“Summing up the aims of the new regime, Villarroel uttered his most memorable refrain: ‘We are not enemies of the rich, but we are better friends of the poor.’ This impossible pledge to favor the poor without estranging the rich – couched in a language of intimate ties – encapsulates the military populist’s ambitious but doomed reformism.” Thus writes historian Laura Gotkowitz of Colonel Gualberto Villarroel’s government in the early 1940s.
Villarroel was captured and hanged by protesters in the Plaza Murillo in
The period between 1946 and 1952 – under the regimes of Enrique Hertzog (1947-1949), Mamerto Urriolagoitia (1949-1951), and Hugo Ballivián (1951-1952) – came to be known as the sexenio. The era was marked by authoritarianism and repression in the face of rural and urban unrest, constituting essentially the ultimate effort to restore the oligarchy before it was strongly challenged again in the 1952 National Revolution.
Between April 9 and 11, 1952, an insurrection led by Hernán Siles Zuazo of the Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (Revolutionary Nationalist Movement, MNR) quickly escaped the boundaries of the basic coup envisioned by the MNR leadership.
Popular militias of factory workers and miners, and MNR rank-and-file militants and urban dwellers, overran most of the armed forces of the ancien regime, compelled swathes of low-ranking troops to switch sides, and sent many of the remaining hostile forces fleeing into exile.
The counter-revolutionary whip of two early coup attempts against the MNR regime, helped to spur radical direct actions on the part of the revolutionary Marxist tin miners and militant sectors of the indigenous peasantry. The Trotskyist Partido Obrero Revolucionario (Revolutionary Workers’ Party, POR) also made a crucial contribution to the radicalization of the revolution in this period. Between 1952 and 1956, the major reforms of the revolution had been won: the nationalization of three big mining companies and the establishment of the public mining company, COMIBOL; agrarian reform; and universal suffrage.
Tragically, however, those social forces seeking revolutionary socialist transformation lost out to the right-wing of the MNR’s populism over time. Beginning in 1956 the MNR introduced a reactionary economic stabilization plan backed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). With the help of the
In 1964, the right-wing took advantage of this scenario and René Barrientos came to power through a military coup. The reforms of the revolution were steadily reversed, and
The Centre-Left government of the Unidad Democráticia Popular (Democratic Popular Unity, UDP), under the leadership of the same Hernán Siles Zuazo, came to office in 1982. Popular aspirations for moving from limited electoral democracy to socialist and indigenous-liberationist democracy had rarely been so stoked. Yet again, however, these aspirations were crushed and capitalist power restored in just three years. The Siles regime inherited from the antecedent right-wing dictatorships an enormous external debt, low growth rates, and uncontrollable inflation.
The UDP’s strategy of seeking compromise between the IMF, the
The new MNR government ushered in the most severe neoliberal restructuring in Latin America since the policies of Pinochet’s regime of terror in neighbouring
The tide began to turn again in 2000 with the heroic Cochabamba Water War, which ignited five subsequent years of left-indigenous insurrection in the countryside and cityscapes of
Lacking a revolutionary party and project to overthrow the existing capitalist state and rebuild a new sovereign power rooted in the self-governance of the largely indigenous proletarian and indigenous majority, however, the insurrectionary cycle of 2000-2005 was channeled once again into the more domesticated terrain of electoral politics, in which the Movimiento al Socialismo (Movement Towards Socialism, MAS) party was the only viable option for voters who sought change of internally colonial race relations and the system of capitalist exploitation in the country.
It was in this context that Evo Morales won 54 percent of the vote in the elections of December 2005, despite the MAS’s absence in the streets during the 2003 revolts and support for the neoliberal government of
During the first two and a half years in office Morales’ administration has given concession after concession to the extremist autonomist Right of the media luna departments –
This is the historical backdrop that needs to be taken into account when we consider the meaning of the referendum results of August 10, 2008.
It would be a tragedy of immense proportions for left-indigenous forces and the Morales government to follow the paths of Villarroel in the late 1940s, the MNR of the 1950s, and the UDP government of the early 1980s. Viewed together these experiences represent the signature failure of left-wing populism when it does not confront the economic and political power bases of the urban capitalist and landowning elite, even in situations when popular mobilization and radicalization was positioned to make these sorts of inroads on elite control of society.
The restoration of right-wing power – today articulated through a fiercely racist “autonomist” movement – must be stopped by a shift in the MAS’s moderate reformism to revolutionary audacity. This will depend on the self-organization of the popular classes and indigenous majority to mobilize strategically against imperialism and the media luna racist elite, and to force the Morales government off its track of conciliation with the far-Right.
