National Sections of the L5I:

Bolivia: power within grasp

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In June this year the Bolivian workers and poor peasants could have seized power. They should have seized power. The country was engulfed by revolution. Much of commerce had been strangled by road blockades; a general strike was spreading from the capital, La Paz, to the regional centres.

The army was splitting under the pressure of mass resistance. Assemblies of struggling miners, urban poor and peasants were taking matters into their own hands, having ousted yet another President and contemptuous of a discredited and corrupt Congress.

Radical, even incendiary, speeches reverberated around the main square in La Paz on 6 June as nearly half a million angry and expectant workers and poor waited for a decisive lead: form an alternative national centre of sovereignty expressing the power of the workers and peasants! Take steps to crush the fracturing armed power of the state!

But the call never came. The leaders of the movement hesitated, prevaricated. Eventually, they steered the movement away from the streets in return for… another Presidential election six months away!

Yet, despite the electioneering now underway, the mass movement shows no signs of compromising on the goals for which hundreds have died in the last few years and hundreds of thousands have rocked the streets and battled the police: nationalisation of the gas resources of the country, a constituent assembly to purge the political elite and put ownership of the land into the hands of those that work it.
The lessons of the class battles of the opening years of the 21st century in Latin America’s poorest country are rich and many. Fully absorbed into the veins of the Bolivian masses in the coming period, they will lead them to final victory.

The 1952 revolution and the MNR
Bolivia has a long history of insurrections and general strikes, but the revolution in 1952 was a decisive moment in the country’s modern history. The 9 April Revolution installed a government of the MNR, the Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario. From the 1940s onwards, this nationalist party used very radical rhetoric and organised fractions in the unions, attracting many workers and even more peasants into its ranks

It stood in several elections but, blocked from forming a government, organised insurrections in order to take power, in conjunction with radical officers in the military. The workers and peasants were often called to the streets, but in a very controlled, limited way.

In 1952, what looked to be another weak MNR-army coup attempt spilled into a real insurrection as workers seized police stations and army posts. The army collapsed, and the trade union militias became the real power in the country for a time.

Once in office, the MNR government, under pressure from below, nationalised the mines and oil fields. Laws were passed ending serfdom, granting limited land reform and universal suffrage. However, these reforms were sops to demobilise the extremely militant workers’ movement - helped by their trade union leaders - while the army was rebuilt and capitalism stabilised.

Later in the 1950s, once the workers had been demobilised, the MNR moved to the right and, under US pressure, it agreed to compensate the landowners and mine owners, and reopened the oil sector to the US oil companies. The government was bureaucratic and corrupt, with parties taking jobs and embezzling money through their control of the state. The trade union leaders of the COB (Central Obrera Boliviano, the Bolivian workers’ centre), which was set up in the weeks after the revolution, were co-opted into this system by taking cabinet posts in the government and becoming managers in the nationalised industries.

Bolivia remained mired in poverty and convulsed by rebellion. In 1964, the military high command deposed the government with US backing. The generals were finally pushed out of power in 1982 but, once again, their leaders sold the workers short and a capitalist MNR government came to power committed to the neo-liberal policies being piloted at the time by Reagan and Thatcher in the USA and UK.

Shock therapy; the New Economic Policy
By 1985, Bolivia’s government was paying huge amounts in debt repayments. To try to meet the demands for state subsidies and welfare, the government printed more and more money. As production stalled, this led to hyperinflation running at 24,000%.

The MNR, and the bourgeoisie for which it ruled, presided over a country with backward agriculture, under-capitalised state mines and oil companies, foreign debt running at 51% of GDP and consuming one-third of export earnings. The bourgeois revolution of 1952, having failed to break with imperialism, now lay broken backed before it. Under pressure from the USA and the IMF and fearful of the rising dissent of the masses, the mainstream parties passed a savage package of measures.

The MNR government’s chief economic advisor (and millionaire mine owner) Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, working closely with Harvard University professor Jeffrey Sachs, developed a “stabilisation plan”. Executive decree 21060 (passed on 29 August 1985) aimed at curbing hyperinflation by means of 170 measures. The most important of these were privatisation of state industries, cuts to welfare budgets, a curb on workers’ rights, and letting the Bolivian currency float. The latter led to a huge devaluation, a surge in import prices and a massive hike in the cost of living.

Opposition mounted and culminated in a strike led by the miners. But the working class had been demoralised by the effects of hyperinflation and yearned for currency stability. Crucially, in October 1985, the world price of tin collapsed, undermining the effectiveness of the strike. Most state mines were closed and 25,000 miners were sacked, gutting the workforce, smashing the miners’ union and crippling the COB.

The miners’ defeat opened up a 15-year period of defensive struggles by the Bolivian working class and peasants. Pensioners, students and teachers often played a prominent role as access to education and welfare payments were savaged. Workers in the cities led a desperate, but unsuccessful, fight to stop the privatisation of the state industries built up since 1952 - the mines, oil industry, state enterprises such as rail and airlines, and public services.

From 1985 onwards, electoral pacts and coalitions between the three main parties, the MNR, the ADN (Nationalist Democratic Action) and the MIR (Movement of the Revolutionary Left) led to a succession of pro-imperialist governments, which shamelessly rewarded deputies and officials with lucrative contracts and consultancies while they dismembered the state sector.

The result of this corruption, imperialism and poverty was that, by the 1990s, Bolivian bourgeois democracy had come to be held in deep disdain by most people; cynicism and apathy abounded. The last two Bolivian presidents to win elections only gained about 22% of the vote - General Hugo Banzer in 1997 and Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada in 2002.

Fifteen years of “stability” did nothing to decrease poverty, inequality and insecurity; by 2003, 60% of the population were considered poor, half that living on less than $1 a day. Only 16% of the population earn enough to afford the basics. Meanwhile, new sources of national wealth were being discovered to replace the tin and silver of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Oil and natural gas reserves were unearthed, enough to promise a better future. But this would be impossible while the political elite determined to hive it off to foreign multinationals and cream their share off the top.

The links between growing poverty and the fact that the levers of national wealth are pulled from outside the country are plain. As Oscar Olivera put it:

“Privatisation…has converted us into exporters of dollars, that is, exporters of the very wealth we generate within our own borders. Consider electric power in Cochabamba, for example. Of the money we pay for electricity, barely 12 percent goes into lighting for the public, and another 13 percent stays here in the form of taxes. Practically all the rest is hauled away by foreign interests, since the distribution, transportation, and so forth are all in the hands of transnational companies. Nothing of our own wealth is left for the country. The same thing occurs with hydrocarbons. For every dollar Bolivia produces, hardly six cents stays here, and this means that the Bolivian state increasingly possesses fewer means to satisfy the demands of the population.”

By the end of the 1990s, these demands were pressing and the population, no longer the same as that scarred by the 1980s defeats, was becoming more radical.

Defeat and recomposition
The new social movements of the 1990s revealed the new class realities in Bolivia, where the smashing of the miners and 15 years of neo-liberal policies had fragmented the working class and weakened its hegemony.

