The mass workers' and peasants' mobilisations against the selling off of the gas industry that have shaken Bolivia over the past period took on a clear insurrectionary character on Monday, October 13. The balance sheet of the clashes between the masses and the army is more than 50 dead and hundreds of wounded, and a government which is increasingly isolated and on the verge of being overthrown.
The indefinite general strike called by the Bolivian Workers Union (COB) from September 29 had managed to block off all access to the capital La Paz at the beginning of last week. The main roads linking the capital to the different provinces of the country and to the borders with Peru and Chile were cut off by the protestors.
Massacre in El Alto
On Saturday, October 11, the government decided to unleash the Army against the people of El Alto, one of the main centres of the rebellion, with the aim of smashing the movement and opening up the roads to the capital. However, after 48 hours of clashes in which the army used live ammunition against the unarmed population, they were not able to break the resistance of the workers and the people of El Alto. More than 26 people were killed and a few hundred wounded on Sunday alone.
The government had challenged the movement saying that there were only 8,000 people opposing his plans to sell off the gas to the multinationals. President Sánchez de Lozada, isolated in the presidential palace, believed that repression was going to put an end to the mobilisations. But the Army came up against not 8,000 people but the whole people, led by their trade union organisations, and it proved incapable of smash the protest. In fact, the brutality of the army had the opposite effect. It enraged even further the workers, peasants, youth and the population in general. The anger caused by the massacre finally exploded on Monday 13 with a mass march from El Alto to La Paz. The inhabitants of the poor neighbourhoods of La Paz and the workers who were taking part in the general strike joined the demonstrators.
Early on Monday morning the government, seeing that even the most brutal repression could not stop the movement, passed a decree suspending the sale of natural gas until December and promising a consultation and a debate with all the social forces. But these "concessions" were too little and too late.
The response of the movement was clear and sharp. "Everybody in El Alto, in all the neighbourhoods and all the organisations, have already said their last word. We want Goni to resign and to go to jail. To hell with his decree", said the main leader of the rebellion in El Alto and general secretary of the Regional Workers' Union, Roberto de La Cruz.
"The country is rising to overthrow this murderer and to take back gas and oil for the Bolivian people, so that we can process the gas which is ours here in Bolivia" he added. (Econoticiasbolivia.com, October 13).
Insurrection in La Paz
On Monday morning, shouting slogans such as, "Guns and bullets will not shut the people up" and "Goni, bastard, you deserve a firing squad", an enraged mass of workers, students, unemployed, miners and ordinary people in general descended on the centre of La Paz where the presidential Palace is situated. They had only one aim: to force the resignation of Lozada. "We have decided that he must resign, but if he doesn't we will hang him", said the demonstrators.
Econoticiasbolivia.com described the situation as it stood at 12.30 pm: "The northern, eastern and western neighbourhoods are already under the control of the rebels. In the city centre, where the government is located, the workers, the unemployed and university students are blocking the main streets and are waiting for the arrival of the El Alto marchers in order to occupy Murillo Square, where the empty presidential Palace is being protected by a ring of fire and bullets. Soldiers with war paint, heavily armed, are defending this symbol of power".
There was a critical moment when even the police had started to retreat in the face of the boldness of the masses. At noon, in some areas of La Paz, "the police forces were no longer shooting, and they were allowing the demonstrators through. The only things that set them apart from the people are their uniforms and the weapons they are carrying. The same thing happened in the central Prado Avenue. The lower ranking police agents hesitate. In the minds of many are the events of last February 12 and 13, when mutinous police and the people fought shoulder to shoulder against the troops of Sanchez de Lozada and protested against his decree which cut the wages of workers and civil servants. ‘Brother policeman, join us in the struggle' shouted the demonstrators in El Prado, one of the main avenues in central La Paz. There are signs of understanding. (…) The Traffic Division [of the police], which two hours earlier was attacking the people, is now helping the wounded" (Econoticiasbolivia.com, October 13).
