Social movements and their stance towards the MAS government

Bolivia Information Forum

Recent conflicts between unions and the government over wages have raised questions about the relationship between the Morales government and the social movements on which it is based. Social movements reflect strong communitarian traditions in Bolivia and underpin democracy at the local level. But their interests do not always coincide with those in government. Who are the social organisations, what is their relationship with those now in power, and what sort of tensions arise?

A communitarian tradition
In much of the Andes, and in Bolivia in particular, a strong sense of the collective prevails. People come together to get answers to their demands and mutual help systems (ayni, mink’a) ensure that individuals and families can achieve more together than on their own. This is at its clearest in rural communities, where villagers often still farm the fields together, or collaborate with one another in maintaining access roads to the community. Decisions taken in a communal meeting are binding on all those in the community, and ensure strong organisation from the bottom up. The same principle applies to politics, through channels of participation up to the national level.
Trade union organisation has also played an important role since the first half of the 20th century. This is the case particularly of organisations where the labour relationship is foremost, (such as in the case of miners and workers in manufacturing), but is also the case with agrarian unions, formed after the 1952 Revolution, which adopted the trade union model. Not only have labour unions stood up for workers’ rights, but they have played a key role in Bolivia’s political development. They had a strong influence in shaping events during the revolution in 1952. Through the Central Obrera Boliviana (COB), the country’s national trade union congress, they provided the kernel of resistance to military dictatorships between 1964 and 1982.

The labour movement suffered a heavy blow in 1985, when the government of Víctor Paz Estenssoro brought in stringent adjustment measures; these included dismantling a large part of the public sector, with massive redundancies in the mining sector. It also resulted in the closure of small factories and a shrinking of the state apparatus. This seriously affected the miners’ union in particular which was the backbone of the COB. With much of the population thereafter self-employed and working in the informal sector, labour organisations lost much of their political muscle.

But new forms of organisation were quick to emerge. The Law of Popular Participation, approved in 1994, sought to encourage participation in deciding the use of municipal funds and in providing oversight of their use. The municipal arena became a new area for participation of local organisations, both rural and urban. It was also a learning ground for many, providing a framework for people from local organisations to participate in political decision making. These organisations were however local and territorially-defined - campesinos, neighbourhood committees - rather than labour-based.

It was in this context that social organisations began to resist the effects of the neoliberal development model: campesinos began to protest against low prices imposed by the free market; indigenous people rallied to demand their rights as full members of society; coca growers protested against the attempts by government (with US support) to eradicate their crop; urban and rural organisations joined together, as in Cochabamba in 1999 and 2000, to oppose the privatisation of water resources and the price hikes this involved; and neighbourhood organisations in El Alto mobilised on such issues as the nationalisation of gas resources and the need for a new constitution. Except in a few cases, these were movements led by local organisations in response to sectoral demands; there was no party political leadership at the national level. But it was in this context that Evo Morales and the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) began to gain ground.

Who’s who in Bolivia’s social organisations?
  • Campesinos. For many years the campesino movement, composed of agrarian unions set up after the 1952 Revolution, was manipulated by different governments, especially by the military dictatorships. This began to change in 1979 when the COB called for the campesino organisations to come together within it. They formed the Confederación Sindical Unica de Trabajadores Campesinos de Bolivia (CSUTCB). This brought together ex-workers from haciendas (large private land holdings) and was organised from the community level. It gave a voice to those who had previously had little influence. In 1980, the CSUTCB promoted a meeting of women leaders, leading to the setting up of the Bartolina Sisa Federation (now called the Confederación Nacional de Mujeres Campesinas, Indígenas, Originarias de Bolivia, Bartolina Sisa). Those who had migrated from the highlands to the valleys and lowlands established the Confederación de Colonizadores, which has recently changed its name to the Confederación Nacional de Comunidades Interculturales de Bolivia (CNCIB). The federations of coca producers belong to the CSUTCB.
  • Rural organisations. Salaried workers in the rural sphere (FTAC) have been working to achieve recognition of the rights of temporary migrant labour since the end of the 1970s, whilst the Movimiento Sin Tierra (MST) defends the interests of landless labourers. There are also organisations that represent agricultural producers and animal rearers’ interests. They include the campesino economic organisations (CIOEC), ecological producers in rural areas (AOPEB), quinoa farmers (ANAPQUI) and llama herders (ANAPCA).
  • Indigenous people. Though most of Bolivia’s campesinos are of indigenous extraction, there are groups whose main identity is based around their ethnicity, rather than as producers. In the eastern lowlands in 1982 a series of different indigenous groups came together under the umbrella of the Confederación de Pueblos Indígenas de Bolivia (CIDOB), representing 34 different ethnic groupings. In the highlands, the period also saw the increased salience of the ayllu, a form of organisation dating back to pre-Columbian times. The ayllu is made up of a group of families and communities which come together to protect their territory, to administer community justice, and to carry out communal forms of agricultural production often spanning over a range of different ecological levels. They came together as a national organisation in 1997 as the Consejo Nacional de Ayllus y Markas del Qollasuyo (CONAMAQ).
  • Workers. The miners’ federation (Federación Sindical de Trabajadores Mineros de Bolivia, FSTMB), established in 1944, currently represents miners from the private sector as well as the state-owned mine of Huanuni. The cooperative miners’ organisation, FENCOMIN, has more political weight because of the number of (mainly temporary) workers it represents. Manufacturing workers are organised in the Confederación General de Trabajadores Fabriles de Bolivia (CGTFB), set up in 1951. Of public sector workers, the teachers (Confederación de Maestros Urbanos, Confederación de Maestros Rurales) and health workers (Confederación Sindical de Trabajadores en Salud Pública en Bolivia) are particularly active, not least on salary issues.
  • Urban organisations. The two main organisations are the federations of neighbourhood committees (FEJUVE; CONALJUVE at the national level) and organisations representing street sellers (Confederación Sindical de Trabajadores Gremiales, Artesanos, Comerciantes Minoristas y Vivanderos de Bolivia). Both the neighbourhood committees and street sellers’ organisations have traditionally suffered from leaders who are not prepared to stand down and be replaced. Only over the last decade have new leaders begun to emerge in neighbourhood committees, for example, in El Alto and Santa Cruz (Foro Vecinal). As in rural areas, there is also a multiplicity of producers’ organisations of different kinds, cultural organisations, pensioners, etc.
  • Women’s organisations. Apart from the campesina women’s organisation, the ‘Bartolinas’, now over 30 years old, women have tended to participate in the ‘mixed’ organisation of their trade or area. As such, they have often experienced problems in making their specific needs heard. However, recently, two organisations, the Campesinos Interculturales and the pro-indigenous CIDOB, have decided to set up sister women’s organisations, the Confederación Sindical de Mujeres Interculturales de Bolivia (CSMIB, 2009) and the Confederación Nacional de Mujeres Indígenas de Bolivia (CNAMIB, 2007) respectively. Both organisations have yet to build up a grassroots membership.
The Movimiento al Socialismo, its members and its allies
The Movimiento al Socialismo – Instrumento Político por la Soberanía de los Pueblos (MAS-IPSP), to give it its full name, with Evo Morales at the head, won the December 2005 general elections outright, with 54% of the vote. The MAS-IPSP was started by campesino organisations, principally the coca producers’ federations and the CSUTCB, in 1997. They have been members from the start along with the Colonizadores-Interculturales and the women’s organisation ‘Bartolina Sisa’. These are among the government’s stalwart supporters, and all are of campesino origin.
By 2005, the MAS had entered into agreement with other organisations, and some, such as the cooperative miners (cooperativistas) and the pensioners (rentistas), took part in the MAS slate with their members being elected to Congress. By the 2009 elections, the MAS list of candidates also included leaders from lowland indigenous groups, such as the Guaraníes and the Mojeños. The Plurinational Legislative Assembly has many members drawn from social organisations, in particular campesino leaders, and several of their leaders are involved in government, whether at ministerial level or below.

