Bolivia's deepening crisis

January 11, 2008

Tom Lewis, coauthor with Oscar Olivera of ¡Cochabamba! Water War in Bolivia, looks at political developments in Bolivia and what lies ahead.

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THE LAST year has been a time of dramatically increased social polarization in Bolivia, setting the stage for decisive confrontations in 2008.

The reform government of President Evo Morales and his Movement Toward Socialism party (MAS) sometimes conceded to and sometimes countered fierce opposition from a separatist and pro-imperialist right-wing movement based primarily, but not exclusively, in the country's wealthier eastern departments.

Land reform, departmental autonomy, indigenous rights and state control of hydrocarbons (oil and natural gas) were the main flashpoints of the conflict.

While not reaching the scope or magnitude of a fully fledged social revolution, Morales' vision for “a new Bolivia” seeks to implement political and cultural reforms that are rightly perceived as challenging the power of Bolivia's ruling class and Western petroleum interests.

As 2007 unfolded, the epicenter of this conflict proved to be Bolivia's constituent assembly.

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HOLDING A constituent assembly was one of Morales' central campaign promises in the 2005 presidential election. The call for an assembly originated in the country's Water War of 2000--a struggle against privatization and the role of transnational corporations in Bolivia--but gained force and momentum coming out of the Gas War of 2003.

After Morales' election, wrangling over the composition of the constituent assembly quickly confirmed the right's strategy of blocking change by attacking and grinding down each and every MAS initiative.

It also revealed Morales' distance from more radically democratic groups among Bolivia's left, since they had called for a constituent assembly without political parties, which would have been comprised by delegates from the social movements, unions, neighborhood associations and other civil society groups.

As it was, Morales chose on this occasion to concede to the right rather than fight. Instead of trying to maintain the principle of majority rule in the assembly during the drafting of the new constitution, the MAS capitulated to the right's demand for a two-thirds vote on key articles and a delegate-election formula that insured no single political party could gain a two-thirds majority.

As a recent Democracy Center analysis explained, “The sum of these rules meant that the Assembly would be dominated by political parties and difficult negotiations between the government and the opposition.

“For opponents of MAS, this gave them a powerful political tool to block the political change promised by MAS. For the original backers of the Assembly idea, it meant the transformation of their dream into something that looked more and more like the kind of political system that they had hoped the Assembly would bring to an end.”

The delegate election was finally held in July 2006, and the assembly convened in August, with an anticipated completion date of August 2007. In the event, the assembly continued into last December, beset by political maneuvering, boycotts and violence from the right.

When the new constitution finally passed the assembly--it still has to be ratified by a two-thirds majority in a national referendum--the session was boycotted by delegates from the right-wing parties.

This time, the MAS stood its ground and refused to let the right close down the assembly. But the cost included four deaths during street clashes between the left and right in downtown Sucre, Bolivia's historical capital, where the assembly was held. Further violent demonstrations led by the right wing succeeded in forcing the final sessions of the assembly to move out of the center of Sucre, and to a barracks at a nearby military base.

How significant the new constitution will prove to be is still a huge question.

Some provisions represent important reforms. The draft constitution gives the state more control over natural resources and the economy, expands departmental and indigenous autonomy, and recognizes to a greater extent the procedures and decisions of indigenous justice systems.

At the same time, however, the document allows for a mixed economy in which private, public and communal forms of property are all protected.

For many on the left, the new constitution doesn't go far enough, especially on the questions of land reform and state control over natural resources. And the right's boycott of the approval session shows that it has rejected the entire package.

In the final weeks of the assembly, public debate and mobilizations seemed to focus on the symbolic but practically meaningless issue of whether La Paz or Sucre should be the nation's capital--a debate in which the right wing supports Sucre as a rebuff to “Andean” and “indigenous” La Paz.

Luis Gómez, the main political commentator for the newly launched Web site Ukhampacha Bolivia, expressed the radical left's disillusionment with the assembly and its outcome: “Bolivia's struggle was reduced to this: the capital's location and the defense of a building in which 255 non-functional delegates would session with the grand result of never agreeing on anything.”

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AFTER THE MAS and its allies passed the new constitution, leaders of the four secessionist departments in the East--Beni, Pando, Santa Cruz and Tarija--held public ceremonies to symbolically toss the draft into the garbage.

This act proved tame in comparison to the list of aggressions and provocations engaged in by the right over the past year.

Better organized and bolder than a year ago, Bolivia's right wing has employed a range of tactics aimed at thwarting Morales' progressive agenda, including boycotting the constituent assembly and also proclaiming its own autonomy statute for the eastern departments.

Importantly, the right sought to marshal middle-class protesters side by side with proto-fascist youth groups in an effort to establish control over public spaces and city streets.

