Bolivia – in the midst of the tensions, a new opposition?

José Pinto, 07/02/2007

La Paz.- Between December last year what has passed of February, the government of Evo Morales has traversed through the most difficult period of its term, characterised by an intensification of demands and mobilisation that have obliged it to go back and fix up some decisions linked, for instance, with the refoundation of Yacimientos Petroliferos Fiscales Bolivianos (YPFB) and with tax increases on mining activities

The traditional parties, at least in a direct form, have not been the key protagonists in these last events as they maintain themselves entrenched behind their slogans related to autonomies, the system of voting in the Constituent Assembly and the media mobilisation regarding the presence of a foreign advisor in the presidency of the republic.

Clearly, it can be appreciated that there are two parallel scenarios in the opposition to the government. The first comes from the official opposition lead by the traditional parties, accompanied by some prefectures and civic committees, The second is concentrated in other actors such as the Camiri Civic Committee and organisations of a corporative economic character such as the Federation of Cooperative Miners.

New opposition?

In the case of Camiri in particular, it represents a radical left opposition that is seeking to reproach the government for a "non revolutionary" character, putting forward demands for expropriation that, certainly do not figure in the designs of nationalisation being pushed by the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS). "There is no nationalisation whilst they don't expropriate. The government should make sure it is not mistaken in trying to convince the population of something that is not really nationalisation" affirmed the vice president of the Camireño strike committee.

What I have outlined is nothing new in the social processes that Latin America has lived through and, without going too far, has similarities with what occurred in Bolivia itself during the government of the UDP and in Peru – almost forty years ago – when the government of Velasco Alvarado was confronting the tenacious opposition of the oligarchy, whilst the majority of the organisations of the radical left classified it as bourgeois reformist.

Certainly the Bolivian government had to negotiate with the radical leadership of Camiri, backed by the people, and concede the principal demands contained in the log of claims. The situation with the blockade of the road from Santa Cruz towards Argentina and the take over of the installations of a transnational demanded it. Consequently a new social actor has empowered itself and - it is useful to play with this hypothesis - the existence of a new will that will try to overcome its local vision and convert itself into a political force.

Of course it is difficult to predict the future projections of such a hypothesis, however what was previously the initiatives of just a few personalities who integrated themselves and contributed political content to the economic demands, could come to signify a pole of attraction to other radical sectors trying similar initiatives.

In this way, the Federation of Cooperative Miners has entrusted itself with putting forward another grand challenge to the MAS government. The mining cooperatives emerged as a result of the structural adjustment policy that provoked the closure of the Bolivian state mining company and the unemployment of tens of thousands of workers which until then had worked for COMIBOL. The abandonment of the mines motivated the beginnings of artisan activities of exploration and, later on, the formation of cooperative that, with the passing of years and the increase in the international price of minerals, have converted themselves in the majority of cases into rentable companies which count on a large mass of hired workers.

The cooperative miners supported MAS and were one of its bulwarks in the electoral campaign, but a few months ago they took their distance from the government when Evo Morales made changes to the Ministry of Mining which stems from the quarries, as a result of an attempt to take over a mine with the lamentable result of a number of deaths.

But now, when the government is looking to increase its income by imposing a complementary tax on minerals, the cooperative miners have returned to take over the centre of the city of La Paz. There is no agreement in regards to the numbers mobilised, but all indications are that they are more than 10,000 who, carrying sticks of dynamite, have forced the government to negotiate.

In an extremely tense environment, the negotiation – at the time of writing this article – is underway, headed by the president of the republic. The threats of confrontations with the police remain and the most probable and desirable outcome is that an agreement will be reached; but, no matter what the result is, the implications of the governmental management will cost dearly and will oblige them to redesign their strategies of relations between the social and political.

There remains the future possibility of a political "encounter" between cooperative miners, camireños civicos and other radical sectors, but – for the moment – this is no more than pure speculation.

From the balcony

The traditional parties, after having removed MAS from the presidency of the Senate chambers, can see – with disguised pleasure and forced seriousness - the predicaments of the government. Some spokespeople have not vacillated in affirming that "all of this is MAS' problem" and that "now the social movements are passing on the bill", forgetting – speaking of the spokespeople of previous governments and independent observers – that it was their political organisations which pushed forward the measures of destruction of the mining industry.

In the Constituent Assembly an agreement is on the verge of emerging and it is well known that the opposition does not constitute a solid group, this even includes the mentioned "disassociation" of some members of the PODEMOS grouping. It is to be expected that once the conflict is overcome with the cooperative miners, this opposition will attempt to once again become the main protagonists, but it will be very difficult for them to succeed in initiating mobilisations such as those that have been seen in the last few weeks. What is most probable is that it will continue being restricted to its regional scenarios.

Some characteristics to understand the strategies under way

a) The opportunity: international events such as the Summit of Presidents in Cochabamba and its coinciding with the anniversary of the MAS government, were attempted to be used by the initiating forces behind the demands in order to give them greater resonance.

b) The localisation: although the international story tends to present the conflicts as impacting on all of Bolivia, the reality continues to demonstrate that they have still not reached a national dimension. Except for the unresolved decision on the regulations of the Constituent Assembly, the totality of the tensions continue to territorially involve local or regional actors, such as in the case of Cochabamba, Camiri and the cooperative miners or functionally as with the political forces of the opposition, for the elections of the head of the senate.

c) The rearticulation of the opposition: the biggest achievement was reached in the senate chambers where an agreement between PODEMOS, MNR and UN allowed for the only senator of this force to occupy the presidency of the senate, displacing the MAS candidate.

d) The direct social mobilisation against the opposition: Cochabamba with relative success and El Alto, with adjoining limitations in its failure, were the contexts in which the social movements decided to openly confront the prefects aligned to the autonomist current lead by the Civic Committee of Santa Cruz.

e) The emergence of a radical left opposition: the radical sectors of the left which until now had remained in an almost marginal situation have managed, for the first time, to become active protagonists, politically leading the demands of the people of Camiri which – after eight days of shutting down and blockading the main roadways which unite Santa Cruz with Argentina – have been accepted in their essences by the government.

f) The media reiteration effect: The majority of the mass media continues exercising its influence which converts them into successful spokespeople of the opposition.

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