Bolivia: workers and peasants reach for power

The revolutionary crisis that has gripped Bolivia for the last three weeks has reached new heights. Last week ended with the parliament unable to start its sessions, torn apart by the class war that divides the country. The revolutionary movement of workers and peasants has increased in strength, its national spread has broadened and it has radicalised its political positions, now clearly challenging bourgeois democracy.

The revolutionary crisis that has gripped Bolivia for the last three weeks has reached new heights. Last week ended with the parliament unable to start its sessions, torn apart by the class war that divides the country. The revolutionary movement of workers and peasants has increased in strength, its national spread has broadened and it has radicalised its political positions, now clearly challenging bourgeois democracy.

Over the weekend the ruling class resorted to one of its last tricks, using the Catholic Church to appeal for “national dialogue” on the basis of an end to strikes, marches and road blockades. A possible basis for this “dialogue” was hinted at: the resignation of the president, Mesa, the disbanding of parliament, the calling of early elections and the simultaneous calling of elections to a Constituent Assembly and referendum on autonomy for the Eastern regions which the ruling class has been demanding. In the meantime the president of the Supreme Court would take over the presidency.

Mass cabildo abierto, June 6
Picture: Indymedia Bolivia

This so-called offer is a clear attempt to derail the movement onto a constitutional “way out” within the framework of capitalist democracy. An apparent concession would be made to the movement, with the resignation of Mesa and the calling of a Constituent Assembly, while at the same time appeasing the oligarchy in Santa Cruz, Tarija and other Eastern regions which wants autonomy in order to get more control over the natural gas resources located in what they consider as “their” regions.

This proposal however has one little problem: it does not deal with the main demand of the mass movement of workers and peasants, which is now clearly the nationalisation of gas. At the same time we can see how dangerous is the call for a Constituent Assembly, which some left groups were arguing for at the time of the October uprising, since this is now one of the main tools with which the ruling class is trying to derail the revolutionary movement. (See Reply to Luis Oviedo - An appeal for a rational discussion)

Maybe a manoeuvre like this would have fooled the mass movement a month ago, but not now. Three weeks of strikes, marches, road blocks and clashes with the police have radicalised the movement and its political demands. This was clearly shown at the huge demonstration on Monday, June 6th. Hundreds of thousands (half a million according to some sources) gathered in La Paz in what must have been one of the largest demonstrations in the convulsed history of this country of less than 9 million people. This was a decisive answer to the allegations of Mesa that these were just some “minority groups of radicals”. Miners, peasants, workers, the inhabitants of El Alto, the epicentre of revolutionary Bolivia, urban and rural teachers, all sectors, converging on the centre of La Paz for a massive cabildo abierto (public political meeting) to debate and discuss the future of the movement. Some of the slogans that appeared on hand made banners showed widespread rejection not only of Mesa and other bourgeois politicians, but of the whole of the system of capitalist democracy which is unable to guarantee even the basic living conditions for the masses. “Close down parliament, hang the corrupt politicians”, “Bourgeois, your days are numbered”, “Death to the bourgeoisie”, “Enough of bourgeois parliamentary tricks”, “workers to power”, these and others were written in placards and shouted as slogans.

A number of leaders addressed the cabildo abierto. The mood was extremely angry and militant. The mass meeting decisively rejected any compromise solution and agreed to continue the struggle for the nationalisation of gas, in the understanding that in order to achieve it a decisive blow must be dealt to the bourgeois parliament.

Zubieta, the leader of the miners’ federation put this into words: “All the social organisations of the people, we are going to proclaim a massive peoples’ assembly and forge a new government to solve the power vacuum. The oil companies want another clown in government to defend their interests, but we will make a new government of the people arising today from a Popular Assembly, with the aim of nationalising the hydrocarbons”.

Wilma Plata, the leader of La Paz teachers who have been on strike for more than 20 days and have now decided to abandon their specific demands in order to concentrate all forces on the nationalisation of gas, also addressed the crowd: “The workers are moving towards taking over political and economic power in the country and build a workers’ and peasants’ government”.

