The following article was first published in Proletarian Revolution No. 74 (Spring 2005).


Bolivia: Revolutionary Prospects and Reactionary Threats

March 8, 2005

The struggle in Bolivia has been confronted with an ominous political threat orchestrated by President Carlos Mesa. Only a year and a half ago, the Bolivian masses made history when they overthrew Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, the hated neo-liberal president. In October 2003 the upheaval centered in the Western highlands (altiplano) around La Paz, the political capital of the country. It focused on the demand for nationalization of the natural gas reserves. Workers and peasants also saw their uprising as a fight against oppression in a majority indigenous country with a long and horrific history of racism.

The concerted action of indigenous peoples, mainly Aymara and Quechua, stopped the selling off of Bolivia’s gas reserves at that time. But misleaders of the workers and peasants cut a deal which ensured a stabilizing transfer of power from Sanchez de Lozada to his vice-president, Carlos Mesa. That betrayal stalled the revolutionary momentum of the struggle. (See “Bolivia’s Unfinished Revolution,” in Proletarian Revolution No. 69.) It left the fate of Bolivia’s gas resources up to Congress and laid the foundation for the current crisis.

Mesa’s Threats

As we go to press, the Bolivian political scene is shifting rapidly. Frustrated at Congress’ stalling over the passage of a new hydrocarbons law, on March 5 Mesa threatened to resign. On March 8, the bulk of parties turned up in a Congressional session to go through the charade of rejecting his resignation; they also accepted a National Accord (Acuerdo Ante La Nación) which he demanded as a condition of his remaining in power. Mesa demanded the approval of a new hydrocarbons law to his liking, laws for a constituent assembly, elections for departmental governors and a referendum on departmental autonomy. He also called for a demonstration on March 10 to rally support against the mass protests and road blockades that he claims have created “chaos” in the country.

Mesa’s tactical threat to resign seems to have caught all sectors of the popular movements off guard. However, the mass movements taken as a whole have actually been in retreat for quite a while. In particular, the cohesive unity that was developing dissipated after Mesa was allowed to come to power. Again, the misleaders of the workers and peasants were responsible for the overall lack of united actions that facilitated Mesa’s maneuver.

The Santa Cruz Opposition

The biggest recent indication that the Mesa government was planning a big attack on the masses was its handling of reactionary demands generated out of the Eastern lowland department of Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz has long been the bastion of reaction and racism in the country. The civic committee has been demanding “autonomy” for Santa Cruz, demanding a continuation of the existing economy with no infringement on imperialist profit-making in general—and multinational control over the hydrocarbon resources in particular. Santa Cruz accounts for much of the nation’s industry, over half of the country’s oil wells and about a third of overall economic output. Neighboring Tarija has much of the gas.

The economic motives of Santa Cruz business groups and politicians are intertwined with a blatant racist hostility to all indigenous groupings and to the demands of workers and peasants. The ethnic makeup of the densely populated highlands is largely indigenous, while the lowlands have a much larger mestizo population. Highland economic activity is focused on domestic markets and a multitude of smaller operations, including light industry, whereas the lowlands are largely export-oriented (including a significant export of illegal coca paste and cocaine).

But it is not only Bolivia’s natural gas reserves that have been up for grabs. Long-standing demands for indigenous rights, often expressing themselves through calls for territorial autonomy, have been countered by the very different and deceptive “autonomy” demands of the Santa Cruz elite. For this Eastern sector of the ruling class, their “autonomy” demand is simply a cover for the defense of the foreign imperialist superexploitation of Bolivia—which provides the financial lifeblood of these Bolivian comprador capitalists.

Aftermath of the 1952 Revolution

Economic power in Bolivia moved to the East decades ago with the depletion of the tin mines in the West. The focus shifted to the extraction of oil, abundant in the East; more recently, natural gas reserves were discovered. As well, the East developed successful agricultural export operations, especially in soy beans. Western exports still center around minerals—zinc, silver, tin and others.

The political roots of this deep inequality can be found in the aborted Bolivian Revolution of 1952, where a popular front government led by the bourgeois radical party Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (MNR) was installed on the backs of the revolutionary-minded tin miners and other workers as well as the peasants. Once solidified in power, the MNR turned on the masses. (See our pamphlet Bolivia: The Revolution the “Fourth International” Betrayed for a fuller discussion.)

