The beginning of the second Bolivian revolution

This is an article written for Pierre Broué's magazine Cahier Leon Trotsky under the name of Michel Wattignies in answer to Luis Oviedo's article.
See the original in French:
Début de la deuxième révolution bolivienne

A president of the Republic running along the rooftops in order to jump onto a helicopter, fleeing from the rebellious people: that was Argentina and De la Rua the day before yesterday… Yesterday it was the Bolivian president, the half American, rather than Latin American, Gonzalez Sanchez de Lozada, known as Goni, who took the same route to go and hide in Miami, the heart of the general staff of the counter-revolution in Latin America. Thus the revolution continues in Latin America with what we could consider, after 1952, as the second Bolivian revolution. But it would certainly be very difficult to reach this conclusion from reading the French press. As for the Latin American press, they also have their slanderous journalists, such as Luis Oviedo, a follower of Altamira and his party, the PO, who has written an article against Alan Woods and Jorge Martín which raises a question in our minds: "Is he stupid and illiterate or is he an organised and conscious falsifier?"

In 2000, the workers in Cochabamba, led by a coordinating committee headed by the veteran Oliviera, managed to stop the privatisation of water decided by the government of the oligarchy of La Rosca, which was to benefit the US company Bechtel. This time it was natural gas that ignited the gunpowder. The army was called to put down the uprising.

Natural as in the social context

Bolivia is a very poor country. "Most Bolivians live on less than 5 dollars a week, 82% of peasants live under the poverty line. 87% of the land, including the most fertile, belongs to 7% of landowners. Millions of small peasants share the remaining 13%", wrote La Riposte, quoting sources from the Bolivian left-wing press.

The discovery of new fields of natural gas was the starting point of the current events. The Bolivian subsoil holds enormous reserves of gas, and after 1985, under the government of Gonzalez Sanchez de Lozada, its exploitation was privatised. La Commune notes: "Each dollar invested creates 10, but of these 10, Bolivia receives only 2! What made everything explode was the decision to export gas to the US via Chile through a consortium made up of an alliance of the interested multinationals called Pacific LNG."

The reaction was immediate and generalised. The organisations opposing this plan created the Coordinating Committee for the Defence of Natural Gas. They demanded 50% of all profits should remain in the country, a country where the population lacks everything and where the poor have to purchase gas in bottles sold to them at higher prices. We must underline the fact that new leaders, of the COB such as Jaime Solares, and amongst the miners with Miguel Zuvieta, showed themselves to be very militant on this question. The COB, the country's trade union confederation, which had been greatly weakened, recovered its nerve through the efforts of local and regional leaders, such as Roberto de la Cruz at El Alto.

Immediately, El Alto, a large city with some 750,000 inhabitants – 10% of the country's population – right next to La Paz inhabited by workers and peasants in search of work, was at the forefront of the struggle. Here the call of the COB led by Solares for an all-out general strike until victory on the question of natural gas got massive support. And these were not just words; El Alto was under the control of a network of committees.

Even if it displeases the slanderers of the types like Oviedo, we must recognise that the COB leadership was surprisingly firm in its call for the general strike and with its demand to oust Sanchez de Lozada and have him put on trial. The latter had not gauged the strength of the opposition. He decided it would be sufficient to put down a handful of oppositionists, which he though only numbered 8,000.

But the struggle did not go his way. The workers replied with sticks and stones against armoured cars and machine guns. On September 20 a few fell in Waritala in the Lake Titicaca region, and also at El Alto where the alteños defended themselves bravely. The miners who came from Huanuni also forced their way through. They were 5,000, led by Miguel Zuvieta, the newly elected secretary of the miners, and were armed with dynamite sticks that they use at work. After a day of resistance, the soldiers allowed them through; the officers made concessions to the recruits instead of attacking them down as they had done earlier. Soon, the cocaleros (coca-growing peasants) from Chapare, who have also suffered attacks recently, also arrived.

On October 11th, the army attacked the vanguard of the movement at El Alto; there were fierce battles despite the fact that the people were unarmed. The attacked was repelled and on the 13th the alteños – the people from El Alto – started a marched to La Paz. The slogans were "Punishment for the assassins! Recover the stolen gas!". At the same time the Huanuni miners had got past the army that had previously stopped them and had arrived in La Paz with their dynamite. There was hesitation within the forces of state repression. Thus, Lieutenant-Colonel Juan Carlos Ibanez, speaking for the "patriotic officers", protested against the repressive role that had been given to the army.

This dangerously subversive element became bigger: an alliance was built between Quispe, Morales and Roberto de la Cruz. It was in fact a military alliance. During the 16th, Jaime Solares, executive secretary of the COB, made an appeal to set up workers' self-defence groups, workers in arms "to fight against vandalism". The slogan of the arming of the proletariat reappeared, the highest expression of dual power that characterises a revolutionary situation.

