bourgeois nationalist regime.

How Evo Morales Proved His Usefulness to the Bourgeoisie

We have stressed that to understand the nature of Evo’s government, it’s essential to understand how and why he came to power. How do you explain that the leader of coca-growing peasants, who had been demonized by the U.S. ambassador and the Bolivian right, was able to take the presidency? This was a result of convulsive social struggles starting in the year 2000 with the so-called Water War in Cochabamba, where the right-wing governor of the departamento (province) tried to privatize the city’s water system, leading to massive protests. Particularly key were what came to be known as Gas Wars I and II, which we covered extensively in several articles in The Internationalist No. 17 (October-November 2003) and No. 21 (Summer 2005).

The first Gas War broke out in October 2003 to protest contracts signed with international oil and gas conglomerates by the right-wing president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, known as “Goni.” These contracts basically gave away Bolivia’s gas wealth to hated international energy giants. There were huge protests which were met with massive repression. In previous forums we’ve showed some of the video footage where you could see the army firing on unarmed demonstrators from the hills, shooting dozens of people down. During these protests the country went to the edge of civil war. The question of a workers revolution was posed. This was not our deduction or interpretation, but something that was talked about in the streets, in the markets, on the radio, in the press. The miners played a central role in fighting against the right-wing government with its troops and police.

Here is where we begin to get an answer to the question I just asked. During the events of October 2003 Evo Morales and his party, the MAS, performed a crucial service for the Bolivian ruling class and its North American backers. The MAS played a key role in easing the transition from Goni to his vice president, who had the same politics but a softer image. This was Carlos Mesa, who happens to be a prominent historian and journalist and was seen as a liberal intellectual. And then Morales and the MAS helped prop up Carlos Mesa in power.

But when Mesa’s government, continuing Goni’s basic policies, promulgated a new gas and oil law, the protests renewed in Gas War II. In May and June 2005, massive protests and street fighting broke out, spearheaded, once again, by the miners. Indigenous peasants, poor people from the cities and students grouped themselves around the miners, who used their dynamite to defend themselves against army sharpshooters and military police. There was an enormous polarization of the country: the Santa Cruz elite, grouped around hard-line right-wing politicians who were trying to take over the presidency, vowed to meter bala: to shoot bullets into the Indian masses. They sharply escalated racist rhetoric against the indigenous population, whom they denounced as savages and barbarians.

The country was once again on the edge of a civil war, culminating in the demonstrators driving Congress out of the capital: the Bolivian parliament had to run away from La Paz! Congress tried to set up shop in Sucre, one of the other main cities, where they were going to proclaim a right-wing government and perhaps a new state of siege. It came to a head when miners and peasant contingents were converging on Sucre and Juan Carlos Coro Mayta, a mine cooperative leader, was assassinated by an army sniper. I heard nightly discussions: is there going to be a military coup, is there going to be a civil war in the full sense, what are the conditions that could lead to a revolution, there is no revolutionary leadership at this point that could defeat the bourgeoisie and carry out a successful uprising, and so forth.

At that moment Evo Morales and the MAS stepped in, as mediators to cool the situation out for the ruling class with another transition to yet another president from the same bloc of parties that had been in power. They wound up turning the presidency over to the head of the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the leaders of the slum dwellers’ associations of El Alto (the large, mainly Aymara working-class city just above La Paz), and the leaders of the El Alto regional labor confederation, organized a kind of side show. Together with people from the various left parties, including those who call themselves Trotskyists, they pulled together something they called the Asamblea Popular (People’s Assembly) and then the Asamblea Popular Nacional Originaria (National and Indigenous People’s Assembly) or APNO.

During its brief existence, the APNO provided a platform for radical speeches and revolutionary rhetoric, but at the crucial moment the assembly’s main leaders helped the MAS turn over the reigns of power to the new president, who agreed to call early elections. Not accidentally, the leader of the El Alto slum dwellers’ association, Abel Mamani (who had been presented as a hero internationally by much of the left), was rewarded with a cabinet post when Evo Morales was elected six months later. He is a minister without portfolio, responsible for water. These guys showed they could chill the situation out for the ruling class. So half a year after the upsurge of May-June 2005 they were brought in to do just that. This was not a risk-free gamble for the bourgeoisie, since it did raise a lot of expectations among the indigenous poor, but the traditional parties had burned themselves out and the ruling class needed new faces in office to keep the old order from going under.

Gestures, Rhetoric and Reality

Evo Morales (at right) in ceremony before his inauguration, at pre-Inca ruins of Tiawanaku, 21 January 2006. 
(Photo: David Mercado/Reuters)

Morales took office with a series of symbolic gestures. In a video of his inauguration, which is sold at market stalls around the country, you get a look at how he changed the presidential outfit when he took office. You wouldn’t believe how big a deal was made out of this. Instead of wearing a regular three-piece suit, he had some patches of Andean textiles sewn in. He had many, many pictures taken with Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez. Before the official swearing-in, he went to Tiawanaku, the pre-Inca ruins shown in the video, and had a ceremony with yatiris (Aymara priests). At his inauguration, he spoke about the historic oppression of native peoples in Bolivia, and called for a minute of silence for Manco Inca, the last Inca ruler, killed by Spanish conquistadors after an unsuccessful rebellion; Tupac Katari, whom I mentioned earlier; Tupac Amaru, leader of a major uprising in colonial Peru; Che Guevara, and many others.

But in this same speech, after talking about the centuries of racist oppression dating back to the Spanish conquest, he went out of his way to give “a special greeting to the Prince and, above all, a special greeting to the Queen.” Guess which prince and queen? Of Spain. He told about visiting the royal family in Spain; it was cold there, and he caught a cold. Then he went to the queen and she got him some cold medicine. And so she went “from Queen to doctor for Evo Morales, thank you so much,” he said in his inaugural speech. So even at the symbolic level, you can see the balancing act. Homage to a series of heroes of the struggle against oppression. And then he turns around and makes special homage to his friend, the Queen of Spain.

