The multitude of Bolivians who were blocking the roads, building barricades and surrounding the presidential palace – the peasants, miners, street venders, unemployed and many others – were the product of at least a half-century of revolutionary struggle against landlords, mine-owners, big-business people and the U.S. Embassy.
Beginning with the social revolution of 1952, which expropriated the mines and landed estates of the oligarchy and destroyed the military, the Bolivian workers and peasants forged their own class-based trade unions and militias. State power, however, was taken by the middle-class National Revolutionary Party (MNR), which began a process of re-establishing capitalist hegemony in alliance with the United States.
The Sixties and Seventies: A Popular Assembly
A situation of “dual power” continued until 1964, when a U.S.-backed military coup brought Rene Barrientos to power, leading to massacres of miners and an alliance between the military and the old-guard peasant leaders. With the death of Barrientos, a nationalist military-civilian regime took power in 1968, nationalizing Gulf Oil and opening the door toward a more radical, pre-revolutionary phase in 1969-71. In this period, under the presidency of J.J. Torres, the workers and left-wing peasant movement organized a popular assembly. The assembly was based on proportional representation of workers (50 per cent), peasants (30 per cent) and professionals and students, elected at the workplace.
The assembly preceded to legislate a revolutionary program of self-managed socialism in industry, a radicalization of the land-distribution program and an extensive social-welfare agenda. Unfortunately, while the worker-peasant legislative regime radicalized, the army, led by Hugo Banzer, remained reactionary, and, with strong backing from the U.S., seized power and proceeded to jail, exile, outlaw and assassinate the major popular leaders and activists.
Throughout the 1970s Banzer, like his dictatorial counterparts in Chile, Argentina and Uruguay, worked closely with the CIA to murder exiled dissidents in what was called Plan Condor. By the early 1980s, however, the Bolivian popular movement led by the tin miners, which emerged to challenge the dictatorship with prolonged general strikes and unequal battles between dynamite and M-1s, led to the re-establishment of electoral politics.
The Eighties: Jeffrey Sachs and the CIA Move in
Once again a coalition of left and centrist parties took over, tried to meet the demands both of the workers and of capital, and eventually fell victim to hyperinflation. In 1984-85 a coalition of the ex-dictator Banzer’s party and the former leftist guerrilla group, the MIR (Left Revolutionary Movement), took over the government. Under the direction of the U.S. government and the CIA, the regime implemented an “adjustment program” designed by Harvard economist Jeffery Sachs, which led to the closure of all the major tin mines – and the firing of 40,000 miners. Sachs argued that the state funds freed from subsidizing the mines would spur new industries and stimulate new investments that would absorb the tens of thousands of unemployed. Of course, there were no Bolivian capitalists capable of competing with cheap imports, which Sachs’ free-market policies encouraged. Inadvertently, however, Sachs’ policy led to the creation of the militant coca farmers’ movement. Many miners took their severance pay and invested it in land in Chapare, in the south, and in the Yungas, in the north, growing the only crop that provided a sustainable income. These “new coca farmers” brought with them their traditions of class solidarity, organization and consciousness, as they proceeded to build a powerful union, along with a new generation of militant peasant leaders.
By the early 1990s coca growers’ syndicates grew especially in the face of the aggressive, bloody coca-eradication campaign organized and directed by highly visible U.S. military and Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Pitched battles were fought as the cocaleros’ unions grew to over 60,000 affiliates. In the meantime, while regional class organizations grew in power, political power was in the hands of an increasingly right-wing, free-market U.S. client, President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada (1994-97).
2002 Presidential Elections
The cocaleros organized a political instrument – the Assembly of Sovereign Peoples – which swept municipal elections in 1996-97, and which served as the basis for a new radical party, the current Movement to Socialism (MAS) led by Evo Morales. The MAS broadened its program from opposing coca eradication to include the economic demands of public-service workers (teachers and health workers), the land-distribution struggles of the landless rural workers, pension payments of retirees, the wage demands of workers, the public-works demands of the unemployed and the national struggles against ALCA and the privatized gas and oil wells. In the 2002 presidential elections, the MAS, benefiting from a decade of class struggle and class-based mobilization, received 21.9 per cent of the vote, losing to the U.S.-backed Sanchez de Lozada by just 0.6 per cent (Sanchez received 22.5 per cent). With the other militant Indian peasant leader, Felipe Quispe, obtaining seven per cent, it was clear that the Left had gained more votes than the right-wing winner. Several factors explain the tripling of the vote for the MAS: 1) The intense class struggle preceding and continuing during the electoral campaign polarized and raised the class consciousness of the electorate, thus overcoming the intense media and financial advantages of the Right. 2) The blatant intervention of the U.S. Ambassador Manuel Rocha, who threatened the Bolivian electorate with a cut-off of aid and trade if they dared to vote for Evo Morales and the MAS, precipitated a big shift to the left among the majority of anti-imperialist Bolivians. 3) The presence of Evo Morales, a charismatic leader of mass demonstrations, congressional investigations and popular confrontations with the state, who campaigned in Quechua, as well as Spanish, on national, international and local issues. As a result of the elections, the MAS became the leading opposition party in the Congress, including numerous Indian, women and working-class deputies.