It will also depend on the widest international anti-imperialist efforts to combat the financing and training of Bolivia’s autonomist Right, support for the Morales regime when it makes reforms that improve the livelihoods of the popular majority and their chances of pushing reforms further, and solidarity with the worker and peasant radicals that are seeking to transcend the strict parameters of the reformist government.
The August Referendum, 2008
Over 400 observers from the Organization of American States (OAS), the Latin American Council of Electoral Experts, and parliamentarians from Europe and Mercosur countries (
Referendum day went relatively smoothly, with the only reported irregularities being intimidation of voters in the media luna departments by the proto-fascist Unión Juveñil Cruceñista (Cruceño Youth Union, UJC) – the thuggish, racist, and pathetic shock troops of the autonomist Right. Turnout was an exceptional 83 percent.
Voters were asked to decide whether prefects and the President and Vice-President should continue in their positions. In the case of Morales and García Linera, voters were also asked whether they favoured the continuation of the government’s process of change. The results – based on the 96 percent of counted ballots available on August 14 – are depicted in Tables I and II.
Perhaps the most striking component of the results is that Morales and García Linera increased their nationwide support by 14 percent compared to the December 2005 elections. Their support increased in every department save Chuquisaca. On the question of prefects, too, right-wingers Manfred Reyes Villa of
Many on the Left have taken the results as a triumphant victory for the MAS’s “democratic and cultural” revolution. Speaking at the Presidential Palace – Palacio Quemado – on the evening of the vote, Morales suggested the large turnout was a “democratic festival of the Bolivian people.” He rejoiced in the “triumph of the democratic and cultural revolution of the Bolivian people. We dedicate this to all the revolutionaries of
On the one hand, Morales stressed that his government had won a new mandate for moving forward: “What the Bolivian people expressed today with their vote is their support for this process of change. Therefore, I want to say to the Bolivian people, with much respect, that we are here to continue advancing the recovery of our natural resources, the consolidation of nationalization, and the recovery of our state enterprises.”
At the same time, he promised reconciliation with the opposition and the recognition of the media luna’s demands for departmental autonomy: “But I also want to say brothers and sisters, we are convinced that it is important to unite Bolivians, and the participation of the Bolivian people works to unite the different sectors of the countryside and the city, the east and the west. And that unity will be brought together in the New Political Constitution of the
Even before the referendums were held, much media attention across Latin America was generated by a meeting in
“The groups that dominated
While the denunciations made by artists and intellectuals of injustice, racism, and inequality are exemplary, the unadulterated celebration of the expected results of the referendum before, and the actual results after, seem to neglect some crucial components of what the referendum has meant.
The autonomist Right never expected to oust Morales and García Linera at the national level. Of course, Reyes Villa (
But in terms of the short-term strategy of the autonomist Right, Reyes Villa and Paredes were relatively expendable. What counted was gaining the bourgeois respectability of legal recognition for departmental autonomy in the core media luna departments. The illegal and widely-condemned autonomy referendums in those departments earlier this year were insufficient for moving forward with the concrete enactment of “autonomy,” asserting departmental control over natural gas and agro-industrial wealth.
After these latest legal referendums, right-wing autonomists maintain their control of five of nine departments – Pando, Beni,
The Morales government seems to be clinging to a naïve faith in the eastern lowland oligarchy’s openness to negotiation, and to playing by the rules of the game. Morales is seeking to combine some of the demands of the autonomists with its own objective of introducing the draft of a new Constitution – approved by the Constituent Assembly in Oruro some months ago – to a popular referendum. The Morales administration appears to be convinced that “Andean-Amazonian” capitalism is compatible with a softer version of bourgeois departmental autonomy in the media luna. But the right-wing autonomists want nothing more than to see this project of the MAS fail, for the government to stumble from one debacle to the next, and are showing clear signs of renewed destabilizing energies since the referendum.
The Belligerence of the Autonomists
In the immediate aftermath of the referendums Morales and García Linera invited the opposition prefects to
Rubén Costas, the prefect of
After showing up at negotiations with the government on August 14 for a few hours, the five right-wing prefects of Chuquisaca, Pando, Beni, Tarija, and
In the early evening of August 13, 2008, nine Molotov cocktails were hurled at the
Costas has interpreted the results of the referendum as a new mandate to drive forward the bourgeois autonomist agenda in Santa Cruz and the rest of the media luna. He has announced a host of illegal initiatives: the formation of a departmental Legislative Assembly; creation of a new departmental tax agency that will control and collect taxes on natural resources in the department; and the election of sub-governors within the department of
None of this should be surprising based on the seditious recent history of social forces behind autonomy. Working through their political party apparatus – PODEMOS –, departmental prefects and civic committees, and fascistic shock troops like the UJC (and similar groups recently formed in Sucre and Cochabamba), the Right repeatedly sought to destabilize the Constituent Assembly process and the Morales government throughout 2006 and 2007, to the point of raising the threat of civil war.
