Bolivia: Decisive action needed to confront the oligarchy

As 100,000 workers and peasants arrive in La Paz, this article by Darrall Cozens, written as the march was setting off, explains the issues that are pitting the Bolivian workers and peasants against the oligarchy.

bolivia-decisive-action-needed-to-confront-oligarchy-1.jpgAfter the massacre of up to 30 men, women and children on September 11th in the village of El Porvenir, some 20 miles outside the provincial capital city of Cobija in Pando province, a feeling of revulsion and anger swept across all parts of Bolivia.

Those who were murdered formed part of a caravan of about 1000 members of the Amalgamated Federation of Pando Agricultural Workers (FUTCP) and their families. They were supporters of Evo Morales marching on Cobija with the aim of retaking government offices that had been occupied and ransacked by pro-fascist gangs. These gangs were supporters of the oligarchy in the Media Luna (provinces of Pando, Beni, Santa Cruz and Tarija) who were attempting to carry out a coup against the Morales government in La Paz.

The caravan was ambushed at a bridge over the river Tiahuamanu. Some 300 armed thugs, many with submachine guns, attacked the caravan and fired upon those who formed part of the caravan of vehicles. As they fled to escape, some in to the jungle and some attempting to ford the river, they were shot in the back and in the head. Some 100 are still missing apart from those confirmed dead.

When news leaked out across Bolivia, there was a spontaneous mobilisation of the numerous organisations that had always supported Morales – trade unions, peasant and indigenous movements. They marched on the provincial capital in Santa Cruz and put it under siege. The scale and anger of the protestors shocked the oligarchy who up until that moment had assumed that they would be able to establish separate political entities, with their own tax systems, police force and army, in their provinces, thus establishing de facto separate states, resulting in the Balkanisation of Bolivia.

Over the past few days, both government and opposition have been negotiating. On the one hand, the opposition has constantly tried to disrupt the negotiations by breaking them off with demands for the government to release their political representatives who had been arrested after the El Porvenir massacre. One of those arrested was Leopoldo Fernandez, governor of Pando province, who had given orders that MAS supporters on the march had to be stopped at all costs and had organised the fascist gangs which shot at them.

To put pressure on the oligarchy, a march from Caracallo in Cochambamba province to La Paz will arrive in the capital on October 20th.To put pressure on the oligarchy, a march from Caracallo in Cochambamba province to La Paz will arrive in the capital on October 20th. Once again, the mass organisations of workers and peasants and indigenous peoples are showing their strength in support of Evo Morales. On the march are members of CONALCAM (The National Coordinating Committee for Change), CIDOB (The Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia), CONAMAQ (The National Council of Markas and Ayllus of Qullasuya – indigenous peoples organisation), the Coordinating Committee for the Integration of Peasant Economic Organisations of Bolivia representing 775 different organisations and finally the march will be joined by members of COB, the Bolivian Workers Central Organisation. In other words, all of the organisations representing workers’ and peasant movements will be on the march in support of the Evo Morales government.

With such support, which reflects the real balance of forces in Bolivia, one might have thought that Morales would deal firmly with the opposition and stick to his guns in relation to the content of the new CPE (The Political Constitution of the State) and the referendum date of December this year or January 2009 to ratify the CPE. But instead of exercising the Mano Dura (Iron Fist) in his dealings with the opposition, a policy demanded by workers and peasants on many of the marches, Morales has once again taken the road of compromise and conciliation.

The Constituent Assembly which drafted the CPE has set up a special commission to investigate the contents of the CPE and to agree a date for the referendum. This commission (Comision Especial de Concertacion) has 14 members, 4 from MAS (Morales’ movement), 4 from PODEMOS, 3 from MNR and 3 from UN (these latter three represent the rich and powerful in Bolivia). In other words, Morales’ forces have 4 out of 14 seats on this committee, a built-in minority. Yet in the elections for the 255-member Constituent Assembly (CA), that began its deliberations on the CPE in early 2006, MAS had 137 deputies, PODEMOS 60, MNR 18 and UN 8. From having a majority in the CA, a majority that was endorsed in the recall referendum of August this year where Morales took 68% of the popular vote, Morales has let MAS become a minority in this special committee.