The Changing Context of Class Struggle
From the early 1950s to the mid-1980s, the class-conscious, Marxist-led tin miners were the vanguard of the revolutionary struggle. They led the Bolivian Workers Federation (COB) and proved in general strikes and through armed resistance that they were the centre of opposition to both the fiats of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the depredations of local swindlers and foreign capitalist predators. However, the closing of the tin mines, sectarian infighting and government corruption of leaders severely weakened the COB and the miners’ claim to leadership.
By the early 1990s, it was clear that the leadership of the struggle had shifted to the coca unions, the community-based urban coalitions of unions, consumers, street venders and unemployed. The shift in leadership was not easily accepted. Evo Morales once told me that, when he first attended a COB meeting as a peasant-union delegate, a mineworker leader asked him “to buy him a pack of cigarettes” and, later, when he spoke up in favour of a militant peasant-syndicate leader as leader of the COB, he was ridiculed by the rest of the miner delegates. That is now history. There is a widespread recognition of the dynamic role of the coca farmers, and there is greater solidarity, as shown in the October uprising. The new revolutionary leadership is illustrated by the emergence of Evo Morales, leader of the coca farmers in the Cochabamba region and leading political spokesperson of the MAS – and possibly the next president of Bolivia. Evo has devoted his entire political life to building the coca workers union, along with a substantial cadre of militant ex-miners turned coca growers, women, community and union organizers. The key to the strength of the coca farmers union is the popular assemblies, the frequent, freely elected delegate conferences and the close links and accountability between the leadership, the assemblies and their life-or-death struggle to retain their lands, households and decent living standards against the U.S.-dictated coca-eradication campaigns.
In December, 2002, I was invited to speak to the Assembly of Coca Growers in Chapare. Following the talk, delegates from all the local communities immediately discussed a 15-point “plan of struggle” to be launched during the second week of January, following four months of fruitless negotiations with the Sanchez de Lozada regime. The grower movement’s offer to limit coca cultivation to less than one acre was rejected by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. The Embassy line was transmitted by President Sanchez de Lozada (known to many Bolivians as “the Gringo”), who, in his American-accented Spanish (a product of his having lived much of his life in the U.S.), ordered the army to carry on. The open discussion and demands for action by the delegates at the meeting reflected the close relationship between democratic assembly-style trade unionism and class militancy. A 15-point program was set out incorporating the major demands of a broad array of social classes and economic groups, with the idea of establishing a national coalition for a general strike. On January 15 the cocaleros mobilized and blocked the main highways, rolling stones from the mountains, dynamiting rock formations and confronting the police and military. Sanchez de Lozada ordered in military reinforcements and promised to clear the roads at any cost. Scores of cocaleros were wounded and arrested. Several were assassinated. The response in the cities was tepid, and the cocaleros in the Yungas led by Quispe were slow to react. By early February, however, Sanchez de Lozada, oblivious to the popular powder keg, imposed a 12-per-cent tax on wages and salaries.
Eighty per cent of Bolivians were already living at or below the poverty line, and living standards had declined by 20 per cent over the previous two years. A massive national strike that included all sectors of the labour force took place. In La Paz and elsewhere, civil servants and the police not only refused to repress the massed populace but actually joined the protest. Sanchez de Lozada called in the army as he cowered in the presidential palace – its windows shattered. The Palace of Justice was sacked. Over 40 people were killed in the bloody February uprising – the dress rehearsal for the October insurrection.
Sources in the government revealed that U.S. Ambassador David N. Greenlee, a former CIA agent, had stiffened the president’s backbone, urging him to use all the force necessary to retain power. The February massacre only polarized the country further, isolating Sanchez even more. His popularity dropped to single digits, but with the backing of Greenlee and the military, he pushed on with the sell-out of Bolivian gas – a controversial deal with maximum benefits for U.S.- and European-owned gas companies.
New Faces, Old Reactionaries
Sanchez de Lozada represents the new, more overtly colonial face of U.S. client regimes. He studied and spent much of his life in the U.S., exploiting business opportunities in Bolivia, Chile and the U.S. – and becoming a millionaire in the process. Unlike earlier U.S. client rulers, Sanchez de Lozada did not come up through the ranks of the party machinery of the rightist National Revolutionary Movement, mouthing nationalist rhetoric; he was a pro-U.S. free-marketeer from beginning to end. Like in eastern Europe, the Balkans and the Baltic countries, and now in Iraq, U.S.-based “expatriates” or “exiles” totally aligned with U.S. business interests return home and, with generous funding, assume high offices, touting their business connections as a way of securing investments, loans and development. In all cases, these “expats” become the vehicles for wholesale sell-offs of the nation’s vital resources. The gas sell-off was just such an issue in Bolivia, and eventually detonated the uprising that ousted Sanchez de Lozada.