In the period immediately prior to the August referendums, a group of 200 autonomist reactionaries took over the Tarija airport, successfully impeding a planned meeting between the Presidents of Venezuela, Argentina and Bolivia. A tiny group of 35 autonomists were able to take over another airport. And a vehicle in which the Minister of the Presidency, Juan Ramón Quintana, was traveling, in the eastern lowland city of
The Morales government backed away from enforcing the law in each of these cases. Heinz Dieterich is correct to point out, “the counterrevolution has conquered ‘liberated zones’ in which the central government can’t enter."
The Material Bases of Autonomy
A recent report on the relationship between natural gas and agro-industry and the autonomy conflicts in
Under the current complex arrangement of distributing hydrocarbon (natural gas and oil) revenue – split between the national government, the national gas and oil company YPFB, prefectures, municipalities, and universities – the four media luna departments receive 30 percent. Meanwhile, the other five departments (with 79 percent greater population than the media luna) receive only 19.7. This is on top of the fact that in 2007 the media luna departments had a per capita income of roughly 1.4 times that of the other five.
As Tom Lewis suggests, “The present political conjuncture in
The Government’s Reformism: Soft on Oligarchs, Hard on Workers
The MAS bares considerable responsibility for allowing the autonomist Right to reconsolidate itself such as it has. In crafting the Constituent Assembly in 2006, the government distorted the revolutionary notion of the assembly envisioned by left-indigenous movements between 2000 and 2005, by seeking to make left-indigenous participation virtually impossible except through the party, and by accommodating the Right, whose strength at the time it vastly overestimated.
The government has sought continuously either to demobilize autonomous rural and urban protest – such as invasions and occupations of large landholdings by landless peasants in the east in 2006, and urban revolt against Reyes Villa in Cochabamba in late 2006 and early 2007 – or to strategically mobilize its bases against the media luna (especially the cocaleros of the Chapare region), but within very strict perimeters, predetermined by government elites.
The Federación de Juntas Vecinales de El Alto (Federation of United Neighbourhood Councils of El Alto, FEJUVE-El Alto), one of the most powerful organizations in the 2000-2005 wave of revolt, has sadly lost its independence from the government, and is unable to mobilize its bases effectively to advance the cause of the city’s indigenous informal proletarian masses.
When, in October 2006, the government faced mobilizations of state-employed miners in Huanuni, who were demanding nationalization and workers’ control, the miners were denounced by government officials as “Trotskyists” and “provocateurs.” Later that month when private cooperative mining interests, allied with transnational mining companies, attacked the state-employed miners, the government initially supported the cooperative miners rhetorically, and failed to send in the army to circumvent the bloodbath that followed.
Most recently, the same miners, with the support of the COB, struck against the MAS’s neoliberal proposal for a new pension law. The state’s coercive forces violently broke up a road blockade in the department of
The government has committed itself to fiscal austerity, low-inflationary growth and central bank independence. Its mining and labour market policies contain deep continuities with the antecedent neoliberal model. Its “agrarian reform” has failed to make consequential inroads on the landholdings of the agro-industrial elite of the eastern lowlands.
While the reforms in the hydrocarbons sector cannot be called nationalization, they have, in combination with elevated international prices, generated vast amounts of new revenue for the state. As a consequence of reforms of the hydrocarbons industry under the
But a recent report by a Centre-Right Bolivian economist suggest that these revenues have not in fact been redirected to desperately needed social projects: “public investment has increased significantly over the past two years, rising from $629 million in 2005 to $1,103 million in 2007. Most of the new funds have been spent on roads and other infrastructure totaling close to 60 percent of total investments in 2007. Social investment has decreased over this period to less than 30 percent of total investments in 2007."
The same report argues that the government’s 2006 National Development Plan (NDP) – the most significant document outlining its development strategy to date – is a “relatively eclectic development plan, one that borrows freely from dependency theory, indigenous multiculturalism, social-democratic protection policies and neoliberal monetary and exchange rate policy."
On the reforms to the hydrocarbons industry, the report concludes that they cannot be considered nationalization “in the conventional or historical sense – via expropriation or change in property regimes." While revenues for the state have increased, real wages have declined when inflation is taken into account.
Revolutionary Advances or Populist Complacency?
The fact that Morales and García Linera enjoy 68 percent popular support is indeed an an opportunity to move forward with a more direct confrontation with the logic of capital. But the government needs to veer drastically away from conciliation with the eastern lowland oligarchy, and recognize that there are zero-sum class questions that cannot be avoided.