It makes you want to say: Hello, who was it that carried out the Conquest? Who exactly carried out what Marx [in Capital] called the “enslavement and entombment in mines of the indigenous population,” leading, according to some estimates, to the death of five to six million in the mines of Potosí alone? It was under the rule of the Spanish Crown. Only after centuries did it gave way to United States imperialism as the dominant oppressor. So there was a point to Evo’s anecdote: he was telling the imperialists, especially those of Europe (who have had to become more sophisticated than their U.S. rivals) not to take the anti-colonial discourse too seriously.

Among the other symbolic gestures Morales made when taking office, he named a former maid as minister of justice; he appointed as ambassador to France the great Quechua singer from Norte Potosí, Luzmila Carpio. He cut his own salary and that of the vice president and ministers. His foreign minister made some demagogic statements, like saying school children should get coca instead of milk for breakfast. These were like the former Ecuadoran populist president Abdala Bucaram telling the poor to take bottle caps and scratch rich people’s limousines: posturing that might irritate the upper crust and win some cheap popularity but was not to be taken seriously. In his second cabinet, named at the beginning of this year, Morales brought many leftists into the government, including several from the pro-Moscow as well as the Maoist Communist parties, plus former leaders of the miners’ union and of the COB labor federation. So he put faces from a range of “popular movements” into his cabinet.

In populist style, he used these and other symbolic gestures and rhetoric to dress up actions that serve the ruling class. As soon as he took power, he emphasized that he would respect what in Latin America is called the “institutionality of the armed forces,” in other words the armed forces and officer corps would remain intact. This is particularly important if you remember that in Chile, the first thing Salvador Allende did when he was elected president in 1970 – as the head of the Unidad Popular, a “popular front” of class collaboration – was to swear to maintain the “institutionality of the armed forces,” which then turned around and overthrew him on 11 September 1973. In Bolivia, the armed forces have carried out innumerable massacres and military coups, so many that the country was nicknamed Golpilandia (Coup-Land).

This brings up another of Evo’s gestures: the “Juancito Pinto Bond.” Towards the end of his first year in office he decreed a twice-yearly payout, equivalent to twenty-five U.S. dollars, for school children in the first five grades of primary school. This is modeled on the “Hope Bond” distributed to school children by the former mayor of El Alto, who was driven out of power for siding with the Santa Cruz Oligarchy, and the “Solidarity Bond” for pensioners implemented by the right-wing government of Goni. Juancito Pinto was a twelve-year-old drummer boy who died in 1880 during the Pacific War, when Bolivia lost its seacoast to Chile. This may look like sappy sentimentalism but it is actually an appeal to the revanchist anti-Chilean nationalism that has been whipped up by one bourgeois government after another to divert struggle away from the Bolivian ruling class. Further underlining his efforts to cozy up to the military, Morales had the armed forces distribute the money to the kids.

This brings me to something else Morales did as soon as he was elected at the end of 2005. Right away he made a pilgrimage to Santa Cruz, the bastion of the hard-line oligarchy, to meet with the right-wing business leaders and say, “I don’t want to expropriate or confiscate any property.” Instead, he said, “I want to learn from the entrepreneurs” (Página 12, Buenos Aires, 28 December 2005). This is the same business elite that was calling for Indian blood just a few months before, to shoot down the indigenous protesters on the altiplano. They have their own fascistic goon squads called the Juventud Cruceñista (Santa Cruzist Youth), which beat indigenous demonstrators bloody if they try to enter Santa Cruz, and have kept it largely union-free.

So beyond the gestures, these are now substantial matters. When Morales met with the elite in Santa Cruz, they said: Listen Evo, you want to talk turkey, you want to make nice? OK, put your money where your mouth is. We want a bunch of things, but the first thing we want is the biggest iron and manganese deposit in the world, which happens to be in Bolivia, in a place called El Mutún. They said: If you want to cooperate and “learn from” us, here’s what we want you to do: privatize it. So Evo said: You got it. The government promptly announced that it would privatize Mutún, add a bunch of subsidies for international investors, and turn over this source of wealth which could, under a workers and peasants government, be used for the working people. Eventually the contract to exploit Mutún was awarded to a company from India.

Agrarian “Reform” Strengthens Landowners’ Power

The next measure was what Morales and García Linera falsely called an agrarian reform or “revolution,” part of the supposed “four revolutions” trumpeted by their government. As shown in detail by the leftist Latin American Development Studies Center (CEDLA) in Bolivia, this supposed reform actually serves to consolidate the power of big landlords and agribusiness companies. I’ve mentioned the concentration of land in the hands of the rich and how little is in the hands of the poor peasantry. This situation is actually exacerbated by the current “reform,” which is explicitly a continuation of the Agrarian Reform Law enacted by Goni, the hated right-wing, “neoliberal” president overthrown in 2003. Goni’s 1996 law is the basis of Morales’ supposed agrarian reform, except that Morales’ supposed reform is more favorable to agribusiness than even Goni’s was.

This is important, since the peasantry remains a large section of the population (about 35 percent of the population lives in the countryside, less than in previous times, partly due to the growth of towns like El Alto, but still a large sector). Moreover, it is Evo Morales’ historic base, while export agriculture is one of the biggest sources of wealth and power for the Bolivian bourgeoisie. What happens with the land says a lot about what is really going on under this new government.

The Morales agrarian reform takes a category from Goni’s 1996 law called FES or “social economic function,” a unit of production used as the definition of properties that are not to be touched by any agrarian reform measures. And it turns out that the FES category includes virtually all the lands owned by agribusiness concerns. These huge farms for soy and other commodities will not be touched. In addition, the new version of the law broadens the definition of the FES to cover not only lands being cultivated or lying fallow in order to recover their productivity, but even those included in what it calls “projected growth.”