A fundamental aspect of the program was that only unproductive lands were to be expropriated, the so-called “latifundia.” That generally meant that the least arable lands in the West were handed over to the peasantry—and in piecemeal fashion at that. Real economic development efforts in the countryside were concentrated on the sparsely populated but fertile lowlands of the East. This split agrarian policy reflected the interests of U.S. imperialism, which funded much of the development. Thus MNR policies laid the basis for the highly polarized development of the East: thriving white and mestizo owners of big agricultural enterprises and businesses, with indigenous rural labor and small farmers hanging on to the bottom.

From Mining to Hydrocarbons

There was a loosely parallel situation with the nationalization of the tin mines by the MNR in 1952. It took over the mines of the top three companies, which were compensated (as were the rural landowners in the land reform program). Then the MNR regime depleted the funds of the state mining sector in favor of the oil sector in the East.

No doubt a big factor in the development of Eastern politics and business was the lack of powerful workers’ and peasants’ unions to interfere with the process. On this historical basis, the East developed as the most blatantly racist, anti-worker and anti-peasant region, in the context of the fact that the Bolivian ruling class as a whole rests on an entrenched racist hierarchy. Simply put, if you are darker-skinned, your life is most likely to be miserable.

Despite the blatant deficiencies of bourgeois nationalization, the 1952 revolution was forced to concede major gains to the working class: guaranteed jobs and living standards in the mining sector in particular. The gains were eroded over time and then overturned in 1985 with the closing of most of the mines, huge layoffs and the full-fledged introduction of a drastic neoliberal program by an MNR government.

When highly valuable natural gas reserves were discovered in recent years, the masses saw the need to fight against yet another bourgeois assault-and-plunder operation like those which have characterized so much of Bolivia’s history. Thus in October 2003 they mounted a thunderous strike against decades of superexploitation and oppression. But given the betrayal of the mass uprising and subsequent events throughout 2004, the Santa Cruz sector of the ruling class was able to move decisively to the forefront by the late fall. This in turn made it easier for Mesa to start posing as the voice of reason, as if he were opposing impossible demands from both sides. In reality, his pretense was pretty thin. Despite the regional conflicts within the ruling class, all sections are united on the need for continued imperialist domination of Bolivia and the maintenance of a white and mestizo ruling class lording over the indigenous masses and workers, East and West.

The Santa Cruz autonomy campaign, however, was known for its denunciation of Mesa. (The Santa Cruz ruling class announced on March 7 that it “accepted” his resignation.) This prompted a response among some of the more moderate peasant organizations that Mesa was the lesser evil and that the current political center of the capitalist state required defense. The workers’ and peasants’ pole, exerting its strength in the Western Andean and Central Valley departments, has lacked a bold leadership and program to counter either Santa Cruz or Mesa.

Mesa and Morales: Dangerous Games

Evo Morales is internationally well known as a coca growers’ leader and presidential contender who was key to Mesa’s accession to the presidency. He has continued to play a central role. According to the October 2003 deal, the question of gas resources was to be solved by a binding referendum. When President Mesa revealed last May that the gas referendum would not even pose nationalization as an option, the movement revived. But Morales, who heads the bourgeois reformist party Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), backed Mesa and his fraudulent referendum. Morales’ main opponents were the Bolivian Workers’ Central (COB), led by Jaime Solares, and the affiliated peasants’ union, the United Peasant Workers Union Central (CSUTCB), led by Felipe Quispe. These forces called for a boycott and mass action, while Morales and MAS supported the referendum. The unions’ boycott flopped and the referendum passed.

This, however, obligated Mesa to bring a concrete proposal to Congress. A section of the masses had been taken in by the idea that the referendum would mean nationalization. But when he revealed his actual proposal in early September, they exploded again. The plan clearly allowed foreign companies to continue to exploit the nation’s gas resources.

At that point Morales swung into opposition, trying to head the movement against Mesa’s proposal while restraining it. Demonstrations were much larger after Morales joined in, showing that MAS had influence not only among the rural population and coca growers but also among workers, union and non-union. Morales came out with a more left-wing version of Mesa’s bill, which also ruled out nationalization but upped the ante in terms of royalties and posed the possibility of renegotiated contracts. Morales touted his proposal as a form of nationalization, and it gained him support.

