Conflicts between oligarchy and social movements: Is Bolivia headed for a showdown?

February 23, 2007

Sarah Hines and Karl Swinehart report from Bolivia on the state of the struggle one year after Evo Morales took power.

AS BOLIVIA’S first indigenous President Evo Morales celebrated his first year in office in January, increasing tensions and confrontations that threatened to shatter the balancing act his government has tried to maintain between the social movements that put him in power and the country’s right-wing oligarchy.

The electoral success of Morales’ Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party came in the wake of the toppling of two elected presidents--by mass mobilizations of Bolivia’s many social movements against the government’s neoliberal policies, especially regarding natural resources.

Morales was elected with 54 percent of the vote in December 2005, promising to fulfill the social movements’ demands for land reform, nationalization of the country’s natural resources, increased funding for education and health care, a doubling of the minimum wage, respect for coca production, and a Constituent Assembly that would rewrite the country’s constitution.

To the extent that Morales has tried to fulfill these promises, he has faced a relentless campaign of obstruction by right-wing parties that represent the oligarchy of petroleum, mining and land interests. These parties want to prevent any change to the status quo, and to push the Morales government and the social movements on the defensive.

Hoping to placate the right without alienating its base, the Morales government has used radical rhetoric while keeping its reforms moderate and making a series of concessions.

Now, at the same time that the government is faced with stepped-up opposition from the right, it is also beginning to face a challenge from social movements to push reforms further.

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MORALES’ POPULARITY surged to 80 percent last May when he announced the nationalization of natural gas--long a major rallying cry of social movements that want the revenues used to develop this impoverished nation, rather than line the coffers of multinational corporations.

Morales’ nationalization decree reversed the formula agreed to by ousted President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada. Under the new arrangement, Bolivia will receive 82 percent of gas revenues--resulting, according to the government, in an increase in payments from multinationals from $240 million a year to $1.6 billion.

The government is using the increased proceeds to open new health clinics and hospitals, provide a subsidy to families with school children, increase education funding, embark on a literacy campaign and provide tractors to poor farmers.

But the nationalization affects subsoil resources only--it leaves untouched energy refineries and other installations, which continue to be owned and controlled by foreign companies. Thus, Morales could say, “We are exercising as Bolivians our property rights over our natural resources, without expelling or confiscating anything from anyone.”

The nationalization was supposed to establish the state-owned oil company Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales Bolivianos (YPFB), all but broken by privatizations during the 1990s, as the majority shareholder at all installations.

But according to a recent study by a Bolivian social science research group, the petroleum giants continue to operate with exclusive rights to explore and exploit gas reserves, and control gas operations overall.

The contradictions between the rhetoric and reality of nationalization came to a head at the beginning of February when the residents of the town of Camiri in the gas-rich Chaco region went on strike, blockading a main regional highway and occupying the Transredes refinery, whose primary owner is the multinational Royal Dutch Shell.

The Chaco region is estimated to possess 1.6 billion cubic tons of natural gas, but the strikers contend that economic benefits aren’t reaching the area’s impoverished population. They ultimately demanded full nationalization, with expropriation of all property of the petroleum companies, and with the YPFB actually operating the gas industry, as opposed to playing an administrative role.

The government responded by sending in troops, causing a confrontation that left eight people wounded. “We regret what has happened in Camiri,” Morales said. “Our compañeros have occupied the plants, and the plants already belong to the Bolivians. When a plant is occupied, the company doesn’t lose, Bolivia loses.”

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THE GOVERNMENT has been careful to proceed with nationalizations and other reforms through legal channels.

Yet as has become increasingly clear, the right wing isn’t interested in compromise. It will go to any length to prevent reform--no matter how moderate--and weaken the government and social movements.

The Constituent Assembly, charged with rewriting the country’s constitution, has been stalled for the last six months by the right’s insistence on two-thirds approval for each article. The MAS has offered to compromise--to the point of practically accepting the right-wing’s proposals--only to be rebuffed, showing that the “two-thirds is democracy” cry of the right is, in reality, only a means to stall the assembly until its mandate expires.

After a huge march of the indigenous in November, Congress passed changes to the Agrarian Law that challenge the interests of the country’s latifundistas (large landholders)--in what Morales has called an “agrarian revolution.” In fact, while the new provisions threaten to redistribute unproductive land, they include concessions to the latifundistas and provide time to make unused land productive.

The government has announced that 2007 will see the nationalization of the mining sector and the reactivation of the state-owned mining corporation COMIBOL. The government currently receives only 1.5 percent of the value of mining exports and is proposing that at least half the value of exports be paid in taxes.

