Bolivia: a revolutionary offensive of workers and peasants is needed

The situation in Bolivia has undergone a sharp change in the last few days. Faced with a new upsurge of the mass struggle against the policies of the Mesa government, a movement in favour of the expulsion of Aguas de Illimani (the water company controlled by French multinational Suez), and for the nationalisation of hydrocarbons, the forces of reaction decided to go on the offensive by using bourgeois institutions, their mass media and the reactionary mobilisation of sections of the petty bourgeoisie.

The situation in Bolivia has undergone a sharp change in the last few days. Faced with a new upsurge of the mass struggle against the policies of the Mesa government, a movement in favour of the expulsion of Aguas de Illimani (the water company controlled by French multinational Suez), and for the nationalisation of hydrocarbons, the forces of reaction, led by the multinationals and the oligarchy, decided to go on the offensive by using bourgeois institutions, their mass media and the reactionary mobilisation of sections of the petty bourgeoisie.

Bolivia is a country with massive oil and gas resources, which have an estimated value of more than 100 billion dollars. This is 16 times the country’s foreign debt, and 130 times its annual state investment. For every dollar that the imperialist oil companies invest they earn 10 times that amount. Sixty percent of the population live under the poverty line. The control and exploitation of these resources on the part of Bolivian workers and peasants is therefore vital in raising them out of poverty and misery.

Since the overthrow of Sánchez de Lozada in October 2003, the ruling class and the imperialists feel that they are acting with one hand tied behind their backs, making it impossible for them to fully apply their policies. Every measure decreed over the last year by the Mesa government, designed to put the burden of the crisis on the shoulders of Bolivian workers and peasants and to ensure the business interests of the multinationals, has been faced with mass mobilisations which forced the Mesa government to back track, delay, paralyse or partially apply most of these measures.

In the last few weeks, sections of the oligarchy, unhappy with Mesa’s “softness”, threatened to break away from Bolivia, like in Santa Cruz and Tarija (the country’s richest areas where the main oil and gas reserves are located), demanding “autonomy” with full powers.

Mesa’s resignation

Over the last week, the popular protests called by the Neighbourhood Juntas, the COB (the trade union confederation) and other peasant and popular organisations have become increasingly radical.

This was linked to Mesa’s decision to renege on his promise to cancel the contract to Aguas de Illimani, the company that controls the water supply to the cities of El Alto and La Paz. Above all, this radicalisation is linked with Parliament’s approval on March 3 of a hydrocarbons law project which will benefit the multinationals, ratified the contracts they received during the Goñi (Sanchez de Lozada) mandate, and established payments of only 18% of the companies’ profits, instead of the 50% demanded by the MAS (Movement Towards Socialism).

This situation left Evo Morales’ MAS with no other alternative but to announce they were joining the protests, which potentially threatened to give the movement a mass character not seen since the fall of Sánchez de Lozada in October 2003. The ruling class panicked.

The perspective of the MAS going from a mere parliamentary opposition group to one of opposition in the streets is highly significant. We should not forget that the MAS, against the wishes of its rank and file and those of the COB, was the main point of support for the Mesa government over the course of the last year, giving credibility to the hydrocarbons referendum of last July, while accusing the COB and other peoples’ organisations of playing into the hands of reaction by mobilising workers and peasants against the reactionary policies of Mesa.

It is in this context that we must see Mesa’s manoeuvre last Sunday (March 6). This cynical and astute bourgeois politician decided to organize a grotesque spectacle around his “resignation” as President of the Republic. In a classical Bonapartist manoeuvre he gave an ultimatum to the country: “Me or chaos”.

The intention of Mesa was to deactivate the social protests, and to criminalise Evo Morales, the MAS and the COB, in order to whip up the hatred of the middle classes against the popular mobilisation, its leaders and its organisations. The other aim of Mesa’s resignation threat was to discipline the different sections of the ruling class, particularly the oligarchy of Santa Cruz, which with its threats of “autonomy” was only exacerbating social instability.

This farce ended in a “national agreement” in Parliament – promoted by the Church, the bosses’ organisations and the imperialists – in which all right-wing parties and those parties of the oligarchy (MNR, NFR and MIR) agreed to four points:

- to ratify the Hydrocarbons Law, which reinforces the private ownership of these resources in exchange for a mere 18% of its profits

- the election of regional governors by universal suffrage

- a referendum on “autonomy” which would create eight autonomous regions in order to satisfy the different local oligarchies

- the calling of a Constituent Assembly in order to draw up a new constitution.

