Bolivia: the revolution becomes more widespread

After a day of mourning and of relative calm on Tuesday October 14, the revolutionary movement in Bolivia has continued to grow in strength, boldness, organisation and also to spread further. It is a classic revolutionary situation where elements of dual power now exist, with the masses controlling the streets and the President prisoner in his own residence.

After a day of mourning and of relative calm on Tuesday October 14, the revolutionary movement in Bolivia, which was sparked off by the attempt of the government to sell off the country's natural gas resources to the multinationals, has continued to grow in strength, boldness, organisation and also to spread further.

In the days after the battle of La Paz on Monday 13, in which tens of thousands of workers, miners, peasants and local people from La Paz and El Alto clashed with the army and the police for more than ten hours, the general strike movement which has now entered its third week, has been further strengthened by the complete stoppage in the whole of the Western part of the country and by the spreading of the mobilisations to the Eastern provinces, which so far had been largely unaffected.

Now the general strike is solid in Potosi, Oruro, Sucre, while in Cochabamba thousands of workers, peasants and youth are clashing with the army and the police for the control of the streets. Even in Santa Cruz, in the heart of the country's Eastern region, which has always been traditionally more conservative, there are people's mobilisations and three columns of peasants are marching on the city from the neighbouring areas.

On Tuesday 14, the movement buried the people who had been killed by the Army on Monday (nearly 30), and there were mass demonstrations in the streets of Cochabamba, Oruro, Potosi, Sucre and in the north of Santa Cruz in Yapacani, where thousands upon thousands of workers, students, middle class layers and local people from the poorest neighbourhoods went out onto the streets to protest against the massacres which had taken place in El Alto and La Paz. In many cities the demonstrations were the largest ever seen in history.

From all over the country there were reports of mass rallies of workers, miners, peasants and local people taking the decision to march on the capital. They had one aim in mind: to force the resignation of the hated president Sanchez de Lozada.

Workers self-defence and splits in the army

During the demonstration in La Paz, Jaime Solares, the general secretary of the Bolivian Workers' Union (COB), made an appeal to trade union and people's organisations to create immediately "self-defence committees to stop groups of hooligans who might want to take advantage of the social revolution" and also to prevent paramilitary groups that have been set up by the government from arresting and killing the leaders of the protest movement.

This is a very important step forward, and it is the result of the experience that the movement has made during the clashes of the last few days. It is clear that the masses of workers and peasants cannot fight the army with bare hands. In these self-defence committees the miners must play a crucial role, since they have access to, and know how, to handle explosives. The miners from Huanani, who have already been in the capital for the last two weeks, arrived with dynamite.

It is also extremely significant that the COB leaders listed among the tasks of these self-defence committees that of maintaining revolutionary order against hooligan elements. Every revolutionary movement, by shaking the structures of the old order tends to generate a certain degree of "chaos" which the lumpen elements can try to take advantage of. But it is also the case that in any revolutionary movement which acquires a certain depth, the workers themselves take into their own hands the tasks that in the past were performed by the police and the bourgeois state. These are the first steps towards the building of a new order, a workers' and peasants' democracy. This is the real attitude of the Bolivian workers, but this does not stop the capitalist media all over the world from trying to present the movement as "chaos, anarchy and mob-like".

However, the task of breaking down the army of the bourgeois state, which is the last bastion upon which the murderous government of Goni is basing itself for its own self-defence, cannot be reduced simply to a question of physical strength. It is very difficult that in normal conditions of bourgeois order the workers and the oppressed would be able to accumulate enough firepower to defeat the army in a purely military confrontation. However, a bourgeois army, faced with a determined and mass mobilisation of the workers, also tends to split along class lines, with the soldiers and some of the lower ranking officers joining the people, while the generals remain on the side of their own class, that of the oppressors.

We have already seen how in Bolivia during this ongoing movement important signals that splits have been emerging within the army. There have been reports of conscript soldiers refusing to shoot, and even statements from sections of the officers threatening to stop defending the government. In an interview on Erbol radio on Tuesday 14, an army officer, who wished to remain anonymous, made it clear that "Not everybody in the army supports the government." He also made an appeal to his comrades-in-arms "not to make a mistaken choice in case they have to take decisions of crucial importance for the country".

On the same day, lieutenant colonel Juan Carlos Ibanez, spokesperson for a so-called group of "patriotic officers" said that the government is bribing the army high command so that they will continue the repression of thousands of Bolivians who are on the streets, and he also added that his group supports the demands of the people.