If you’re a huge landowner, all you have to say is: Hey, I project that my business is going to grow onto that land and I will use it at some point. If you do that, your land cannot be touched. But what if part of their land falls within a category that theoretically could be redistributed? The “reform” gives landowners seven years to sanear las tierras, to rearrange ownership, find a frontman, or get around it in one or another way. Only after seven years would they have to respond to any hypothetical proposals to give out their land.

The agribusiness properties are particularly concentrated in the department of Santa Cruz. In many cases it was the government, during years of subsidies to Santa Cruz, that gave these properties to the landowners. Concretely, 60 percent of the productive land is in Santa Cruz. Meanwhile, if you’re an agricultural worker you get beaten to a pulp if you even try to form a union there, and this region has been the staging ground for military coups for many decades.

Peasants on hunger strike protesting continued eradication of coca fields by Morales government, January 2007.
(Photo: El Internacionalista)

So what is the Morales government doing with regard to the needs of the peasantry, its historic base? Not only is it not fulfilling those needs, it is strengthening the power of the big landlords, and this is not just an economic question. It is a social, political and military question directly linked to the fight against racism. Large landed property used for export agribusiness: that is the basis of the political and military power of many of the most violent enemies of the Indian masses in Bolivia, the Santa Cruz elite in particular. That’s where they get their money and their power. If you refuse to touch their land, if you strengthen their control of it and even give them the ability to increase their wealth, you are not only not solving the problems of the indigenous masses, you are strengthening those who threaten to shoot them down whenever they protest.

So if you want to know what is meant by “Andean capitalism,” this is what it means. Meanwhile, peasants have been trying to resist the program of coca eradication, which has not stopped under Evo Morales, despite the fact that he got his start by opposing it. When I was there a few months ago, I talked to coca-growing peasants who were on a hunger strike across from the presidential palace in central La Paz, the Palacio Quemado. They were protesting against Morales and accusing him of continuing the U.S. policy of eradicating coca fields. They had posters with photos of fields that had been burned up by the army under Evo’s orders. And they were protesting the killing of two coca-growing peasants who were shot down in the Carrasco region when it was invaded by an army/police task force last October.

Fake Gas and Oil Nationalization

One year ago, the measure that made the biggest splash internationally was the supposed nationalization of Bolivia’s natural gas and oil. This was a high-profile event, in which Morales sent troops to stand outside the oil fields and refineries. He made a big speech on May Day 2006, saying that he was returning the historic patrimony of the Bolivian people by supposedly nationalizing the “hydrocarbons,” gas and oil.

This was a fake nationalization. Nothing was nationalized, nothing was expropriated, nothing was confiscated, nothing was taken over. This was not even a bourgeois nationalization like those carried out in the 1930s and ’40s by national-populist leaders like Lázaro Cárdenas in Mexico. It is interesting to see who Evo’s Hydrocarbons Minister was: Andrés Soliz Rada, who came out of a tendency called Octubre, linked to Argentine former Trotskyists who backed Peronism. He and his group were some of the most enthusiastic supporters of the nationalization of Gulf Oil carried out in Bolivia in 1969 by the military regime of General Alfredo Ovando. But Soliz Rada wound up resigning his post in the Morales government in September of last year, saying he could not go along with the government’s soft line towards what he called the “terrible demands” of the international energy companies.

Instead of any kind of nationalization, what Morales did was rearrange the amounts of duties, taxes and royalties so the state would get a somewhat higher slice while leaving the property in the hands of the so-called multinational (in other words imperialist) corporations. Our Brazilian comrades wrote a good article which exposed the phony character of this supposed nationalization while denouncing the threats by Brazilian president Lula and oil giant Petrobras (which is particularly concerned to maintain the flow of gas to the São Paulo industrial region), and defending Bolivia’s right to take measures regarding its natural resources. (See “Fake Gas Nationalization in Bolivia: For Expropriation under Workers Control,” Vanguarda Operária No. 9, May 2006.)

In late 2006, Morales negotiated a new contract with the president of Argentina, in which the Argentine oil company YPFB and its senior partner, the Spanish Repsol company – one of the biggest of the international oil-business giants – would get a wonderful deal for cheap Bolivian gas at special prices. Not only did they not nationalize oil and gas, they strengthened the hand of various imperialist corporations, particularly Repsol.

The government also raised taxes on electrical companies, and increased those on mineral exports from 3 percent to 15 percent, which is still a pittance. But what about the properties belonging to the most hated figure in recent Bolivian history, former president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, who was the biggest mine owner in the country? Seizing them would have been enormously popular; even the opposition parties to the right of the MAS would have been hard put to raise much of a hue and cry against that. Yet the Morales government did no such thing. Goni quite tranquilly sold his properties to international mining concerns, a number of which unveiled new mining projects in Bolivia at the end of 2006.

In his “Report on One Year in Office,” Morales cited statistics including the country’s fiscal surplus and that Bolivia’s Central Bank hit new records for international reserves, partly because of high natural gas prices on the world market. Behind the figures was a significant social and political fact: the Bolivian bourgeoisie was enjoying excellent and in some cases exceptional profits, as the new government fomented “social stability” through its efforts to lull the masses with populist rhetoric and promises.

The Constituent Assembly and Regional Polarization

In June 2005, at one of the big marches held in the process of overthrowing then-president Carlos Mesa, there was a peasant contingent from the tropics of Cochabamba which was quite militant. Particularly the women marchers, who were armed with sticks that had nails through them and shouted cierren, cierren (shut down) to all the stores and the people selling items on the street. If they didn’t shut down immediately the women would throw pebbles at them, and if they still didn’t shut down they would go at them with the sticks with nails through them.