The impulse to struggle passed to the peasantry, encouraging indigenous ideologies and parties. In the cities, the flood of sacked miners has merged with the flow of landless peasants to create an informal economy in which the working class merges into the urban poor and underemployed, creating new political alliances.

In the countryside, despite the land reform in the wake of the 1952 revolution, land hunger and rural poverty remain burning issues 50 years on. Fully 82 percent of peasants live blow the poverty line. Eighty-seven percent of the land, including the most fertile, belongs to 7 percent of landowners. Millions of small peasants share the remaining 13 percent.

Since the 1952 revolution, the main form of peasant organisation and political organisation in the rural areas has been the sindicato. These were consciously modelled on the mining and urban trade unions and played a leading role in popular struggles. At the same time, they acted as peasant community committees that organised land and resource distribution and engaged in commercial activities, reflecting their basis in the petty-bourgeois class interests of the peasants who organised them.

In addition, the sindactos were tied into the MNR and its government, and the military governments of the 1960s went one step further and explicitly tried to co-opt sections of the peasantry with a Military-Peasant Compact whereby the peasant organisations put their militias at the disposal of the military to use against the left and workers’ movement.

However, in 1979, as social struggles began to mount, the peasants formed an independent peasant union federation, the CSUTCB which explicitly rejected the policy of collaboration and became an important part of the COB. Just prior to this, independent peasant parties emerged, some of which consciously identified themselves as trajabadores campesinos (worker peasants) while others eschewed class in favour of an indigenous identity. This latter trend was consolidated when Felipe Quispe, an Aymaran revolutionary nationalist espousing radical tactics, became elected head of the CUSTCB in 1998.

Throughout the 1990s, the peasants organised bloqueos or road blockades to cut off transport and cities in order to press their demands for land, to resist land grabs by ranchers or big farmers, and to repel attacks on water supplies and cuts to services. These were to become one of the key tactics of the new protest movement.

The peasant movement today, however, is not homogenous and has three different trends at least. First, there are the poor peasants, landless and agricultural labourers of the lowlands around Santa Cruz with its huge ranches, commercial farms and plantations geared towards export.

Second, the land hungry, radical Aymaran peasantry of the Altiplano, the Western highland plateau and, third, the cocaleros of the valleys in between the two zones, who form the political vanguard of the peasantry and of the social movements in Bolivia.

In the south and east of Bolivia, around the city of Santa Cruz, the 1953 land reform was never applied and so the huge estates were not broken up. Since the 1950s, agriculture has developed and the frontier has been pushed east over the decades. In addition, large-scale commercial farmers and ranchers received large illegal land grants under the military dictatorships of the 1970s, and the export-led neoliberal economic policies of the 1980s led to a soya boom which has fuelled property speculation.

Of all Bolivia’s departments, Santa Cruz continues to have the most unequal distribution of land. According to the government, a mere 25 landowners hold about 22 million hectares in Santa Cruz, almost 60 percent of the department’s total territory. With Santa Cruz drawing in as many as 120,000 migrants a year looking for work and land, land hunger intensifies.

A 1996 law setting up the National Institute of Agrarian Reform (INRA) “reformed” the ineffective and bureaucratic 1953 land reform law. Its main planks were to illegalise land occupations by peasants until after the state had determined whether the land was being productively used or not, to clarify ownership rights to land and to grant land titles.

Overall, INRA has fostered the commercial takeover of land while discouraging small holders who find it difficult to steer their way through the bureaucratic process for titling. In 2006, when the legislation expires, only a tiny amount of Santa Cruz land will have been titled.

Santa Cruz agribusinesses ruthlessly exploit rural labourers and constantly threaten to take over the holdings of peasants and indigenous communities. This, in turn, has given rise to a Brazilian-style landless movement called the MST (Movimiento Sin Tierra), many of whom are recent migrants from the Altiplano, and which, since 2000, has organised massive land invasions and occupations chiefly around Santa Cruz and in the southern department of Tarija. The ranchers and big farmers are organising armed vigilantes to defend their land from occupation, as are the landless in response, and armed clashes have occurred and many landless peasants have been killed.

On the Altiplano, the 1953 reform left small-scale agriculture in place, leading to a division and redivision of land into tiny plots (minifundios) or even smaller into surcofundios (a single row of crops). Migration is the only relief from this land hunger and the altiplano peasantry remains the poorest section of Bolivian society, trapped in subsistence primitive farming. Already possessing land titles, most were against the INRA and campaigned for its abolition.

Descending from the altiplano eastwards towards the lowlands, Bolivia is transformed from a dry and arid region to lush, fertile valleys. One of the biggest valleys is the Chapare, with the city of Cochabamba at its head. The area attracted major inward migration as the coca boom took off; the years 1967-87 saw the population grow tenfold, especially during the mid-1980s economic crisis, when there was an influx of ex-miners who brought their traditions of organisation with them.

The cocaleros, as the peasant coca growers are called, formed their own federations (six in all, representing different regions) in the 1980s. Besides regulating the distribution of land, they became increasingly militant as the US pushed the Bolivian government to eradicate coca production with a militarised drug squad and terror tactics. In 1997, the newly elected Hugo Banzer government declared a plan to eradicate coca production completely and to crush one of the most militant sections of the population in the process.

The cocaleros became an important component of the peasant union, the CSUTCB, and won its leadership in 1992. In addition, they created a political party in 1995, the Asamblea de la Soberania de los Pueblos (Assembly for the Sovereignty of Peoples), which scored heavily in the Chapare municipal elections, gained four seats in parliament in 1997 and, in 1999, under their leader Evo Morales, changed their name to the Movement for Socialism, the MAS.

The Indian majority
As many as 70% of the population are from indigenous groups, which include the Aymara and the Quechua as well as a multitude of smaller communities. Peasant and indigenous politics are intertwined. For instance, the cocaleros in Chapare are mostly Quechua speakers and one of their key arguments in resisting cocoa eradication was that growing coca was a traditional practice and a part of their indigenous identity.

The indigenous groups around Santa Cruz and the Eastern lowlands formed confederations in the 1980s and 1990 saw the first indigenous rights march from Trinidad in the East to the capital El Paz to protest at the systematic discrimination and poverty that the indigenous majority face.

The 1993 neo-liberal government of Sanchez de Lozada attempted to co-opt their leaders by appointing the country’s first indigenous vice-president. In addition, in 1996, INRA recognised the special right of indigenous groups without land titles to such titles as Territorios Comunitarios de Origen (TCOs). This has acted to a degree as an organisational catalyst for indigenous groups, spurring them to come together in order to register as an indigenous group and apply for a land title. While this has led to struggles against local landowners or commercial interests that are moving in to exploit grazing, timber or oil, it has also split the opposition to the law.

On the Altiplano, the movement was based on the Aymara-speaking population and matured in the 1990s into the more radical wing of the indigenous movement opposed to the INRA. Felipe Quispe rose to prominence as an Aymara nationalist leader in the 1990s with radical, even revolutionary, rhetoric against the “white” elite. He calls for more government aid, bilingual education and Aymara regional autonomy, a return from the sindicato to the more traditional Aymara communal Ayllu, and makes a utopian appeal to the romanticised Inca past of the Aymara, even calling for the refounding of Collasuyo, the Altiplano province of the Inca empire. He became leader of the CSUTCB in 1998 and has led the militant resistance of the Altiplano’s peasantry to water privatisation. He is also popular among the young, mostly Aymaran, poor in the city of El Alto, above La Paz.