The bourgeois state apparatus, in the face of a mass of workers determined to fight back, started to break down along class lines like in every classical revolutionary situation. And this was not only the case with the police, but also with layers of the army. Some popular radio stations broadcast reports of "soldiers who refuse to shoot at the people". Bolpress.com also reported on Sunday 12 of splits within the army: "Some neighbours reported that aymara (Indian) conscript soldiers were reluctant to shoot at them and that it was the white officers and lieutenants who were shooting at the people. There is an unconfirmed report of 90 aymara soldiers who are being tortured by their officers for refusing to shoot at their brothers."
Divisions in the ruling class
President Sanchez de Lozada was for a few hours completely surrounded. The Presidential Palace was empty and the president took refuge in his private residence in a rich neighbourhood of La Paz, with a diplomatic car parked outside ready to take him to the US embassy in case he had to flee the country. Faced with this critical situation the rats started to leave the sinking ship. The bourgeois politicians, loyal to the class they belong to, started to abandon the president… so that they could defend better their class rule.
At noon on Monday, the vice-president of the Republic, Carlos Mesa and the Economic Development Minister, Jorge Torres, of the MIR, both abandoned the president. The MPs of the ruling coalition parties were distancing themselves from the president as if he were infected with a contagious disease. On the one hand these individuals have understood that in order to better defend their regime, which is based on the privileges of the bosses and the multinationals, it may be better to get rid of such a discredited figure. On the other hand they fear that Sanchez de Lozada could take them down with him as he falls and that they could also become the targets of the anger of the masses. Despite their public statements, none of them are really interested or worried about the fate of the dozens of people killed by the army in the last three days. Their actions and statements are simply determined by what they believe to be the best tactics to preserve their privileges.
Another section of the ruling class and of the imperialists is painfully aware that if the Lozada government were brought down as a result of the mass mobilisation, this would have serious political repercussions. Under no circumstances are the people on the streets to be allowed to decide their own fate and to change a government they don't like. This would set a very dangerous precedent! This is why the US embassy and State Department rushed to defend Sanchez de Lozada and announced clearly that they would not recognise any government that is not the product of the normal workings of the constitutional process. In other words, they will not recognise any change that might jeopardise their interests and those of the multinationals involved.
The government is saved … for the time being
Finally, at dusk, the government sent 8 tanks, together with military reinforcements from El Alto, to La Paz. The demonstrators at that point decided to retreat. The balance sheet of the clashes on Monday was another 17 dead to be added to the already long list of victims of state repression.
However this was only a tactical retreat, not the end of the battle: "The workers and local people from the poor areas of the city and of El Alto, after 10 hours of street fighting, avoided direct confrontation with the death tanks and retreated to the popular neighbourhoods, where resistance barricades have been erected against the government of Sanchez de Lozada. To avoid the massacre, the people, informed through a network of local community radio stations, from 8pm onwards started to retreat in good order to their neighbourhoods. Those of La Paz went back to the hills and to their neighbourhoods, poor but free. ‘It is a tactical retreat', says one of the leaders, while calling on the people to protect the local community media" (Econoticiasbolivia.com, October 13).
The COB called for a total stoppage in the cities and for roadblocks to be set up in the whole of the country from Tuesday 14. La Paz, Cochabamba, El Alto, Potosí and Oruro, five of the ten provincial capitals, have already joined in. All over the country there were mass mobilisations on Monday.
The rallying cry, which is spreading throughout the country, is to prepare the "battle for the capital". Columns of thousands of peasants and workers from Achacachi, Oruro and other regions are marching to La Paz to reinforce the tens of thousands who already clashed with the Army on Monday.
"In the pampas of the Altiplano, in Achacachi, the fierce aymara fighters, the local people and the peasants gathered in the afternoon and decided, according to Erbol radio reports, to march on the capital to help the thousands upon thousands who are rising in the hills and in the squares of La Paz. They want to reach the government building before the 10,000 sons of the people of Oruro, traders, factory workers and peasants, who are already on the road and are marching very fast. ‘We must get there quickly, this is very serious', says one of the leaders, listening to a radio receiver. The people of Oruro are marching to support their neighbours and brothers of Huanuni, the thousand strong column of miners who have already been fighting in El Alto and La Paz for a week, with discipline and dynamite" (Econoticiasbolivia.com, October 13).