By this point the movement that had been united in October 2003 in its drive to halt the sale of gas was confused and divided. This was not the accomplishment of Morales alone; it occurred in the absence of a definitive program for nationalization by the more left-wing union leaders whom the masses had looked to as well.

Any bill that would actually challenge the status quo is opposed by all wings of Bolivian capitalism. The U.S., the World Bank and foreign investors all oppose the masses’ demands. Brazil, under the Workers Party of “Lula” da Silva, has played a big role in backing Mesa and defending the ample investments of its state oil company, Petrobras, in Bolivia. Nestor Kirchner of Argentina also stepped up. And even the supposed “revolutionary,” Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, is also backing Mesa.

Sections of the masses had a wait-and-see attitude toward the hydrocarbons law that was being debated and torn apart in Congress for a long time. There was mounting pressure to “close the deal” for the sake of stability and investments. And this meant there had to be a way to stifle the mass movements. So Mesa threatened to resign. This was a necessary attempt to mobilize his middle-class following, frustrated by the prolonged protests with no solution in sight, as well as to divide the workers and peasants’ movements. It was also meant to deal a significant blow to Morales’ stature. Despite correctly denouncing Mesa’s threats against the mass movements as racist, Morales’ MAS voted along with the bulk of the traditional parties against accepting Mesa’s resignation. (Quispe’s party, the Movimiento Indigena Pachacuti, voted to accept the resignation. Both MAS and MIP walked out of the subsequent negotiations over the National Accord.)

Constituent Assembly

There is also the matter of the long-promised constituent assembly. Much of the indigenous population has hoped that such an assembly, rewriting the constitution, would deliver on their claims of territorial rights and self-rule. They have expected some kind of power-sharing formula that would mean a real say for them in organizing their immediate localities and in how Bolivia as a whole is governed. But the condition of Bolivian capitalism, as is now abundantly clear, allows only two possibilities. Either the constituent assembly will be continually put off, or it will be called with the aim of creating another controlled pseudo-democratic fraud like the “referendum” on gas. It seems probable that Mesa’s scheme, at the very least, is to get his hydrocarbons bill passed and give the elites of Santa Cruz and other regions what they want in terms of “autonomy”—before convening an assembly to supposedly grant more indigenous rights to the oppressed.

Since Mesa came into power, the COB and CSUTCB have supported protest politics while sometimes waxing rhetorical about a grand “alternative” constituent assembly. Yet there is no obvious power at this point to call such an alternative that would command the masses’ attention. For example, El Alto, the proletarianized Aymara city near La Paz which has been the center of struggle, has remained the most steadfast and radical in its activity. Yet it has not produced an identifiable leadership for the overall struggle.

Up until early March, when Mesa really showed his true face as anything but a democrat, the masses’ focus seemed to be on demanding that Mesa call a constituent assembly. For authentic revolutionaries, participation in bourgeois efforts like parliamentary and constituent assembly elections are not ruled out, as long as these platforms are used to denounce the process itself and to expose and oppose all pro-capitalist programs. Revolutionary participation is purely tactical, based on the motion of the masses and the need to intervene in forums that command their political attention. The masses’ political focus is obviously in flux. One thing for sure is that the steadfast advocacy of indigenous rights will be critical in building unity against Mesa at this point.

The Santa Cruz “Strikes”

Given the nature of the conjuncture, chiefly characterized by the absence of a definitive leadership for the masses, it is no wonder that the forces of reaction based in the East used the opening created by the weakness of the mass movements to flex their political muscle. Their grand opportunity arrived on December 31. As a result of IMF/World Bank demands, prices were raised on gas, kerosene and diesel fuel. Mass mobilizations responded in all major cities. El Alto began an indefinite general strike on February 11, led by the Federation of Neighborhood Juntas that was key in 2003. The strike also featured a local demand to kick out a French water supply company, Aguas de Illimani. Mesa gave in on that—temporarily. But while El Alto was celebrating this victory, the pro-business civic committee in Santa Cruz had accomplished a two-day business-led “general strike” on January 12 and 13 which was the biggest of all the mobilizations, even larger than a similar “strike” in November.

The pro-business mobilization was opposed to the price hikes on the surface, but its real aim was the enforcement of Santa Cruz’s reactionary demand for autonomy. The “strike” was followed up by escalating mobilizations and then a concrete victory. Mesa, under pressure, promised that direct elections for departmental governors (prefects) would take place in June. (Previously they had been appointed by La Paz.) A binding referendum on autonomy would also take place. Mesa then re-organized his cabinet in order to give Eastern business interests more voice. Mesa’s readiness to capitulate to Santa Cruz was clear.