Relations between the COB and workers’ organisations have blown hot and cold, depending on the circumstances. The new Pensions Law, approved in December 2010, was signed by President Morales in the offices of the COB. However, some sharp differences have emerged this year, particularly over wage policy.
One foot in government … yet social organisation remains alive and well
Involvement of people from social movements in the legislature or in government inevitably raises questions about the ‘independence’ of the organisations to which they belong. Social organisations are not political parties, but rather unions or civil society organisations representing the interests of people of different (all) political persuasions. Participation therefore can create a tension as to where their loyalties finally lie; with their organisation or with the government. Involvement in government also can mean organisations losing their most experienced leaders to government, leaving them weaker as a result.
Two examples may help elucidate such quandaries:
  • In June 2010 the indigenous national organisation CIDOB started a march in Santa Cruz to raise attention (and bring pressure to bear) on points it felt should be included in the Law on Autonomies and Decentralisation. Several of the points they had previously raised had not been taken fully into account in the drawing up of the law (see BIF Bulletin 15). The government criticised the march. It saw the CIDOB as questioning the newly approved constitution and putting at risk the Pacto de Unidad, an agreement between campesino and indigenous organisations. Organisations such as the CSUTCB and the coca producers went as far as to say they would not allow the CIDOB march to reach La Paz. The issue was finally settled by three MAS senators acting as intermediaries who showed the CIDOB’s demands to be reasonable. The executive did not handle the situation well, perhaps overreacting to pressures from one of its close allies.
  • The 2011 salary increases brought the government into conflict with the COB and specific unions in April. The government announced in March that salary increases for teachers, health workers, police and army personnel would be 10%, sufficient to cover inflation during 2010 (of more than 7%). Teachers in particular, but also health workers came out on strike, demanding a higher increase, given the effect of inflation on food prices in particular (see BIF News Briefing March-April 2011, BIF Bulletin 18). They finally achieved a 12% increase. Relations between the COB and the government had already begun to sour, over the attempted increase of petrol and diesel at last year’s end, the so-called gasolinazo. Then, following days of demonstrations in the streets of La Paz, only some of the campesino organisations stood firm behind the government (the CSUTCB, Bartolinas). In this case, a clear conflict of interest arose between the government and an erstwhile ally (the COB) over wages, with the former trying to hold the line on wage discipline and the other standing up for its constituency.
Fears that social organisations are being effectively co-opted (and therefore controlled) by government have been therefore mitigated (at least in part) by the response to the gasolinazo and the conflict over wages in April. In spite of the agreements they may have hatched with the government, social organisations react forcefully when they feel that their rights are being ignored. They take their disagreements on to the streets.
Still, leaders of social movements face a permanent problem in how to negotiate and transmit demands from below. Part of the quandary is should the organisations be carrying out a process of collective building of proposals together with government (‘construcción colectiva’), or should they be taking a more distant stance, carrying out lobbying work and pressurising government (seen as ‘us’ against ‘them’)? Both a strength and a weakness, the fact that the social movements (rather than any party structure) are the mainstay of the government, what transpires is a permanent negotiation between the two, and permanent changes in the roles that organisations must play.

Republished from BIF

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