Bolivia: The beginning of the end for Mesa?

The National Enlarged Meeting of the Bolivian Workers' Union (COB) on April 8, convened in the mining stronghold of Huanuni, decided to call a general strike and national road blockades starting from May 2nd. The call has the support of the peasant unions organised in the CSUTCB under the leadership of Mallku Felipe Quispe, and could precipitate the fall of Mesa's weak government.

"It is a war to death"

The National Enlarged Meeting of the Bolivian Workers' Union (COB) on April 8, convened in the mining stronghold of Huanuni, decided to call a general strike and national road blockades starting from May 2nd. The call has the support of the peasant unions organised in the CSUTCB under the leadership of Mallku Felipe Quispe, and could precipitate the fall of Mesa's weak government.

In order to prepare the forces for the general strike, on April 15, there were mass demonstrations all over the country. Thousands of workers marched through the streets of the country's regional capitals to protest against the Mesas government's neo-liberal policies and demand the re-nationalisation of the gas and oil. Some 20,000 workers from all sectors demonstrated in La Paz, accompanied by the sounding of exploding dynamite sticks and fireworks. The march was greeted with enthusiasm by the capital's citizens and sections of the middle class impoverished by the government's policies.

In his speech at the end of the march, COB leader Jaime Solares stated: "This is a war to death (...) the COB is neither for sale, nor for hiring. The COB must serve the workers, peasants and the poor. Long live the COB! Death to the transnationals!" (Econoticiasbolivia.com, 15/4/04).

On April 19, thousands of university students arrived at the capital La Paz, after a long march of more than 100 km which lasted for a week. The students were demanding from the government the increase in the university budget by 27%, the bare minimum to keep the universities open. Mesa is offering a meagre 3% alleging the government has no money. On April 20, 10,000 students from all over the country marched through the streets of La Paz, collapsing the city centre for several hours.

On April 22, the struggle of the students coincided with a national 24-hour strike of transport workers and small shopkeepers protesting against the increase in the prices of fuel and the government's new taxes on these sections.

Increasingly the government of Carlos Mesa is being uncovered in the eyes of the masses as a mere continuation of the government of the hated Sanchez gringo de Lozada, whom they overthrew in the October uprising. This process would have been even quicker if the leaders of the workers' and peasants' organisations would not have given Mesa a truce, which spread illusions that he could somehow apply a different policy.

Mesa's government is a bourgeois government, but having arrived to power as a result of a mass insurrection it was forced in the first few days to make all sorts of promises to the movement of workers and peasants. However these promises have not been fulfilled. As we explained in previous articles, in a situation like the one facing Bolivia, where the State finances are to all effects bankrupt, the margin for the government to make any concessions is almost non-existent. Mesa went very fast from being a government "without parties" to having broad parliamentary support from the same coalition of bourgeois parties which supported the Sanchez de Lozada government, which forced Mesa to abandon even the slightest attempt to make the capitalists and the multinationals pay part of the burden of the crisis.

On April 21, as thousands of students were marching against the government, Mesa was in Buenos Aires signing the sale of gas to Argentina. This decision could prove fatal for Mesa, since it was precisely the opposition to the sale of gas that provided the spark which ignited the October insurrection. The agreement for the sale of 4 million cubic tonnes of gas for a period of six months, is made to comply with the demands of the multinationals which would win some 170 million dollars, while the Bolivian state would only get 25 million. Furthermore, Bolivian gas, sold at the ridiculous price of 0,98 dollars per thousand cubic feet, would allow Argentina to solve its temporary energy problems and … restart the sale of gas to Chile! This way, Mesa, who has spent the last few months demagogically raising the banner of a seaport for Bolivia and whipping up anti-Chilean feelings, has ended up signing the sale of gas to Chile, showing that the ruling class has no fatherland, only economic interests.

In order to try to stop the growing anger of the population, the government has used all possible tricks. On April 15, the day when the COB had called marches in all the main cities, former dictator García Meza, of the infamous "delinquent dictatorship" at the beginning of the 1980s, came out with a statement from jail saying that Jaime Solares had been a police informant at the time. This attempt to discredit the COB leader, repeated in all the capitalist media, had no effect.

Mesa's government also has a "left leg" to support it: the leaders of the MAS. They have concentrated their strategy in winning the next elections. Evo Morales' support for Mesa has reached the point where he even went to Caracas to ask the Chavez government for a loan to bail out the Bolivian state finances.

A report written for the La Paz Departament COB with the title "MBL, MAS, MIP and "mega-coalition" trade union bureaucrats jump on the power bandwagon", clearly explains the policies of the MAS leadeship:

"The MAS has propagated within the ranks of the workers the argument that power must be won "progressively" and in an "intelligent way" since right now there is a "very dangerous conjunctural contradiction": 1) the maintenance of "democracy" – that is Mesa's constitutional government – or 2) the "putchist" attempts of the "oligarchy" – represented by the MNR, the MIR and NFR- which in October was pushed out of power.

