Leading Bolivian Organisers Speak

The struggle in Bolivia has significantly intensified in the last few months. While the Bolivian oligarchy is plotting a coup against President Evo Morales in cahoots with the United States of America (USA), the people have taken to the streets. In the first half of September 2007, 100,000 people from various streams including peasants and indigenous movements converged on Sucre, the judicial capital of Bolivia, for a Social Summit in defence of the Constituent Assembly.

Bolivia is a country of 9.1 million people who are largely of Quechua, Aymara or mixed ethnicity. Quechua and Aymara are among the indigenous people of the region. Bolivia is also one of the poorest countries in Latin America. La Paz, located at a height of 11, 910 ft, is the highest capital city in the world. Evo Morales, the first indigenous president, was elected in December 2005 with a 54% vote after years of massive peasant, workers and indigenous peoples’ protests.

In July 2007 as the crisis was brewing Surya and Tamarai met with activists in Bolivia. The interviews were conducted on July 2 in La Paz, the capital of Bolivia. Below are excerpts from interviews with important organisers of the ongoing movement to change Bolivia.

The first interview is with Antonia Rodriguez, a women’s leader from Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) working in capital La Paz. Diane did the translation. Antonia has been a MAS electoral candidate from Al Alto section of La Paz. MAS came into being as a result of the struggle for the right of peasants and indigenous people to grow coca leaves, which are deeply rooted in the culture of Bolivia. MAS works for indigenous peoples rights and is for the nationalisation of natural resources of Bolivia. President Evo Morales is the leader of MAS.

LB: What has been achieved since MAS won the election in 2005-06?

MAS: There is tranquillity and free speech but economically there has not been much gain. Before the shoe shine boys and other poor people would be afraid and would hide themselves out of shame. People are now proud of who they are.

In decision making the humble people have more of a voice. Now for instance in the assembly for writing a new constitution they have more of a voice. The constituent assembly will be writing the new laws on which there will be a referendum. We are hoping the new laws will be beneficial to common and humble people.

LB: When will the constituent assembly process be complete?

MAS: Recently there was a ruling to extend the deadline for 3 months starting August. The delegates have to come up with the draft of the new constitution by then. The elections will follow in the following year.

It is estimated that the new constitution will come into effect by August 2008.

LB: What is the role of major industries in Bolivia?

MAS: The large industries are controlled by the private owners. Recently it was found that large companies are not paying taxes while the small businesses pay a lot more taxes. The hope is that it will be more transparent in the future.

LB: In the next 5 years what are the major challenges for MAS?

MAS: They are going to take back the natural resources. The revenues from these natural resources will be used for the benefit of the country. The taxes will also be used for the benefit of the country. Bolivia will be well known for its achievements in the next five years.

LB: MAS stands for Movement towards Socialism. Is MAS trying to move towards Socialism?

MAS: This is a process that will take several years and we will suffer during this process. If it is immediate there will be a civil war. We prefer to have a slower process to take conscious moves and we can wait for the results.

The second interview is with Salutiano Laura, Executive Secretary of the Central Obrera Boliviana (COB) i.e. the Bolivian Workers Center, in La Paz. Jose Louis did the translation. COB was founded in 1952 after the revolution. It is the largest and most militant workers federation in Bolivia. COB is the umbrella organisation that includes the Union Federation of Bolivian Mineworkers, the backbone of organised labour in Bolivia.

LB: Could you provide a brief history of COB?

COB: Welcome to the house of labourers. [We are sitting in the COB office/auditorium.] COB is an independent workers union. It was formed on 17 April, 1952. It was formed as a result of the anti-imperialist, peasants, workers struggles and struggles of other sectors of Bolivia. It was formed after the national revolution. The fight against injustice was both in urban and rural areas as the government was pro-imperialist. It has branches in La Paz, Cochabamba, Santa Cruz, Oruro, Potosi (mining), amongst other cities and regions.

LB: How many workers does COB represent?

COB: The COD (Bolivian Workers Centre’s La Paz Department (COD)), which is a constituent department of COB, consists of 67 different union and federations in La Paz. I (Mr. Laura) am the president of the textiles union and the executive secretary of COD. COD represents textiles workers, teachers (rural and urban), mine workers, construction workers, student and university workers, municipal workers in telecommunications, water, and electricity. The total number of workers in COD are around 150, 000. All over the country the COB represents 500, 000 workers.

LB: COB supported MAS in the 2005 elections. What was its position?

COB: After 2005, the opposition to the neo-liberal policies is intensifying. Politically, we are an independent workers union. The most important position of the COB is the nationalization of the hydrocarbons.

LB: In May 2006 nationalisation of hydrocarbons was announced. What do you think of that?

COB: On May 1, 2006, the only positive change was that 18% came into public hands but 82% stayed in private control. COB wants the complete nationalisation of hydrocarbons i.e. 100% under public control.

LB: Then, who controls the hydrocarbon industry in Bolivia?

COB: The YPFB [Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales Bolivianos is the state-owned hydrocarbons company] is the owner of hydrocarbons in Bolivia but they in-turn license to Multi-National Corporations (MNCs). There has been protection of MNCs since 2006.

LB: Evo Morales promised to invest in education, healthcare etc. What do you think?

COB: The funds that will be received from the nationalization of hydrocarbons can in turn be invested in education, healthcare, etc. It seems to be a priority of Evo Morales.

LB: Have the promises that were made during the election of 2005 been met?

COB: This is part of an anti-globalization process. Before this government, especially in the public sector, there was a lot of corruption. Since 2006, the victories for the workers have only been partial. Still the stability for workers does not exist. Right now it is impossible to have stability. For each worker that is inside there are five workers outside looking for work. The workers can easily be fired. There is no justice for workers but justice for the enterprise.

LB: What can be done to bring stability to the workers?

COB: There is no stability for workers in Bolivia, except for teachers. All workers work on short term contracts. Some have a 3 month, some have a 6 month and some one year contract. This is another cause for instability.

The demand of the textile workers is to have a more export oriented products. Workers also should have health care, social security etc. Only very few workers have this now. All workers should have these benefits.

LB: Any demands in the short term for the workers, maybe in the next 5 years?

COB: The unemployment is very high. It is about 17%. We would like that to be addressed. Also, more than 50% of the workers are in the informal sector. We would also like this to be addressed.

LB: Is it possible to have a Workers’ party in Bolivia?

COB: At this point it is very difficult to have a workers’ party in Bolivia, especially in urban areas. The unemployment is so high and there is so much competition between the workers that the conditions are very difficult.

The experience we have had is very difficult. The political crisis, economic crisis and social crisis is making it very difficult. The only solution for COD and organizations affiliated with COB is to have a social revolution of workers, peasants, students, marginalized, and join social movement for revolutionary social change under the leadership of the workers.

LB: Is it similar to Cuba?

COB: Yes, we agree with the direction of Cuba.

LB: What is the position of COB on Cuba and Venezuela?

COB: Cuba is undergoing a very good process. It is anti-imperialist. Venezuela is not the best process. It originated in the military. It does not have a democratic and stable process and vision for the evolution of the society.

First published at Liberation

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