Reforms or revolutions

Pablo Sefanoni

Subeditorial, Pulso, 25-8-2007

Bolivian history seems to advance — if that’s an adequate term — by cycles. “Liberal” governments (a term that in Latin America is not opposed to authoritarianism and, normally, is complementary to it) are succeeded by civilian or military “national-popular” governments. And “national-popular” governments are succeeded by “liberal” administrations. Today we are at a renewed “surge of mass democracy” (borrowing from Guillermo Bedregal, who is now complaining about romantic attempts to return to the Fifties[1] and the élites are reacting with the same mix of racism and fear of the masses that has characterized antipopulist discourse since the mid-20th century. But then it was partially submerged while now it is emerging — in a more politically correct form — through calls for the “defence of the institutions”.

Republicanism is a cause, a noble one to be sure, that the conservative groups recall only when they are in opposition. Didn’t the neoliberalism of the Nineties elevate presidential decision-making to its highest expression? Did it not relegate the members of parliament to handraisers for the resolutions of the Executive Power (including the international financial organizations)? Why did the liberal right — and the new nationalists of today — not demonstrate the “patriotism” they displayed this Wednesday when the economic model was being overturned by means of decree (yes, decree) 21060?[2] Since when was neoliberalism not imposed by dint of unilateral decrees, social repression and the overriding of republican institutions?

Talk of a dictatorship is absurd. It may be comprehensible in the fascistic youth of Sucre (fascist-inclined, no doubt, out of ignorance more than a careful reading of Hitler’s Mein Kampf) descending into the street with racist slogans like “Silvia Lazarte, ignorant half-breed”[3] or shouting “llama” at the country’s President. But this is less justifiable in grey-haired parliamentarians who lived through the military dictatorships of the Seventies and Eighties, when, as an Argentine dictator put it, the ballot boxes were well guarded.

Some 153 years ago, Manuel Isidoro Belzu — who was also called a half-breed, and even a “communist” by the élites of that day — told the members of parliament who came from those same élites: “Gentlemen, make reforms for your own good if you do not want the people to make revolutions in their way.”[4] Neither then nor since have the Bolivian power groups listened to these prophetic words. So now the people have made revolutions in their own way. And the well-to-do classes are so scandalized by this that at every opportunity they raise the spectre of barbarism while claiming they speak for civilization.

In the countries with reformist élites there were no revolutions and the European governing classes have understood this for many years: revolutions are warded off with rights and not through repression alone. That is why Gramsci spoke of the “passive revolution” of the bourgeoisie.

But the pig-headed élites of Bolivia have not understood this, nor do they understand it now, and they read the moderate reformist process led by Evo Morales as if it were a soviet-style revolution. Accordingly, those who are excluded will choose, as they are doing, to “make revolutions in their own way”. How else can it be?

Translated from Pulso by Richard Fidler



[1]La Prensa, August 23, 2007.

[2] Translator’s note: Decree 21060 was a draconian presidential order issued in the mid-1980s that imposed neoliberalism on Bolivia through such measures as freeing interest rates, abolishing restrictions on foreign trade, freezing public sector wages and abolishing indexation, and allowing the banking system to operate with foreign currencies.

[3] Silvia Lazarte, an indigenous woman, is president of the Constituent Assembly. – Tr.

[4] Andrey Schelchkov, La utopía social conservadora: el gobierno de Manuel Isidoro Belzu (1848-1855), Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, 2007.

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