In this way, they used parliamentary tricks in order to give a democratic façade to the selling off of the country’s natural resources to the voracious interests of the oligarchy and foreign multinationals. With the celebration of a referendum on “autonomy”, the oligarchy of Santa Cruz and Tarija want a legal mechanism in order to use the resources of these regions to their own benefit. They are also preparing a legal safeguard which would facilitate their unilateral independence in case the workers and peasants take power in La Paz, thus guaranteeing to the multinationals that the ownership over the oil and gas fields will remain firmly in their hands. In this context the reactionary character of this demand for “autonomy” could not be clearer. Only a workers’ and peasants’ government would be able to guarantee genuine control and management over the natural resources to the different communities in Bolivia, while ensuring the common planning of all its resources.

Reaction tests its forces in the streets

Mesa, in his statement in Parliament on the evening of March 8, went even further and called on the population to mobilise on Thursday, March 10 in the country’s main squares against the road blockades organised by the COB, the MAS and other organisations. He also asked the country’s State Attorney to take legal action against anybody who participated in these roadblocks.

Until that point the reaction had not dared to bring their people on to the streets to face the protests of workers and peasants. Already, at the gathering on Tuesday evening, hundreds of people went to the presidential palace to cheer Mesa after the signing of the “national agreement” and were demanding “mano dura” (“a strong hand”). The beatings of peasants, workers and students at the hands of bands of thugs from the upper class neighbourhoods in Cochabamba on Monday, March 7 or the beating and arrest by the police of 104 bus drivers on Wednesday in Santa Cruz, are a small taste of what will happen to workers and peasants if they allow the reaction to raise its ugly head.

In response to Mesa’s provocation, the COB, the neighbourhood federations (FEJUVES), the peasants’ union CSUTCB, the MAS and other organisations agreed on Wednesday, March 9 to organise a united front to maintain and spread the mobilisations and road blockades. This step was extremely correct since a demobilisation called by the workers’, peasants’ and left-wing leaders in this situation would have had demoralizing consequences and would have strengthened and encouraged the reaction even more.

The pro-Mesa rallies on Thursday did not have the expected mass character. Barely 5,000 people turned up in La Paz, and similar figures (in some cases even fewer people came out) turned up in the other main cities. This despite the fact that the government, official institutions and the main business federation gave workers paid leave to allow them to participate, and in some cases put pressure on them to attend. The overwhelming majority of those taking part in these reactionary rallies came from the upper and middle-class districts of the cities. It was only in the south, in Tarija, that the rallies had more of a mass character since the Tarija oligarchy, imitating its colleagues in Santa Cruz, had demagogically raised the issue of “autonomy” in order to win a certain basis amongst the middle class and the more politically backward layers of the workers and peasants.

In Cochabamba, the reactionary rally had to be postponed until the afternoon, because the popular organisations called for a counter march at the same time and place. In La Paz there were clashes between workers and peasants and Mesa’s supporters.

On the other hand road blockades have actually spread during the last couple of days. As described in a report: “in the last few hours the number of road blockades has increased in relation to Tuesday. The number of roadblocks increased from 24 to 39 and intensified in the areas of La Paz, Cochabamba, Santa Cruz and Potosí.” (, March 10th)

Cabildo Abierto in El Alto

Furthermore, all the organisations involved in the struggle have called an enlarged national coordination meeting in the Chaparé region, in order to discuss a plan of struggle to be implemented by all social and popular sectors. (, March 10).

This is the right path to take. Faced with a reactionary offensive we must reply with a united fight back in order to strengthen and increase the morale of workers and peasants and to bring demoralisation and division into the camp of our enemies.

In fact, the first divisions within the bourgeois camp have already appeared. Many leaders of the MNR, NFR and MIR, have distanced themselves from Mesa, criticising the appeal to rally against the blockades, out of fear that this could further increase polarisation in society and radicalise the mass movement.

Even yesterday, the media reported that the Mesa government would go back to cancelling the contract with Aguas de Illimani, reaching an agreement with the company so it would not lodge a complaint for breach of contract, and that the management of the water company would be given over to a consortium made of government representatives and representatives from the neighbours of El Alto (La Razón, March 10).

Even Mesa himself was compelled to call a meeting with Morales and Solares yesterday afternoon in order to try to reach a deal which would deactivate the social protest. But after four hours no agreement was reached.

