The oligarchy in Bolivia has launched a major challenge to the Evo Morales government in the form of a referendum on an "Autonomous Statute" in the Eastern Department of Santa Cruz. The Statute, if passed in this unconstitutional referendum, would give Santa Cruz amongst others, the right to pass its own laws, particularly on issues like land reform, control revenues over natural resources located in the region, set its own budget and most important of all, create its own security forces. The plan of the oligarchy, as explained by Santa Cruz's prefect, is that this would be followed by similar referendums in Beni, Pando and Tarija, the other Departments that make up Bolivia's Media Luna Oriental (Eastern Crescent).
In effect, what the coalition of wealthy landowners, capitalist agribusinesses and key sections of the Bolivian ruling class are attempting is a unilateral declaration of independence so that they will not have to implement the laws passed by the MAS government of Evo Morales, particularly in relation to land reform and hydrocarbons. This is a very powerful coalition, that has been described as the "100 clans", which controls large amounts of land (25 million hectares as opposed to 5 million hectares which are in the hands of 2 million poor peasants), meat packing plants, the profitable business of soy bean plantations, the country's main banks and media and the main private industries. They are defending their class interests and they are prepared to go until the end and use any means necessary.
They have used the issue of "autonomy" to mobilise mass support for what in reality is a rebellion of the slaveholders, to use Marx's expression. At the same time they have been arming thousands of young people, recruited from the sons of the wealthy and from lumpen elements, in what can only be described as the fascist gangs of the Union Juvenil Cruceña. With a strong element of racism against the "Highland Indios", people with dark, indigenous, skin have been beaten up, lists of MAS activists pasted on the main square in Santa Cruz, a city where only right-wing political activity is now allowed. Evo Morales himself has been called a "monkey" by leading figures in the Santa Cruz "Civic" Committee.
There are clear indications of involvement of the US embassy in this movement of the upper class. At the beginning of April Evo Morales denounced the fact that the government had discovered an office of the CIA within the presidential palace. This had been set up by a former high-ranking officer of the national police who, under the pretext of fighting terrorism, was passing vital information to the CIA. A government minister also denounced the fact that 93 million dollars of USAID had gone directly to opposition groups and organisations in the last year.
But how did we get to this point? As a by-product of the revolutionary movement of the Bolivian workers and peasants in 2000-05, the MAS (Movement Towards Socialism) of Evo Morales got a resounding victory in the elections in December 2005, with more than 53% of the votes against 28% of his closest rival. Even in Santa Cruz the result was good for the MAS, with 33%, even though it lost to Podemos with 41%.
As we said at the time, "the hundreds of thousands of workers and peasants voted for the MAS with a clear idea in mind, that Morales will deliver on the ‘October Agenda', that is, the demands that led to the October 2003 uprising. These are, mainly, the nationalisation and industrialisation of gas, land reform, reversal of neo-liberal policies and, for some, the calling of a Constituent Assembly."
What policies did the MAS government implement? If one thing has characterised the Morales government over the last two years it has been vacillation. Every step forward taken in the right direction (nationalisation of gas, raising the minimum wage, providing school children with free milk, raising the pensions) was met with fierce opposition from the capitalist class and imperialism. Faced with such opposition the government retreated half a step, called for negotiations and generally conciliated. This only encouraged the oligarchy to step up its campaign, created confusion amongst the supporters of the MAS (the masses of workers and poor peasants from the indigenous majority) and demobilised them. The oligarchy was able to seize the initiative and even win a base of support amongst the masses in the Eastern Crescent.
Even when the MAS leadership attempted to use the mass movement against the right wing, it did so in an indecisive way, avoided a serious confrontation and stayed firmly within the narrow limits of bourgeois legality (at a time when the oligarchy was happy to break their own laws in order to defend their land, interest and profits). This was the case for instance one year ago in Cochabamba. When the prefect of Cochabamba (the area where the MAS was born and had massive support in the 2005 elections) came out in favour of autonomy, the MAS leaders called for massive mobilisations of protest. The prefect used the police against the demonstrators and that was the spark that lit the fire. The enraged masses gathered in a massive cabildo abierto in the main town square voted to expel the prefect from the department and to give themselves a new government. What was the response of vice-president García Linera? He argued that the prefect should be respected because he had been legitimately and democratically elected and that the people should go back to their homes. Such a policy could only have two effects: to disorient and demobilise the workers and peasants and to further encourage the oligarchy.
And so it happened. Earlier this year, after many negotiations, the mediation of the Catholic Church, meetings and talks, etc., both the government and the oligarchy announced the calling of a referendum: the government in order to pass the new Political Constitution of the State (as drafted over many months of legalistic disputes by the Constituent Assembly, but only passed at a session which was boycotted by the opposition), and the Santa Cruz oligarchy in order to pass their own Autonomous Statute in a direct challenge and in contradiction with the Political Constitution of the State (CPE). Then, the National Electoral Court ruled that, because of procedural matters, both referendums were unconstitutional and had to be cancelled. The government probably breathed a sigh of relief; this was a way of avoiding a confrontation that they did not want to face. They accepted the ruling.
