Bolivia: first balance-sheet of the insurrection - “A revolutionary party was missing”

After overthrowing the hated Goni, the workers of Bolivia have drawn one main conclusion: the workers, peasants, oppressed nations and impoverished middle classes, did not wrest power from the ruling class because they still do not have a revolutionary party.

“After having been the actors in a massive social explosion, which tragically resulted in nearly 70 deaths and more than 500 wounded, the country’s workers, in the last National Enlarged Meeting of the Bolivian Workers’ Union, drew one main conclusion: the workers, peasants, oppressed nations and impoverished middle classes, did not wrest power from the ‘ruling class’ because they still ‘haven’t got’ a ‘revolutionary party’.” (Econotociasbolivia.com, October 19).

The editors of Econoticiasbolivia.com have published an extremely interesting report which describes the discussions that took place at this meeting, which saw the participation of representatives of the miners, factory workers, building workers, teachers, journalists, health workers, university and secondary students, printers, bakers, street traders, market stall holders, artisans, retired workers, the unemployed, settlers, butchers, transport workers, neighbourhoods juntas, professionals, mining and agricultural cooperative members, the regional trade union bodies and other peoples’ organisations. It is from this report that we get most of the quotes in this article, but we recommend that our readers read it in full (only in Spanish)

Lack of a revolutionary leadership

The national enlarged meeting of the COB on Saturday October 18, confirmed many of the conclusions that we had advanced in previous articles, particularly the fact that if workers and peasants did not take power last week, it was because of the lack of a revolutionary leadership which could pose this task clearly.


Miner with a dynamite stick

So in a previous article we warned that, “it is possible that one of the elements which make the leaders of the COB hesitant is the question, ‘and then what?’ In reality in Bolivia we have a situation of dual power. On the one hand the masses of workers and peasants, supported by the population as a whole, control the streets and are already building their own power. On the other hand the Washington puppet president is increasingly isolated. The problem is that if the COB takes a step forward, power would fall into their hands, and the truth is that the leaders - not even the most advanced - of this movement, do not have a perspective of what to do with the power. They have never raised a clear perspective to the movement on this, the perspective of the taking of power by the workers and peasants.” Bolivia: the revolution becomes more widespread, October 17, 2003).

This analysis is fully confirmed, almost to the last word, by the speech of the secretary of the Miners’ Federation Miguel Zuvieta: “According to Zuvieta, who was responsible for bringing 5,000 miners to the city of La Paz, the peoples’ insurrection did not have a clear aim, ‘with an indefinite general strike which went on for two weeks, we demanded the resignation of Goni, but we never thought of what would have to come after that’. This balance sheet of the miners’ leader was shared by most of those present” (ibid)

Jose Luis Alvarez, secretary of the La Paz Urban Teachers made the same point, when he explained - interrupted by ovations - that the rank and file had taught the leaders how one must fight in order to overthrow a government.

“Unfortunately, without clear aims and without a revolutionary leadership, the workers gave their lives courageously, but not just so that there should be some constitutional change. Those who rose up want better living conditions and a new kind of state”.

Also, as we have insisted, it was the masses of workers and peasants who pushed this magnificent movement forward and it was they that did it his in spite of their own leaders and going beyond them: “ ‘Those of us who consider ourselves revolutionaries cannot lie. No leader of any political party led this popular uprising. Neither Evo Morales, nor Felipe Quispe, nor ourselves, were at the leadership of the rebellion. This conflict, unfortunately, had no united leadership. The Bolivian workers, from below, were the ones who kicked out the murderer Goni (Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada). The enraged masses gave American imperialism a slap in the face. No one, no individual, no party, can claim the leadership of this conflict. Nobody!’ COB executive secretary Jaime Solares summed up vehemently” (Ibid).

Miners’ leader Zuvieta added: “No trade union, no left party, imagined the scope of the conflict that was to come. We did not understand the lessons of February. The massacre of El Alto (October 12) was the spark that set off the war against the government and imperialism. From then on the conflict escaped from our control. It was out of control. This raises the urgent need to organise ourselves better.” (ibid)

The problem is that after the February insurrection, the leaders of the workers’ and peasants’ organisations had already made a similar self-criticism. At that time, after an insurrection which had left 35 dead and more than 210 wounded, the leaders of the revolutionary parties and trade union organisations recognised that “they had not been up to the job”. The masses gave everything and the leaders also hesitated at the crucial moment, which gave the Sanchez de Lozada government time to regain control. The price that the Bolivian workers and peasants have had to pay for the lack of a clear revolutionary leadership with a clear perspective of taking power, has been another 70 dead in this September-October movement.