Mesa clearly miscalculated. He naively thought that it would be easy to fool the majority of the population, denouncing the workers’ and peoples’ organisations as lunatics and “radical”, dreaming that gatherings of hundreds of thousands would give him support yesterday (March 10). Not only was he unable to mobilise even a tenth of that number, but he pushed the organisations in struggle towards greater unity and determination.

As it could not be otherwise, the most significant support for Mesa came from abroad. Kirchner and Lula behaved like the lapdogs of imperialism by offering unreserved support for Mesa.

In this way, the pantomime he had organised became completely useless. The social basis for reaction, particularly in the Altiplano [High Plateau] proved to be extremely weak.

The problem is that Mesa cannot make any serious concession on the issue of hydrocarbons not only because that would irritate the companies, but because the workers and peasants are not prepared to accept anything short of the nationalisation of the resources that belong to the people. Morales and Solares, leaders of the MAS and the COB respectively, cannot be satisfied with offering some small crumbs to their rank and file members. Therefore a heightening of the conflict is inevitable.

A revolutionary perspective for taking power is lacking

After a year and a half, we find ourselves in the same situation as on October 17, 2003. At this time the Mesa government was unable to satisfy any of the demands of the Bolivian workers and peasants, as we explained in El Militante from the very beginning.

Mesa was the trusted lieutenant of Goñi Sánchez de Lozada as a member of his government and Vice President of the Republic. These were two positions that he very cunningly abandoned one week before the mass movement overthrew Goñi in October 2003.

However, lacking a real revolutionary strategy and the perspective of socialist revolution, the leaders of the MAS and the COB handed power to Mesa – power that the Bolivian workers and peasants had within their grasp (see also Bolivia: first balance-sheet of the insurrection - “A revolutionary party was missing”). Not only that, but they appealed to workers, peasants and wide layers of the middle class which sympathised with the revolution, to trust Mesa, giving him a 90 day truce. Later, the leadership of the MAS extended the truce to one year so that he would be able to carry out the “October Agenda”, the main demand of which was the nationalisation of hydrocarbons.

This was a serious mistake, as has now been proven. Mesa will never fulfil the demands of the people. Only a workers’ and peasants’ government, which undertakes the expropriation of the multinationals and the oligarchy, will be in a position to do so.

Since last years’ struggle did not lead to any decisive result, despite the countless roadblocks, mobilisations and strikes (many of them isolated and not coordinated with one another), this gave the ruling class some breathing space to gather important layers of the middle class around them. The middle class, tired of so many convulsions, strikes and mobilisations, is now shifting in the direction of “order” and a “strong hand”, as we have seen in the last few days, and in the mass mobilisation in Santa Cruz and Tarija in favour of “autonomy”.

The danger could be that if this “indefinite” situation lasts too long, exhaustion and scepticism could set in amongst the workers and peasants, especially if they see that their struggles do not lead anywhere and the crisis continues to hit them, thus weakening the struggle. If that moment were to be reached, then the reaction, basing itself in the more or less active support of a section of the middle class, would not hesitate to strike a decisive blow against the mass movement through a military coup. The mass movement could be caught with its guard down.

Luckily we are still a long way away from such a situation. The mass movement has shown unbreakable vitality. When faced with the first serious attempt of reaction to raise its ugly head since the fall of Goñi, the popular response has been truly inspiring. If Mesa does not dare to use bloody repression against the roadblocks and mobilisations, it is not because of his humanitarianism, but because he is painfully aware that the bloody repression of the movement would only radicalise the struggle and provoke a new popular uprising, like in October 2003.

We are now at a decisive juncture, like on the eve of the revolutionary overthrow of Goñi. Millions of workers and peasants are debating what road to take in meetings in public squares, in workshops and factories, and in the barren slopes of the fields. The majority are looking to their leaders for orientation. This is why it is crucial to draw all the right lessons from the experience of the last 15 months.

Reform or Revolution

The main weakness of the Bolivian revolution is the lack of an audacious leadership, which equipped with the right tactics, programme and demands, would be able to concentrate the revolutionary energy of the masses towards the taking of power.

While workers and peasants crave unity, as demonstrated in all their mobilisations, the leaders of the organisations are dominated by ideas of dispersion, vacillation and the lack of clear aims.

In general, the movement is divided between a reformist wing, represented by the leadership of the MAS and a more left-wing section, represented by the current leadership of the COB which, at least in words, talks of the need to form a revolutionary worker-peasant government.