Urban classes
Bolivia’s population now is mostly urban, with 64% living in cities, though many are recent migrants and retain connections to the countryside and their peasant communities. Prior to 1985, the Bolivian labour movement was one of the strongest in Latin America, with the state responsible for 26% of employment.

Since the early twentieth century, the tin miners were the vanguard of the workers’ movement and the people as a whole including peasants, urban poor and indigenous. Their trade union, the FSTMB was politically very radical too, led by left trade unionists and centrists in the 1940s. It actually adopted a programme in 1946 which called for a revolution that did not stop at nationalism but overthrew capitalism, explicitly based on Trotsky’s strategy of permanent revolution..

The savage retrenchment in the economy from 1985 onwards resulted in a steady attrition of public sector workers in the privatised ex-state industries and squeezed social services, leaving only 12% of workers in the state sector by the end of the 1990s. , However, despite this, the Bolivian working class grew substantially in the 1990s in agriculture, light manufacture, and more recently oil and gas. In manufacturing in the main cities alone the number of workers in manufacturing grew from 83,000 in 1986 to 390,000 by 1997. However, less than one-third (30%) worked in factories employing more than 30 people and the majority (49%) were in small, artisanal workshops of 1-4 employees, and most worked in light industry.

The output of the services sector is now larger than industry, though mining operations have revived after the industry’s collapse and mass closures of 1985, and the oil and natural gas industry is a fast growing sector. Overall there are 3.5 million workers in a country of 8 million. While increasing its social weight as a class, the working class’s political weight and vanguard role has diminished since the 1980s. The smashing of the miners and then privatisation and retrenchment in industry led to a collapse in the number of unionised workers. Today, only 20% of workers are full-time and unionised. The rise of the non-unionised economy, with no limits on the length of the working day or week, the predominance of temporary contracts and subcontracting out, has given a huge boost to sweatshop labour and sweatshop conditions have become the norm for many.

Alongside this flexi-proletariat, and merging into it, is the hugely expanded informal sector, where more than 7 of 10 new jobs have been created since 1990. The ranks of the unemployed become street vendors, artisans or whatever will earn a crust of bread, “hustling from one activity to another and making around $2-$5 per day”.

Tens of thousands have no job at all. Every week, thousands more flood into the major cities of Santa Cruz, El Alto and Cochabamba from the countryside looking for work and join the ranks of those scavenging for a living. According to one source, fully 68 percent of Bolivia’s population work in the informal economy today.

The eastern department of Santa Cruz now accounts for 90% of the nation’s industry, 60% of the country’s oil wells and more than 50% of the gross domestic product (GDP). As a result, it is here that the major, growing section of the working class is to be found, though the left and union organisation is weak here. The COD of Santa Cruz (Central Obrera Departamental, departmental or regional body of the COB) is controlled by the fabriles or factory workers’ section, but most industrial employment depends in one way or another on agro-industry.

The growth of these urban areas has meant vast neighbourhoods of the urban poor working in the flexible work force or informal economy. The unions have not kept up, but lack of social services in these quickly growing slums has meant the rise of self-help associations and neighbourhood committees that sort out wells for water, electricity connection and campaign against higher taxes. These organisations represented the first line of defence of the urban poor in the struggles for services, and against privatisation and its effects and, combined with union organisations, represented the core of the coalitions during the resource “wars” with the government. All of these strands; peasants, unionised workers, and urban poor, came together for protests against the privatisation of water and water price rises in Cochabamba in 1999.

From the defensive to the offensive after 1999
The Banzer government was elected in 1997. Banzer, a right-wing ex-military dictator and favourite of the US, led a “megacoalition” of all the mainstream parties. He pledged to eliminate coca production and placed the Chapare under direct military rule.

Under his presidency the economy faltered, with factory lay offs and prices for small goods producers falling 35 percent. The poorest 10 percent of the people saw their incomes decline 15 percent while the wealthiest 10 percent saw their incomes increase 16 percent. Meanwhile, the IMF called for more austerity and belt tightening. The government obliged.

In June 1999, the World Bank and the International Development Bank issued a report making further loans to Bolivia conditional upon the privatisation of water and a guarantee of no public subsidies to counteract the price hikes that would come with privatisation. The government duly sold off the Cochabamba water system in September to Aguas Del Tunari, a hastily set up consortium of Spanish and Bolivian companies (linked to prominent politicians in the ruling coalition) along with a majority stake held by the massive US multinational, Bechtel. The contract was set to last for 40 years.

In October, Congress passed Law 2029 eliminating the right of rural areas to water provision, a social right so long in place it was considered customary, while giving the company holding the contract a monopoly on distributing water. This contract superseded all other laws and contracts and meant it would be illegal to collect rain water; neighbourhoods and households with their own wells could no longer use them! Moreover, it dollarised payments so that if the Boliviano dropped relative to the dollar, payments automatically went up. While the poor would be squeezed dry, the contract guaranteed the company a 16% rate of return.

When AdT took up its contract on 1 November all this began to come clear. Bills rocketed by as much as 300% immediately. Peasant groups reliant on irrigation, who had been in struggle with the municipal water authorities since 1995 over the use of water, were the first to react.

The law affected everyone, however, and overlaid traditional local conflicts of interest. Historically, there had been tensions over scarce water supplies between the growing city of 600,000, and the surrounding hinterland of another 400,000 mostly peasants, and between different groups of “irrigators” clashing over irrigation sources for farming. The urban poor, up to half the population of Cochabamba, who had never been connected to the municipal system and had set up neighbourhood water cooperatives, now had their wells threatened with confiscation or closure. Those who were attached to the system got massive price increases.

The communities of small farmers with their traditional irrigation committees mounted road block protests in early November to protest against the new water law and called a mass meeting for 12 November, which set up the Coordinadora de Defensa del Agua y de la Vida (Coalition in Defence of Water and Life).

The local Cochabamba Federation of Factory Workers, or Fabriles, had also been active in Cochabamba since 1995, initiating projects to try to develop new forms of trade unionism among the new, majority layers of unorganised workers and to set up alliances against social cuts. As a result, it came into contact with many sectors of society and became a reference point. It took part in the meeting setting up the Coordinadora, its office became the base of operations while its secretary, Oscar Olivera, became one of the Coordinadora leaders.

According to Olivera, it filled “a political vacuum” left in the wake of the mainstream parties adoption of neo-liberalism and the decline of union organisation. It joined together irrigation committees in the countryside and neighbourhood water cooperatives along with the local fabriles union, but also involved environmentalists and teachers.

The Coordinadora called its first mobilisation for 1 December 1999, by coincidence the day the major street protests in Seattle made famous the anti-capitalist movement with its similar “teamster and turtle alliance”. More than 10,000 came, including groups of cocaleros from the nearby Chapare region, forming an assembly that Olivera noted was larger than any of the candidates’ rallies for the coming local elections. The demonstration became a town assembly and agreed to give the government till 11 January to tear up the AdT contract, repeal the water law and reverse the price hikes, pledging indefinite road blockades until this was conceded.

