Bolivia: University revolt in Oruro - Students and workers join hands

After the manoeuvre of the so-called referendum on the privatisation of gas, in August transport workers and community organisations organised protests against the rise in the price of gas. They were joined by the Landless Peasant Movement (MST). But the most striking development is what has become known as the "University Revolution" at Oruro.

Following on from the referendum over the privatisation of Bolivia's natural gas resources, popularly known as the "traprendum", the Bolivian masses have continued to mobilise in favour of the nationalisation of these resources.

During the month of August transport workers and community organisations organised protests against the rise in the price of gas. Joining them was the Landless Peasant Movement (MST), that was also protesting against these price hikes. Gas is vital to everyday life of the peasants and workers. The MST was also demanding the distribution of land and was protesting against the repression suffered by their movement over the recent period.

In the second half of August, groups of peasants near Santa Cruz occupied the BP oil fields and also closed the gas pipelines of Santa Rosa del Sara demanding land. In Tarija, a sizeable group of local people from Villamontes also closed some gas pipelines in order to put pressure on the authorities to finance the construction of a road that will connect both cities.

These are just some examples of the many disputes that have been shaking Bolivia. Different groups of workers, peasants and youth have been taking direct action in support of their just demands. On August 18 the answer of the government to these actions of the peasants and local people was once again repression. Police and army troops were deployed in the oil fields and oil wells to stop the local community and peasant organisations from taking them over.

This movement affected the production of gas. Jaime Barrenechea (YPFB president) pointed out that due to these actions there was a shortfall in production of 3,000 barrels a day and that the gas supply to Santa Cruz and Tarija had suffered cuts as a result (www.econoticiasbolivia.com August 18).

These protests were followed by broader mobilisations called by the COB (the Bolivian TUC) and the Committee in Defence of Gas on August 25. As a result of the calls of the trade unions and other community grassroots organisations, on August 30 the streets of the six biggest cities in Bolivia were flooded with workers, peasants, coca growers, small shopkeepers and local people from the poorest neighbourhoods marching in defence of the nation's gas resources and expressing their dissatisfaction with their low living standards and bad working conditions.

The role of Evo Morales

One of the highlights of these marches has been the presence of Evo Morales (the leader of the MAS). Since the outbreak of the revolutionary movement in October 2003, the MAS leadership has always used its authority to put a brake on the movement. They have always appealed to the masses to calm down and they have not hesitated to openly support the Mesa government.

We must remember that the MAS leadership backed the referendum, a manoeuvre with which Mesa wanted to justify the privatisation of gas. They led their supporters to believe that the referendum would be a step forward towards the nationalisation of Bolivia's natural gas resources. They used all their high-ranking positions in the COB to make sure the call for a boycott of the referendum would not be successful. These manoeuvres on the part of the MAS leadership put the COB leaders into a position where they were forced to expel Morales from the union, accusing him of being a "traitor" and a "strike-breaker".

However, even Morales, in spite of his previous behaviour, on August 30 was forced to state the following: " We warn the cabinet that they should respect the people's will". It is not by pure chance that these leaders are now talking like this. It is clear that the masses have seen through the referendum. Huge pressure is building up from below, and this is what is pushing these reformist leaders to the left. If they did not give at least some form of expression to the radical mood developing in the ranks, they know they could be face the risk of being removed from their positions by the masses in the coming period.

The University Revolt in Oruro

The Oruro Technical University (UTO) students have been giving further headaches to the Bolivian ruling class. The clashes between the very highly UTO lecturers and the students began just over three weeks ago when the lecturers demanded a 20% wage rise during a University Council meeting. This demand angered the students and the low paid non-academic workers (kitchen staff, cleaners, porters and so on) who did not accept this abuse of the already tight UTO budget.

When the professors and lecturers saw that the students had rejected their excessive demands they walked out of the meeting and declared they were going on strike. In spite of the general walk out of the lecturers and professors, one of them remained in the hall. This was enough for the University Council to take decisions, and it passed a ruling implementing a "0% pay rise" for the University workers with the exception of the cleaners, porters and kitchen staff.

