Today "my people", the pensioners, were on the streets. They blocked one of the major crossroads, Avenida Mariscal Santa Cruz and Calle Ayacucho, near the centre of La Paz. Slogans such as "Por culpa del ministro estamos en la calle" (It is the minister's fault that we are on the streets), rang out as traffic snarled its way down side streets.
Why should about 200 men aged 50 and over block one of the main arteries of the city? Victor Castro, President of the National Committee of Pensioners, an organisation that is active in all geographical departments of Bolivia, explained.
Here in Bolivia men can retire at 55 and women at 50. (Sounds good when compared to the UK but the average life span here is 47.) However, the Social Security Code states that if you want to, men can retire at 50 and women at 45. If this option is chosen then for each year before the official retirement age that you retire, you lose 8% of your pension. So if a man chooses to leave work at 50, he will lose 40% of his pension. The code also states that once you reach the official retirement age, the 8% lost will be restored.
The government says that that interpretation of the code is correct, but has refused to pay back the 8% for each year. In response the pensioners took to the streets in September and October of this year. They then went on a 9-day hunger strike. The Minister of Finance and the MAS deputies in the Constituent Assembly promised talks if the pensioners called off the hunger strike.
The pensioners agreed and talks started but very little progress was made. Eventually the pensioners asked the civil servants they were negotiating with to sign an agreement. The bureaucrats stated that they did not have the power to do so. Eventually the pensioners agreed to meet the Minister of Finance but he kept on postponing the meeting. The pensioners now began to feel as if they were being made a joke of.
So now they are back on the streets and will stay there until Friday. If no progress is made, they will begin the hunger strike again next Monday. Some 21,000 pensioners across Bolivia are affected.
While this protest was going on, just 100 metres down the avenue on Santa Cruz, a group of miners had blocked the entrance to a large building. They had banners and placards saying that they were from the Himalaya pit and had had their work stopped since October. They were there to stay until the minister responsible ensured that they got their jobs back. If that did not happen, they were threatening to take even more drastic action without specifying what it would be.
A few days ago, on Monday, the women stall holders outside San Francisco cathedral had blocked all entrances to the cathedral and were facing up to the riot police in a bid to get their contracts renewed so that they could carry on selling. The same day saw a march up Santa Cruz by about 200 youngsters aged between 9 and 15 carrying banners they were demanding the right to work. The constitution here has clauses that outlaw child labour and guarantee access to education for children. The reality however is that if children do not work, then their families will starve. So children of all ages are on the streets shining shoes, selling everything that you can think of and begging - and being abused in the process.
Whilst all of this is going on the country is falling apart. Last night I was discussing with a MAS deputy from Sucre who has to return to her home this weekend from Las Paz on a 12-hour bus journey, but who has been told that the situation there is very tense and dangerous for anyone connected with MAS. I was told that there is a crisis on three levels: economic, political and social. What is even worse was that in the opinion of this deputy, the Morales government did not have an answer.
The Constituent Assembly (CA) here has just finished ratifying a new constitution that will be put to the electorate in a referendum at some time around April next year. The vote will be in two parts: one vote will be on the statutes in the constitution and the other will be on the government proposal to limit landholdings that are unproductive to 10,000 hectares.
You can imagine the furore that this has created amongst the bourgeoisie. They are trying to prevent a referendum taking place on the basis that the way the CA approved the draft constitution was illegal. If the referendum does take place, and the constitution is approved, the bourgeoisie in the Eastern Crescent regions of Santa Cruz, Pando, Beni and Tarija is threatening to break away and form a new state. They have already held open air parliament meetings (cabildos abiertos) of up to a million people that in the manner of a plebiscite vote have agreed to secede if Morales does not back down. If the referendum is lost, this will encourage the bourgeoisie in different parts of the country to break away, to balkanise Bolivia, so that they can directly control the areas that are rich in natural resources, such as gas and oil.
The oligarchy, with the help of imperialism, have skilfully used issues like the capital city status for Sucre and the question of autonomy to build a basis of support in the Eastern regions of the country. They have backed this up with the organisation of armed fascist gangs (Unión Juvenil Cruceña) to intimidate workers and peasants who support the MAS government. Every concession of the government is interpreted as a sign of weakness by the oligarchy and used by them to increase their demands.
In these conditions the strategy of the Morales government seems to be based on making more concessions (for instance including the issue of autonomy in the proposed constitution) and appeals for negotiation, combined with putting the different issues to a vote in a referendum "in order to gain democratic legitimacy".
The crux however is that at this juncture the opposition could win. There have been no plans drawn up to ensure a MAS victory. Most of the MAS deputies are relying on the personal authority of Morales. Just as in Venezuela, the idea of actually going out to the natural constituents of Morales (the indigenous people, the workers and the peasants) and explaining in a language that they can understand what the practical implications of the new constitution are, has not been thought of.
Furthermore, the oligarchy will not be impressed by any democratic vote in a referendum. In Venezuela the Bolivarian movement has achieved plenty of democratic victories in elections and referenda and this has not stopped the ruling class and imperialism from using extra parliamentary undemocratic means (rioting, sabotage of the economy, a military coup) to try to overthrow the democratically elected government of president Chávez. In Bolivia they have already said that they would not participate nor recognise the validity of any of these referenda.
Let me give a practical example. It gets cold here at night at 3,600 metres and I have summer clothes. Yesterday, I went out to buy a coat in one of the many stalls that are run by indigenous people, mainly Aymara. During the transaction there was obviously a conversation along the lines of who are you, where are you from, what are you doing here, etc. When I explained that I was not here as a tourist but to find out what MAS was doing and what people thought of socialism, the old lady in the corner, one out of 4 women on the stall, asked me point blank, "What is socialism?" I was taken aback because here was a natural supporter of Morales, yet the MAS movement at a grass roots level has done very little to raise the level of political understanding of core supporters, never mind actually carry out policies that would benefit these core supporters and get their children off the streets and into schools.
The lady explained that she and many others could not read nor write, so any kind of political "socialisation" (the term used here to sell the new constitution) would have to take place at a level that people can understand - verbal, pictures, DVD, etc and that would mean that all the grassroots organisations of the MAS would have to be mobilised to go out and win others to the vote. For Morales to win and take the movement forward, his supporters have to be convinced of the benefits of the changed laws so that they will turn out and vote. They cannot be taken for granted. Look at what happened in Venezuela. A defeat for Morales will embolden the bourgeoisie here to take even more drastic measures to throw back the MAS project, the movement towards socialism.
It is said that 8,000 soldiers have been mobilised to move on Sucre should there be any more disturbances there. Previous activities have led to deaths and injuries within the past few weeks. The impression given in private conversations from those at the heart of the MAS project is that the country is slowly falling apart and within the MAS there is no coherent political programme along socialist lines to actually carry out a change in society. Unless serious changes are made within the MAS the likelihood of a defeat is on the cards, that is if the bourgeoisie does not use its economic power to scupper the actual vote. Only a serious campaign of mass mobilisation can safe the Bolivian revolution from a defeat which would have serious consequences. And this is the one thing that has not been organised.
Darrall Cozens in La Paz, Bolivia
12 December 2007