Simultaneously, a Civic Committee emerged in response, organised by the mayor and representatives of the local elite and businessmen who had originally facilitated the AdT contract. The Coordinadora refused to recognise the CC, but it too began to mobilise for 11 January by calling a citizens’ strike but only for 24 hours. So 11 January saw a massive shutdown of Cochabamba and the roads linking the two halves of the country which run through it.

The next day, when the businesses and factories reopened and buses started working again, it became clear that the strength of the Coordinadora was in the rural areas. The Fabriles union turned the situation about by turning to a nearby strike in a Fabriles-organised shoe factory, flooding the city centre with 500 workers on bicycles, blocking traffic and paralysing the city. Momentum restored, another town assembly in the central plaza again demanded the government negotiate. A government commission arrived the next day to negotiate with Olivera and Evo Morales, leader of the cocaleros, and agreed it would revise the contract and reconsider the law but not reverse the rate hikes.

The Coordinadora gave the government three months and, to keep the pot boiling, organised a “takeover of Cochabamba” for 4 February 2000. Meant as a peaceful mass demo, the government sent in special armed units and the hated “dalmatians” (motorcycle police from the La Paz) in the days preceding the demonstration to occupy strategic locations and intimidate the movement. Nevertheless, four marches outmanoeuvred police tear gas assaults and batons and forced them to retreat from the central plaza.

The struggle raged all day. The next day the whole city was blockaded in anger at the police attack, with the cocaleros taking the lead in forming the blockades. Crowds armed with bricks and stones marched on the city centre, and it was all reported on radio and TV, which brought more out. On Sunday, the government caved in and signed an agreement rescinding the rate hikes. The Coordinadora set 4 April as the deadline for it to take effect.

Throughout March it became clear that congress and the government would not do anything. The movement became more radical and demanded that the contract be cancelled not revised, that AdT be kicked out of Cochabamba, and the water law 2029 changed. The agreed deadline passed and 20,000 took to the streets, the offices of AdT were occupied.

Government ministers came to Cochabamba and tried to negotiate a deal over the heads of the Coordinadora with the business leaders of the Civic Committee, who wanted to avoid rescinding the AdT contract but sought to revise it. When Morales demanded a place at the negotiations, the police attacked the crowds and arrested the leaders.

A demonstration of 40,000 greeted the released leaders the next day. Desperate, the Civic Committee and the Archbishop lied to the popular assembly and announced that the government had annulled the AdT contract. After the Coordinadora leaders called off the protest, the government announced the contract with AdT would stand, declared martial law and ordered the arrest of the Coordinadora leaders.

The blockades immediately resumed. More than 100 people were wounded in savage street fighting and one bystander was killed by a government sniper. Eventually, the young “water warriors” broke the army’s control of the downtown and the barricades and roadblocks triumphed. The government finally caved in on AdT and the water law.

The Cochabamba water war was a victory for the Bolivian working people - workers, peasants, the poor - and a defeat for the government and neoliberalism. Widely publicised on television, it showed that ordinary people could unite and take on the World Bank, US multinationals, and the government and win. After 15 years of givebacks the tide was turning.

Backlash and resistance, 2000-2003
The next two years saw the militancy continue, spreading around the country. A wave of peasant and cocalero blockades and strikes by teachers, students and truck drivers in September-October 2000 centred around the repeal of the 1985 neoliberal decree DS 21060, with unrest in seven out of nine Departments. MST land occupations increased. Cocaleros demanded the withdrawal of coca eradication Law 1008.

Throughout 2001, the economic crisis continued unabated and in that same month the discredited and unpopular president Banzer resigned, claiming ill-health. His hardline Vice-President Jorge Quiroga was sworn in, promising to come down hard on protests, saying he would not allow drug-trafficking and terrorism to hide behind “so-called social movements”. Up till then, only one person had died in the water war, while in Quiroga’s first 4 months of office, 20 died.

On 14 January 2002, a march of 5000 in Cochabamba was followed by an attempt to reopen a coca leaf collection centre. This ended in a pitched battle with the police, launching the so-called “coca war” of 2002. Congress, under pressure from the USA, expelled Cocalero leader Evo Morales in January, stripping him of his seat.

Bolivians showed what they thought of this in the presidential elections on 23 June 2002 when Evo Morales came second by a slender margin, 20.9% as against 22.5% for Sanchez de Lozada, showing that his popularity had spread beyond the ranks of the cocaleros. This was partly due to the plight of 50,000 families left destitute by the programme, driven to farming coca by poverty and neoliberalism’s assault on their livelihoods, then driven away from it by imperialism’s demands.

Morales promised to stop paying Bolivia’s foreign debt and to renationalise all privatised industries since 1985. In addition, the cocaleros were a militant symbol of resistance to US imperialism’s demands. If anyone doubted it, the US Ambassador to Bolivia, Manuel Rocha, confirmed it when he warned the Bolivian senate, debating which parties should form the government, not to vote for Morales who he called a drug trafficker and compared to Osama Bin Laden, threatening that, if they did, the USA would cut off all economic aid and suspend a $6bn investment to develop the natural gas industry.

Morales’ rise to second place was stunning, he had only received 3% of the vote in the 1997 presidential elections, and only wheeling and dealing by the mainstream parties in the Senate shut the MAS out from power and confirmed Sanchez de Lozada as President.

The coca war peaked in January 2003 when road blockades and mass protests paralysed the country, as the protests generalised and other groups combined their actions, such as a march of 10,000 pensioners on the capital. The army completely surrounded Cochabamba before assaulting its barricades where they killed 12 and hundreds were arrested. The government agreed to peg pensions to the dollar but little more.

However, these mobilisations led to the setting up of the People’s Joint Chiefs of Staff for the social movements (Estado Mayor del Pueblo or EMP) on January 22 by Evo Morales and the radical peasant leader Felipe Quispe. This coalition of leading figures of the movements, it is not clear how much it really acted as a united front of the organisations themselves, launched a campaign against the repression, and to kick Sanchez de Lozada from office with strikes and roadblocks.

Partly this was and an attempt to create an alternative formation after the betrayals of the COB. The EMP did call mobilisations and went on to link the issues of protest, land, coca, privatisation, poverty, jobs, to larger global issues such as the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA or ALCA) that the US was pushing South American countries to join.

On 9 February, Sanchez de Lozada, under IMF pressure, declared that workers earning four times the minimum wage would get a 12.5% hike in income tax, to allow the government to stay within the IMF requirement that the government reduce its budget deficit from 8.6% to 5.5% in exchange for $4 billion in new loans. This measure simply took away from one section what he had given to another, the pensioners, only weeks before, and raised workers’ contributions to as much as 30% of their income. Municipal employees, led by 10,000 striking police officers, half the country’s force, walked off their jobs on 11 February when they heard of the paltry pay rises they would get in the new government budget deal.