Last month, the government announced that it would nationalize without compensation the Vinto mineral processing plant--owned by ousted President Sánchez de Lozada, having been illegally slated for privatization in 1994 when he was still in office.

However, the government has assured private and “cooperative” mining companies that the property of firms “that respect Bolivian law, that don’t rob from the Bolivian people, will be respected.”

Thus, “nationalization” will mean adding state-sector jobs where possible, and seizing assets only where laws have been broken.

Evo is also beginning to see opposition from his own base--the coca growers he used to lead.

Coca growers in both the Chapare and Yunga regions are protesting the government’s “voluntary eradication” plan that would limit coca growing to one cato (equivalent to about 175 square yards or about one-third the size of a football field) per family.

According to both Bolivian and U.S. authorities, the MAS government seized 26 percent more cocaine base and cocaine hydrochloride in its first nine months of office than were seized in the same period in 2005. Nevertheless, the U.S. has still refused to renew its trade with Bolivia and continues to claim that coca production has increased.

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THE GOVERNMENT’S concessions have not mollified the right.

In December, state officials and “civic committees” of the eastern departments of Beni, Pando, Santa Cruz and Tarija--which make up the Media Luna (Half Moon) region, so-called for its half-moon shape--mobilized hundreds of thousands to rally in support of an autonomy arrangement that would allow the elites of these departments to control oil and gas contracts and revenues, independent of the government.

When Cochabamba’s ultra-right-wing Gov. Manfred Reyes Villa jumped on the autonomy bandwagon in December, MAS supporters from around the department converged on the city of Cochabamba to demand his resignation.

The MAS government’s attempts to demobilize the protests once they threatened to escape its control left protesters without leadership or a strategy to push the struggle forward. So while the right came out of the confrontations in Cochabamba more organized, the social movements were demoralized by their failure to remove Reyes from office.

Threats of “civil war” are part of a general strategy of fear-mongering and destabilization by the right wing. Nevertheless, it is worth pointing out that the new U.S. ambassador to Bolivia, Philip Goldberg, is an experienced “balkanizer”--having played a key role in the breakup of ex-Yugoslavia.

The MAS, unfortunately, adheres to the mistaken idea that confronting the right will only antagonize them further.

As MAS Sen. Antonio Peredo Leigue wrote after the events in Cochabamba, “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.”

In reality, the government’s concessions are giving the right room to build momentum--and demobilizing the very base that could defend and advance the government’s program.

Morales continues to enjoy strong popularity after his first year--a January poll showed 59 percent support in major cities and an even higher rate in rural areas. But it will take a further revival and mobilization of the country’s social movements to defend the government against the right--and push for more fundamental social change.

As Eusebio Merlo, a leader of the Federation of Neighborhood Councils in El Alto, put it, “We know that the struggle is long. It doesn’t end with Evo Morales--the struggle continues. It’s a process.

“So, as leaders, we don’t just speak, but we listen to the regions...they want a profound change. We really want for the indigenous to learn how to administer natural resources and learn how to run our country. That’s our vision, the vision of our neighbors and of our leaders.”

First published in Socialist Worker (US)


Anonymous said...

This was also published in the same issue of Socialist Worker (US)

Two Cochabamba activists speak out:
“The right doesn’t care if people die”

February 23, 2007 | Page 6

BORIS RÍOS and CLAUDIA LÓPEZ, organizers with the Coalition for Defense of Water and Life in Cochabamba, talked to Socialist Worker’s SARAH HINES and KARL SWINEHART about the significance of the confrontation in January between supporters and opponents of right-wing Gov. Manfred Reyes Villa, which left two dead and more than 100 wounded.

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WHAT IS the oligarchy trying to achieve and how?

Boris: The right is playing a role of trying to destabilize things without measuring the consequences. They don’t care if people die or if Cochabamba burns. Their game is to destabilize.

Our enemy is the right, because the right is defending the established order, and that established order is this capitalist regime. We have to beat the right, but we can’t be hypocrites either and defend the government, even if they’re our brothers, when they defend the established order.

The government had the possibility to direct the conflict in a different way, and it doubted itself at every step and wasn’t listening to anyone. It played around, and this is the result.

SHOULD THE Morales government bear some of the responsibility for the outcome in Cochabamba?

Boris: One of the errors was not having a line that said we want the governor out, so we’re going to advance with a plan and with a legitimacy that doesn’t have people going all over the place. This was an ideological, political and material defeat for us.

Because of this, we have to say to the government, “You have to listen. You have to accept your limitations. You have to know to talk to the people and listen to the people.” And, furthermore, don’t fall into the error of saying that legality is above legitimacy. Everything we’ve gotten in this country has been through struggle.

Claudia: The right has fortified itself with this last conflict. They’ve gained a little bit of morale at the level of mobilization and position. So people in Cochabamba find themselves still trying to understand what happened and what position to take.