What are the objections that the three opposition forces have to the CPE? Among many objections, PODEMOS opposes the clauses in the CPE which deal with control of natural resources (mainly gas and oil) and UN wants the autonomy status of the Media Luna provinces to be constitutionally recognised and maximum land holdings to be 10,000 hectares per person, not 5,000. Having become a minority in the CA after the December 2005 elections and after having lost the battle of the streets in the past few weeks, these political representatives of the oligarchy have had handed to them by Morales a majority on a committee to revise the CPE proposals. This will obviously not be the last word, as that will be had by those who are descending on the capital in support of Morales, the workers and peasants who have provided the backbone to Morales and MAS in their dealings with the oligarchy and their attempted coup. Each time that Morales has held out the olive branch of conciliation, the oligarchy has been emboldened. In addition, each time that the oligarchy has attempted to destabilise and overthrow the Morales’ government, the masses have come to defend their government. Moreover, this will be the case until the three burning issues of poverty, ownership and control of the land and the hydrocarbon industries have been resolved.


It is worth restating the figures for poverty for they are ample proof of the inability of the capitalist and landlord class that owns and controls Bolivia to raise the standards of living of the masses in Bolivia. The population of the country is some 9.8 millions, the average life expectancy is 47 yet the country sits on hydrocarbon reserves of an estimated $250 billions. The poverty rate is 60% but 38% live in extreme poverty, which means that on a day-to-day basis they have no regular and guaranteed access to the basic necessities to sustain life. Some 28% have no access to safe and clean drinking water and 24% of children under 3 years of age are malnourished. Some 39% of the population work in agriculture and rural poverty is 76%. Indigenous Bolivians have greater levels of poverty, extreme poverty, illiteracy and malnutrition than non-indigenous. Income from work amongst non-indigenous peoples is 2.2 times greater than for indigenous peoples. Schooling for non-indigenous peoples is on average 9.8 years but for indigenous on average 5.9 years. In the province of La Paz, which contains 27% of the population, some 77% are of indigenous origin and the poverty rate is 66%. On the other hand in Santa Cruz, the stronghold of the oligarchy, where some 26% of the total population are concentrated, the indigenous peoples number 37% and the poverty rate is 38%. While it is true that there is a strong correlation between poverty and the majority indigenous population, there is also poverty amongst the mestizo (mixed blood) section of the population and those of “pure” Spanish descent. In Tarija province, for example, where 85% of Bolivia’s natural gas deposits are located, there is only 5% of the population, some 20% of which is indigenous, yet the poverty rate is 50%. In other words, the national question in Bolivia is also a class question.

An attempt was made by Morales back in February this year to meet the needs of one section of the population, those over 60 and retiring. Between 700,000 and 800,000 retired people would get a state pension. Those without a pension would get 200 Bolivianos ($26) per month, and those with another pension, say from work, would get 150 Bs (about $20). The total cost was calculated at $205 millions per year, some 30% of the taxation raised from the exploitation of the hydrocarbon reserves. These pensions will be guaranteed in the new CPE proposals and that is one of the many reasons why the oligarchy opposes the CPE. If the pensioners are to get 30% of the revenue from taxes on the hydrocarbon companies, then that will mean less going to the provinces in the Media Luna area of the country, less going into the pockets of the oligarchy. The ownership and control of the hydrocarbon industry is here a key question, for without Morales having this control there is no way that his programme of social reforms can be carried out.


Between 2004 and 2007, government revenue from this industry increased by £1.3 billions or 10% of GDP. Per capita, it went up from $31 in 2004 to $160 in 2007. This increase was due to three factors; the 2005 Hydrocarbons Law, the May 2006 partial nationalisation of 51% of the industry and the worldwide increase in energy prices. From the total amount collected in taxes, the redistribution has followed the age-old formula in Bolivia of inequality. The government takes 25% of the revenue, the state company YPFB takes 25.2% and the remaining amount is given out to regional governments, municipalities and universities in the provinces. The four provinces in the Media Luna with 3.5million people get 30% of the total revenues and the other five mainly much poorer provinces with 6.3 million people get 19.7% of the total revenues. Even among the Media Luna provinces, there is an unequal distribution. In 2007, Santa Cruz with 26% of the total population got $117.2m., yet Tarija with 5% of the population received $237.7m. La Paz, a MAS stronghold, with nearly 28% of the population, only got $73.3m. In other words, even under the present system of tax revenue distribution, the relatively better off areas of Bolivia are getting the lion’s share of the revenue, and the poor areas a beggar’s share. For the oligarchy however even this is not acceptable. Behind their referendums for autonomy lies the aspiration to own and control the gas and oil reserves of Bolivia for themselves. They have even managed to convince poor people in their areas that if they controlled the hydrocarbon industry, then the poor would also benefit, as everyone in the province would be looked after with such untold wealth in the hands of the oligarchy. In reality, it would mean the rich getting even richer. However it is not only the gas and oil industry that stands behind the oligarchy. The land question is equally important.