The next day, thousands of high school students in La Paz struck and marched on the Presidential Palace in the Plaza de Murillo, pelting it with rocks and calling on the president to “resign or die” and others protested at the US embassy. A march of striking police to the palace also converged on the palace and was met with tear gas and shots in the air fired by the army. The police fought back with live ammunition, protecting many of the demonstrators.

These actions detonated mass protests in La Paz and across Bolivia, demanding that the President and Vice-President and cabinet resign. In Cochabamba, highway blockades again cut the capital off and the country in half. By nightfall, the army was being mobilised in armoured cars and with bayonets fixed.

On 15 February, the COB called a general strike and 10,000 massed in La Paz. Soldiers attacked with tanks, tear-gas and bullets leading to hours of street fighting, after which eight protestors were dead and ten wounded, shot by army snipers. The February rebellion against the IMF’s dictates and the political and business establishment left 33 dead, 170 wounded and hundreds arrested.

Government buildings, including the Vice President’s office, the headquarters of mainstream parties, multinational corporations (e.g. a Coke plant and Burger King) had been torched, shopping malls, banks and offices occupied or ransacked. Similar riots occurred all around Bolivia. The protests did not abate till Sanchez de Lozada withdrew the tax on 14 February and gave the police a big pay hike and compensation to the families of officers that had been killed of $100,000 each. Later he sacked his cabinet.

An uneasy calm was restored but not before the protests showed that the centre of gravity of the movement and its vanguard had shifted during early 2003 from Cochabamba to El Alto and from the cocaleros and peasantry to the working class and urban poor.

The gas war and the overthrow of President Mesa
In the late 1990s, natural gas was discovered in the south-eastern department of Tarija. Estimated to contain at least 54 trillion cubic feet, these are the second largest reserves in South America, after Venezuela, and worth more than six times Bolivia’s GDP. Their significance was not lost on the popular movement.

“This means that financial resources exist in Bolivia for improving the living conditions of the whole population. The resources exist for job creation, better salaries, and expanding free services. One hundred twenty billion dollars is an extraordinary amount of money. Such funds can enable the creation of a new productive base that could halt the country’s decline and rescue it from industrial and commercial insignificance …. broadening the industrial base, improving the transport system, and diversifying the economy. Better yet, it could build the economy without the foreign loans…”

Or it could have if President Sanchez de Lozada had not sold it off to foreign companies. In 1996, he passed Hydrocarbons Law 1689 that sold off the bulk of the assets of the Bolivian National Oil Company (YPFB) to foreign, mostly US, multinationals. His last act of his first presidency was to sign a contract in 1997 with an international consortium called Pacific LNG made up of Repsol (Spain), BP-Amoco and British Gas to develop the natural gas fields such as existed at the time.

At the time, oil and natural gas were growing and significant export sectors but hardly on the scale of the huge reserves discovered since. In 2003, in the light of those discoveries, Pacific LNG lobbied to renew its contract to include the new resources and greater guarantees. Despite massive popular opposition, Sanchez de Lozada signed a new contract which undervalued the gas sold to the company and gave it a share of the revenues ensured the MNC’s would take $1.25 billion a year while the Bolivian state would be left with $50 million, less than 4% of the wealth generated!

As Olivera put it, politicians and bosses had plans “to steal our children’s future”: “Today there is a great discontent because this gigantic wealth that lies beneath our feet passes right out from under our noses and leaves us stuck in economic misery and desperation. And the gas we buy is priced as if it were flown in from Iraq.”

The “gas war” opened in September 2003. By late summer, the government’s decision on whether to export gas through Chile or not was imminent and causing a furore of public debate. The movements began to stir and react. On 5 September 2003, in Cochabamba, the Coordinadora was relaunched as a Gas Coordinadora. A meeting of 300 delegates from over 100 organisations across Bolivia met in Oruro a few days later and called for a national mobilisation on 19 September to force the government to hold a referendum on the Chilean pipeline.

That demonstration impressed even the organisers of the Coordinadora, with 50-60,000 protestors in the main plaza of La Paz, it was bigger than the mobilisations of the “Water War”. Altogether 150,000, in La Paz and other cities, demanded the renationalisation of hydrocarbons, opposed the FTAA and called for a constituent assembly to draw up laws that could protect the natural resources of the country from imperialist exploitation.

On 29 September, the COB, with a newly elected left-wing general secretary, called a general strike, demanding the resignation and prosecution of Sanchez de Lozada. A column of 5000 miners from Huanani began to march on La Paz led by the new, more left-wing, leader of the miners’ union.

When it became clear that Sánchez de Lozada was determined to repress the movement, the neighbourhood committees of El Alto called a citizens’ strike for 8 October and Evo Morales, jumping on board, called for the Chapare to shut down the roads connecting Santa Cruz to La Paz, cutting the country in half. Meanwhile, cocaleros began to march on the capital from the south The marches multiplied and blockades tightened around La Paz, closing it and the airport from the South. The violent attempts by an army column to reopen the airport road for oil tankers on 11 October saw a pitched battle for control of the highway between Altñenos (residents of the nearby El Alto) and government forces.

All of El Alto, along with the rest of the country, was aflame in protest at the military’s violence. Emergency cabildos, or popular assemblies, sprung up around the country, and all of Bolivia’s main cities were paralysed by the general strike. In El Alto, the Fejuve assembly of neighbourhood committees met along with union leaders such as Roberto de la Cruz and instructed the people of El Alto to form “armed self-defence brigades” of volunteers armed with “Molotov cocktails and explosive bombs”.

The government declared martial law in El Alto the next day and the military came to crush the city of the poor. The people fought back, digging trenches to stop the military vehicles and fighting armoured cars with rocks. Local radio, interviewing people by mobile phone, gave a picture of what was happening in different areas, and even became spontaneously “syndicated” as other Bolivian radio stations took up the reports, making it impossible for the government to hide the severity of the confrontation.

Twenty-five civilians were killed before Sánchez de Lozada tried to defuse the protests by suspending the gas project until he had “consulted” the Bolivian people. The US State Department “helped out”, issuing a statement supporting the president and stating, “The international community and the United States will not tolerate any interruption of constitutional order and will not support any regime that results from undemocratic means.”

Unfortunately for the US state department and Sánchez de Lozada, his last minute concessions were not enough. The movement refused to demobilise, demanding his resignation. Days of vicious fighting and standoffs saw La Paz run out of food and energy supplies and scores killed, the deadliest confrontation with the military in recent memory. With El Alto and La Paz in the hands of the protestors, a situation of temporary dual power emerged in one of the two hearts of the country. Many sections of soldiers and police refused to fire on protestors. Seven police were arrested for attempting to organise a mutiny; the state forces of repression began to waver and break in the face of a determined resistance.

The miners’ columns finally arrived at the outskirts of La Paz and were confronted by troops and tanks. They demanded to be allowed in and, armed with dynamite, said they would not turn back but fight and die if necessary. The military backed down and allowed them to enter La Paz, to be met by the workers of El Alto marching into the capital en masse. A mass demo surrounding the palace set off dynamite sticks and called for Sánchez de Lozada to be“put up against the wall”.