The harsh criticism of rank and file worker and peasant activists towards the behaviour of their leaders during the January peasant road blocks and the February insurrection, were reflected in the self-criticism of the Peoples’ General Staff, which met a few days after the February events and also in August at the time of the renewal of the COB leadership.

In April, the congress of the Bolivian Miners’ Trade Union Federation (FSTMB) passed a new militant statement of principles and elected a new more radical leadership which promised to fight “for an egalitarian society, without oppressors or oppressed”. Huanuni miner Miguel Zuvieta Miranda headed the new leadership. The change in the leadership in the FSTMB, one of the most powerful organisations of the Bolivian working class, played a key role in the changing of the COB leadership in the August congress.


The COB meeting on Saturday 18

The election of miner Jaime Solares as the general secretary of a divided COB, represented in a distorted way the aspirations of the masses to give themselves a more militant and consistent leadership. In an interview to El Deber paper on August 18, Solares declared, “our first statement is an appeal to all the workers and the Bolivian people to unite, get organised and struggle until the liquidation of the neoliberal model and the exploitative capitalist system, and to introduce a worker-peasant government with all the oppressed and the exploited.” And he added, regarding the divisions within the COB, “Those to blame are not the ranks but the trade union bureaucracy. Many people (former leaders) sold out; they sold their principles, their programmes and at the end of the day, the rank and file workers lost out. Today, with a clearly revolutionary and completely changed COB, the workers have every hope that this organisation will not go back to endless tiring talks, because here we are all united against the economic crisis the country is suffering.”

However, even these leaders with a more radical language, more in touch with the aims and aspirations of the worker masses, at the decisive moment did not give the right signal, the taking of power. This would have been possible even up to Friday afternoon after the resignation of Sanchez de Lozada. The miners had reached the capital armed with thousands of sticks of dynamite, the peasants were blocking all the country’s roads, the indefinite general strike had paralysed all the main cities, the police was fraternising with the people, the army was divided with sections of the soldiers refusing to shoot at the people and the middle classes were joining the protests. All the conditions were ripe for the taking of power by the workers and peasants and the organisation of a genuine regime of workers’ democracy based on the open cabildos (mass popular meetings) and a national structure of elected and recallable delegates. The only thing that was missing was a leadership that would unify and orientate the movement in a conscious way in that direction.

In fact the workers, peasants and local people had already started to organise an alternative power structure, particularly in El Alto through the neighbourhood juntas, but also in other areas. At the national enlarged meeting of the COB, the president of the mobilisations committee of the Neighbourhood Junta of southern La Paz, Faustino Quintana, was clear when he stated that, “unlike in El Alto, where the local people, from the bottom up, are very well organised, in the city of La Paz, the neo-liberal parties, for more than a decade, have been fighting for the leadership of the Departmental Neighbourhood Juntas Federation. So now we have three different departmental leaderships, but none of them does anything for us. But never mind, as in other neighbourhoods, we have organised ourselves in emergency cabildos, in the midst of the conflict, to demand the resignation of the President. We have overtaken the government appointed leaders. We now demand that the COB reorganises us to be ready for the next battle” (ibid)

Incidentally, the attitude of the local people in La Paz also reflects another very significant lesson that is confirmed by this revolutionary experience: all the oppressed layers in society look towards the working class and its trade union organisation when they seek leadership. The alliance of workers and peasants which has been steeled in these revolutionary days is the only force that can offer a way out from the problems of the Bolivian nation as a whole.

What attitude towards the new government?

One of the key points of discussion at the COB meeting was the attitude to be taken towards the new government. In this there was a division of opinions. Some leaders raised the idea of participating in the government as a means of forcing the government to respect workers’ right. But others rejected this idea point blank. The secretary of the National Urban Teachers Union, Jaime Rocha, “stressed, vehemently, that the COB must maintain its fundamental principle: ‘class independence’ towards any bourgeois government. This position was also supported with a standing ovation” (ibid).

Victor Taca, leader of the building workers also spoke in the same vein: “Carlos Mesa is the representative of one social class and we are the representatives of another social class. That is why he (Mesa) tomorrow will shoot us like Goni”.