The Gas Sell-Out: Formula for Insurrection
From 1985 to 1997, a series of privatizations in Bolivia were decreed by the president or approved by the Congress. These sell-outs took place largely during the first presidency of Sanchez de Lozada, who promoted the privatizations to the populace as a way to “inject new capital” into the economy, thus labeling the transfer of property as “capitalizations” (instead of privatizations, which would highlight the takeover by local and foreign predators). In 1997, the last year of his first presidency, Sanchez and congressional leaders secretly approved a decree that allowed multinational corporations (MNCs) ownership of natural gas at the “well head” – meaning it was “Bolivian” while underground, but foreign-owned when pumped out and sold.
As any Bolivian school child with a minimal knowledge of history knows, the Bolivian Constitution states that natural resources belong to the Bolivian state. The original agreement with the MNCs stipulated a 50-50 split between the state and the private corporations, but Sanchez de Lozada included a secret clause in which “new wells” would be exploited with the Bolivian state receiving only 18 per cent, the MNCs 82 per cent. The MNCs proceeded to designate many operating facilities as “new wells.” The Bolivian state share would be calculated at the port of exit in Chile, rather than as a proportion of the price in the U.S. As a result, Bolivia received only 18 per cent of every U.S. $0.70 per thousand cubic feet. This bizarre arrangement contrasted sharply with the $2.70 price per 300 cubic feet of gas sold back to the impoverished Bolivians. In other words, to import gas Bolivians paid 12 times more than the price calculated as the basis for its share of returns on exported gas. Moreover, after Sanchez de Lozada signed over gas-exploitation rights, geologists working for the MNCs “discovered” that the Bolivian gas and oil reserves were 10 times larger than previously estimated.
In 2002, Evo Morales raised the issue of this huge swindle in Parliament, and was immediately expelled from the legislature. The move backfired; mass mobilizations took place throughout the country, and Evo was reinstated. In the process, the entire population became aware of the swindle, as well as the great potentialities gas and oil revenues might offer to lift the country out of poverty – if the privatizations and crooked agreements were cancelled.
In the mean time, the bourgeois press and many progressives presented the issue in terms of a “historic” conflict between Bolivia and Chile over the port through which the gas would be transported, instead of in terms of an anti-imperialist struggle. Despite his utter isolation and the exposure of his monumental complicity to defraud the nation, Sanchez proceeded to move ahead with the gas-pipeline project favoured by the MNCs. Once again, the Bolivian people – “the poor man sitting on a mountain of wealth” – were in the process of being defrauded, until the October uprising temporarily put a stop to it by ousting the U.S. protégé, who appropriately fled to Washington to brief his handlers. Added to the mass struggle over gas is the growing struggle for a new agrarian reform. The land reform of 1952 has been totally reversed: two-million mostly Indian families work five-million hectares of land, while less than 100 families own 25-million hectares. When the cattle barons claimed they needed 60 hectares per head of cattle, Morales responded that in order to obtain 50 hectares of land one had to be a cow.
The October Insurrection
After the massacre of February, 2003, the leadership of the October uprising passed to another cocalero leader: Felipe Quispe from the Yungas and leader of the Indian Movement Party (MIP). On September 29, 2003, the head of the trade-union confederation COB called for an “indefinite general strike” against the regime’s gas and economic policies. At first the strike call received a weak response; only the mining unions in Oruro and Potosi downed their tools, and then the teachers joined in. By the third day of the strike, students in La Paz went into the streets. From October 3 onward, thousands of peasants from the Yungas joined in blocking all the major highways leading to La Paz. The army garrisons in La Paz were mobilized passing through El Alto, a city of one million located on the outskirts and above the capital. El Alto has the lowest per-capita income of any city in Bolivia – it is literally a “proletarian city.”
The central labour councils of Cochabamba, led by Oscar Oliveri, and those of other cities, declared in favour of the general strike. Each day the streets of all the major cities were filled with demonstrators and barricades. Street fighting erupted in La Paz and on all the highways. The military shifted from tear gas to live ammunition. In El Alto, the proletarian city, tens of thousands of young unemployed workers fought the army from barrio to barrio, street by street, house to house. The death toll rose each day and the wounded filled the hospitals. Tens of thousands of miners came down the highways from the highlands with their sticks of dynamite, a few wielding rusty 1930s Mausers from the Chaco War. Women were in the front lines as leaders of the neighbourhood associations, confronting the army and forcing back the peasant conscripts.