I asked their leader what slogans the contingent was putting forward. He said, “Yesterday it was nationalization of oil and gas, but today our slogan is a Constituent Assembly.” This was in accordance with the orders from the MAS leadership. I asked him, “What do you think will come out of this Constituent Assembly?” He said, “We are going to refundar el país,” refound the country. I asked, “What does that mean, what will it do?” He said, “We don’t really know, we just know we need to do that, and we’ll find out what it means later.” So in some way this Constituent Assembly was supposed to resolve the pressing issues through ostensibly democratic mechanisms and not a class struggle.

So after coming to power, Morales held elections to the Constituent Assembly and convened it. As of now [May 2007], the assembly has been meeting for eight months. In eight months it has produced zero legislation; it has not written or rewritten a single article of the constitution. For seven months it debated its own rules of procedure, how its meetings would be run. Parts of the social and cultural elite, including the son of the late union leader Juan Lechín, who is a prominent novelist, staged a supposed hunger strike (some reports said they were getting fried chicken delivered at night) to demand that the assembly not approve its decisions – which it wasn’t making – by a simple majority but instead by two thirds, so as to further block the possibility of any reforms. The MAS zigzagged ridiculously, capitulating even on this terrain and further emboldening the right.

Marchers in La Paz, January 2007: “We Reject the 2/3,” referring to rule giving right wing veto power in Constituent Assembly.
(Photo: El Internacionalista)

We had stressed that the Constituent Assembly was a supposedly democratic diversion that would not solve anything. Now what has happened with this talk shop, i.e. nothing, underlines that the basic issues in Bolivia cannot be resolved by a “democratic” charade, because they are issues of power, money, property and land; of centuries-old ethnic and linguistic oppression and discrimination; and they can only be resolved by struggle, on a class basis, a revolutionary basis. In other words, a struggle to defeat the enemies of the indigenous masses and drive them from power, for they are not about to let themselves be talked out of existence.

One of the expressions of Indian peoples’ oppression in Bolivia and much of the Andean region is the complete lack of language equality, that is, the history of discrimination against indigenous languages. Yet today, even the progressive call for everyone to learn indigenous languages in the schools has been linked through the new education laws to reactionary items on the agenda of the MAS government, like weakening university autonomy, which is extremely important throughout Latin America, and increasing state control over the teachers’ unions.

The regional polarization between the Indian west and the eastern and southern regions known as the media luna (half moon) has been one of the hottest issues in recent years. An indication of how unequal things continue to be is that the federal budget for 2007 dedicated nine times as much money per inhabitant for Pando, one of the departments that make up the media luna, as for the department of La Paz (La Razón, 20 December 2006). The MAS found itself in a quandary over the provocative demand for “regional autonomy” by the racist civic leaders of the media luna, who take advantage of all the democratic verbiage to make a pseudo-democratic, actually anti-democratic demand, a power grab to get even more of the oil and gas revenue while running the region as their own private, “white”-ruled fiefdom. The peasants and poor people who voted for Morales see this for the racist ploy that it is and vehemently oppose it.

The MAS, however, has been all over the map, so to speak, on this question, with Morales eventually coming out in support of “autonomy” for the media luna as part of his conciliation of the Santa Cruz elite. His supporters hoped autonomy would be applied to Indian communities and then got caught in a trap when a national vote was held on the subject. Autonomy lost on the national scale, but it won in the media luna and the referendum specified that it would be applied in those areas where it won.

There was a new flare-up while I was there at the beginning of the year. The prefect or governor of Cochabamba is a military man whose father was part of the most bloodthirsty dictatorship, the “narco-junta” of Colonel Luis García Meza in the early 1980s. This governor, Manfred Reyes Villa, was himself trained at the U.S. School of the Americas, known as the “School of Assassins,” in Panama. He is a very provocative, hard-line rightist. He decided to stir things up with a new autonomy referendum in Cochabamba as a show of support to the Santa Cruz leaders and a provocation against the indigenous peasantry of his own region.

When Indian demonstrators came into the city of Cochabamba to protest this, they were met with a massive show of force in which gangs of fascistic “white” youth, calling themselves Youth for Democracy, met them with metal bars, bats and guns, and murdered some of the protestors. These gangs were modeled on the Juventud Cruceñista, which according to some reports sent people to Cochabamba and has gotten back-up from old-line ultra-rightist and fascist groups like the Bolivian Falange, which are experiencing a resurgence. The population of Cochabamba mobilized, including many rank and file members of the MAS, which got its start in this region. They were on the verge of throwing out Manfred Reyes Villa, one of the worst enemies of the indigenous population. But the MAS leadership intervened, saying no, you cannot do that, you’re going too far, you have to respect “institutionality” and the rules of the game.

Morales Attacks the Labor Movement

What about the Bolivian labor movement, which has been at the center of many revolutionary struggles in the past and will be in the future? Morales has brought some labor leaders into his government, but some leaders of the miners’ union and COB national labor federation criticize him. In particular, the leaders of the La Paz teachers’ union strongly criticize Evo Morales. This union has 20,000 members, is a prominent part of the COB, and is led by supporters of the main party that identifies itself as Trotskyist, the Partido Obrero Revolucionario (Revolutionary Workers Party) of Guillermo Lora.

Acutely sensitive to potential dangers on its left flank, the Morales regime reacted strongly against even rhetorical criticism from the COB. It was not enough for the new government party, the MAS, that the COB leaders were mainly blowing off steam and hot air accompanied by capitulations in practice to the new bourgeois regime. They wanted complete obedience.  