A clear appeal to the soldiers to join the movement of workers and peasants, together with the setting up of a workers' self-defence force, could split a conscript army like the Bolivian one relatively easily. Already on Monday 13 in La Paz we saw how sections of the police stopped attacking the people and let the demonstrators go through, despite the fact that the aim of the people was clearly to overthrow the government. The Bolivian workers and peasants with an outstanding political instinct made appeals to their "brother policemen" to join the people and they found a ready audience.

In a country like Bolivia, completely devastated by two decades of cuts and attacks on the living standards of the masses, the government has been so crazy that they have made sever cutbacks in public spending which have even reached the point where for a long time now the wages of the police have been reduced to starvation levels. Over the last few years, this had already provoked a series of police mutinies against the government at key moments, such as during the uprising against water privatisation in Cochabamba in April 2000, and more recently during the February uprising when a section of the police fought together with the people against the army and the government. 

One of the leaders of the police mutineers spoke in the massive public rally in La Paz on Wednesday, October 15. Also, Guadalupe Cardenas, the main leader of the Federation of Policemen's Wives, demanded the resignation of the president and announced that her organisation would organise the blockade of the police stations in La Paz so that their husbands could not be used against the people.

US intervention

Rumours of divisions in the army have abounded in the last few days. On Tuesday 14, the commander of the armed forces, general Roberto Claros, stated that they do not support the government as an individual, but only as a part of a "legitimate government". Later on the Armed Forces issued an official statement declaring their support for Sanchez de Lozada.

The government is obviously deeply worried about this situation and Evo Morales, the leader of the MAS, has accused the US government of giving money to the armed forces in Bolivia in exchange for their support for the president. According to Morales, on Monday there was a meeting "between the US ambassador, the military high command and two criminals drug dealers and corrupt individuals, Oscar Smith and Carlos Sanchez Berzain, in order to hand over money to the Armed Forces".

The weekly magazine Pulso (www.pulsobolivia.com) also denounced the arrival of military equipment from the US to reinforce the Bolivian army. In an edition of Pulso which was sequestrated by government agents in the streets of La Paz early this week, the magazine denounces the presence in the country of four US agents who are de facto running the country and coordinating all the repressive measures of the last few weeks. Three of these men are operating from the Army General Staff headquarters itself. According to the Pulso article: "One of the three men who operates from the Miraflores Barracks is a kind of politico-military coordinator, who is in charge of concentrating and processing the information for the Bolivian army, and also for the US Embassy. The second of these military men is in charge of the general coordination of the three branches of the armed forces. His is the idea for instance of bringing "camba" soldiers to El Alto. The third of these men is in charge of logistics, the supply of ammunition and food to the Bolivian troops that are under his command (the US supplies are coming in Hercules planes from Miami). The fourth man operates from the embassy in Avenida Arce, and is the Defence Attaché to the Embassy, who is directly liasing with the Bolivian Minister of Defence, Carlos Sanchez Berzain. He is the link between the embassy and the presidential house, where the fictitious president lives and 'rules'."

The fact that US imperialism rules by remote control many of the Latin American governments should not really surprise any informed observer. But the details of how this domination is being implemented in a situation of crisis demonstrate in a very graphical way the impotence of the national bourgeoisie, which is completely reactionary, and a lackey of imperialism.

Elements of dual power

On Wednesday 15, La Paz became once again the centre of the movement with a massive "Cabildo Abierto" rally called by the COB. A cabildo abierto is an institution inherited from the times of Spanish rule. It is a meeting of the town councillors together with the whole of the inhabitants of the town to discuss matters of importance. In this case the cabildo called by the COB in San Francisco square was attended by more than 30,000 people - striking workers, Huanuni miners, local people from the from the capital's neighbourhoods and from El Alto.

The COB leaders made an appeal to strengthen the self-defence committees, the roadblocks and the overall level of mobilisation. At the same time it was announced that the first columns of peasants from Achachi and coca-farmers from Yungas had already arrived in the capital.

Also after this people's cabildo had taken place, and faced with, on the one side the brutality of the government and on the other the strength and determination of the workers' and peasants' movement, wide layers of the middle classes and the intellectuals started to join the protests organising hunger strikes and pickets.It is clear that the calling of cabildos abiertos in all towns and cities, to democratically decide the course of the strike could provide the basis for a new revolutionary power structure. It is precisely in El Alto - which has already given many lessons to the movement throughout the whole country - that we find the most advanced elements of workers' democracy.

