Popular forces struggle for unity against attacks
By Federico Fuentes
Federico Fuentes is a frequent writer for the Australian socialist newspaper, Green Left Weekly, and maintains the blog
A chain of events triggered by the passage of a new agrarian reform law, part of Bolivian president Evo Morales’ "agrarian revolution" has brought to sharp relief the drive by the right-wing opposition to overthrow Morales’ government, even if it means pushing
On November 28, in front of thousands of cheering campesinos in
This determined move gave the government greater powers to redistribute land that was not performing a "social function." In retaliation, the right-wing opposition launched a new phase in its destabilization campaign, shifting the centre of gravity of the struggle to its home turf. A series of "cabildos" – open town meetings – were convoked for December 15 in the four eastern departments (provinces).
The core of
The largest of these cabildos, held in
Rising tensions in the East saw clashes in the days leading up to and following the cabildo. Armed fascist youth organized by the Crucenista [Santa Cruz] Youth Union patrolled the streets, threatening and attacking indigenous people, many of whom support MAS, having migrated east over the last few years in search of employment.
That same day, several thousand people rallied in
Conflict shifts to the heart of Bolivia
However it was the calls that day by the governor of
Although there was an immediate response by the social movements, the mass mobilizations were deferred until after the New Year break. By January 8, tens of thousands of mostly indigenous campesinos, cocaleros (coca farmers), and water irrigators, together with workers and other social movements had occupied the centre of Cochabamba demanding Reyes Villa resign for not listening to the will of the people. Attacked by the police, protester anger grew as they burnt down part of the building housing the offices of the governorship
Events turned ugly on January 11, when residents from the middle class northern suburbs of
In response, Evo Morales cut short his international agenda to attend to the growing crisis. He returned on January 12 in his dual capacity as president of the Republic and of the Six Federations of the Tropic of Cochabamba (also known as the Chapare region), a key force in the mobilizations. Although saying the conflict was one between the social movements and the authorities of
"Now I am much more convinced that the indigenous peasant movement represents the moral reserve of humanity," said Morales. He called on the social movements to reflect and avoid any further violence or revenge attacks. He proposed to rush through a new law to allow a recall referendum on all elected officials, to avoid further confrontations between those who held positions "legally," but not "legitimately," in the eyes of the population.
A national crisis?
That same day, a cabildo of the protestors voted to radicalize their actions by cutting off
Three days later, a cabildo was convened in El Alto, where residents declared themselves in a "war to the death" until they received the resignation of both Reyes Villa and La Paz governor José Luis Paredes, who had also recently come out in favour of autonomy. They gave Paredes 48 hours to resign or else be forced out, as confrontation and violence threaten to spill out of the city of
On the other side of the country, the story was different. A rally called for January 15 by the newly formed Popular Civic Committee of Santa Cruz – made up of organizations of the lower classes opposed to the official right wing controlled civic committee – suspended their mobilization, due to threats of violent attacks against them by the Crucenista Youth Union.
Saturnino Pinto, president of the Popular Civic Committee said that the mobilization would be postponed "until the authorities follow the law and tell us where we can meet without confrontations."
Reporting on the second cabildo held in
In the end they put forward a resolution that, while continuing to call on the prefect to resign and maintaining the "state of emergency," gave the departmental council – controlled by a MAS majority – a mandate to continue meeting in Reyes Villa’s absence to work out a legal way to remove him. Stefanoni wrote "persistent whistling blocked out the voice of the speaker and threats forced the [departmental] council to meet ‘in order to name a new prefect.’
"But the pressure coming from the government had its effect. Bit by bit the leaders who respond to Evo Morales – especially the cocaleros – began disappearing and the massive presence in the plaza diminished."
Afterwards, a small group of ultra-radicals decided to proclaim their own new prefect and "revolutionary government" and to enter the governor’s office, only to be easily repelled by the police. By the following day, even the "new" prefect was complaining that he had been abandoned by everyone.