However, the oligarchy, emboldened by each concession on the part of the government, felt strong enough to defy the ruling and go ahead with its own referendum on autonomy. Since then there have been constant skirmishes between the central national democratically elected government and the decisive section of the country's ruling class represented by the Santa Cruz Departmental government and the Santa Cruz Civic Committee (led by wealthy landowner and agro-capitalist Branko Marinkovic).
A few months ago there was the incident over who controlled the Santa Cruz airport. After having sent the Army to take it over, the government, once again, backed down and effectively handed it over to the Department.
More recently there was a conflict over the decision of the government to block exports of basic foodstuffs in order to face rising prices and scarcity at home. Marinkovic is one of the country's largest cattle ranchers and soybean producers (for the export market). The oligarchy replied with a bosses' lock-out and threatened a national lock-out of the transport industry. The government eased the blocking of exports.
Then the Santa Cruz Department disconnected the computers dealing with its budget from those of the national government. The national government cut off money transfers to Santa Cruz.
But in all these battles, the only one force than can save the Bolivian revolution and also the MAS government, has been absent: the masses of workers and peasants. The miners' union and several peasant organisations made an appeal to the government to use all means necessary to stop the May 4th referendum in Santa Cruz. They clearly saw it as a threat to all they had fought for. What was the answer of the MAS leaders? When asked about it, Garcia Linera replied that the referendum was "just an opinion poll" and when Evo Morales was asked what he was going to do about it he said literally: "Nothing. I believe in the consciousness of the Bolivian people".
The oligarchy is launching a serious and well-organised challenge to the government of Evo Morales and the government is basically burying its head under the sand. It is not even clear that the aim of the ruling class is to split the country. Why should they do that? So far they have managed to get a stronghold in Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija. They also have strong positions in Cochabamba and Sucre, and even the prefect of the capital La Paz has now come out in favour of autonomy for Santa Cruz. There are certainly more extreme sections of the oligarchy (represented by Marinkovic's Civic Committee) that would not hesitate in going all the way towards independence. But others are probably thinking that on the back of this movement they can force the overthrow of the Morales government and put an end to the revolutionary movement of the masses, and then they would not need to split the country.
However, not all is lost in Bolivia. At any time, all these reactionary provocations can lead to a massive movement of workers and peasants. Herein lies the only hope for the future. As in the case of Venezuela, appeals to dialogue, conciliation, the bringing in of mediators, did not prevent the ruling class from organising one attempt after another to overthrow the Chavez government. In each occasion it was only the mass mobilisation of workers and peasants in the streets that defeated the counter-revolutionary attempts. In Bolivia in the last few years the masses have shown over and over again their willingness to sacrifice in the struggle for a better future, they have overthrown three governments, faced the army and the police. In April 1952 the miners single-handedly defeated and crushed the army in what was the beginning of the Bolivian revolution. That feat can be repeated again on condition that a clear lead is given. A massive show of strength can disband the forces of reaction.
The miners of Huanuni, in a statement on April 4th clearly identified the danger: "The wealthy oligarchy, a minority composed of land owners and multinational businessmen... with the massive resources derived from their economic power and the open support of countries aligned with the US have started a serious offensive to recover all the political power they lost during the bloody struggles of 2003 and 2005"
But they add: "The national government of the MAS, is also responsible for this situation for having allowed this small minority of the rich to reorganise and raise its head again. This oligarchic minority is so powerful because they have the economic power they derive from the exploitation of our natural resources, like the hydrocarbons, mining, the land, etc. If the government does not take over these resources for the state, these vampires will continue to be powerful and will ensure the continuation of unemployment, poverty and the misery we have lived in for the last decades."
And they end up with a clear appeal for action: "Only the application of the Agendas of 2003 and 2005 will guarantee the disarming and the defeat of the oligarchy. The Huanuni miners demand that the government takes the boldest measures to disband the fraud of this autonomy referendum, and to apply once and for all real structural changes in the country. The miners, loyal to our tradition of revolutionary struggle, demand that the government gives us the necessary means and resources to smash the "civic" and business cliques which throughout the country, and particularly in the Eastern Crescent, fool the people and want to fill the country with hatred, blood and division".
One lesson must be learnt above all: the last two years of the MAS government prove in a conclusive manner that no middle way is possible, no "Andean capitalism" can be built. Even the timid measures of the Morales government have led directly to this rebellion of the slaveholders. The only way forward is the expropriation of the land, banks and industry under the democratic control of the working people of Bolivia, linking up with the revolutionary movements taking place throughout Latin America.