Since the weekend, when the inhabitants of this city of nearly a million people clashed with the army for 48 hours, the government and its institutions have lost control of El Alto. Despite the fact that the army is still harassing the people of El Alto using methods of psychological warfare (probably under the advice of the US embassy), real power is in the hands of the people. The Federation of Neighbourhood Juntas and the Regional Workers' Committee of El Alto are the democratic expressions of the power of the workers and the people.

This is how Bolpress news agency describes the situation: "Who rules in El Alto? The 500 presidents of the Neighbourhood Juntas, the basic structures of urban and semi-urban organisation in the nine municipal districts in this city of a million people. The structure is as follows, the Federation of Neighbourhood Juntas has a president and a group of 20 leaders with various responsibilities who represent the nine districts. Then there are the district representatives (nine) who coordinate with the rank and file juntas. Then there are the 562 presidents of the neighbourhood juntas, which is the basic structure and the one which now (for the last nine days) has had in its hands the power in the city of El Alto".

The organised masses have destroyed the police stations and have decreed that those police officers who do not side with the workers will be expelled from the city. Econoticiasbolivia.com adds the following: "No one can come in or out without the permission of the neighbourhood committees, who are organised to fight the troops, to march on La Paz, to look after the children and the wounded. There is a communal kitchen in every block, every body shares their poverty, they are all the authority, the organised community. It is another state with its own rules and dreams" (October 15)

The elements of dual power are spreading like a red tide: "Further down, in the basin, in all the poor areas of La Paz, control is also in the hands of trade union and people's organisations, organised around the COB. The whole of the High Plateau, from Oruro to Potosi, the whole of the Western part of Bolivia is the hands of the peasants and local people who are blockading all roads, big and small" (ibid).

It is a classic revolutionary situation in which there are clear elements of dual power. On the one hand the official power of a government which is only supported by the (increasingly divided) army and Washington, and on the other hand the power of the workers which is winning ground and getting more organised.

The miners

In Bolivia, traditionally, the miners have always been the vanguard and the backbone of the labour movement. A column of 1,000 miners from Huanuni, the world's biggest tin mine, has already been in the capital since the beginning of the movement. On Monday 13, the miners as a whole decisively joined the struggle and they did so against the will of their official leaders. This was the case in the National Federation of Cooperative Miners which organises 50,000 miners, where the leadership had reached an agreement with the government on Monday, but under pressure from their own ranks who threatened to disobey them, later rectified their position and called all their members to march on the capital "by any means necessary". 

The cooperative miners of Huanuni, the area where COB leader Solares comes from, in an emergency mass meeting on Monday decided to forcefully occupy the mines belonging to president Lozada. On October 15, a column of 2,500 miners from Huanuni were stopped by the army in Patacamaya. We have received a message from Bolivia which reports the following events: "This morning they stopped a march of miners in Patacamaya, 100km from La Paz. There were journalists who broadcast the confrontation live. 10:32 the army and the police surrounded them and started shooting at the tyres of the trucks the miners had arrived in and tear-gassed them. Then the soldiers jumped onto the trucks, and while the miners were fleeing in all directions, they started to loot all the rucksacks and bags they could find, tearing up the miners' clothes and throwing away their food supplies, and then they put everything in a pile and burnt it. The journalist was reporting all this risking his own life. Then he was shot in the back, but continued to report with noise of shooting in the background. The miners tried to fight back and charged throwing sticks of dynamite, forcing the soldiers, and even the tanks, to withdraw a few meters. Then a plane appeared in the sky and started to machine-gun them from the sky. It seems that the dynamite ran out and the army counter-attacked and followed the miners into the houses. It was a massacre. The journalist stopped reporting and an hour and a half later when he managed to get connected again he said there were three miners dead in hospital and some 20 wounded, but that he also saw the army carrying away some of the wounded. There have been more than 77 killed and 400 wounded in 24 days".

Goni plays the "concessions" card

On the same day, October 15, the government again tried to save itself with an announcement of concessions while at the same time stepping up repression. Sanchez de Lozada announced the suspension of the selling off of the gas industry, the calling of a referendum on the issue and even announced the calling of a Constituent Assembly. But once again, as with the "concessions" he had announced on Monday morning, the movement has replied in a united fashion with a sharp rejection of his offers. The "concessions" furthermore are not real concessions, since the referendum would only be consultative and the constituent assembly would not be set up until the end of his term in 2007!

