There is widespread opposition to the Mesa government, however the general strike that was supposed to take place in Februaray this did not take place. Jorge Martin looks at the factors that explain this. The situation remains an explosive one.
Together with the transport strike in February, the teachers' strike of March 17 is a further indication of the growing opposition against the Carlos Mesa government in Bolivia. Mesa only came to power as a by-product of the October revolutionary uprising, when the masses of workers and peasants had the opportunity of taking power. Then, it was only the lack of a clear programme on the part of the workers' leaders to strike the final blow against the bourgeois government that allowed the ruling class to find a replacement to the hated government of Goni the assassin.
However, as we said at the time, the situation of acute social, economic and political crisis which is facing Bolivia, would lead, sooner or later, to another open clash between the classes. Already on January 22, the Bolivian Workers' Union announced the calling of an indefinite national strike with the stated aim of replacing parliament with a Popular Assembly. This appeal, undoubtedly, reflected the will to struggle of the most advanced sections of the Bolivian labour movement and potentially had a revolutionary character, since it posed the question of power.
However, the announced general strike never materialised. It is difficult, from afar, to judge the reasons for that, but we can at least try to give an explanation. First of all, Mesa's government, when it announced its package of economic measures, faced with the open threat of an uprising, tried to soften the blow. Thus, for instance, instead of a general increase in the prices of gas and fuel, it announced their "liberalisation". In the long term, both things amount to the same thing. But because there was no sharp rise, but rather a small one, as part of a longer process of price increases, the measure was not seen as being so serious.
Also, as part of its economic plan, Mesa tried to increase taxes, in order to fill the empty coffers of the state, by implementing certain measures which went against the interests of the employers and the oil multinationals. Thus, Mesa had proposed a Net Property Tax, which would affect those owning houses or other property worth over 80,000 dollars. The proposed law on financial transactions would also have affected mainly the richest employers and the multinationals. Finally, the government had proposed a reform of the Hydrocarbons law which would make the collection of taxes on oil companies easier and more efficient (though the actual overall amount would only go up by a mere 50,000 US$).
In a very astute way, Mesa presented these measures as a tax on the rich, so that he would be able to justify the austerity measures proposed with the argument that "we must all make sacrifices".
All these factors clearly contributed temporarily to deflating the popular uprising which had been expected in February. But we must also stress another factor about which we had already warned. The trade union leaders announced an indefinite general strike and even raised the question of power without making the necessary preparatory work to make sure this was a success. Analysing the January 22 COB resolutions we already warned:
"Here we can see the limitations of centrist leaders, that is, those who stay midway between revolutionary Marxism and reformism. In situations of revolutionary upsurge of the masses, these kind of workers' leaders can adopt a very radical and even formally Marxist language, but in general they are unable to accompany this language with the practical measures to prepare the taking of power which are completely necessary to guarantee victory. To pose the question of taking power without having made detailed preparations, having won over a majority of the working class to that perspective and having made the necessary military preparations, is extremely dangerous and leads to defeat."(Bolivia is moving towards a third uprising, February 9, 2004)
However as we said from the beginning, Mesa's government is a weak government which has no room for manoeuvre. In less than a month, all the measures in the budget that were aimed at getting more money from the rich had been withdrawn.
Mesa's government, faced with the iron opposition of the ruling class, made concessions on all points. On March 5, it abandoned the idea of a Net Property Tax, and on March 8, the Minister of Mining and Hydrocarbons resigned faced with the pressure from the multinationals against the projected reform of the Hydrocarbons Law. Finally the law on Financial Transactions was watered down with a 33% decrease in the level of the projected tax.
Reducing fiscal pressure on the rich inevitably means increasing the pressure on workers, peasants and the impoverished layers of the middle class. In order to replace the projected tax revenue from the measures announced in February, now Mesa wants to make those owning property over 10,000 dollars to pay tax twice, to the local council and also to the central state, a measure which hits directly the middle class. In a statement to Unitel TV station, a resident from Villa Copacabana in La Paz, summed up the meaning of these measures: "Mesa has pulled his pants down in front of the Santa Cruz employers and now wants us to pay" (Econoticiasbolivia.com, March 9). The Santa Cruz employers and the oil multinationals are not the only ones who have been putting pressure on the government. There are also the embassies of the US, Brazil and Spain. It has been clearly revealed who is actually ruling Bolivia: imperialism and its local lackeys.
The elimination by Mesa of any measure, however mild, which would harm the interests of the oligarchy and the multinationals, has allowed him to reach a deal between his government and the parliamentary majority of the MNR and the MIR. The same parties which supported gringo Goni. Thus we have gone from a so-called "government without parties" to a government of the same parties that ruled before the October uprising.
Faced with this situation, the trade unions replied by calling a teachers' strike and trade union demonstrations on March 17. Once again, it is difficult to judge the impact of these actions, since the capitalist media are trying to hide the truth, as usual. One thing on which all reports agree is the fact that the demonstrations of the teachers and the COB on that day were attacked. Clearly, the bourgeois parties, feeling more strengthened as a result of the truce observed so far by the trade union leaders, organised their followers to attack and shout at the workers' demos. The trade unionists replied in a sharp manner against these provocations by defending their right to demonstrate with sticks, stones and dynamite.
These demonstrations will be followed by another national day of action on March 25 and the convening of the National Enlarged Meeting of the COB on April 7 in the mining stronghold of Huanuni.
Regardless of the result of these first skirmishes, the general outlines have not changed. From a capitalist point of view, Mesa's government, now with parliamentary support from the MNR and the MIR, can only solve the economic crisis of the country through a policy of austerity and attacks on workers and peasants. The patience of the latter is running out, and in fact, if their trade union leaders were up to the job, Mesa would have already fallen or would be about to fall.
The situation therefore, is still very explosive and any spark can again set the whole of the high plateau alight. The revolutionary movement of the masses of workers and youth in Bolivia has gone through a school extremely rich in experiences over the last four years. The class instinct of the miners, factory workers, people from El Alto, peasants and youth, has been on every occasion more advanced than that of their leaders, who have vacillated at the key moments and allowed opportunities to be missed.
The crucial task that can guarantee the heroic movement of the Bolivian masses can achieve victory, that is the taking of power by the worker in an alliance with their brothers and sisters in the countryside, is the building of a Marxist cadre organisation able to give them a correct lead.
The most advanced workers and youth, who are members of the COB unions, the organisations in El Alto, the peasant organisation in the CSTUCB, the MAS, and other organisations, must unite on the basis of a Marxist programme. And they must link this to the capacity of struggle of the working class of the high plateau, - which has been proven a thousand times over – and thus lead them to victory.