By October 13 the presidential palace was surrounded by hundreds of thousands of angry workers, peasants, Indians, street vendors and the unemployed. Parties affiliated with the regime resigned from the cabinet, as some of their headquarters were sacked and burned. Carlos Mesa, the vice-president, conveniently resigned. Ambassador Greenlee, the former CIA counter-insurgency expert, urged Sanchez de Lozada to hold on to power via brute force.
The economy was paralyzed. No food, gas, or other basics were entering the cities. The small vendors emptied the markets in solidarity, the big supermarkets out of fear. On October 15 the president fled to Santa Cruz, where he thought the right-wing business elite would organize a military coup to restore him to office. He waited six hours, and then continued on to Miami to join the other swindlers, torturers and elected presidents fleeing the wrath of the people they have butchered. Eighty-one had been killed, 400 wounded or maimed.
Morales and the Congress supported Vice-President Mesa as the new interim president. Mesa was given a mandate to convoke a Constitutional Assembly and new elections, as well as to disband the coca-eradication program and revoke the gas-pipeline agreement. As expected, Mesa, facing a half-million in the streets of La Paz, expressed his commitment to “review the policies of the old regime and respond to the demands of the people.” Mesa then proceeded to nominate a cabinet composed of technocrats totally divorced from the people’s demands and two weeks later announced that he was following the policies of his predecessor (and his patron, Ambassador Greenlee) in eradicating coca.
Morales partially recognized his error in endorsing Mesa and declared that his party, the MAS, would no longer support Mesa if he proceeded with the coca-eradication program. Nevertheless, in his most recent pronouncements, Evo once again endorsed the neoliberal Mesa, as he denounced preparations for a military coup.
What Lies Ahead?
Several points need to be emphasized. Despite his long-standing ties to all the major struggles over the past decade, the MAS and Evo Morales played a very secondary role in the struggle during the October uprising. In fact, Evo was in Geneva at an inter-parliamentary conference during the greater part of the bloody street fighting and the cocaleros did not set up road blockages until the last days of the uprising. It is difficult to explain the MAS’s otherwise exemplary behaviour until then, nor is it understandable why Evo supported the naming of Carlos Mesa as Sanchez de Lozada’s successor, since Mesa is clearly a neoliberal who had supported the president until his last day in office. One explanation is the possible influence of institutional-electoral politics in domesticating the MAS. This may be the case, but there are limits to how far Evo can go in dealing with the power structure, those being his mass base – the coca farmers – and the U.S.’s intransigent insistence on eradication. Evo cannot make an agreement with any politician who proposes to destroy his cocalero base.
The coca issue ultimately keeps Evo on the radical Left. The second issue is the enormous power of Latin American uprisings in overthrowing U.S. client regimes and the absence of any political leadership to replace the regimes ousted. The same phenomenon occurred in Argentina with the December, 2001 uprising, and earlier in Ecuador and Peru. These radical mass uprisings do not result in revolutions. The lack of a revolutionary socio-political organization and leadership with a vocation for taking power is glaringly obvious. Third, the division between the two militant cocalero leaders, Quispe and Evo, is not merely personal; it reflects a different conception of politics: ethnic versus class-ethnic. Quispe sees the need for a separate Aymara nation with its own government; Morales supports a multi-ethnic nation in which Indian communities would be given priority and the worker-peasant-petit bourgeois would rule. The problem with Quispe’s proposal is that most of Bolivia’s oil and gas wealth is outside of Aymara regions.
The Bolivian uprising has sparked widespread support among the people of Latin America. Activists and militants see it as a demonstration that U.S.-backed neoliberal regimes can be defeated. In Bolivia, the clock is running against the new president. Ambassador Greenlee and the five Pentagon “experts” who arrived in Bolivian just after the uprising are no doubt preparing a bloody coup. Mesa, who has no party or business allies and little contact with the military, is even weaker that his predecessor. The Left is moving to organize the mass of activists who made the insurrection possible. This requires uniting the two coca unions, the COB, the regional labour councils, the neighbourhood organizations, the miners, the MAS, the MIP and the tens of thousands of young, unemployed street fighters. The Bolivian working class and peasantry have demonstrated their boundless courage, their immense solidarity, their defiant anti-imperialism and their overwhelming desire to control and use their natural resources to improve their lives. Can their principled leaders find a way to unify their forces, reject the enticements of the power structure embedded in electoral politics, and take state power? Next time, will this be a “Red October”?
James Petras is a member of the CD collective. His new book, A System in Crisis: The Dynamics of Free Market Capitalism is co-authored with Henry Veltmeyer and available through Fernwood books.
This article appeared in the January/February 2004 issue of Canadian Dimension .