At this stage, after more than 70 people have been killed by the army, the movement of the Bolivian workers and peasants only wants one thing from the president: for him to leave the country. One of the neighbourhood leaders from El Alto has gone even further: "now we do not want his resignation, we want the head of this criminal".

The president, in the same statement, justified repression and warned about a so-called narco-trade union conspiracy to overthrow the government. At the same time, he has unleashed a wave of repression. Armed hooded men sequestrate the editions of El Diario and of the weekly Pulso. Several radio stations, which were reporting about the mobilisations, have suffered bomb attacks. Groups of armed balaclava-clad government agents are hunting down the local leaders of the movement in order to eliminate them.

But nothing can now stop the movement, which has also taken steps forward in terms of organisation and unity, something which had been demanded by the rank and file workers and peasants. The spokesperson of the COB, Arsenio Alvarez has stated that: "The COB and 40 trade union and people's organisations have decided to centralise the struggle around the COB. No one is authorised to negotiate on his own. There is an agreement between the COB, "Mallku" Felipe Quispe, Evo Morales and Roberto de La Cruz to widen the mobilisation, the road blocks and the general strike". (Econoticiasbolivia.com)

Mistrust of the leaders, some of whom are responsible for having negotiated with the government during the February uprising, runs very strong. Even Solares, the COB secretary, in front of the masses at the cabildo abierto, warned those leaders who had any intention of negotiating with the government: "Be warned! If they negotiate, we will
hang them!"

The president's manoeuvre has been rejected, but it is important to note that amongst the points he had raised there was the calling of a Constituent Assembly. This proves what we had already warned of, that this demand, which has been raised mainly by the leaders of the MAS, is not one which can solve the problems of workers and peasants. On the contrary, it can be used by the ruling class as a smokescreen to maintain their rule. It is therefore a demand that creates confusion, weakens and disorientates the movement.

October 16

On October 16 there was another cabildo abierto in San Francisco square. This mass gathering "agreed to strengthen even further the social mobilisation in the whole country, and called on men and youth to be ready for street fighting against tanks and bullets. "We must dig trenches in every neighbourhood, in every block, we must create self-defence pickets" said the leader of the COB, the miner Jaime Solares, who also instructed the people to maintain the siege of the presidential palace which is being defended by tanks, trenches and very nervous soldiers". (Econoticiasbolivia.com)

The mobilisation which took place afterwards was the largest and at the same time the most radical since the revolutionary process started. Some put the figure of those taking part at 250,000. The demands were much more radical than the day before. The mass of workers and peasants are ready for anything. "Now is the time, civil war", shouted thousands of men, women, the elderly and children, waving thousands of sticks, with which they are fighting back against genocide and barbarism". (Econoticiasbolivia.com)

For more than eight hours the masses occupied the centre of the capital, vigilant, ready for the final battle. Many demanded that the presidential palace be taken, but the national and middle level leaders of the COB called for patience and to wait for the columns that still had not arrived in the capital. "The speeches are radical and they all say the same thing: the gringo must go! They all say the same thing, but don't know when or how. People are getting frustrated, they want more, they want to put an end once and for all to the president. The leaders try to calm the impatient rank and file, and they instruct them to maintain the siege, to stay on the streets, putting pressure on the Palace, occupying the city centre, exercising power, in waiting." (Econoticiasbolivia.com).

The mobilisation of the middle class in the form of strikes and in their participation in the marches increases and spreads throughout the country. Whether it was right or not to launch the final push on Thursday 16 or to wait for the arrival of reinforcements and deepen the mobilisation is something we cannot judge from a distance. A responsible revolutionary leadership should shy away from rushed decisions. However it is possible that one of the elements which make the leaders of the COB hesitant is the question, "and then what?"

In reality in Bolivia we have a situation of dual power. On the one hand the masses of workers and peasants, supported by the population as a whole, control the streets and are already building their own power. On the other hand the Washington puppet president is increasingly isolated. The problem is that if the COB takes a step forward, power would fall into their hands, and the truth is that the leaders - not even the most advanced - of this movement, do not have a perspective of what to do with the power. They have never raised a clear perspective to the movement on this, the perspective of the taking of power by the workers and peasants.