Abandoned by his coalition partners, like rats leaving a sinking ship, and even his own Vice President, Carlos Mesa, who condemned the “excessive force” used in El Alto, Sánchez de Lozada resigned and fled to Miami, leaving Mesa behind as his constitutional successor. The insurrection led by the working masses of El Alto had broken the government.

Carlos Mesa was a media millionaire and unconnected to any of the discredited mainstream Congress parties. He did all in his power to dupe the movement into demobilising and placing the future of its demands in his hands. He committed himself to a binding popular vote on the gas deal, pledged a government in which corruption would not be tolerated, and agreed to early elections for a popular constitutional convention in which even the length of his own presidency would be up for discussion. He also created a new ministry of indigenous affairs to placate one of the most militant sectors of struggle, and asked for all the organisations involved in the struggle to call a truce.

Unfortunately, the truce was accepted by most of the movement’s leading. Evo Morales of the MAS, and leader of the cocaleros, said, “the time has come to give enough time and space to the president to take over the command of the country, without any social or political pressure.” The COB met on the day following the fall of Sánchez de Lozada and called off the general strike, while its general secretary, Jaime Solares, met the president and, instead of presenting the key demands of the mobilisation on hydrocarbons, coca, land, privatisation and a constituent assembly, or even a deadline, he merely said that as long as the Mesa government fought against corruption, he would have the support of the COB!

However, while the COB, MAS and Coordinadora leaders ended their protests, within days Mesa and his ministers were already reneging on their promises. The Economy Minister announced that the new government would not deviate from the IMF plan and Mesa said he would not distance his government from the US. Far from taking steps to convene a constituent assembly, Mesa went on to say that he should complete his term till 2007.

Mesa also insisted that the export of gas should go ahead, and stalled on the date of the referendum. When he finally called it, in July 2004, instead of simple questions that faithfully represented the demands of the protests, they were phrased in such a way as to undercut those demands and to engineer a majority for the ruling class’s plans to go ahead as before.

At every turn, after the El Alto rebellion, Evo Morales deflected criticism from the Mesa government. While the COB and CSUTCB called for a boycott of the referendum with its rigged questions, Morales argued for people to vote and to rely on Congress to nationalise gas once the referendum had opened up this possibility, although Congress was dominated by neoliberal parties, and for corporations hit by any nationalisation to be compensated! Two weeks before the referendum, he was expelled from the COB for his open collaboration.

Meanwhile, the government poured $800,000 into the yes campaign and troops and police into the inflammable areas of the country. The yes campaign was supported by all the mainstream parties, business, the church, NGOs as well as Evo Morales and the MAS, while the IMF dangled the prospect of a huge loan in front of Bolivia, contingent upon a yes vote for export of gas.

Yet, despite this coalition of support for Mesa, those sections opposed to the July gas referendum began to revive as it drew near. Strikes, including a national transport strike, blockades and demonstrations in Cochabamba, El Alto and La Paz paralysed the country in the months leading up to the referendum.

Although this was not enough to prevent a “Yes” vote, which stabilised Mesa’s rule throughout 2004, it was enough to ensure that he could not take further advantage of the situation and use repression as his predecessors had done in similar situations. The El Alto revolt had weakened his position and left the military and police too divided and discredited for the ruling class to take that road, for the moment.

June 2005: an opportunity to seize power
By May of 2005, it was clear to the mass of people in Bolivia that Carlos Mesa was not about to change course; the gas would remain in the hands of the transnational corporations. Mesa would have to be forced to relent. In mid-May, a wave of strikes and road blockades erupted. In El Alto, the COR organised a congress which decided to call an indefinite strike. The most advanced sectors now recognised that the nationalisation of the gas and its use for the benefit of the population could only be achieved if the workers and peasants had their own government.

The lack of confidence in bourgeois democracy was evident, as Miguel Zubieta, leader of the mineworkers’ union, testified:
“This democracy is one of hunger and poverty for the workers. This bourgeois democracy serves the oligarchy . . . but not us. The workers, we want our own democracy, the democracy of the workers and peasants, the democracy of the poor not the democracy of the rich, not bourgeois democracy.”

At the second emergency congress of the COR, in El Alto, it was agreed to organise a national, united struggle to take power away from government of Carlos Mesa and put it into the hands of popular assemblies. A general strike was called for the 23 May. The main highway between El Alto and La Paz was blockaded and a mass demonstration was organised to occupy the centre of the capital La Paz. Peasants, miners, workers, teachers and those living in the poorest neighbourhoods amassed in San Francisco square.

Jaime Solares, leader of the COB, declared it was necessary to close parliament, overthrow the neo-liberal government of Carlos Mesa and install a government of the workers and peasants and the poor of town and countryside. He also called on “patriotic officers” of the army to unite with the people to defeat the oligarchy and any attempt to organise a coup by reactionary groups.

Evo Morales also spoke, but he called for the preservation of democracy and opposedf the closure of parliament, instead demanding the immediate convening of a constituent assembly. With him were 5,000 cocaleros who had marched 200 kilometres. The demand of the MAS was only for 50% taxation of the gas profits, not nationalisation of the industry, but the peasants began to take up the chant “neither 30, nor 50 but nationalisation.”

The El Alto general strike soon spread to most other cities. Road blockades multiplied throughout the country over the next few weeks, leaving an estimated 60% of all the main highways choked. Assemblies or co-ordinating bodies sprung up everywhere, organised by neighbourhood committees from the poor barrios and from workers organised in their unions. Everywhere, assemblies debated and decided what to do next and how to take the struggle forward.

By the first week of June, the country was paralysed. An attempt was made to demobilise the mass mobilisations through a parliamentary vote to convene a constituent assembly, but this was prevented when the right-wing parties boycotted the parliamentary session. Meanwhile, the bourgeoisie of Santa Cruz pressed their demand for a referendum on autonomy. Threatened by revolution, the Bolivian ruling class were preparing to dismember the nation. From the province of Santa Cruz, they would be able to organise a bloody counter-revolution. They had already shown what they could do. Peasants in the region, who had organised a road blockade, had been viciously attacked by the fascist gangs of the Cruzeno Youth Union (UJC).

On 6 June, the leaders of the main organisations called an open assembly. Some 400,000 attended, out of a total Bolivian population of less than nine million. Most of the leaders talked of the need to continue the struggle. They talked of the need for revolution. They argued for a workers and peasants’ government to carry out the nationalisation of the gas. What they did not do was organise for a workers’ and peasants’ government, nor for a revolution.

This open assembly in La Paz on the 6 June was an enormous lost opportunity. Instead of radical rhetoric and revolutionary bluster, the leaders of the mass organisations should have immediately proposed a plan of action to form a revolutionary government. Bolivia was experiencing a revolutionary crisis. The ruling class did not have complete control of the country. The masses had no confidence in the regime. They wanted to get rid of the president and did not trust the congress. In the cities and the regions, dual power was emerging. The high commands of the police and army were unable to repress the movement, impose order or break the blockades for fear of rank and file mutiny and a furious reaction from the masses. The political elite was divided as to how to get out of the situation. But this could not last for long.