One of the miners’ leaders added: “what we need to do is what comrade Solares said yesterday, to set up peoples’ assemblies as the basis for the historical aim of a government of the working class (…) the mobilised comrades have not just come here simply to replace a government by another, but they have also come with the historical banners of the Bolivian working class, which are the Pulacayo theses, which establish the socialist character of the COB. For this reason we cannot raise the banner of a constitutional assembly, the constitution belongs to the ruling class”. And he concluded with an appeal that the aim must be “the taking of power by the working class together with our peasant brothers” (audio report from Argentina Indymedia).

Also the secretary of the La Paz Peasant Workers Federation, Rufo Calle, supported the balance sheet of Zuvieta, Galvez, Taca and Rocha: “We agree with everything our brothers have said. For us the gas war has not finished. Mesa will not solve this fundamental problem. Only a government of our own can solve this demand of the Bolivian people”.

Alvarez, from the La Paz Urban Teachers added: “Therefore we need a platform of struggle which would allow the exploited to take power, and in this way to organise a revolutionary government of workers and peasants”.

“Tactical retreat”

After more than six hours of debate, the National Enlarged meeting of the COB decided that the movement would make a “tactical retreat”, cancelled the indefinite general strike and presented a list of demands to the new president. Eleven federations supported this position, eight favoured putting pressure immediately on the new government to achieve the workers’ aims and ten did not take a clear position. However the list of demands presented by the COB was not accompanied by a deadline to the government, which leaves the door open to the new president to say that he cannot solve everything at once and at the same time leaves the revolutionary movement without a clear perspective of when to strike again.

In a certain sense, a retreat was almost inevitable, but only because of the hesitation of the leaders at the crucial juncture. Conditions for the taking of power by the workers do not arise every day and when one is wasted because of the lack of boldness on the part of the leaders, then the initiative is lost and it takes time for the movement to gather momentum again. Without a consistent revolutionary leadership which would have made conscious the aspirations of the masses with the taking of power, it was inevitable that the joy at having overthrown the “people-killer president” would dominate the mind of the masses for a short period of time.

At the end of the COB meeting, its general secretary paid a visit to the new president. But instead of adopting a firm position and demanding from the government the fufilment of the workers’ demands within a given period of time and declaring his complete mistrust of the new government, Solares adopted a conciliatory line.

“We have said that he will have our support as long as he fights boldly against corruption, because we should not forget that this has greatly damaged the country.” He also added that he had asked the president, with the powers that he has, to create more jobs and sources of well-being for the Bolivian people, and also to give workers decent wages.

“He also said that the president had shown interest in the points raised and has said that the doors of the government palace are open to the COB leaders, to which Solares answered that the doors of the Cob will be open to Mesa as long as he comes in good faith” (bolpress.com, October 18).

This is really a scandalous position which will only cause confusion and disorientation amongst the masses. Luckily, so far, the masses have had a much better instinct than their leaders at all crucial points. How can one imagine that Carlos Mesa will create jobs and sources of well being for the people? That can only be achieved through the abolition of capitalism, something Mesa will never carry out. It is not a question of “good faith” but rather of the crisis of Bolivian capitalism which forces it to maintain the privileges of the ruling class by increasing attacks on the well being and living standards of workers and peasants.

The position adopted by the peasant leaders has been much clearer. The leader of the United Trade Union Confederation of Peasant Workers of Bolivia (CSTUCB), “Mallku” Felipe Quispe, has given the president, Carlos Mesa, 90 days to solve the demands of the Indian peasants or otherwise “he will call an uprising with the aim of taking power”. (bolpress.com, October 18). Far from creating illusions in the possibility of the new government solving the problems of the masses, he said that “Mesa is fooling the people because he will not be able to solve the main points raised with the previous government of Sanchez de Lozada. El Mallku, as the peasant leader is known, said that Mesa will not annul the Oil and Gas Law, nor Decree 21060, because that is crucial for the neoliberal model, he will not annul the Security Law, nor the new Tax Code. Because he will not carry out these demands, Quispe predicted that there will be new social problems”. (ibid)

The La Paz peasants decided to maintain their protests: “The road blocks in the 20 provinces and the hunger strike at the San Gabriel radio station will not be suspended until the head of state provides a serious basis to reopen negotiations. We hope that this will happen in the next week. Otherwise there will be problems.”, warned the secretary of the agricultural workers of La Paz Rufo Calle (El Diario, October 19).