In other more distant districts thousands of workers and peasants have reinforced the roadblocks and are demonstrating in solidarity with their brothers and sisters in El Alto and La Paz. "In the city of Cochabamba, the third largest in Bolivia, there are constant demonstrations and rallies. After dark thousands upon thousands of factory workers march through the streets. They carry torches and shout slogans against the president and they shed tears of impotence for their brothers dying in the cities of La Paz and El Alto, united in the hills, united in sorrow (…) In Potosi, a mining city, the strike is solid. No one is working, everyone is in solidarity with those that have been killed and are demanding that Sanchez de Lozada must go!"
At the same time, the tottering government of Lozada is bringing in as many loyal troops as it can find from all the corners of the country. The battles of the next few days will be decisive for the fate of the movement.
The problem of leadership
In these conditions it is clear that the masses could take power. All the conditions are present. The workers and peasants have mobilised and are ready to fight until the end. There are divisions in the ruling class and within the state apparatus. We have to state clearly that the only thing that is missing is a leadership capable of leading the movement towards the taking of power.
Right from the beginning of this movement there has been strong criticism of the leadership. This is not surprising since the masses of workers and peasants have learnt important lessons from the insurrectionary movement of February of this year, when thousands of workers had surrounded the presidential palace and had won over to the side of the people an important section of the police that had mutinied against the government. At the last minute the hesitation of the leaders allowed the government to regain the initiative and take control of the situation.
Thus, in the extended national meeting of the COB, on Thursday, October 9, there were again strong criticisms against the leaders. The meeting issued a resolution calling for "unity once and for all" of the spokesperson of the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) and the leaders of the coca-growers Evo Morales, together with the leader of the peasants' union Felipe "Mallku" Quispe and the leader of the COB, the miner Solares.
"We, the rank and file and the middle level leaders, are all united, but those at the top are going in separate directions. This must end". This was one of the resolutions of the national trade union meeting which threatened "civil resistance" if the government were to introduce a "state of siege". (Econoticiasbolivia, October 9).
The local leaders of the movement are in closer contact with the masses and reflect in a much more direct way their feelings and fears. This is what the leader of the Regional Workers Union of El Alto, Roberto de La Cruz, insisted on. "There must be no dialogue with the murderers (…) the only solution is for Sanchez de Lozada to resign from the presidential seat and leave the country. This is the only way to avoid more bloodshed and massacres". The trade union leader, one of the main organisers of the strike which completely besieged the city of La Paz, also warned that no leader should negotiate with the government. "Any leader who betrays will be hung", he warned. (Econoticiasbolivia.com, October 12).
We have already pointed out in previous articles the urgent need for the movement to give itself a unified democratic national leadership. In order for the rank and file to be able to control the leadership a national structure is needed which can represent the hundreds of thousands who are fighting on the streets of the country. Democratic strike committees should be organised in every factory, mine, peasant district, and urban neighbourhood, where the course of the struggle can be decided and discussed democratically. These must be coordinated at neighbourhood, town, provincial and regional level though the democratic election of delegates that should be accountable to those who have elected them. These committees must be brought together in a democratic National Strike Committee. The honesty and the will to struggle of the leaders in and of themselves are not enough. The different proposals and strategies must be subject to the democratic control of the workers and peasants.
A National Strike Committee structured in this way would at the same time become an alternative power structure to that of parliament and other official institutions of the oligarchy.
Democracy of the rich or workers' democracy?
The problem of leadership is not just a question of organisation, but mainly a question of political orientation. The leaders of the MAS and the MIP, the two main parties which represent the aspirations of the workers and peasants, have raised the need to "refound the country" and have even called for a Constituent Assembly. It is clear that a section of the ruling class is also thinking of this option, but as a means of renewing a bourgeois political system which has become very discredited. Two of the bourgeois parties (NFR and UCS) have already said they support this proposal. In this way, the leaders of the MAS are offering the ruling class a solution to solve the problems of legitimacy they are faced with.
However, this kind of proposals does not address the main contradiction, which is that Sanchez de Lozada is not just a "gringo" president, i.e. sold out to imperialism, but he also faithfully represents the interests of the Bolivian bourgeoisie, which is completely dependent on the imperialists and is completely incapable of solving any of the elementary demands of the masses. It is the very existence of the capitalist system which condemns two thirds of the population to poverty, a third of which is in absolute misery.