The situation at the University has become very heated. Over the last few weeks the students have been engaged in a series of protests and mobilisations. On September 2 a student demo occupied the offices of the UTO authorities and took some hostages from among the UTO authorities. The UTO [[[principal]]] was forced to resign from his position by the students. The students also occupied a university TV channel. On September 7 an open battle took place in the Faculty of Law of the Oruro University where the students fought alongside the workers against the police.

The police arrested six students but due to the popular pressure they were forced to release them. The reaction of the lecturers and professors was swift. This clique of highly-paid professors and lecturers have set up so-called "tribunals" to punish the students and expel them from the university. They have also managed to get the support from other lecturers in other universities and a 48-hour long strike has taken place in the Bolivian universities of La Paz, Santa Cruz and Cochabamba among others. These lecturers constitute a caste within the Bolivian education system whose role it is to help maintain the privileges and income of the Bolivian ruling class. The University elite in Bolivian have always been linked to the pro-capitalist parties, the MNR and MIR. Jaime Solares (the leader of the COB) has described them as "a pressure group who do not want a free university serving their own people and historical interests of the proletariat" (www.econoticiasbolivia.com 06/09/04). The lecturers also have the full support of the bourgeois media that has not reported on this struggle.

However, the students have the support of the whole of the Bolivian working class. On September 6 the Miners' Federation and the COB gave their support to the students. This is no accident. Since the very beginning of the present Oruro University revolt, the students have made it very clear that their aim is to create a peoples' university submitted to the interests of working class. The Oruro students have understood very well that the help of the working class (especially of the miners in Oruro) is vital to the success of their struggle.

This movement of students, staff and workers, has set up a Revolutionary Council that has passed the following Revolutionary resolutions:

"Number 1: Derecognising of all the University authorities to be replaced by the following bodies: The Local University Federation, the Miners' Federation, the COB and the Civic committee (all of them being members of the Committee in Defence of the University)."

"Number 2: Resignation of all the lecturers. New access exams will be called in the near future to cover the vacancies."

"Number 3: The University Council will be formed by three different groups: Academic staff, students and non-academic staff. The students will have the majority, this being a means towards the transformation of the University, and will submit to the interests of the proletariat. The miners will participate in the University Council."

"Number 4: Reform of all the Education programmes and curricula to adapt them to the interests and struggles of the proletariat"

"Number 5: New scale of wages, where the lower wages will be increased and the higher wages will be frozen." (www.bolivia.indymedia.org 08/09/04)

These recent events arise out of the nature of the Bolivian education system, which has always been an ideological weapon in the hands of the Bolivian oligarchy and imperialism. However, this is not the only reason. In a revolutionary situation like the one that Bolivia is passing through the youth and the students become the natural allies of the workers and peasants in the struggle against capitalism. In fact student protests and demonstrations have already played a role in the revolutionary process, including the calling of a national university students' strike and a march on La Paz last April which won some concessions from the government.

Nevertheless it is also not an accident that the "University Revolution" - as the Oruro University students call their movement - has taken place in the mining area of Oruro. Oruro has a proud revolutionary and militant tradition based on the huge concentration of miners in the area. These miners have always been in the front line of the different struggles such as the struggle against the closure of the tin mines during the 1980s and also the recent struggle against the privatisation of gas.

In order to ensure the final victory for the students and the different movements that are taking place all over Bolivia, what is needed is that they should all unite and adopt a common programme of struggle that combines all their demands together with the general fight against the capitalist system. This means that the disputes in the Universities, the struggle against the privatisation of the gas industry and the general to end the poverty of the Bolivian masses must become one.

The present movement of the Oruro students, who have correctly linked up with the working class locally, could become a beacon from which the struggle could become more generalised and spread to other areas in Bolivia. The potential is there for this to happen. What is needed is a conscious leadership that can organise this. Once this happens the whole Bolivian and Latin American ruling classes would be in serious trouble. The Bolivian revolution could link up to the Venezuelan, and then the Peruvian, Ecuadorian, and so on. It would become an all-Latin American Revolution. Once that begins no force on earth could stop it.