The Land

The figures for poverty for they are ample proof of the inability of the capitalist and landlord class that owns and controls Bolivia to raise the standards of living of the masses in Bolivia.The Revolution of 1952 was meant to have solved the land question. Pre-1952 land ownership in Bolivia was the least efficient and least egalitarian in Latin America. Land was concentrated in a few hands and the overwhelming majority of land workers existed by means of sharecropping and peonaje, free peasant labour to the landlord in exchange for a share of the produce. A semi-feudal social structure existed and only 0.3% of the land was used for agricultural purposes.

In 1950, some 0.7% of the total number of farm units was over 10,000 hectares in size and occupied 49.6% of the land. At the other end, some 59.3% of all the units were smaller than 5 hectares and occupied 0.23% of the land. This was a time when the population was 2.5 million yet 30,000 voters elected presidents.

In 1951 the MNR, a petty bourgeois party with allies on the Left, won elections. There was a military coup to prevent them taking political power. A battle ensued and the miners entered the scene, destroying the bourgeois army and setting up a 100,000-strong armed trade union militia. However this workers’ revolution gave political power to the MNR. In May 1952, Victor Paz Esstensoro becomes president. Under strong pressure from the mass movement, the programme of government was universal suffrage, nationalisation of the tin mines, land reform and the establishment of the state oil company YPFB.

In 1953, the Agrarian reform law was passed in which the state did not recognise latifundismo, large-scale land holdings. This attempt by a capitalist state machine to limit the land holdings of the oligarchy ended in miserable failure. From 1955 to 1967, a period of 12 years, only 200,000 peasant families had received some land. The legal process to confirm redistribution was taking between 2 years and more than 10 years. By 1963, only one tenth of the agricultural workers had benefitted and only 16% of the land that had been redistributed could be cultivated. In Santa Cruz, the power base of the oligarchy today, only 3% of land had been redistributed. In addition, with the meagre share out that did happen, there was no credit, no technical advice and no organisation. The standard of living of the peasant masses did not improve. All kinds of bureaucratic and corrupt practices were employed by those in the state machine to ensure that the 1953 Law was ineffectual.

In the 1960s, 70s and 80s, under various military dictatorships, land was re-concentrated in fewer hands. In 1984, only 3.9% of farm units were over 100 hectares in size, yet they occupied 91% of the land area. Recent statistics from the World Bank and UDAPE have revealed an even greater concentration of land ownership. Some 686 farm units, a total of 0.22% of landowners, had farms that were larger than 5000 hectares in size with some larger than 100,000 hectares, the average being 16,000. Combined with 1300 farm units greater than 2,500 hectares, the number of farm units is only 0.63% of the total number yet they occupy 66.42% of agricultural land. At the other end of the scale, 86% of farm units occupy 2.4% of agricultural land.

In Santa Cruz and Beni provinces, some 14 families of opposition politicians and businessmen have land holding of 313,000 hectares, or roughly 800,000 acres. It is these large landholdings that provide the power base for the oligarchy in the Media Luna and the source of opposition to Morales’ promise, enshrined in the CPE, to limit landholdings to either 5,000 or 10,000 hectares.

State control of the hydrocarbon industry, redistribution of land and an end to poverty cannot be accomplished on the basis of Bolivian capitalism and landlordism. Morales stands at the head of a movement called MAS, the Movement towards Socialism. When on December 16th last year in the Plaza Murillo in La Paz Morales received the draft constitution in a public ceremony watched by tens of thousands including me, he stated that the worst enemy of humankind was capitalism and then went on to call for a “democratic cultural” revolution. The power of the oligarchy cannot be blunted by the setting up of conciliation committees in the Constituent Assembly. It can only be ended by expropriating them through a socialist revolution and the creation of a democratic workers’ and peasants’ state as the first step in the revolution in the Andes of Latin America.

October 10th, 2008

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