Santa Cruz has vehemently opposed a constituent assembly, since “autonomy” demands for Santa Cruz inevitably would conflict with the autonomy demands of the indigenous populations. They use the ultimate threat of secession if they don’t get what they want.

Threats to Workers and Peasants

The leadership of the Santa Cruz civic committee is closely linked to the Santa Cruz Chamber of Commerce (CAINCO). Its long list of member businesses includes gas companies with contracts in the region, such as Petrobras (Brazil), Repso-YPF (Spain) and Enron, all of which have representatives on CAINCO’s board. Reportedly CAINCO has also provided support for the activities of Nación Camba, an extreme right group that advocates regional separation and claims 40,000 mainly white and mestizo members from Santa Cruz and the neighboring Tarija department. The group’s youth section is already known for violent attacks on indigenous marches.

Disturbingly, workers seem to have supported the November and January business-led “strikes” for autonomy. Workers and employees in the hydrocarbon and banking sectors, both vital to the Eastern economy, are among the highest paid in the country. There is a tendency within the labor aristocracy in all countries to identify with the racist pro-imperialist aims of their bosses; Bolivia is no exception. But we have found little discussion in the Bolivian and Latin American left over what political strategy could be used to win over at least portions of the Eastern urban and industrial workers. There were blockades and even shutdowns of pipelines by agricultural workers and peasants against the oil and gas companies. However, the indigenous populations in the East don’t have the clout that the Aymaras and Quechuas have exerted in the West.

A strategy must be forged to build a worker-indigenous alliance on a national basis at this point. This is the only way to defeat the Santa Cruz agenda and to defeat Mesa, who not only capitulates to Santa Cruz but has become the most immediate danger to the masses across Bolivia. The fact that workers in the East as well as the West were recently mobilized against gas hikes imposed by the IMF is just one indication that there is a class basis for unity—despite the bosses’ efforts to cultivate a fake cross-class unity based on racism and regional chauvinism. Unity in action must be achieved without political concessions. Working-class leadership of a united front of workers and peasants from all regions is essential for building a powerful defense.

Revolutionary Program

Revolutionaries must begin by focusing on those already politically conscious workers from all regions who can be won most immediately to the central task of building a Leninist party. In forging such a party, clarity of basic program is essential.

Imperialism has not allowed the development of a genuinely centralized economy in Bolivia, and this remains an essential need of the masses of all regions. A workers’ state would nationalize the hydrocarbon, mining, banking and other vital sectors without giving the compradors or the imperialists any compensation. It would likewise carry out a thoroughgoing land reform. It would establish a nationally centralized monopoly over foreign trade. It would repudiate the huge debt owed to the imperialists—debt repayment alone is now 30 percent of the entire national budget. These measures would lay the basis for a genuine industrialization program in Bolivia. Only through such measures can a guaranteed decent living standard for all be created; it would include free health, education and welfare services. The socialist plan would feature a full public works program that means not only guaranteed jobs for all but—for the first time—water, electricity, heat, sanitation and transport for all of Bolivia.

When advanced workers are armed with a socialist program, outlined in broad strokes above, they have the basis for tactical approaches to fellow workers in motion when the time is ripe. Obviously the bulk of workers can not be convinced instantaneously of the full program for socialist revolution and the workers’ state. In these situations, Trotskyists use a system of transitional demands. For example, demands like “nationalization of key industries without compensation” and “workers’ control of industry” can be very effective in articulating objective goals that workers can identify with. Workers already see the advantages of nationalization and can certainly see the immediate advantage of not compensating the imperialist bloodsuckers who most of them despise. We argue openly for socialist revolution and advocate nationalization of the hydrocarbons and other major industries under a workers’ state as the only solution.

In Bolivia, where MAS and even left-talking union leaders have spread great confusion about what the nationalization of gas means, clear propaganda explaining the revolutionary significance of the demand, including the need for a workers’ state, is essential. By the same token, raising a fight over compensation and over the right of the workers and oppressed to at least oversee any nationalization that would take place under a capitalist state can be tactically vital. Through the joint struggle for such transitional demands, revolutionaries have the opportunity to demonstrate revolutionary truths in practice. A centralized revolutionary party to represent the socialist working-class alternative is desperately needed.