The leaders of the COB, the COR El Alto and the Fejuve did not know how to take advantage of this highly favourable situation. The key task was to form a revolutionary government based on a national congress of delegates from the organisations in struggle and defended by a workers’ and popular militia.

It was imperative that workers’ and peasants’ councils were built. In the Russian revolution of 1917 the workers and peasants held assemblies which elected delegates who were sent to workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ councils, the soviets. These soviets were the source of power for the workers’ and peasants’ government formed after the October 1917 revolution.

A centralised and national congress of delegates from all over Bolivia could have elected a provisional revolutionary government. This was not in any way a utopian task. From the platform of the open assembly in La Paz, an immediate call should have gone out to organise assemblies and elect recallable delegates to attend a national congress, the next day!

City-wide and regional councils should also have been elected. It was particularly important to draw in the peasants, especially those under the leadership of the MAS. Without uncoupling these revolutionary peasants from their treacherous leadership, the possibility existed of another manoeuvre similar to that of October 2003 when the movement was demobilised by bringing in a new president, promising a referendum on the hydrocarbons laws and the possibility of convening a constituent assembly.

At the same time, it was essential for these councils to organise self-defence bodies to repulse any attacks from the army or police, to be prepared to defeat any counter revolutionary coup and to smash any fascist gangs being organised. From these self-defence bodies, a national and centralised workers’ and popular militia could have been quickly built.

A revolutionary workers’ and poor peasants’ government, based on the direct democracy of the struggling masses, would have been in an incredibly strong position to call on the rank and file soldiers to join their brothers and sisters in struggle. Assemblies of rank and file soldiers should have been the subject of intense agitation by the workers. These assemblies could have declared their refusal to be used for the purposes of repressing the movement. They could have elected delegates to send to any national congress and declared that the soldiers would only take orders sanctioned by such a congress and its elected government.

These soldiers’ councils could have greatly aided the task of arming any workers’ militia. This was the way to undermine any attempt by reactionary officers to organise a coup, not to call for “patriotic officers” to unite with the people or even raise the possibility of a left-wing civil-military government as Jaime Solares, leader of the COB, did. Such practical and concrete steps would have led to an immediate situation of national dual power.

Could such steps really have been carried out? It was entirely possible if the movement’s leaders gave a clear and decisive course of action to the mass of mobilised workers and peasants. It was becoming clearer to most people every day that the nation was in crisis and that the bourgeoisie would not resolve the situation in any way favourable to them. The masses had already shown their revolutionary spirit, their willingness to fight was not in question. What was lacking was a leadership that had a concrete strategy by which the workers and peasants could actually take power.

That strategy could only have come from a revolutionary workers’ party and none such existed in the May-June days. Such a party, organising the most politically advanced and intransigent workers, would have been able to give the masses the direction so sorely needed. Even the establishment of an alternative government would only have seen national dual power. A revolutionary workers’ and poor peasants’ government would then have had to close down the old congress and dissolve the repressive apparatus of the ruling class, the army and police.

The leaders of the mass organisations showed that, despite their rhetoric, they were not up to these tasks. Even though a national popular assembly was organised on 8 June, it remained nothing more than a meeting of the leaders of the national organisations and not a national congress of elected delegates from all sectors in struggle.

On the same day as the open assembly in La Paz, the president, Carlos Mesa, offered his resignation. The congress, reeling from the pressure of the masses, moved to the smaller city of Sucre. The masses feared that the ruling class were about to use bloody repression, the option favoured by the next in line for the presidency, Vaca Diez.

Once again, the masses showed their tenacity and many of the most militant sectors marched on Sucre and surrounded the congress building. Despite the army being mobilised, the masses prevented congress deputies and senators from attending the seat of government to swear in Vaca Diez. When the ruling elite realised that the masses had effectively thwarted the threat of a Vaca Diez presidency, another plan was set in motion.

Evo Morales entered negotiations with the government and it was agreed to hold early elections and that the head of the Supreme Court, Eduardo Rodriguez, would become president, instead of Vaca Diez. With this agreement, Morales called off the blockades and the cocaleros contingents in El Alto and La Paz returned home. This was the beginning of the end for the mobilisations.

It is vital that the lessons of the May-June events are learned. The masses have not been defeated, even though a level of stability has been achieved by the promise of early elections. The organisations of the workers and peasants are indeed meeting and discussing what to do in the face of the elections and how to continue the struggle for the nationalisation of the gas.

An interrevolutionary period
The leaders of the mass movement are suggesting that the resignation of Carlos Mesa in June and the decision to hold elections on 4 December give an opportunity to solve the country’s crisis in a peaceful manner. Whilst a certain calm interregnum has existed between these two events, the elections will only serve to highlight the incompatibility of the masses’ desire for radical change and the bourgeoisie’s determination to give nothing away.

Two main neo-liberal candidates have emerged, Tuto Quiroga and Samuel Doria Medina. Of course, they dare not run entirely openly as candidates of the neo-liberal parties in which the masses have lost faith. Instead, various citizens’ associations are supporting their candidacies. Quiroga is running as the candidate of Podemos (we can) an extreme right-wing association. He was actually president for one year when the original deal was made to sell control of Cochabamba’s water supply, having accomplished this, he went back to live in the USA.

Samuel Doria Medina is the candidate for National Unity. He is considered to be the centre right candidate. He is a millionaire, having made his fortune in the cement industry, and actually went one better than Quiroga by investing in the Bechtel-led consortium that bought the rights to the water company in Cochabamba.

Evo Morales is the main candidate of the left. Yet his pronouncements and those of his vice-presidential candidate, Alvaro García Linera, show just how far to the right they are prepared to move to win the election. Already, the MAS has promise the transnationals who have bought the gas extraction rights that they will only be taxed at 50% and will not nationalised.

Now Morales is talking about respecting the contracts agreed with these firms. Alvaro García Linera is an ex-guerrilla turned sociology professor and political commentator. Initially, he had said he only wanted to be the vice-presidential candidate if the MAS were able to construct a broad alliance of all the political and social movements of the left. Despite this not happening, he has happily hitched on to the Morales’ bandwagon. He has made it clear that the aim of any MAS president and government would not be to introduce socialism but instead bring about a more advanced “Andean capitalism”.

These comments, and the refusal of the MAS to support nationalisation, have meant that few of the other major mass organisations are supporting the MAS in the elections. Roberto de la Cruz, the ex leader of the COR El Alto, who has since formed his own party, M-17, asked to form an electoral alliance with the MAS as long as it agreed to campaign for the nationalisation of the gas but this was unceremoniously rejected by Linera.

It appears that the only organisation that will back Morales is the coordinadora in Cochabamba, whose leader, Oscar Oliveira is standing as a candidate in alliance with the MAS. Both Edgar Patana, of the COR-El Alto, and Abel Mamani of the Fejuve, were discussing the possibility of running candidates in alliance with the MAS but the rank and file of both of these organisations have called their leaders to account and insisted that no support can be given to the MAS.

Current polls indicate that Evo Morales is ahead with around 28% support, as opposed to Quiroga’s 22% and Medina’s 19%. Even if Morales were to win more votes than the other candidates, this does not mean he would become president. If no candidate wins more than 50% then the congress elects the president. With the right wing parties likely to occupy more of the seats, they would undoubtedly opt for one of the openly neo-liberal candidates.

