Bolivia at a New Crossroads

Jeffery R. Webber

The following text is a postscript for the article Transition on Hold. It was written for the Dutch magazine Grenzeloos.

Postscript – December 11, 2007

Since this article was written (in early summer 2007) Bolivian politics has turned most decisively on the process of the Constituent Assembly (CA). Days before the scheduled completion of the CA in mid-August 2007 it was clear to everyone that it was going to be impossible to come up with a new constitution in time. Elite negotiations between MAS officials and the right-wing opposition groups and parties consequently took place and it was decided that the deadline for writing up the new constitution would be extended to December 14, 2007.

Knowing that they could not win by democratic means, however, the right-wing of the media luna departments – Pando, Beni, Santa Cruz, and Tarija (and increasingly the elite of the departments of Chuquisaca and Cochabamba as well) – invented a new reason for which the plenary sessions of the CA would have to be boycotted. The new rallying cry of the right was the necessity of transferring the status of capital city from La Paz to Sucre to overcome the supposed despotic centralism of the latter – today Sucre is the judicial capital of Bolivia, but the executive and legislative branches are in La Paz, making it the effective capital of the country. The private media, imperial forces acting primarily through the US embassy, financial and industrial domestic capitalists, large-landowners, and important sectors of the urban and rural middle classes began to rally around the demand for Sucre as the new capital of Bolivia.

As impressive as this array of alliances might seem on the surface, the vast majority of the Bolivian populace – the indigenous peasantry and working class – strongly denounced the issue of moving the capital as merely a purposeful distraction concocted by the right to steer discussion and contention away from substantive issues – agrarian reform, property rights, the future of the hydrocarbons and mining industries, indigenous territorial rights, etc. – and to provide a pretense for the right to undermine the CA as a whole once again through a boycott.

Violent clashes consequently ensued in the final week of August in Sucre and indigenous constituent deputies – mostly of the MAS – were attacked, threatened, and insulted with racist epithets by white-mestizo thugs – mostly private university students with the backing of bourgeois forces in the eastern lowlands. The CA was suspended due to lack of security in the city and elite negotiations between the sections of the far-right and the government continued.

Despite the MAS government’s exaggerated moderation – endless promises to protect the sanctity of private property rights and to negotiate in good faith with the most recalcitrant and retrograde elements of the right – the regional bourgeoisie of the media luna departments refused to give up on any of their ludicrous demands. Again, the intent was always to stall the CA process indefinitely.

More than one journalist has pointed out the irony of the Bolivian right’s denunciations of Chávez’s alleged influence on Evo Morales given that the right itself seems to be reading word for word the script of the Venezuelan ultra-right. Of course, in Venezuela the hard right helped – over time – to catalyze the radicalization of the Bolivarian process (whatever serious contradictions remain) through their stubborn contempt for democracy in that country so long as democracy meant even modest reform of the socioeconomic structure of society and the state.

At the end of November 2007, the MAS government was compelled to break the stalemate as the December deadline of the CA approached. With the participation of 165 of 255 assembly deputies the MAS and its allies approved a new constitutional draft which will now face a popular referendum.

The right-wing boycotters were enraged and the city of Sucre erupted into a veritable battle zone as right-wing protesters attacked assembly deputies, the police, and public buildings with dynamite and molotov cocktails. At least three people were killed over the last weekend of November, and roughly a hundred were injured – some gravely. The city – with parts of downtown on fire – was left without a police force as the police were forced to retreat. They had been ordered by the government to avoid the use of lethal force at all costs, and could not withstand the advances of the violent demonstrators without recourse to violence of their own. The police barracks were subsequently occupied by right-wing youth, but – at least according to reports from the retreating police – the barracks had been emptied of their guns and most other serious weaponry.

The CA location has now been moved to the city of Oruro in the western altiplano (high plateau) – a strategic location in the country for much of the twentieth-century, home as it was to large sections of the revolutionary tin miners until the privatization of the mines in the mid-1980s.

Coca growers from the Chapare region of Cochabamba, miners, the organized indigenous peasantry of the altiplano, and popular neighbourhood associations from various cities and towns of the western highlands and valleys, have converged on Oruro to defend the CA process.

At the same time as this popular convergence was advancing, right-wing prefects (governors) of Santa Cruz (Rubén Costas), Beni (Ernesto Suárez), Cochabamba (Manfred Reyes Villa) and Tarija (Mario Cossío) traveled together to New York to meet with the executive secretary of the Organization of American States (OAS) and officials of the United Nations in an effort to persuade them that the MAS was subverting democracy in Bolivia. Both international organizations have refused at least for now the notion of coming to Bolivia to investigate democracy without an invitation from president Morales himself.

Back in Bolivia Evo Morales illustrated again his acute sense of political timing and occasional bold manoeuvring. He announced that in light of the opposition’s endless calls for “democracy” and “liberty” he would initiate in congress in the very near future legislation for a new recall referendum in which the Bolivian people will be able to decide the immediate fate of the president and all nine departmental prefects.

Morales expects – with good reason – to win, whereas the fate of right-wing prefects Reyes Villa (Cochabamba) and José Luis Paredes (La Paz) is much less secure.

Bolivia has thus come to a new crossroads. The popular left-indigenous forces have mobilized in defence of the CA process, even as many remain critical of the MAS’s commitment to moderate reformism. They recognize that it is necessary to defend this government against imperialism and the hard-right even as they seek to transcend the limited parameters of the government’s agenda, provoking a more decisive confrontation with the logic of capital.

At the same time, the right-wing autonomists of the media luna have declared the new constitutional draft “illegal” and have said they will enact de facto autonomy in their departments on December 15, 2007, the day after the scheduled deadline for the end of the CA.

The military appears to be on the side of the government at the current conjuncture. Military officials publicly denounced the plans of the autonomists in the eastern lowlands as a divisive threat to the integrity of national unity. However, as so many Latin American history lessons have shown, trusting the military elite to stay on board as the key strategy of leveraging for transformative change is often the surest way to guarantee an abrupt and deadly shift in the winds toward counter-revolutionary advance. The mobilization of the masses and the radicalization of transformative change are the necessary means for securing the very modest gains achieved thus far under Morales and laying the basis for further, much more meaningful and far-reaching transformation in the future.

The social relations of racism and capitalism in Bolivia – so intricately bound up with one another – must be challenged and eventually overturned fundamentally through revolutionary change. The belligerence of the right and the reawakening of popular left-indigenous forces from below make a turn toward that fork in the road one possibility of many in the current stage of the Bolivian process.

Jeffery R. Webber is a member of the New Socialist Group in Toronto.

Republished from New Socialist

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