Disorientation of the Movements

In the existing mass movements, the demand for local decentralized power and autonomy have co-existed with fervent demands for the nationalization of gas and an industrialization program—which are correctly understood as key demands on the central state power. While bourgeois forces exploit these contradictions and use them to confuse the masses, a revolutionary policy must “say what is” and call things by their right names.

Despite the need for a centralized state, no authentic communist can be indifferent to the yearning of oppressed indigenous groups for autonomy in the face of the present state power. A proletarian strategy must deal with and resolve the apparent contradiction in a truthful way.

For revolutionary internationalists, the opposition to world imperialism and the need for the self-determination of Bolivia in particular dictate a centralist program. But this program has to be proved in practice, especially to indigenous peoples who have suffered five hundred years under colonialism and imperialism. For this reason Leninists advance the democratic rights of oppressed groups. In Bolivia, the struggles have demonstrated that secession is not appropriate for any of the distinct indigenous populations that want autonomy. But the same Leninist spirit that has been historically used to support the right of secession for oppressed nations must still be invoked when addressing the demand for self-rule embodied in their calls for autonomy.

Revolutionaries therefore must energetically defend the right to autonomy for indigenous peoples. From the Aymaras in the Western highlands to the Guarani and many other minority populations in the Eastern lowlands, important sections currently see no hope for an equitable Bolivian nation and therefore want some form of self-rule in their historical land areas.

As with the right of national self-determination and secession, our recognition of the right of oppressed groups to choose autonomy means total hostility to demands for autonomy by any section of the oppressors. Nor does it mean that we must advocate autonomy as the best way forward for the oppressed in specific situations. It simply means that we defend the right of the oppressed to make this choice. Revolutionaries fight side by side with the oppressed in their struggles, while pointing out that centralization under a workers’ state is the only real solution.

Abstract advocacy of regional autonomy is a dangerous strategy in Bolivia at this time, as the events in Santa Cruz have already abundantly proved. Revolutionaries must defend the right of oppressed indigenous populations to pursue their specific struggles for autonomy, while warning against calls for regional autonomy of all departments.

Revolutionary Policy

Socialist revolution is necessary to overthrow Bolivian comprador capitalism and its ties to imperialism. The development of a socialist revolution requires the building of an internationalist Trotskyist party. Its goal is a workers’ state, led by a workers’ and peasants’ government, pledged to uproot anti-indigenous racism in Bolivian society.

The workers’ ability to carry out such a program depends not only on the strongest possible alliance with the peasantry and indigenous populations but also on the international spread of the fight. In particular, the demand for debt repudiation is key to internationalist strategy; it has been acutely lacking in the Bolivian situation. Repudiation of Bolivia’s debts is designed to win tremendous support from the masses everywhere, who are suffering under the same debt burden. It could spark a chain reaction across Latin America.

The masses’ fight for nationalization is opposed not only by the local capitalists and the imperialists, but also by such neighboring “left” regimes as Lula’s Brazil and Kirchner’s Argentina. Mesa can not solve the underlying problems or even hold back the movements for long by himself. These neighboring regimes are also the most likely forces to intervene and front for U.S. imperialism in coming confrontations. This danger can only be stopped by fostering solidarity with the masses of all the neighboring countries, including raising the need to support indigenous struggles on an international level. Combatting the age-old reactionary anti-Chilean chauvinism is an acute necessity.

This article can only sketch in some basic perspectives. Despite the current obstacles, the masses are not defeated nor do they see themselves as decisively defeated. And the escalated attacks are also forcing a new wave of resistance. Therefore a new upsurge on the level of the October 2003 uprising, initially beginning defensively, can be expected. Given the dangers now being mounted, it is imperative that revolutionaries fight for the arming of the workers and peasants. Every opportunity to place demands on the current misleaders of the masses to defend the current struggles must be seized. Reformist and centrist union leaders and above all Morales must be ceaselessly exposed until they can be replaced. Campaigns for united fronts and solidarity actions in the struggles today are vital.

Today, even a small number of revolutionary cadres, armed with a genuine Marxist program, can be key to building the vanguard Bolshevik party for the upcoming upheavals in Bolivia. The LRP and COFI strive to play a role in the re-creation of the revolutionary Fourth International in an effort to support this development.

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