Bolivia: new president tries to divert the movement towards parliamentary trap

After three weeks of a struggle that had acquired revolutionary dimensions, Bolivia now has a new president and the workers and peasants are discussing how to continue the struggle. With the help of the MAS the ruling class has managed to delay the process once more, but for how long? The masses are learning from each turn of events, and with each betrayal wider layers are being radicalised.
Picture: Indymedia Bolivia

After three weeks of a struggle that had acquired revolutionary dimensions, Bolivia now has a new president and the workers and peasants are discussing how to continue the struggle.

On June 9th Vaca Diez, president of parliament, tried to get parliament to elect him as president of the republic after the resignation of Mesa (his resignation had to be accepted by parliament in order to be effective). A government of Vaca Diez would have meant bringing the army out to restore “order”. This was the preferred option of the US embassy.

The Mesa government had proved completely incapable of stopping the increasingly radicalised movement of workers and peasants. The strike movement had spread from El Alto and La Paz to other regions, such as Potosi and Cochabamba, and roadblocks had been set up at more than 100 points on the country’s road network.

In El Alto, on June 8th, the mass organisations of the workers and the inhabitants of this working class city to the north of La Paz, had established a People’s Assembly which threatened to become a body of workers’ power and an alternative to the rule of the capitalists. The ruling class was prepared to discard Mesa and use the army to put an end to the mobilisations.

On their part, Mesa and the leader of the MAS, Morales, favoured the president of the Supreme Court Eduardo Rodriguez as a replacement for president. Technically, for this to happen both Vaca Diez and Cossio (presidents of both houses of parliament) had to resign as well. The argument in favour of Rodriguez is that he would have a constitutional duty to call early elections. This alternative did not mention either the Constituent Assembly (which the MAS leaders have presented as the way forward) or nationalisation of oil and gas (the main demand of the movement). Mesa understood that using the army against the people could further aggravate the crisis, pushing the more moderate sections of the movement into supporting a strategy of workers’ power.

In order to prevent the installation of Vaca Diez, who had moved the parliament to the “safer” Sucre (away from the radicalised workers and peasants in La Paz), all sections of the movement united in an effort to blockade Sucre and prevent this from happening.

This manoeuvre enraged the masses even further and gave new strength to the movement. A 60,000 strong cabildo abierto in Cochabamba (where the MAS is strongest) passed a resolution which included the following lines: “the cabildo of the people of Cochabamba has decided to set up the People’s Assembly and to build a government of workers and peasants, following the lines of the enlarged meeting of the COB and the meeting of the El Alto Neighbourhood Juntas (FEJUVE)”. The resolution also contained other points more in line with the position of the MAS leadership (such as the demand for a constituent assembly) but it was clear that the main aim was nationalisation of hydrocarbons. This was a highly significant indication of the radicalisation of even those sections of the movement which had joined the struggle more recently and in areas where the leadership of the MAS still commands great authority.

At the demonstration in La Paz on the same day there was a strong presence of factory workers. Max Tola, workers’ leader at the Cervecería brewery, one of the largest factories in La Paz, said: “No political solution can be forthcoming from within the bourgeoisie. What we are talking about here is nationalisation and the taking of power by the workers. Our slogan is workers and peasants to power.” (Econoticiasbolivia.com, June 9th).

Funeral of the dead miner Carlos Coro
Picture: Indymedia Bolivia

Francisco Quispe, leader of the La Paz Factory Workers Federation, said: “If there is no nationalisation we will continue with the mobilisation. Nationalisation is the only way forward to create more sources of employment, to end the hunger and misery that is killing us. The only solution is for us workers to take power” (ibid). One of the main characteristics of the movement, particularly in La Paz and El Alto has been precisely the discrediting not just of this or that bourgeois politician, but of the whole institution of bourgeois democracy.

By the time the session of Parliament was supposed to start there was a huge mass of people on the streets of Sucre (including miners, peasants, teachers, etc). After a while the masses blockaded the airport as well and the airport workers also joined the strike, so that members of parliament (who had had to fly in, as all main roads were blockaded) would not be able to leave Sucre without the permission of the masses. The session was suspended. Then in the afternoon news came in of the death of a miner in a clash with the army when the army had tried to remove a roadblock. Tension increased even more. Vaca Diez went to hide in some military barracks, while the MPs returned to the safety of their hotels. Power was really in the streets and the country was awash with rumours of a military coup.

Finally, in the evening the attempt to impose Vaca Diez as president collapsed. The death of the miner at the roadblock had radicalised the movement in such a way that the swearing in of Vaca Diez could have precipitated an all-out insurrection. In a very short session Vaca Diez and Cossio resigned and Rodriguez was elected as president. The way the ceremony was carried out reflected very well the fact that this was done under the pressure of the masses on the streets; any semblance of constitutional pomp was lost. The choir that sang the national anthem was out of tune and the few MPs present could not do any better. The new president did not receive the official presidential band, nor the presidential “baton”, since these were still in the hands of Mesa who remained in La Paz. The session was short and most Members of Parliament looked quite scared. It was a graphic expression of the class balance of forces in the country. The masses had actually enforced through the mass mobilisation on the streets their right to veto any decision taken by parliament.

The masses in Sucre saw this as a victory and duly celebrated the fact. However, the movement could have gone much further had it not been for the position of the leaders of the MAS, who lent their support to this bourgeois manoeuvre and used their authority to make it happen. The MAS leaders immediately issued an appeal for the lifting of the roadblocks and for an end to the strike, and this was indeed being carried out in those areas where they have the strongest influence. Immediately, Rodriguez received the support of the US embassy, the employers’ federation and the Catholic Church. The leaders of the El Alto COR, Patana, and the El Alto teachers’ federation, Soruco, immediately replied that the “struggle is for the nationalisation of the hydrocarbons, not to change one clown for another” and they stated that they would continue the struggle.