"With this idea, the MAS has set itself the task, within the social organisations, to vehemently "reject" the "extremist positions" of COB leader Jaime Solares whom, together with some trade union organisations questions the "continuist and neoliberal" Carlos Mesa". (published by Econoticiasbolivia.com).

According to the same report, the MAS has important points of support in the leadership of a number of unions and regional trade unions. The policy of "critical support" to Mesa has meant for instance that the El Alto COB Region did not attend the COB meeting in Huanuni, where the decision to strike from May 2 was taken. Despite this, the El Alto leader of the October insurrection, Roberto de la Cruz, spoke openly against the government. Even for the leaders of the MAS is becoming increasingly more difficult to justify their support for Mesa, particularly after the decision to sell the gas to Argentina.

The report from the La Paz Department of the COB, explains how the rank and file is starting to rebel against them: "Although we must underline that some sections of the rank and file of the neighbourhood juntas and the El Alto Region of the COB, from below, have started to bitterly question the "negotiating" and "privileged" position of their highest leaders. In this respect anything could happen. The severe beating up suffered, on Tuesday March 30, by the neighbourhood leader and MAS member, Mauricio Cori, shows that the rank and file organisations and the neighbours are not prepared to allow the shameful negotiation with the October martyrs. On March 31, Cori was suspended by the neighbourhood juntas for "trading for jobs" with the local council and for trade union "corruption" (ibid).

Thus, the MAS needs to use the "danger of a military coup by the reactionary right" to justify their support to Mesa: "Others who expressed their worries about the growing crisis and social convulsion which Bolivia is living through were the representatives of the Catholic Church, the Human Rights Assembly and the Ombudsman, who called on the radicalised social sectors not to put so much pressure on the current government and to look after democracy. A similar statement was made by the leaders of the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) led by coca-growers leader Evo Morales, who continued to raise the spectre of a military coup if protest against Mesa continue." (Econoticiasbolivia.com, 22/4/04).

Faced with the protests of the last few days, MAS MP Gustavo Rico accused the MNR, MIR, NFR and the UCS [right wing parties] of being behind the mobilisations of transport workers and university students and appealed to "form a block to defend democracy" (El Diario, 23/4/04). The irony is that the UCS itself, through its national leader Johnny Fernandez demanded: "that once and for all mister Carlos Mesa must reign in against all those insurgents who want to destabilise his government" (ibid), and repeated the appeal of the MAS "for the unity of the political class to support democracy".

There is no doubt that the most reactionary sections of the ruling class and within the military clique are seriously discussing the need for a military coup in order to re-establish law and order and as the only way to avoid a new insurrection like those of February and October last year. However the decisive sections of the oligarchy, the multinationals and US imperialism still see Mesa's government as the best option to defend their system. This could change if Mesa proved to be unable to carry out the austerity measures that the ruling class needs. In that case they could try to replace him by forcing early elections. They are aware that an attempted military coup could unleash a reaction on the part of workers and peasants which could further radicalise the whole process and raise the question of power.

In any case the policy of the MAS leaders is completely criminal, since in the name of saving democracy they are supporting the very government which is faithfully implementing the diktats of the oligarchy and imperialism (including the sale of gas).

The crisis of capitalism in Bolivia has reached such a point that a decisive clash between the classes is inevitable. This could take place as a result of the May 2nd general strike. But in order to guarantee victory the lessons of the two previous insurrections must be learnt. In both cases the working class and the peasants could have taken power and the only thing that failed was the lack of a revolutionary party. In a number of meetings of the national leadership of the COB this was discussed in depth, but so far no practical steps have been taken to start to build the revolutionary leadership which is needed in order to guarantee the victory of workers and peasants.

The leadership of the COB, around Solares, in a confused way is reaching the conclusion of the need for a political tool for the taking of power by the working class. The same La Paz COB report explains how: "the organisations of the [Anti - neo liberal Trade Union] Block, are right now involved in a process of re-organisation and discussion. Within it we can see different positions. The central debate of this group points towards "the need to build an organisation which goes beyond the purely trade union and sector-by-sector demands". They do not talk of a "revolutionary party" in classical terms, but are advancing more or less in that direction. However we can also see how the present reconfiguration of the balance of forces has disoriented many of its leaders who do not yet find a light to illuminate their daily actions"

Here lies the main contradiction which needs to be solved. The most advanced activists of the trade unions, peasant and neighbourhood organisations and amongst the youth, must unite around a Marxist programme, so that the next battle can be victorious. The May 2nd general strike is not a "normal" strike, and in the current conditions could actually raise the question of power again. But for this to be solved in a favourable way there should be a call for a revolutionary People's Assembly made up of delegates elected and recallable from all factories, mines, peasant villages, working class neighbourhoods and universities which could raise a workers' power as an alternative to the "democracy" of the rich and the multinationals. To this we should add the organisation of workers' and peasants' militias to defeat any attempted coup and to defend such workers' power. Only the taking of power by workers and peasants can put an end to the crisis Bolivia is experiencing and put its resources in the hands of working people.