However it is possible that despite everything, pushed by the massive anger and determination of hundreds of thousands of Bolivians who have said enough is enough, they might yet take power. It would not be the first time that this has happened. In fact the history of Bolivia is rich in similar examples. In April 1952 the Bolivian masses entered the scene and took power. Also at that time the miners played the key role, occupying Oruro, where they defeated the army, and marched on to occupy La Paz. In La Paz the working class masses, led by armed miners, defeated the army, seized their weapons and overthrew the government.

At that time real power was in the hands of the workers and peasants, armed and organised in a 100,000 strong workers' militia under the control of the trade unions. However, the perspective of their leaders was not that of the taking of power by the workers. So a new government was formed by the MNR, which at that time was a bourgeois party with radical-sounding speeches. But there still remained elements of dual power, particularly since the government had no armed forces at its disposal.

Unable to disarm the workers immediately, the ruling class presented its most radical and left-wing face. The new government included Lechin, the leaders of the miners and of the newly established COB. And under the pressure of the revolutionary movement and of the masses which had occupied the land and had demanded the nationalisation of the mines, that government adopted a whole series of very progressive measures. But gradually, step by step, power was returned to the hands of the bourgeoisie.

The whole of the recent history of Bolivia is riddled with the contradiction between the enormous capacity to struggle of the masses and the political weakness of their leaders who, again and again, have wasted revolutionary opportunities.

The Bolivian workers and peasants are now facing that dilemma once again. Ironically, the MNR, which in 1952 represented a ruling class which under the pressure of a powerful working class was forced to make important concessions and adopt a radical language, even against imperialism, today represents the same ruling class, which in a situation of deep crisis, and under the crushing domination of Washington, can only offer the masses guns and bullets.

The question is clear, the only solution to the problems facing Bolivia as a whole is for the workers and peasants to take the reigns of the country into their own hands and use the natural resources and wealth of the country to the benefit of the majority.

Bolivia yesterday "celebrated" 21 years of capitalist democracy. This has only served to increase the gap between the rich and the poor and also to further impoverish the masses. Democracy has done away with the last remnants of what was won in the 1952 revolution. Only the socialist transformation of society can offer a way out. This, however, could not limit itself to staying within the borders of Bolivia, but would have to spread throughout the continent.

The revolutionary situation that exists in Bolivia is not an exception, but only the most recent expression of the revolutionary wave which has shaken the whole continent over the last five years. This is the direct result of the deep crisis of the capitalist system throughout the whole of Latin America. A victorious revolution in Bolivia would be a powerful beacon which would guide the struggle of the workers and peasants all over the continent.

The most immediate tasks are those which we have already mentioned in previous articles and which the Bolivian workers and peasants have already started to put in practice. From the organisational point of view what needs to be done is to spread and coordinate the democratic organisation of the movement, through open cabildos, neighbourhood juntas, strike committees. Furthermore, all these forms of democratic organisation from below should be coordinated through democratically elected delegates at local, regional, provincial and national level, culminating in a national assembly of delegates to decide on the future of the country.

Regarding the overthrow of "gringo" Goni, what needs to be done is the spreading and coordination of the self-defence committees under the democratic control of the committees of struggle and a political campaign amongst the ranks of the army and the police in order to widen their internal divisions, to paralyse them and to arm the movement.

The outcome of the revolutionary events in Bolivia is not a foregone conclusion. The ruling class is terrified and will try to make all sorts of concessions to save their system, including the formation of a provisional government of national salvation, excluding Sanchez de Lozada and including the MAS and the MIP, as well as the calling of a Constituent Assembly, etc.

The obstinate defence of Goni on the part of Washington, in reality may even radicalise and deepen the process further, preventing the Bolivian ruling class from being able to put replace Lozada from within the system. However, this apparently not very bright strategy is also the result of the fear that the imperialists have that the revolutionary overthrow of yet another bourgeois president in Latin America might set a very dangerous precedent. And they are right.

What is clear is the enormous will to struggle of the Bolivian masses and their ability to overcome all obstacles placed in their path - including the hesitation and confusion of their own leaders. The workers and the oppressed of Bolivia, in the words of Marx, can storm heaven. From the extremely rich experience of this revolutionary process the most advanced activists must draw the conclusion that they need to build a conscious Marxist leadership which would give the aspirations of the masses a finished and clear expression.

17 October 2003

See the original in Spanish.

Join Us

Join the International Marxist Tendency and help build a revolutionary organisation to participate in the struggle for socialism worldwide!

In order to join fill in this form and we will get back to you as soon as possible.