Simply by changing Sanchez de Lozada with another president, or the current parliament for a new one (even if they call it a constituent assembly), would not fundamentally solve the problems of bread, work and land. The only way to solve these problems is to put the wealth of the country, the factories, the land, the mineral wealth, the gas and other natural resources, in the hands of the workers and peasants so that they can democratically decided how to use them.
What is at stake is not just a change of government but the question of who holds power. Sanchez de Lozada himself expressed it very clearly when he said that "we cannot have a trade union dictatorship". What he really meant was that he wants to defend the dictatorship of the owners of the mines, the factories and the land and their alliance with the imperialist multinationals. This is the real dilemma. In a capitalist society immersed in a deep crisis, like Bolivia, the only democracy that the ruling class can afford is precisely the one we have seen in the last few days, the "democracy" of rifles and bullets, of the closing down of the media and of the massacre of workers and peasants. To this "democracy" the Bolivian workers and the oppressed must oppose their own democracy, that is the expropriation of the rich, the landowners and the bosses, with the democratic control of the economy to the benefit of the majority of the population. This means socialism, the democracy of workers and peasants.
Workers' democracy is the only alternative to the "democracy" of the ruling class. There is no middle way. Instead of a Constituent Assembly, which is just another name for a renewed bourgeois parliament, what is needed is a national assembly of delegates, democratically elected in the factories, peasant communities, popular neighbourhoods, which should decide to take power. This national assembly or national committee of struggle would be the most democratic representative of the will of the majority of workers and the oppressed.
A national strike committee of this kind should base itself on the organised struggle of the masses. The taking of power by the working class must be prepared in a detailed way. The divisions within the army and the police must be exploited and sharpened with a conscious orientation towards the soldiers and the lower ranking officers who live with the people and feel the same problems. The organisation of soldiers' committees linked up with the workers' committees is paramount. The revolution cannot succeed without winning a section of the soldiers to its side. The Army is always the last bastion of a bourgeois regime in crisis. At the same time, in an insurrectionary situation like the one Bolivia is facing today, the masses cannot fight the Army and the forces of repression of the oligarchy with bare hands. It is necessary to organise a workers' militia which should would start to take up the tasks of defence and protection of the demonstrations and defend the workers when they come under attack. Such a self-defence militia should be under the control of the democratic strike committees. The Bolivian workers, and particularly the miners, have long and heroic traditions of this kind of struggle and at the same time they have easy access to explosives with which to organise the basis of workers' self-defence.
But all these tasks which would guarantee a victorious insurrection cannot be improvised or left to chance, but should be organised in detail. The leadership of the movement must have clear aims and know how to achieve them. The Bolivian workers and peasants have shown many times their willingness to struggle and their readiness to make sacrifices. However, once again, the leaders have not been up to the tasks posed by history. This is why it is necessary to build a revolutionary alternative firmly based on the ideas of Marxism, which at the end of the day is the distilled experience of decades of workers' struggle all over the world.
The bourgeois parties are probably preparing to replace Lozada. It is not ruled out that faced with the possibility of a revolution in which they could lose everything, they might make important concessions. They might even stop the sale of the gas industry and delay it until the calling of some popular referendum. They might even organise a new government of "national salvation", and even try to involve the MAS and MIP leaders in such a government.
The success or not of these bourgeois manoeuvres will depend on the strength of the mass mobilisation on the streets, which so far seems to be following an upward curve. But in the last analysis, without a serious revolutionary leadership the movement could be derailed.
If we look at the experience of the last five years of mass struggles in Ecuador we can see how the masses have fought again and again and have even overthrown a whole series of governments. In January 2000, the masses of peasants and workers, with the support of a section of the army, even managed to take power for a few hours. But their leaders did not know what to do with power and they hesitated, and power slipped through their fingers. This example should serve as a warning to revolutionaries in Bolivia.
This is why the task of building a Marxist tendency within the working class organisations, capable of carrying out these tasks is an extremely urgent one. In the heat of the struggle the most advanced activists will draw many conclusions based on their own experience. If they arm themselves with the programme of revolutionary Marxism, they can give the Bolivian proletariat and peasantry the leadership they deserve.
October 14, 2003.
See the original in Spanish.