One of the most dramatic incidents occurred at the beginning of last year in Cochabamba--the city at the heart of the Water War--when it became the scene of what many consider a fascist-style backlash against Morales.

The Bolivian Senate had passed an agrarian reform bill in late November 2006 that inflamed large landowners and the business elite across the country. The right countered in mid-December with a series of demonstrations, held mainly in the eastern departments, in which speakers refused to recognize the eventual draft constitution if it didn't include wide-ranging autonomy for departmental governors, including the power to shape and implement agrarian policy.

The largest of these demonstrations took place in Santa Cruz on December 15 and drew more than 500,000 people. The governor of the department of Cochabamba, right-winger Manfred Reyes Villa, announced his support for Santa Cruz's independence that same day.

The following January 8, tens of thousands of indigenous peasants, cocaleros (coca farmers) and water irrigators occupied the central plaza in the city of Cochabamba and demanded Reyes's resignation. Angry after battling police repression, they set fire to a wing of the governor's main administrative building.

Three days later, the protesters were besieged again--this time, by a wave of middle-class thuggery. “Residents from the middle-class, northern suburbs of Cochabamba, incited by Reyes Villa and the mass media, marched into the city armed with sticks, golf clubs and firearms to confront the campesinos,” wrote Federico Fuentes, the editor of the Bolivia Rising Web site. “They broke through police lines and viciously attacked the protesters. During several hours of street clashes more than a hundred people were injured and two killed.”

The rioting eventually subsided when Morales, fearing the confrontation would spread to other parts of Bolivia, himself intervened to convince the left to call off its protest.

From that point on, the right increasingly used direct action and physical intimidation to achieve its goals, including the formation of “land defense councils” and “self-defense committees” that Bret Gustafson, writing in NACLA Report on the Americas, has described as “the basic outlines of rural paramilitarism.”

In the city of Santa Cruz, organized right-wing violence is now spearheaded by the Cruceñist Youth Union (UJC). According to Gustafson, “The UJC merges violent cultural substrates linked to sports hooliganism, martial arts, weightlifting and youth fighting into a directed instrument to enforce [right-wing] strikes, attack peasant and pro-MAS marches, and assault disputed public institutions like tax agencies, school administrations, labor unions and water management entities.”

The controversy over the government's new “Dignity Salary” crystallizes the many dimensions of the struggle in Bolivia.

Approved by Congress on November 27, the plan provides Bolivians over the age of 60 a pension of about $26 per month, at a cost of $215 million annually. Funding is to come from reallocating gas industry taxes away from departmental governments and into a special national retirement plan.

As might be imagined, the “Dignity Salary” angered the gas-rich eastern departments and inflamed separatist passions.

The four possible breakaway departments declared in their so-called “automomy statute” that they want to create and control their own police force; negotiate and approve all contracts with multinationals operating in their region; administer their own educational, health care and judicial systems; govern their own natural resources; and even control “internal migration.”

This would be, as Gustafson rightly points out, “something more than moderate federation or decentralization.”

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THE RIGHT wing's moves are informed by racism as well as economic greed. The demand to control education and justice, for example, represents an attempt to expel the study of indigenous cultures from schools, and indigenous practices from the legal system.

The media, allied with the business elite, take every opportunity to play on the fears of the eastern cambas (taller, lighter-skinned and more European in background) of invasion and pillage by the highland Andean kollas (shorter, darker-skinned and indigenous in background).

Thus, the struggle in Bolivia is often portrayed as a geographic and racial struggle--a view that has a great deal of truth to it. Yet it is crucial to remember that the right has supporters not only in the East, but also among the wealthy and middle classes in La Paz, Cochabamba, Sucre and other areas of the Andes.

Conversely, the MAS enjoys substantial support among peasant and indigenous groups across the East. As Gustafson argues, therefore, the scenario of Bolivia's slide into civil war leading to the permanent geographical bifurcation of the country is less useful than it might at first appear.

Indeed, underlying the racism and regional chauvinism explicit in the rhetoric of the right remains the reality of class struggle and class conflict.

The current political battle in Bolivia pits two very different visions of the state against one another.

Morales and the MAS want to create a developmentalist state that would link cities, towns and rural areas in a national welfare economy and temper the impact of neoliberalism. Bolivia's national “oligarchy,” or traditional ruling class, wants to secure a weak state and a neoliberal economy that would enhance the role of already existing regional economic centers--and offer nothing to the millions of Bolivians living in impoverished areas of the country.

The MAS political program and the party's strategy and tactics have deep flaws and don't guarantee success against the right. Unfortunately, however, there is presently no organized alternative to the left of the MAS capable of winning the mass of Bolivian workers and campesinos to more revolutionary goals and tactics.

The trajectory of Bolivia in 2008 depends on the capacity of Bolivia's class and racial majority groups to organize themselves into a united front against the right at every level--economic, political and cultural.

First published at Socialist Worker

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