The masses take oath in La Paz on Saturday 18

However it is not just a question of giving the government a deadline, but above all of using this time to strengthen and unify the revolutionary organisation of the workers and peasants, to deepen the political work amongst the soldiers and the police, to organise the arming of the workers and to prepare the structures of workers’ and peasants’ power which would guarantee victory.

The position adopted by Evo Morales is much more “moderate”, that is further removed from the interests of the workers’ and peasants’ struggle. For Morales “time has come to give enough time and space to the president to take over the command of the country, without any social or political pressure”, and although he said that his party would not be part of the new government he “ratified its commitment to support the managing of the state from Parliament.”

Morales said that it is not the time to give the new president deadlines, “because deadlines will be given by results”. He also said that “if there is willingness to work, there will be no reason to start street protests”. “We are in parliament. There we have a tool to demand that the government works, but we will do it without any pressure, as long as it is for the good of the country.”

Morales’ parliamentary cretinism has no limits. Not only does he concede a truce to the new president, the same one who until yesterday was a firm defender and co-responsible for all the austerity policies of Lozada’s government, but he also creates the illusion that Mesa will change the programme, furthermore without street protests!. The question then arises: why did 70 workers and peasants have to die in the last few weeks, if everything could have been solved through parliament , provided there had been a little “willingness to work”?

Mesa forms government

Meanwhile, as Sanchez de Lozada goes into exile in Miami, the incoming president has formed a new “technocratic” government without the participation of political parties, and has rushed to try and win a social base which would allow him to establish the legitimacy of bourgeois order. One of his first actions was to visit the militant city of El Alto where he promised to take Sanchez de Lozada to court for last week’s repression. This promise lasted thetimeit takes to travel the 12 kilometres which separate El Alto from La Paz. As soon as he was back in the capital he announced that putting the former president on trial would be decided by Congress, where the parties which supported Lozada have a clear majority.

The formation of a technocratic government of national unity is one of the oldest tricks in the book of the ruling class. As the El Alto Workers Union leader said to the mass mobilisation on Saturday “it is the same girl with a different dress”.

The government of Carlos Mesa is a weak government whose main task is that of defusing the mass mobilisation with empty promises, so that when it feels strong enough it can go back onto the offensive against the workers. For instance on the question of coca growing, he has already said there will be no changes in policies, a clear message which was dictated by the US embassy which put him in power.

It is possible that Mesa will be forced to call early elections or even a Constituent Assembly, but even this decision he will try to delay as much as possible.

The policy of the peasants’ and workers’ organisations must be one of no confidence in the new government and to strengthen all forms of democratic organisation of workers and peasants to ensure the taking of power in the next wave of struggle which will take place sooner rather than later, once the joy at the overthrow of Goni dissipates.

“We will be soldiers of the people”

In the massive open cabildo on Saturday 18, in a mood of celebration, the leader of the El Alto Workers’ Union, Roberto de La Cruz, took this oath before the tens of thousands of workers, miners, peasants, coca growers and local people present: “Do you swear to struggle without betrayals until the real aims of the peoples of this country are achieved, until the poor, the workers and the peasants take power in a short space of time, and without betrayal? Will you struggle? For this, do you now take this oath to be fighters of the people? Jallalla Tupak Katari and Bartolina Sisa” (audio from Argentina Indymedia) (Tupak Katari and Bartolina Sisa were leaders of an uprising against Spanish colonialism at the end of the XVIII century which culminated in the siege of La Paz of 107 days. They were betrayed and then quartered by the Spaniards). The answer of tens of thousands of people present was a massive shout of “yes we swear” which reflects the real feelings of Bolivian workers and peasants and which leaves the new government no room for manoeuvre.

Once again, as we have repeatedly said, the crucial task posed is that of building a Marxist leadership which would guarantee the victory for which so many have already given their lives. The more this historical necessity is delayed, the bigger will be the price that the heroic oppressed masses of Bolivia will have to pay.

No confidence in the Mesa government. Maintain the mobilisation. Strengthen the democratic organisation of workers and peasants. Organise the workers’ and peoples’ self-defence. For a national assembly of elected and recallable delegates to pose the taking of power. For a Socialist Bolivia within the framework of a Socialist Federation of Latin America.

October 20, 2003


See the original in Spanish.

You can find more photos on the events in Bolivia here