So in populist style, the MAS proclaimed it would form a parallel organization to the COB, bringing together various “social movements” in a pro-Morales grouping that called itself the People’s General Staff (EMP–Estado Mayor del Pueblo). This included MAS loyalists, the leaders of the Bolivian Communist Party and others. They wanted to make the unions toe the government line, either by integrating them into the regime or doing their best to break the unions’ power. Displaying a certain amount of hubris, they announced that the EMP would “take complete control of the COB” (La Razón, 19 April 2006). Their attempt to do this was short-lived and they had to recognize that it flopped, so they turned toward the second option.

Slogans of pro-government “school councils” say: “Down With the Teachers’ Strike. Death to the Lazy Trots.”
(Photo: El Internacionalista)

The teachers’ union was one of their main targets, so the MAS first tried running in the union elections, but their candidates had a hard time of it. First they ran four different MAS slates, because of personal rivalries among their candidates, until Morales got on the phone from the presidential palace and told them to run a single pro-government slate. But they still got very few votes, since their candidates had scabbed during the most recent teachers’ strike and had even gone around to several schools with the Minister of Education saying the strike was illegal.

Text Box: El InternacionalistaWhen they were unable to take over the teachers’ union, the so-called People’s General Staff joined with the juntas escolares, neighborhood “school councils” originally formed by the party of ex-dictator Hugo Banzer to act as pro-government shock troops against the teachers under a kind of “community control” guise. They held a mass march on the teachers’ union hall, with the slogan “Death to the Trotskyist Teachers!” Graffiti with such slogans was sprayed on the walls all around the union hall. They pounded on the doors of the union hall, which were chained shut, trying to invade it and essentially lynch Vilma Plata, Gonzalo Soruco and other leaders of the union for criticizing Evo and continuing to carry out strikes. This was only stopped when the union managed to get on local radio stations to call on workers to oppose this union-busting assault. More recently, at last month’s [April 2007] convention of the El Alto Regional Labor Federation, there was a physical attack against miners’ leaders and other unionists and leftists critical of the pro-Morales leadership of Edgar Patana.

The most spectacular recent event was the pitched battle that occurred last October in the mining center of Huanuni between two groups of miners, the basis for which was set by the MAS government. A few years back, the workers at Huanuni, presently the most important mine in Bolivia with a long tradition of militancy, succeeded in having the mine renationalized through a very important struggle. These workers are members of the national mine workers’ union federation, work for wages under a union contract, and are employed by the state mining company, Comibol. At the same time, there is another sector, called the cooperativist miners because they are members of cooperatives that work separate mine sections and sell the minerals. Many of these miners are very poor, while other cooperative members act like contractors and in effect live off the poorer ones.

The Morales government, which had received the support of the cooperative leaders, basically encouraged them to attack the unionized miners and seize a larger part of the mountains in this area for themselves. Vice President García Linera infamously said that he was prepared to “send coffins” to Huanuni. The government got their coffins, their dead miners on both sides in this conflict. At least 16 miners died and dozens were wounded.

But even though the union miners were in the minority, they defended themselves with dynamite, and were actually able to prevail. And then they did a very interesting thing. Instead of trying to get vengeance against the ranks of the cooperative miners, they did the opposite, saying: Here is what we want to come out of this situation; we demand that the state mining company Comibol hire the cooperativist miners. With this demand they were able to get approximately 1,500 of those miners hired on, more than doubling the size of the unionized workforce at Huanuni. This was a victory for the working class, but one that came, as is so often the case in Bolivia, with miners’ blood.3

The Fight for Genuine Trotskyism

Because events in Bolivia give a particularly sharp expression to crucial issues of the class struggle, they often highlight important aspects of the fight for revolutionary leadership. One is the meaning of internationalism itself. Here in the United States, the attitude of most of the left has been to tail after Evo Morales. Articles by radical groups and leftist academics have focused on the scope of social movements, the hopes of the oppressed masses, and the fact that Morales is the first indigenous president. These are important facts, but if you do not look at the actual content of political events then you are doing no service, you are just being liberals. When they are not engaged in more direct social-patriotic capitulations to their “own” ruling class, what passes for international solidarity among U.S. leftists is all too often the kind of uncritical enthusing that smacks of liberal paternalism.

In contrast, genuine international solidarity is based on the interests of the only international class, the proletariat, and means in the first place telling the truth, which requires taking the trouble to find out the real nature of the Morales regime. We defend Bolivia, a semi-colonial country oppressed by imperialism, against any kind of aggression by the U.S., and we would militarily defend the Morales government against imperialism in the event of such attacks. But telling tall tales about the supposed revolutionary nature of this bourgeois government is counterposed to any real struggle against imperialism.

A striking example of how misleading reporting can get, when reality is subordinated to tailism, was the International Socialist Organization’s coverage of the events that set the stage for Evo Morales to win the elections, specifically the fall of Carlos Mesa in 2005. The ISO is a social-democratic group, presently the largest left tendency on U.S. college campuses, known for supporting Ralph Nader (who is no friend of Latin American workers that come here as what he calls “illegal aliens”). Their press runs fairly frequent coverage of Bolivia. In June 2005, as I mentioned, Evo Morales and the leaders of peasant, labor and left organizations stole victory from the masses, heading off the threat of revolution by demobilizing the marches, road blockades and strikes in order to turn the presidency over to the head of the Supreme Court. But what was the headline in the ISO paper? “Victory in Bolivia!” (Socialist Worker, 17 June 2005).

While “the fight for nationalization of gas and oil is not yet resolved,” they wrote, the “social movements have delivered a stunning blow to the Bolivian oligarchy and U.S. imperialism.” By Goni’s vice president being replaced by the head of his Supreme Court? Hardly. The ISO went on to report favorably that the “issue of organizing for the Constituent Assembly will take priority for the most radicalized sectors of the social movements.”