No justice for landless indigenous peasants will be forthcoming without expropriations of large landholdings. There cannot be justice for workers while real wages are falling and miners are being killed in the streets. There cannot be a “democratic and cultural revolution” in
All of this necessitates confronting capitalists and imperialism. While such a route has been made more difficult by the renewed legitimacy of the autonomist movement following the referendums, the rearticulation of the Right is not yet complete. “Autonomy” has only ever been an objective for the Right when it was too weak to conquer state power at the national level.
Today, neoliberalism is perceived as an entirely exhausted and illegitimate project by much of the Bolivian population. The autonomist Right, though, has no alternative to offer, other than autonomy and the destabilization of Morales’ “dictatorship.” There is still a window of opportunity through which a right-wing counterrevolution – along the lines of those that followed Villarroel in the 1940s, the MNR in the 1950s, and the UDP government of the early 1980s – can be circumvented.
Such a victory over the Right, such an advance toward socialism from below and indigenous liberation, will not be a consequence of the benevolent goodwill of leaders such as Evo Morales or Álvaro García Linera. It will depend on the rejuvenation of popular indigenous and left forces in rural and urban areas across
Recent statements by the COB during the most recent miners’ struggle against the pension law, and the factory workers, during a recent hunger strike in Cochabamba, suggests that the shadow cast by the revolts of October 2003 and May-June 2005 continues to resonate. On August 1, 2008 the executive committee of the COB released the following resolution:
“The Bolivian Workers Central, loyal to its glorious history of revolutionary struggle, will never be a political instrument of the oligarchy and imperialism. Our iron commitment is with the defense of the democratic political process opened up in the heroic days of October 2004 [sic., 2003] and May-June 2005 with the blood of the Bolivian people and workers. We are convinced that the revolutionary, patriotic and popular forces have to unite in a single front to crush the oligarchy and imperialism, but not at the cost of giving up our social rights that have been curtailed by neoliberalism, much less of getting caught up in the political games [pongueaje politico] of this or any other government.” The documents calls on the unity of the workers and the Bolivian people, solidarity against the oligarchy and imperialism, and for driving out the right-wing of the MAS, led by Vice-President Álvaro García Linera.
Oscar Olivera, a former shoe-factory worker and the principal voice of the Cochabamba Water War, wrote this passage as part of an open letter during a recent collective hunger strike of factory workers in
“The workers of yesterday and today should feel proud of our identity of being the producers of the material goods that we and others need to live, proud that we are those who use the strength of our arms and our minds and our hearts to transform mother earth’s, Pachamama’s, gifts into well-being. We have managed to resist. We have managed to subsist as an organized body. We have been able to salvage some of our rights, and we have passed into a long and dark tunnel in these years of invisibility and now we are disposed to making ourselves visible again by showing our indignation for our working conditions. We are also doing this because of the indifference of our current government, which for more than two years has ignored us. In spite of the fact that we workers struggled to put this government where it is today, our leaders have forgotten about us. We have been struggling in the streets since April for BREAD, WORK and HOUSING because they don’t listen to us, they don’t see us, they don’t feel us, because they no longer live like us, the simple working people who live from their own work and not others’ work. We ought to feel proud because with our struggle, we are pushing for the so-called ´process of change` to be not just a slogan but also a reality. The only way to change things, to change our working conditions and our lives is through unity, organization, mobilization, the recuperation of our memory, of our values. We must remember our fathers and grandfathers, our mothers and grandmothers, our older brothers and sisters and we must ask them face to face if what we are doing today is OK and what else we are missing in order for their inheritance to be preserved and augmented, so that the well-being of our sons and grandsons, and all of dignified life, forever preserved.”
Unfortunately, it would be wildly misleading to suggest that the COB’s resolution and Olivera’s statement reflect the leading ideas of left-indigenous sectors on the ground in
Recent weeks in Latin America have seen the inauguration of
But there is a danger of complacency in the air. The Economist, one of the most important mouthpieces of international capital, recently pointed out that for all the talk of a “pink tide” Mexico, Peru, and Colombia remain in the hands of the hard-Right, while the “Left” in Latin America includes many governments – such as Lula’s in Brazil – that have in practice reinforced neoliberal policies.
Jeffery R. Webber is a Canadian socialist and close observer of Bolivian affairs. He is currently in Venezuela.
 The Chaco War between
 “La media luna rompe diálogo y declara paro cívico regional,”
 See Jeffery R. Webber, “Left-Indigenous Politics in
 Mark Weisbrot and Luis Sandoval, The Distribution of Bolivia’s Most Important Natural Resources and the Autonomy Conflicts, Issue Brief,
 See Jeffery R. Webber, “From Naked Barbarism to Barbarism with Benefits: Neoliberal Capitalism, Natural Gas Policy, and the Evo Morales Government in
 “El precio de la carne de res se eleva entre Bs 2 y