Whilst unrest continues in El Alto, it seems that Morales has been able to stop the right-wing offensive by winning a possible truce, albeit very temporary.
One country, two political projects
No one doubts, however, that the conflict is far from over as these two political projects – that represented by
With the advent of neoliberalism in
However, the resurgence of struggle in 2000 by the indigenous people of the west (Aymara uprising in the altiplano) and centre (Water War of Cochabamba) in 2000, and the rise of the indigenous- and campesino-led Popular Instrument for the Sovereignty of the People – which runs under the registered name of MAS in elections – shattered this stability. The oligarchy’s traditional institutions and political parties become thoroughly discredited.
With the overthrow of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada in October 2003, these elites were gradually displaced from the positions they traditionally held and lost the direct access they had to decision making at the national level.
Moreover, confronted with an organized indigenous-majority west, hostile to neoliberalism and where support for Morales is overwhelming (polls in December showed 62% support in
Their aim was to solidify their hegemony in the east where the social movements are much weaker and in many cases aligned with the elites, shielding themselves from the encroaching west. Thus emboldened, they would move towards regaining their influence in the west.
The plan has been to confuse the population, projecting an image of instability domestically and internationally, coupled with calls for "international intervention" and stalling, by any means necessary, the "Democratic and Cultural Revolution" initiated by the massive election victory of Evo Morales in December 2005.
By demobilizing and promoting disillusionment among
A key element in the strategy of the right has been to try to paralyze the work of the Constituent Assembly. They have had some success at this. Despite having been convened on August 6, it has yet to resolve its rules of procedure.
Their calls for "autonomy" are aimed at securing control of national resources and wealth for the governorships they control, whilst they wait in the wings to recapture control of the central government. Their kind of "autonomy" would gravely undermine the ability of MAS government to implement its program.
At the same time, by playing up regional divisions and stoking up separatist sentiments with talk of "independence," they are conjuring up fears of the disintegration of
Part of this project is the designation of Phillip Goldberg as the new
Clearly the current objective of the right is to overthrow Morales. However, the balkanization of
One reason why the division of the country seems unlikely in the immediate future is the situation in the armed forces. Most commentators agree that any attempt to carve up the country would be opposed, at least at this stage, by the overwhelming majority of the armed forces,
The spectre of separatism, however, could both work in favour or against the indigenous movement and the Morales government. The right wing is also using this fear as a way to gain a stronger foothold in the high command of the military.
Although Morales has been trying to incorporate the armed forces into his project, very few are willing to speculate as to what is happening internally within an army that has throughout its history intervened to back both pro-imperialist and nationalist regimes.
The shape of things to come
This latest push by the opposition has demonstrated its continuing hegemony over large sections of the population in the east, although it has also revealed an emerging, yet still very weak, popular movement amongst the poorer sections in the surroundings of
The street presence of the opposition, the concerted media campaign, along with the troubles in the Constituent Assembly, also seem to have swung a section of the urban middle class, who voted for Morales a year ago on the idea that "if a blockader is in government then the blockades will stop," behind the consolidating bloc that claims to defend "democracy" and "autonomy."
However it has also revealed that
Part of the political struggle is the need to project a viable and convincing course to defend the territorial integrity of
MAS Senator Antonio Peredo Leigue, writing on January 15, pointed out that "work needs to be done towards the organization and coordination of these movements. The right counts in their favor these faults; they project their provocations confident of finding a reaction amongst the popular sectors. In this way, they want to justify the conspiracy against the government."
He adds, "The leadership of Evo Morales has reined in, once again, the danger of a national confrontation. It is necessary that this leadership be recognized in order to halt provocations. In this context, the process of change will advance more decisively and the right will be left isolated. The task of the mobilized people is the deepening of democracy."
The Bolivian masses have a huge task on their hands, and no one doubts that the big clashes are still to come. As the powerful opposition to the
The role of Morales as an indigenous president within this alliance, who is consciously reaching out to awakening indigenous movements of the region, is crucially important. The indigenous government in
The current push in