Then there is the Spartacist League, which unlike the ISO actually used to be Trotskyist. Those days are long gone, however, as illustrated very starkly by their position that a socialist revolution cannot happen in Bolivia. And why is that? Because, they claim, there is no working class there! As you will recall, this happens to be the line of Vice President García Linera, for whom “the wish begets the thought”: he’d certainly like radical miners and other inconvenient workers to be non-existent.

At a New York antiwar march in April 2006, a member of the Spartacist tendency’s international leadership tried to disabuse me of the idea that those workers really exist. He told me that after a vigorous search – on the Internet – they’d found, supposedly, that no enterprises of more than 150 employees exist in Bolivia. When I replied that even a cursory Web search would have disproved this ridiculous claim, and asked if they had ever heard of Huanuni and Comibol, he said with a certain degree of Schadenfreude: “Comibol is kaput.” According to them, we “conjure up a proletariat where it barely, if at all, exists” (see “Spartacist League Disappears the Bolivian Proletariat,” The Internationalist No. 24, Summer 2006).

Bolivian proletariat “barely, if at all, exists”? Look for yourself. Miners rally during June 2005 worker-
peasant mobilization.
(Internationalist photo)

Really, now? An old adage says nobody is as blind as he who will not see; in this case people who have turned historical pessimism and adaptation to the labor aristocracy into a political program. This is the opposite of internationalism. Since the Spartacist League is clearly indifferent if not outright hostile to proletarian struggle in Bolivia, it can only be an embarrassment to them that the Huanuni miners and the rest of the Bolivian proletariat keep refusing to go away. For workers in Bolivia, it is clearly a good thing that neither the ISO nor the Spartacist League, revolutionaries in word only, have the slightest chance of ever having any influence there.

In Bolivia itself, however, several currents of the left have had a major impact within the workers movement. This is why the MAS seeks to co-opt those it can and crack down on the rest. I mentioned the former Guevarists like Antonio Peredo who are prominent in the MAS. The Bolivian Communist Party also backs Morales and joined his government. They justify this with the old Stalinist schema of a “two-stage revolution,” in which Morales heads a “national-democratic” regime, supposedly leading the way in some far distant future to a second, socialist stage. In reality, the first, “democratic” stage regularly leads to a massacre of the workers and peasants. The pro-Moscow Stalinists control the nationwide teachers’ federation and at various times were influential in the miners’ and factory workers’ unions. They are joined by their not-so-distant cousins, the Maoists: Luis Alberto Echazú, long a spokesman for Bolivia’s small Maoist party (Partido Comunista Marxista-Leninista), is now the Minister of Mines.

Many current and former leaders of the COB national labor federation have talked now and again about setting up a kind of pressure group on the Morales government, which they call an Instrumento Político de los Trabajadores (IPT), political instrument of the workers. If this sounds vague, that’s because it is meant to be really vague. A “political instrument of the workers” could be just about anything to anybody, a sort of amorphous conglomeration that is pointedly not a Marxist, revolutionary or Trotskyist party. They were joined in this call for an “IPT” by one of the smaller groups in Bolivia that identifies itself as Trotskyist, the LORCI (Revolutionary Workers League–Fourth International), which also tried to set up a “COB Youth” for the bureaucracy. The LORCI is part of the tendency led by the Argentine PTS that comes out of the movement of followers of Nahuel Moreno.

There is also a small official Morenoite group in Bolivia (the Movimiento Socialista de los Trabajadores), which used to brag about being advisors to Evo and is now a university-based cheering squad for the COB leadership. From Argentina, the Partido Obrero of Jorge Altamira actively campaigned for Evo Morales and sent a delegation to his inauguration. This led to the near-dissolution of the small Bolivian group aligned with them, the Oposición Trotskysta, which had already gone through a series of crises and almost ceased to exist.

The main organization in Bolivia that calls itself Trotskyist is the POR: the Revolutionary Workers Party of Guillermo Lora, whose supporters lead the teachers union of La Paz. Historically this party had a significant presence among the miners and a big impact on the ideology of the miners’ union, the backbone of the workers movement. However, this was conditioned through the POR’s long years of alliance with the nationalist leaders of the miners’ union, most importantly Juan Lechín. From the 1940s through the ’80s Lechín was the main leader of the miners’ union, and then of the COB as well. A member of the nationalist party (MNR), he was key to subordinating the workers to the MNR government that took power in 1952.

The POR’s alliance with these leaders was in a sense codified six years before the 1952 revolution, when the miners’ union approved the famous Tesis de Pulacayo, the Pulacayo Theses. Written by the POR, this was a document of political and ideological orientation for the Bolivian labor movement. While it reflected and contributed to working-class radicalization, it embodied some dangerous contradictions. The Theses used slogans and demands taken from Trotsky’s Transitional Program of the Fourth International, while in a significant sense it was syndicalist, evading the question of the revolutionary party. But this was no accident, and the problem went even deeper, since the Theses played an important part in bolstering the supposedly revolutionary credentials of nationalist labor leaders like Lechín, who were members of a party – the bourgeois-nationalist MNR – and then became a crucial part of the MNR government in 1952.

Today the POR strongly criticizes Evo Morales. To pick one example, their paper Masas (12 January) ran a front-page headline. It’s a long one: “Completing One Year in Government, the MAS Reaffirms its Pro-Bourgeois – That Is, Counterrevolutionary – Content.” The POR presents itself as the very incarnation of Trotskyism, and over the years its ranks have included many courageous and self-sacrificing militants. However, this party demonstrated its real nature during three major revolutionary opportunities in Bolivia, when what it did was the opposite of fighting for the Trotskyist program of permanent revolution.