Although Morales has been extremely useful for the ruling class in maintaining its power when it was most directly threatened, the bourgeoisie remain very uneasy about him and his party. On the one hand, it is possible that a Morales victory might open a period in which the masses give the government a chance to prove its radical credentials. On the other, it could have the opposite effect; the masses may take a Morales win as a sign that they now have “their” government in power and can take matters into their own hands, seizing land, demanding greater rights and welfare for the indigenous communities. Expecting that the so-called war on drugs would be immediately ended, they might even increase violent resistance to the anti-coca activities of the army and the DEA. This is not to mention of course the clamour there would be for a constituent assembly.

Morales would betray the workers and peasants. He would certainly not nationalise the gas and Linera has been busy meeting up with the World Bank and IMF to find out exactly what policies they would allow the next Bolivian government to pursue. Like Lula in Brazil, in 2002, Morales would seek to “calm the markets” and dampen the expectations of his supporters.

It is vital that the workers’ movement points out that Morales is a populist who will ultimately betray the interests of the workers, peasants and urban poor and will govern on behalf of the Bolivian ruling class and its imperialist masters. The workers’ movement and, in particular, the COB, must not allow itself to be part of any broad national alliance which could only be a reactionary alliance of the classes, a popular front. It could only be maintained by concessions to sections of the capitalist class, perhaps on the basis that they were the “patriotic” or “productive” section of the capitalists. To keep an alliance with such people could only mean diluting the demands of the workers. Fundamentally, this would mean that the interests of the working class would be subordinated to the interests of its enemy, the bourgeoisie.

So far, it seems that important sections of the organised workers and their urban poor allies have indeed rejected such an alliance. If this remains the case, it bodes well for the struggles ahead as it shows that, at least, the vanguard is not prepared to let its leaders sell them out. The demands and needs of the workers and peasants should guide the political policy of the movement, not what is acceptable or achievable within the confines of capitalism. It is almost certain that, precisely because the MAS has refused to support the most immediate demand of the masses, the nationalisation of the hydrocarbons, many sectors will reject it.

The workers’ assemblies, and mass meetings of the indigenous organisations, must demand of all candidates seeking the votes of the workers, the semi-employed and the peasants, that they support and will carry out the demands for nationalisation of hydrocarbons, summon a sovereign constituent assembly with no reactionary limitation on who can stand for election, and initiate an agrarian revolution.

Since the June days, the workers’ movement has had extensive discussions around what to do in the elections. Following the May-June events, the COB set up a political commission. This was not only to discuss the elections but also to look at whether the working class needed its own political policy. A proposal was made, in the form of a resolution, for the COB to set up a “political instrument”. The resolution had some important strengths but, overall, remained confused over the key question in Bolivia, does the working class need a revolutionary workers’ party? Even the wording, “political instrument” rather than “party” indicated a fudge on this crucial question.

The resolution from the political commission clearly stated that it was necessary for the workers and peasants to form their own government and that the political instrument should not be used as a purely electoral vehicle. The political instrument was to be forged through the election of delegates from assemblies and mass meetings. It was also argued that the COB and other social movements should use this instrument to decide on candidates to contest the election.

Many within the COB were opposed to some, or all, of this proposal. For some, the COB was a class based organisation that all workers could affiliate to and to create such an instrument would lead to a split within the COB. For others, it was impermissible to participate in the elections, which were nothing but a trick used to stop the movement in its tracks. At best, these are half-truths, at worst, they are excuses for indecisiveness and allowing the bourgeoisie to regain the initiative.

As a trade union organisation, the COB and its affiliates are right to try to recruit all workers on the simple basis that they recognise their common interest with other workers. However, precisely because of its broad membership, a trade union embraces different political currents within the working class and can be paralysed by this when decisive action is needed. A party, by contrast, is defined by the programme for which it fights, that is what unites its members. Paradoxically, although the working class has played such an important role in Bolivian history, it has never established a mass-based party that represented its interests. In large measure, this is because the COB has been such a dominant feature of the political landscape. It has acted as the workers’ representative organisation but, in times of crisis as in wage negotiations, it has never gone beyond setting the limits to what bosses or governments can do, forcing them to retreat on many occasions but, as a trade union, never aspiring to impose a workers’ government on society.

Revolutionaries should demand of the COB leaders that they take the initiative in forming a political party of the working class by convening a founding congress, open to delegates from its own affiliated unions but also from all other workers’ organisations, in order to debate what political programme the working class needs. By taking that debate into every level of the working class, workers will be able to judge which political current really represents their interests and will be able to hold potential leaders to account. Within that debate, revolutionaries should, of course, argue for their programme to be the basis of the new party.

The miners’ delegate conference debated the issues raised by the COB’s document shortly after its publication. The majority were in favour of the idea of some kind of political organisation of the workers. However, many were still sceptical of participating in the elections. They argued that, as there would be little or no chance of the workers winning, this could only legitimise a victory of the chosen bourgeois candidate. Others argued that it was important to reiterate that the instrument should not be an electoral machine nor should it be used for careerists within the workers’ movement.

Notably, some delegates explained the need for a revolutionary party. They argued it was precisely the lack of such a party that had meant the workers and peasants were not able to take power during the revolutionary events of October 2003 and May-June 2005 and this is absolutely correct.

To date, the COB, as a wider body, has not adopted the resolution and the discussions around the need for a political organisation of the workers continues. The proposal for a political instrument certainly has weaknesses that need correcting. In the first place, the vanguard sections of the workers’ movement, particularly the miners’ federation, needs to state clearly that this “instrument” needs to be a combat party.

It must have a revolutionary strategy and a programme of action that can lead the masses from their immediate struggles to the taking of power. Such a party must hammer away at the need for a workers’ and poor peasants’ government, based on workers’ and peasants’ councils and defended by militia. Its task is to overthrow the old regime and destroy the army and police by means of an organised insurrection. Such a government must expropriate the banks, big industry and the latifundists, and do all within its power to internationalise the revolution.

The vanguard of the class should recall how, even in the revolutionary days of 2003 and 2005, the radical leaders failed the test. Despite all the talk of revolution, they did not prepare the mass movement to take power. In the months ahead, before, during and especially after, the December election, the most urgent task is to turn the talk of forging a “political instrument” into concrete action to organise a working class political party, independent of the fake nationalist bourgeoisie and the maverick “men with money” who seek to cash in on the masses’ disillusionment with the official parties.

During the present pause in the mass struggle, the working class and popular movement is catching its breath, filling the breaches in its ranks and scanning the terrain of the coming battles. A party of tens of thousands of the most active and courageous militants could move millions behind them, as long as they are clear on the tasks: build the popular assemblies, take power into their hands, arm and train the mass organisations to resist the army generals, take over the factories and mines under the control of the workers and expropriate the capitalists, form a workers’ and peasants’ government to consolidate the destruction of the old state, suppress the inevitable attempt at counter-revolution and promote the internationalisation of the revolution across Latin America.

Victory to the Bolivian workers!