While the speeches were still going on, a whole section of the crowd, miners armed with dynamite, students from the El Alto Public University and others, in their thousands, were already battling the police and the army in an attempt to enter parliament square and close down this discredited institution of capitalist democracy. As the historic day was coming to a close, Mesa announced his resignation (for the third time this year). On the one hand this reflected his inability to solve the situation and on the other hand it was part of an elaborated attempt to give the crisis a safe constitutional solution. It was very significant that when CNN broadcast Mesa’s resignation live, they immediately interviewed the leader of the MAS, Evo Morales, who favours a negotiated constitutional betrayal of the movement. It is clear that a section of the ruling class sees that the only way to defuse the movement now is to rely on its most moderate leaders. Another section, however, is afraid of allowing Morales to come to power for fear that he would not be able to contain the movement of workers and peasants within the confines of capitalism.

The answer to this manoeuvre came fast and clear from the COB national enlarged meeting in El Alto: “There will be no peace in Bolivia as long as the hydrocarbons are not nationalised,” said COB leader Jaime Solares. “We cannot give in in the struggle for nationalisation, this is a life or death matter, we cannot retreat,” he added.

On Tuesday 7th, the political situation became still more confused. The Santa Cruz oligarchy, represented by the parliament’s president Vaca Diez announced they could not meet in La Paz, as it was not “safe” and proposed a meeting of Parliament to take place in Santa Cruz or Sucre. In the meantime Mesa, still talking as the country’s president despite his resignation the previous day, made an appeal to Vaca Diez and parliament to resign as well “in order to avoid a civil war”.

In a sense he is right and he can see clearly that if he himself is discredited, so is the parliament that is made up of all those parties who ruled before October 2003, and supported the previous president Sanchez de Losada and who were decisively rejected in the October revolutionary uprising. Such a parliament could not impose itself on the mass movement of workers and peasants in the present conditions. But the oligarchy has already understood that, and they conceived the idea of Vaca Diez as the new president as part of a “civilian government with strong military backing”, as representatives of the NFR and MNR have explained. In other words the ruling class understands clearly that only by force can they maintain their rule. Their only difference with Mesa is that he thinks that using repression against the movement in these conditions would only exacerbate the situation (as happened with the brutal repression in El Alto in October that led directly to the fall of Sanchez de Losada). And both sides are probably right.

The movement is spreading throughout the country and gathering force. The indefinite general strike which has been going on in El Alto for more than two weeks, has now also spread to La Paz, Oruro and other main cities. Road blocks now affect more than 90 major points in the country’s road networks, isolating the country from its neighbouring countries and the regions one from another. The movement has also decisively started in Santa Cruz. In this region, where the ruling class had managed to build some support on the basis of the demagogic demand for “autonomy”, the peasants and workers have started to demonstrate and set up roadblocks.

An important turning point was the attack last week on a peasant’s demo by the fascist gangs of the Union Juvenil Crucena, the paid thugs of the oligarchy. It was that event that tipped the balance, and even sectors, which previously supported the demand for autonomy, have now come out firmly for nationalisation of the hydrocarbons. The Assembly of the Guarani People, in Santa Cruz, has threatened to declare their own autonomy from Santa Cruz, if the oligarchy secedes from Bolivia. This has great significance since the Guarani people live precisely in the gas rich areas of the region.

At the same time, in a number of places, workers and peasants have taken direct action to occupy and blockade oil and gas installations and fields, implementing through direct action their demand for nationalisation. In the north of Santa Cruz, seven oil fields had already been occupied and closed down by peasants at the end of last week and now the movement is spreading to other regions.

Picture: Indymedia Bolivia

In fact, the question of who rules the country has been posed clearly by this mass revolutionary movement of workers and peasants. All the conditions are present. On the one hand the ruling class is weak and divided and fears using repression. The workers and peasants have shown their willingness to struggle until the end and clearly reject the bourgeois institutions as a whole. The only thing that seems to be missing is actually going from words to deeds and taking decisive action to install an alternative power, that of the workers and peasants, and smashing the old capitalist power.

The call for a Peoples’ Assembly is extremely important since it is understood as a means of replacing the government of the capitalists with a government of the workers and peasants. However, this must be implemented in practice. In all factories, workplaces, working class neighbourhoods, mines and peasant villages there should be mass meetings, election of delegates to unified Peoples’ Assemblies at neighbourhood, local, regional and national level. This would be the basic structure of an alternative workers’ power. In El Alto, to a certain extent, a structure of this kind, a soviet, already exists. Every day thousands meet in cabildos abiertos in the different districts to discuss the course of the struggle.