On June 10th, an emergency assembly in El Alto decided to continue the struggle. “Regardless of who is the president we will continue the struggle. We were not asking for Mesa’s resignation but for the nationalisation of gas; no truce,” said Abel Mamani, president of the FEJUVE. (Econoticiasbolivia.com, June 10th). “The aim of nationalisation has not been achieved. In power nobody wants to even deal with it. Not even Evo who only mentioned it right at the end when his own ranks were already going beyond him” said Patana of the El Alto COR. “El Alto has already lived through this kind of political transition when Mesa replaced Losada and continued to rule in favour of the multinationals and the rich. We will not make the same mistake with Rodriguez,” said Alvarez, leader of the La Paz urban teachers. “We should not let ourselves be fooled by the bourgeois manoeuvres that have put into power [Rodriguez], the former advisor to the US embassy and law firm partner to Sanchez Berzain [Losada’s minister responsible for the massacre in El Alto in October 2003],” said Wilma Plata of the La Paz Teachers’ Union (ibid). The emergency meeting in El Alto decided to give Rodriguez a 72-hour deadline to nationalise oil and gas.

Representatives of the peasants and indigenous peoples in the 20 provinces of La Paz adopted the same line and decided to maintain the blockades and mobilisations and not to grant Rodriguez any truce. “They have just changed one clown for another.” The leaders of the Tupak Katari peasant workers’ union added that, “In 2003 we already let Mesa in and we did not achieve anything, they are not going to fool us again this time.” (Bolpress).

Picture: Indymedia Bolivia

On their part, cooperative miners in La Paz decided to give the new government a 10-day deadline and suspend the mobilisations in the meantime. They said, “the new government has as its main task the nationalisation of oil and gas and the calling of a Constituent Assembly” but they warned that “the miners have been here and we will be back if necessary”.

The Coordinadora del Agua y el Gas in Cochabamba also decided to grant a truce quoting the tiredness of the masses after 20 days of mobilisation and also to give time to hear what Rodriguez had to say. In their statement it was also made clear that the main demands have not been achieved (nationalisation of hydrocarbons and the establishment of a Constituent Assembly). It also pointed out the need to build self-government of the people for the next mobilisation and said that next time it will not be enough to take over and blockade oil and gas installations but that they should be able to run them to the benefit of the people.

The MAS peasant leader Loayza gave the new president a ten-day deadline to respond to the demands of the movement. Meanwhile MAS leaders, and particularly Evo Morales, spoke on the radio and TV appealing to the masses to lift the roadblocks and end the strike.

In the next few days it will become clearer which of the two strategies wins more support in the movement, the one favoured by the MAS leaders of a truce and confidence in the new government of Rodriguez, or that of the COB and El Alto of no truce and continuation of the struggle as it is.

It is probable that the first one will gather more momentum. They have in their favour the support of the media, the Catholic Church, etc, the authority that Morales still commands, particularly outside of La Paz and El Alto, and among important layers of the masses (coca peasants, cooperative miners), and finally the natural feeling of tiredness amongst the more radical sections which are at the same time the ones that have been out the longest.

On Sunday 13, there was a meeting between representatives of El Alto and the new president Rodriguez. The president explained to the workers’ and neighbourhood leaders that he could not do anything about the main demand of the movement, nationalisation of gas and oil, because that would be the responsibility of the new parliament that would be elected in early elections. This is quite an accurate description of the role of Rodriguez, i.e. to divert the mass movement of workers and peasants away from revolutionary mobilisations on the streets into the safer terrain of bourgeois democracy.

The representatives of the FEJUVE, the El Alto COR and others expressed themselves in very strong terms at the end of the meeting. The FEVUJE is marching today in La Paz, and tomorrow the contingents of the El Alto COR will take their turn and will hold a cabildo abierto mass public meeting to discuss the course of the struggle.

However, this time it is unlikely that there will be a protracted process like previously with Mesa (who managed to stay in power for 18 months). It will most likely be a shorter process. Unlike in October 2003, where the focus of the movement was against the sale of gas to Chile, this time the demand of the movement was clearer, sharper and with a much higher political content: nationalisation of gas and oil. The masses have already gone through the experience of having a revolutionary movement derailed into parliamentary politics and have seen that it does not work. The idea of the need for a workers’ and peasants’ government, has now sunk deep roots in the minds of wide layers of workers and peasants, particularly in El Alto and La Paz, but also throughout the rest of the country. The creation of the National Originaria Peoples’ Assembly is an extraordinary step forward for the movement, even though it is still in embryonic form and commands limited regional political authority. Rodriguez will be unable to satisfy the demands of the masses. At most, for a period of time, he will paper over the massive fault line of class struggle which divides Bolivian society. This will push the more moderate layers of the masses towards a more radical position.

The next battle could be a decisive one. The People’s Assembly must be given content and there should be a conscious working class strategy to split the army and the police. The political lessons of this phase of the struggle must be assimilated by the masses of workers and peasants. The task is now to build, on the basis of the most advanced revolutionary activists, an organisation capable of leading the masses to victory next time. In the words of the leader of the miners’ federation Zubieta: “We must continue to build this parallel government with the aim of building our own power and installing a workers’ and peasants’ government. Unfortunately what has been missing is a revolutionary leadership within the organisations in El Alto capable of developing the understanding that we need to rule ourselves.”