The first was the “National Revolution”: during and for years after 1952, the POR supported Lechín’s left wing of the MNR, helping cement illusions in the bourgeois government. Then, during the major working-class and student upsurge of 1971, the POR helped Lechín form a “People’s Assembly” which served as a sounding-board for the left-talking nationalist regime of General Juan José Torres. In the face of open preparations for a right-wing coup, this assembly did nothing to prepare the masses to defend themselves, and then stopped meeting at all for the seven weeks leading up to the coup. After the terrible military coup of August 1971, the POR formed its own popular front, the “Revolutionary Anti-Imperialist Front,” with the exiled President Torres, who had in fact paved the way for the right-wing takeover.

The third time around was in 1985, when more than 10,000 miners occupied La Paz against the popular-front government of Hernán Siles Zuazo, which was applying austerity measures dictated by the International Monetary Fund. After opposing the call for soviets (workers councils), the POR made another front with Lechín just at the moment when he sold out and demobilized the miners, who were soon punished with mass mine closures and the vicious program to “relocalize” them and destroy their power. In each of these situations, the POR made a bloc with nationalist leaders who subordinated the working people to one or another capitalist government, and thereby to imperialism.

Labor demonstration in La Paz, March 1985. At crucial moment, the POR of Guillermo Lora made
political bloc with bourgeois nationalist Juan Lechín, leader of COB union federation, who again
headed off potential workers revolution.
  (Photo: Ed Young)

In 2005, during the overthrow of Carlos Mesa, this pattern was repeated once again. It was extremely dramatic. The miners were in the streets, hurling dynamite to defend themselves against the sharpshooters of the army; thousands of peasants and slum-dwellers were streaming into the capital. Yet the position of the POR was to call for another “People’s Assembly, like in 1971.” So they formed a “people’s assembly,” later renamed the National and Indigenous People’s Assembly (APNO) as I mentioned earlier, where the leaders of the labor federations and neighborhood associations would get up and make all these revolutionary speeches. Then those leaders helped turn power over to the president of the Supreme Court. The POR was seconded in this bloc by the LORCI, which subsequently played a role in building a union of airport workers in La Paz, and sometimes makes leftish criticisms of the POR. However, the LORCI is frequently to the right of the POR, as in its abject tailing of the call for a constituent assembly, which the LORCI tried to prettify by calling for a “revolutionary” constituent assembly.

There is a follow-up to the story of what the POR, the LORCI and other leftists did with the “People’s Assembly.” I mentioned how last year government supporters tried to use the “People’s General Staff” to take over the COB in their attempts to subordinate the labor movement completely to the government. The man those government supporters wanted to take over the COB was Edgar Patana, head of the El Alto labor federation. Patana had provided crucial services to Morales and the bourgeoisie when the government of Carlos Mesa fell in June 2005. And in June 2005, Patana was one of the main figures in the “People’s Assembly” using the radical rhetoric to defuse the threat of revolution and ease the power “transition” to the Supreme Court chief. He was one of the leaders who got a left cover there from the POR, the LORCI and the other leftists in that ill-fated People’s Assembly (See “Myth and Reality: El Alto and the ‘People’s Assembly’,” The Internationalist No. 21, Summer 2005). They like to use populist, classless references to “the people” in general, so they wanted their “People’s” Assembly – and what they got is this reactionary “People’s” General Staff, directed against them. It is just the latest episode of a recurrent nightmare for the workers and oppressed, which will only end through building a real revolutionary leadership, a genuine Trotskyist party.

Bolivia and Permanent Revolution

I want to end by emphasizing that the program of permanent revolution is very much on the agenda in Bolivia today. This is the urgency of fighting to build the nucleus of a Trotskyist party which would actually be able to bring the masses’ long-held aspirations to fruition.

On the land question, rather than a phony agrarian reform, what’s necessary is a real agrarian revolution in which the poor peasantry seizes the landed estates and agribusiness properties, protecting this through self-defense bodies in close alliance with the working class of the cities and mining camps. To defeat the Santa Cruz elite is no easy matter: what this requires is not concessions and more concessions to these hard-core racists, who are quite serious when they threaten to shoot down anyone who makes trouble for them. What is needed is the organization of workers’ and peasants’ self-defense on a nation-wide basis. It will require the military defeat and revolutionary expropriation of those elites, by the working people of the altiplano together with the indigenous and mestizo population that works in the eastern part of the country and often lacks any union rights or organization.

All around La Paz and El Alto, there are many thousands of factory workers, a very large proportion of whom are young women. Most of these workers do not have unions. It is necessary to massively organize them, but this task will not be carried out by leaders subordinate to Evo Morales. It can only be undertaken by a leadership that is willing to stand up to his bourgeois government and to present a class-struggle program that links unionization to the fight for women’s emancipation and for the revolutionary transformation of society as a whole.

The question of gas, oil, and all the most important resources in the country is a political question, a question of power, of which class will rule. Rather than pretending that Evo Morales has nationalized the gas, or that this ridiculous farce of a Constituent Assembly is going to resolve this issue, the League for the Fourth International calls for workers control of the gas and oil, for the workers in those industries and the proletariat as a whole to take over these resources and direct them towards the needs of the poor and oppressed, and for them to be expropriated by a workers’, peasants’ and indigenous government. We have seen that the “indigenist” theoreticians of “Andean capitalism” are in reality the latest enforcers of capitalist rule, which means subjugation to imperialism and continued oppression of the indigenous peoples.4 A worker-peasant-indigenous government is the only kind of regime in which the indigenous masses can actually seize and exercise power, undertaking their emancipation as part of an international socialist revolution.

Revolution in Bolivia can be carried through victoriously only as part of an international struggle. This is a fundamental aspect of the program of permanent revolution. It is cut out of the picture, however, by nationalistic tendencies like the POR, which reflect and reinforce Bolivia’s relative isolation. In an oddly parallel way, when the formerly Trotskyist SL denies Bolivia’s revolutionary potential (and “grooves on” this bizarre denial, to use one of its favorite expressions), it blots out the fact that upheavals on the altiplano can help spur revolutionary opportunities throughout the region. For both, revolution is more a rhetorical reference than a real program.