The role of the government has been totally wrong. You have to recognize clearly that the movements that participated in this last mobilization belong to and are aligned with the government--the coca growers and the campesinos [peasants] from the valleys responded to its call.

So at the organic level of mobilization and logistics, they were strong in this mobilization. But they didn’t have the capacity to call on the urban sectors of Cochabamba, when in December we could measure that people in the city didn’t want to align with the “Half Moon” [the eastern departments whose leaders are demanding autonomy].

We don’t know what is going to happen yet in the future, but we do hope that at least we can begin to reconstruct our banners of liberation--and that the people can get the confidence again to feel like their voices can be heard.

Anonymous said...

Boris you are full of crap. Of course, if anyone is a human, left or right thinking, care if people are killed. Tell me. How many people have been killed since Evo is in power this past one year???? At lest 20, and he is left thinking, not right. Do you think he or Vice President "Lineras" cares? The ones killed were simple people like minors, and also cocaleros?
The only ones that wanted Manfred OUT was Evo and "MAS", Why? Becuase he spoke about autonomy. That is a dirty word for the MAS. Manfred had very right to do so as a person and Constitutional citizen. Maybe, it was the wrong topic and the wrong timimg,I totally agree, but he had right. Remember our Gov. Manfred was ELECTED just like EVO. We also voted for EVO believing he would and could do a better job then the "white" Corrupt-Governments of the past. No one wants them back, but even with the big mistakes of EVO, we hope he can still do a good job. Remember "Cercado" the city of Cochabamba, be it north or south voted for autonomy. Chapare did not, and they dared not to. They are controlled by MAS syndicates? Who brought the "Social Movements" from Chapare and the other rural areas to threaten Manfred and our city. Talk to any honest "Chaperño" and they will tell you they were threaten, and trucked up here to seige the city.. IF they didn't this, the "Sindicatos" said "their lands would be eather taken away or burnt". This is the truth, and this is the way Evo operates, in tropical coca growing "Chapare" Cochabamba. If the US. Gov.(DEA) had not committed human right violations using our police and army in the past, in this area, Evo woould not now exist. Go to ANY Bolivian city. I went to Oruro a highland city where Evo is really from. I was really and totally suprized to hear so many speak agaist Evo and his "Social Movements". I repeat, this is Oruro. Cochabamba reacted because, because the city was sick of outsiders (Social Movements treatening, burning and ruining our beautiful city. One could even walk downtown whith out a "Campesino" asking you for your ID card. This even made me mad, as hell. Is he police or authority? Was I breaking a law? NO to both. Who created the hatered (strong word)between our social classes. History teaches us, because of our Spanish roots, we have put the "Indio" on the bottem rung and if you are "white" you are on the top. Yes, this is wrong but our past and present is in all of Latin American thinking, from Mexico on down. Argentina even killed off there native population, similar to the USA. but now ( after the Cochabamba show down) one cannot stand the other. A Cocalero or Campersino sees a light skin person and he wants to beat him up or even kill and unfortunately the same happenes when a city person sees a "Campersino". I saw this in Oruro, I'm not even talking about Santa Cruz. We can blame MAS and Evo for this, forceing all these "Social Movements" on our city, but with threats and even payment to them. Is that right. Nobody threaen the "Civico" or paid them to defend Cochabamba.

The real enemy is "right" as you said but also "left" if one does not know how to govern the people. There is mistrust, Poor people (Social Movements) migrating out of Bolivia about 5000 a month. looking for a better life else where, asa good paying job cannot be found inside Boliva, even with all the promises of EVO. Driving back from Oruro, I was shocked to see so many poor, especially the elderly begging for money or a piece of bread. I never saw this, even a year ago. Children and dogs always, but old people. Come on. Something has gone wrong. The rich are leaving as they have money to go anywhere and feel unsecure. The middle class is suffering, work has dropped and a bright future seems so uncertain. Ask the market people. Even they do not sell their goods like before.
Th enemy is Gov. who does not know know how to Gov. its people weather right or left. Unfortunately, Bolivia has always had Gov. that think of only themselves,political party and family and friends in a corrupt way. History again shows us this and we have felt this. It seems that MAS is following the same route aas past Gov.
I am glad Bolivia has broken away from the IMF, Nationalized our petrol, even brought our cell phone bill down, and that Uncle Sam does not dictate to us, but at the same time Venezuela,(Chavez) Cuba or anyone else has right to intervine in our affairs. MAS also needs to know... respect our laws...they are in power for Bolivia and all of Bolivia and for all Bolivians. When elections come up again, we will see if they continue in power or not. That is our democratic right.