A victory without a tomorrow?

G. Oxley wrote in La Riposte: "At the decisive moment, the leaders of the workers' movement did not give the signal to take power. The miners had entered the capital, armed with thousands of sticks of dynamite. The peasants blockaded all the roads, the indefinite general strike paralysed the main cities, the police fraternised with the people [the leader of the police officers who had mutinied in February was amongst the demonstrators]. A growing number of soldiers refused to shoot at the demonstrators, the middle classes were joining the protest movement. All the conditions existed for the workers and peasants to take power and organise a regime of genuine workers' democracy based on mass popular assemblies and a national structure of elected and recallable delegates."

Dual power

In fact a situation of dual power had emerged. Jorge Martin, in El Militante, wrote that it was clear that the calling of open assemblies (cabildos) was posing the basis of a "new revolutionary power".

The bodies that represented the new power at El Alto were the federation of neighbourhood committees and the regional workers' committee - a "democratic expression of the workers and peoples' power". The most left-wing spokesperson of this new power, was Roberto de La Cruz, secretary of the regional COB, the COR, and organiser of the armed resistance.

The Econoticias press agency wrote: "no one can come in or out without permission from the neighbourhood committees. They all share their poverty, all under a common organised authority. Another State with its own rules and its own codes." (October 15th).

On October 16 thousands shouted: "Now is the time, civil war!". But Jorge Martín correctly wrote: "If the COB were to take a step forward, power would fall into their hands, but the truth is that the leaders of this movement, even the most advanced ones, have no clear perspective of what to do with that power."

And he added: "In spite of this, it is possible, that pushed by the enormous anger and determination of hundreds of thousands of Bolivians who have said 'enough is enough!', that they might take power!". We can see the hesitation of even those leaders who were more to the left in an interview with Roberto de La Cruz.

Jorge Martin wrote: "The whole of the recent history of Bolivia is that of the contradiction between the enormous ability to struggle of the masses and the political weakness of its leadership".

October 16th

On October 17, US ambassador David Greenlee had a meeting with Carlos Mesa, Goni´s vice-president, who had just abandoned him. They needed to find a legal mechanism that would allow them to save the natural gas and the regime.

The people were making preparations for the impending battle and Jaime Solares issued an appeal to face up to the armoured cars and machine guns. The demonstration was massive. On the 16th at 3pm there were 60,000 people, amongst them Oscar Vargas, the leader of the mutinous police officers, and Guadalupe Cardenas, leader of the police officers' wives. The number of demonstrators increased to 250,000. We could also add to this number those middle class people who, in response to the appeal of Quispe and his union, had gone on hunger strike protesting against repression and against the sale of natural gas…

However, at the same time, masked men – assassins – were seeking out the workers' leaders with the aim of killing them.

It was announced that a pact of total solidarity had been achieved between the COB, Mallku (Quispe), Evo Morales and Roberto de la Cruz, "to deepen the mobilisation, the road blocks and the general strike". Solares threatened those leaders who would dare to open negotiations and appealed to the masses to consolidate the blockade of the palace.

Meanwhile, for eight hours, the masses were pushing towards the Palace while the leaders held them back. They had to wait for those who were still arriving they said.

As a matter of fact, the leaders were divided. Evo Morales, representing the MAS, raised the idea of calling for support for a Carlos Mesa government. Mesa was the candidate the US had chosen to save the regime and the interests of the US companies.

On October 18th there was a meeting of the Enlarged Leadership of the COB. There, those whom Martin and Woods describe as "the natural leaders below the leaders of the COB" such as Solares, showed their opposition: nothing had really changed in Bolivia, and the fall of Goni should be a prelude rather than a conclusion.

The natural leaders of whom Woods and Martin talk are those below the leaders of the COB, like Solares. Oviedo assures us that they are Solares, Morales, Quispe, etc. That is a barefaced lie. However, these leaders who had just emerged from this layer saw things clearly, but too late.

Zuvieta recognised that beyond the fall of Goni, the movement had no clear aims: "No leader, no political party had led this popular uprising […] there was no united leadership. The massacre of El Alto (on October 12th) was the detonator that sparked off the conflict, but then it went beyond us".

The leader of the La Paz teachers, Jose Luis Alvarez, explained that: "without aims and without a revolutionary leadership, the workers gave their blood, but not merely for a constitutional change". One of the miners' leaders said that what was needed was, "the taking of power by the working class together with our peasant brothers". Alvarez insisted that what was needed was to "build a revolutionary government of workers and peasants".