What is the regional situation? In Brazil, the industrial powerhouse of South America, Lula’s popular-front government has increasingly discredited itself among the most militant sectors of the masses, as this coalition of class collaboration enriches financiers and industrialists while repressing workers, black favela (slum) dwellers and youth. In Peru, ex-president Alejandro Toledo, a former World Bank official who claimed to represent indigenous aspirations, quickly burned out his popularity and we have the spectacle of the return of Alan García, the infamously corrupt former populist, who is now facing major protests. In Ecuador, after a series of Indian uprisings, military officer Lucio Gutiérrez came to power with the support of the left, unions and indigenous organizations, who all joined his government. As we warned in articles, leaflets and pamphlets, “Lucio” was a vicious enemy of the workers and indigenous poor, and soon launched a crackdown on the masses. Now there is yet another populist president, Rafael Correa, who talks left while the imperialist oil companies continue their operations, and the U.S. military continues to operate out the military base at Manta.

In Venezuela, the left-nationalist government of Hugo Chávez talks about a “Bolivarian” revolution and “21st-century socialism,” but this remains a bourgeois government based on the bourgeois officer corps of the capitalist army. We defend Venezuela against U.S.-sponsored coups and aggression, but we do not give political support to Chávez. Unlike most of the left, we do not reduce events in Venezuela to the ever-changing declarations of Chávez: some of the most significant things going on there have to do with a very significant radicalization of the working class, the powerful Venezuelan proletariat which, under the leadership of a Trotskyist party, has the potential to carry out a real socialist revolution. Cuba, meanwhile, continues to be under the gun of U.S. imperialism. The Cuban Revolution has survived, but its defense requires proletarian political revolution to establish working-class democracy and the revolutionary internationalism essential to breaking the island’s isolation and extending the revolution.

Here in the United States, immigrants from Latin America and around the world are an increasingly important part of working-class struggle, in which, in this country founded on slavery, the fight for black liberation is key. This is not just a general proposition but the crucial political point that struggles for immigrant rights are inseparable from the fight against black oppression, the fight against the slave owners’ Democratic Party and for a revolutionary workers party. As we try to drive home in protests and mobilizations against the Minuteman vigilantes and raids by the migra (immigration police), this is equally inseparable from the fight to defeat imperialist war abroad, which means racist repression “at home.”

The raw material of revolutionary struggle is present in Latin America. This can be seen in many parts of the region, and it keeps cropping up in Bolivia. During the first anniversary of Evo Morales’ government, the Bolivian press ran a lot of articles quoting representatives of different social sectors on how they saw the situation. One of the most interesting comments came from a peasant union leader who said that when Evo was elected, poverty-stricken peasants hoped for “a deep-going change, but that’s not what happened” (La Razón, 31 December 2006). No it didn’t, but that is still what Bolivia’s poor, the working people of the cities and the countryside, hope for, need and have repeatedly shown their willingness to fight for. They will have to take it themselves. The ruling class of Bolivia and of the U.S. gave Evo Morales the chance to take office and stave off a new upsurge of radicalization, and can only worry that he may not succeed in doing so.

A revolutionary leadership is what’s required, and the real lessons of the Bolivian experience can help build it on the program of permanent revolution, with the willingness and determination to swim against the stream and fight for genuine communism in Latin America, here in the United States and everywhere.  n

1 Our Brand Is Crisis (Rachel Boynton, 2005) is a devastating documentary on the U.S. role in the 2002 Bolivian elections, showing how the U.S. consulting firm of Democratic strategist James Carville (closely linked to Bill and Hillary Clinton) ran right-winger Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada’s successful bid for reelection.

2 The concept is hardly new. Years before the MAS came to power a “center” party called Condepa (Conscience of the Fatherland), led by a populist demagogue who called himself el compadre, campaigned for “endogenous development.” As for García Linera, in a recent interview (Página 12, Buenos Aires, 11 June) he reiterated that “Bolivia has a future potential and space for developing capitalist production relations.” This would be a new, “productive capitalism that recognizes a diversity of economic actors with the capacity to accumulate: the traditional business sector, of course, but others too, such as non-traditional business people who emerge from the popular indigenous world...and have succeeded in building very interesting mechanisms of accumulation.”

3 Not long after this forum was given, a strike broke out at the Huanuni mine. In early July, workers blocked the highway to La Paz demanding a wage increase, a state monopoly of the sale of minerals, and no more private-sector tin mining contracts in the Huanuni region. They called on Evo Morales (who was then engaged in talks with business leaders of the media luna) and Vice President García Linera to come to Huanuni for negotiations. Instead, the government called the miners “a sector that is becoming a detriment to the country” and sent over 800 police, who arrested 30 miners, injuring 14. Morales said, “People ask me, ‘Evo, please take a hard line with highway blockaders!’” (He was doubtless conscious of echoing what past presidents said about the road blockades he used to lead when he was a peasant union leader.) The Minister of Mines, a long-time Maoist, denounced the workers for “causing serious losses to the Bolivian state” (La Razón, 6 July). Several days later government troops stopped a caravan of buses carrying miners to La Paz. Meanwhile and with no link to the Huanuni conflict, important miners’ strikes broke out in Peru and Chile, showing again that only a revolutionary leadership can unite the region’s workers, overcoming divisions exploited by nationalist demagogues who hark back to the Pacific War (1879-84) between Bolivia, Peru and Chile.

4 See “Marxism and the Indian Question in Ecuador” (The Internationalist No. 17, October-November 2003) for an in-depth discussion of the struggle against the oppression of indigenous peoples in the Andes and our slogan of a worker-peasant-indigenous government.

To contact the Internationalist Group and the League for the Fourth International, send e-mail to: internationalistgroup@msn.com