Trotsky, in his description of the revolutionary strike in Russia in 1905 observed that: “The principal method of struggle used by the Soviet was the political general strike. The revolutionary strength of such strikes consists in the fact that, acting over the head of capital, they disorganize state power. The greater, the more complete the ‘anarchy’ caused by a strike, the nearer the strike is to victory. But on one condition only: the anarchy must not be created by anarchic means. The class which, by simultaneous cessation of work, paralyzes the production apparatus and with it the centralized apparatus of power, isolating parts of the country from one another and sowing general confusion, must itself be sufficiently organized not to become the first victim of the anarchy it has created. The more completely a strike renders the state organization obsolete, the more the organization of the strike itself is obliged to assume state functions. These conditions for a general strike as a proletarian method of struggle were, at the same time, the conditions for the immense significance of the Soviet of Workers Deputies.”

In Bolivia, the general strike, particularly in El Alto, forces the workers and peasants to take upon themselves tasks that previously belonged to the state in relation to the organisation of daily life. There are now thousands, probably tens of thousands of miners and peasants from different parts of the country that have converged on the city. These are fed and housed on a daily basis by the mass organisations of workers, peasants and students. Order in El Alto is guaranteed not by the police but by the mass assemblies and the neighbourhood juntas or committees. This structure should become systematic and spread throughout the country.

The second important task of the insurrection in order to take power is the breaking of the repressive armed power of the state. It is clear that the ranks of the army, composed of ordinary soldiers from workers and poor peasant backgrounds can be penetrated by the revolutionary movement. Already in La Paz, peasant women constantly shout at the soldiers and police officers guarding the parliament square: “are you not ashamed, have you not got a heart and brains, you should join us and fight for the future of your children” (See a video of this). These appeals, combined with the strength of the movement, shown in the mass rally on Monday and the dynamite of the miners clashing with police and soldiers, can, at a certain point, break down the chain of command within the structure of the army. Further to this, the army, including its officer caste, is split down the middle. A section is clearly sympathetic to the mass movement, as shown by the pronouncement of two colonels last week who came out in favour of nationalisation of the hydrocarbons and for a “peoples’ government”. Another is bitterly opposed to the splitting up of the country which that section of the ruling class represented by the Santa Cruz oligarchy is pushing for. And finally there is another thoroughly reactionary section which would favour an out-and-out coup to “restore order”.

The situation within the police is even more favourable. A police mutiny was already a big part of the February 2003 uprising and last week a whole section of the police in La Paz threatened to mutiny against Mesa again. Demonstrators regularly combine the shouts of “rifles and bullets will not shut the people up” (fusil, metralla, el pueblo no se calla) with shouts of “police mutiny”.

The workers organisations, correctly have combined appeals to the ranks of the army and the police (which need to be organised on a systematic basis) with certain elements of workers’ self defence organisations. Apart from the armed miners that are already participating in the daily battles in the capital, the El Alto Workers’ Federation COR has called for armed self defence to be organised and they have also offered to send self defence pickets to Santa Cruz to defend the peasants from the fascist provocations of the oligarchy. Once again, these decisions are very positive, but need to be put into practice and coordinated nationally.

Finally, all these preparations should lead towards the closing down of parliament and all bourgeois institutions. The only factor that is really missing in the equation is a revolutionary leadership that could coordinate these tasks, advance the necessary slogans at each moment and carry out the necessary political work for the taking of power. Such a leadership already exists in an embryonic form, it is composed of the most advanced militants and leaders of the COB, the El Alto COR, the miners federation, the peasant unions, the university students, the teachers. They are the ones who are already organising the revolutionary movement, going beyond their leaders when they vacillate, pushing them forward or replacing them with others. If this vanguard were to be unified nationally on the basis of the idea of taking power and the concrete steps necessary to do it, the Bolivian revolution would be victorious.

Neither Mesa, nor Vaca! No constitutional solution, but nationalisation of the hydrocarbons! Down with the bourgeois parliament! For a Peoples’ Assembly based on democratically elected delegates of workers and peasants! Workers to power!