We then discover that ordinary people like Solares, who denounced "the neo-liberal model and capitalism" advocated, now that we had a "clearly revolutionary" COB, the establishment of a workers' government. He expressed the will of the rank and file, like those of El Alto who appealed to the COB to "organise the next battle".

However, Solares did give Goni's heir a breathing space, while Morales was travelling and Quispe was involved in an ambiguous hunger strike – while his men were walking around the streets of the capital with arms in hand wearing the badge of the "workers' police".

Roberto de la Cruz is one of the main leaders of the COB and the workers' movement in El Alto. He declared to Econoticias on November 13th that it had been a mistake to stop the movement after the fall of Goni and that a new popular uprising was needed.

In his opinion, Carlos Mesa is the same as Goni and the minimum demands which should be aimed for are the abrogation of the law on hydrocarbons, on security, decree 21060 which opened the door to neo-liberalism and an end to Bush's FTAA treaty. We now have gonism without Goni… and the police are trying to arrest Roberto de la Cruz because of his role in the February events.

We must stress that de la Cruz is not about to issue a call for the overthrow of Mesa. The important thing is that this well-known leader has firmly denounced the opportunists, from Solares to Morales, who have now rallied around the government, while de la Cruz himself is demanding that the government officials be put on trial for their crimes.

Mesa accepted the task presented to him by Washington, but asked for time to think about it. In a theatrical gesture he received Solares, the left wing leader of the COB at the palace. And Solares in front of the TV cameras said that he did not know what Mesa would do, but that it was necessary to give him some breathing space, a truce to allow him to get organised. Quispe on the other hand kept his distance from Mesa, refusing to reach any agreements, but he also… announced he was giving a 90-day period in which he should comply with the demands of the workers and the people, including the peasants. He also talked of the creation of an independent Aymara state, a State of the High Plateau Indians.

A revolutionary party: the key to the situation

The workers have played a magnificent role, leading the people as a whole. The conclusion at the October 18th meeting was that a revolutionary party was needed.

This can come into being by basing oneself on the experience of the past… on that Trotskyist influence which inspired the Pulacayo Theses of the trade union movement, and it will find its men "below the leaders of the COB [amongst] the layer of those whom we call the natural leaders of the working class […] local leaders who have earned the trust of the workers, because of their honesty, courage, their militancy. They will play a crucial role in the revolution. They are close to the masses and therefore reflect their revolutionary spirit. If they were united in a revolutionary party, the future of the revolution would be guaranteed".

On the leaders Woods and Martin made these pertinent comments: "Roberto de la Cruz, the leader of the El Alto Workers' Union is to the left of Solares. But the workers and peasants are further to the left than their leaders […] The war is not over. It has just started! It will not be enough to overthrow a president, but the whole of the rotten and reactionary Bolivian oligarchy which blocks the road to progress".

They also stress the fact that internationalism is the key to victory in the battle. It all depends on the echo that this will find in other Latin American countries. "The Bolivian revolution will be victorious under the banner of proletarian internationalism, or otherwise it will not be victorious"

"We see how [in Latin America] the revolution is on the agenda. The whole of the Andean region is like a prairie after a long drought, a simple spark can provoke a conflagration. All that is needed is a courageous example. If the workers of Bolivia or Venezuela were to take power, the whole situation would be completely transformed. But a beginning is needed!"

The question of the POR

Many comrades have made some criticisms from a strictly orthodox Trotskyist point of view. They say for instance that the positions of Woods and Martin are aimed at proving the need for a new, independent party, while what is needed in Bolivia is in fact to reinstate the POR to its historical position as a "revolutionary party".

This view seems to us to be too schematic. The POR lost the authority it had in the past after the 1952 revolution and also thanks to the formalist approach developed by Guillermo Lora in that period the best worker cadres were driven away from the organisation, and this now appears as an empty shell, a name from the past. In the latest movement, the leaders of the La Paz teachers, members of the POR, cancelled the strike call after 48 hours. The other workers did not appreciate this. For these workers, as Martin and Woods underline, the Trotskyist tradition, going back to the Pulacayo Theses, has remained alive and manifests itself through the "spontaneous" reactions of the class.

This is the reason why it seems to us that the most likely scenario will be one where a new workers' party, forged in the struggle, will find in the Bolivian past the revolutionary programme and tradition which were the trade mark of the POR.

Another question: is it necessary to adopt again the old slogan of 'all power to the COB'? This in fact, in the past, did represent a dual power and Lora and his comrades were very hostile to it. Surely, today, in El Alto, or in some mines, this would be possible. But those who want at the same time the COB as a dual power and the POR as a leading party are daydreaming! Life itself will settle the question!

December 2003.

* Michel Wattignies is a pseudonym of Pierre Broué