The entire policy of the MAS and particularly that of Evo Morales, has come up against the brick wall of reality. They have been used by Mesa in order to give a “left-wing” cover to his policies, leading to the confusion and disorientation of the honest cadres of the MAS and a large section of its rank and file. Finally, this will lead to a crisis within the MAS itself, where a right wing has crystallized within the parliamentary group, which is moving increasingly closer to Mesa. Now Morales, under pressure from below, has joined the COB and other peasant and popular organisations by coming out into active opposition to Mesa. This has earned him the criticism of the right wing of his own party, which has no influence amongst the rank and file.

However, Morales has still not raised an alternative that goes beyond the limits of capitalism. Even on the question of hydrocarbons, Morales does not talk of the need to cancel the contracts with the multinationals, but speaks about asking them to pay 50% of their profits. This is a step forward compared to the 18% demanded by Mesa, but does not raise the crucial point of the ownership of these resources, which would remain in the hands of foreign companies.

On the other hand, the leaders of the COB have denounced Mesa for a long time, and have promoted the most important mobilisations against his policies. Solares (the main leader of the COB) is even talking of taking power and installing a workers’ and peasants’ government.

This is completely correct and is what is needed. But Solares should translate his words into action. The COB is using the mobilisations to put pressure on Mesa and force him to change his policy. But this in itself is not enough. Experience has shown that the struggle for the nationalisation of hydrocarbons and the struggle to lift the majority of the population out of misery and poverty are not compatible with the rule of society by the oligarchy and the multinationals, which are dictating Mesa’s policies.

Danger of repression

The mobilisations must be used to get the largest number of workers involved, combining the struggle for partial demands – better wages, jobs, against price increases, higher taxes for the rich, etc – with the more general demands for the nationalisation of hydrocarbons, for land reform, for the nationalisation of the banks and the country’s main productive sectors. The consciousness of workers must be raised, by explaining clearly that only by those from below taking power can the problems we are facing be solved. At the same time committees of struggle and popular assemblies should be set up in every town and city, neighbourhood, workplace and peasant community, which would be a channel for conscious participation in the struggle. Together with this, self-defence committees should be set up to defend our communities, neighbourhoods and mobilisations from the reactionary gangs and the police.

A genuine revolutionary strategy for the taking of power should base itself on these local committees and assemblies, so that they are transformed from organisations of struggle into genuine bodies of workers’ power in Bolivia.

Depending on the spread, the level of maturity and the political consciousness reached by the struggle of the masses, when that moment is reached, there should be the calling of a Popular Assembly, made up of the representatives elected in these rank and file bodies, as a genuine body representative of the poor people of Bolivia, and that this Popular Assembly takes power in the country, as should have happened in October 2003.

The trap of the Constituent Assembly

The call for a Constituent Assembly has become one of the most important demands in the Bolivian revolutionary process. The most surprising thing is that this demand is defended, almost without exception, by all groups and political tendencies in Bolivia: from right to left, from business and imperialist parties to workers’ and peasants’ organisations. How can this be so? The truth is that this demand was artificially introduced from outside into the revolutionary movement. It was not born from a need of the movement itself. Concretely, the demand of the Constituent Assembly did not play any role at all in mobilising the masses for the struggle, nor to stimulate the insurrectionary mobilisation that overthrew Goñi. This is a fact that requires no discussion. Furthermore, this demand is so innocuous to the Bolivian ruling class and the imperialists that even Mesa has appealed for a Constituent Assembly to be called this year.

Regrettably, since the leaders of the workers, peasants and of the left constantly insist on this demand as some sort of panacea that can solve all the problems of the masses, they have inevitably given credit to it and currently it is part of their banner of struggle.

Historically the calling of a Constituent Assembly would be justified in order to achieve democratic rights for the population: freedom of speech, the right to demonstrate, the right to organise, etc. All of these rights already exist in Bolivia. What role can the agitation for a Constituent Assembly play in this situation? It only serves to disorient and confuse the masses from their real revolutionary aims. What this demand does is derail the movement towards a parliamentary solution to something that can only be solved in a revolutionary way with revolutionary solutions by the masses in the streets. As if a new constitution (the only reason for calling for such a body) could solve the social problems without previously expropriating the land, the monopolies and the banks, which are in the hands of the oligarchy, the national bourgeoisie and the multinationals. In order to do this we are faced again with the need of the working class and poor peasants taking power.

Mesa will undoubtedly use the calling of a Constituent Assembly in order to fool the masses once again, as he did with the gas referendum a few months back. Once the social situation threatens to spill over, they will ask the masses to stop and wait for a few months for the calling of such a body. As it is happening currently with the Hydrocarbons Law, the oligarchy and Mesa have spent more than a year with parliamentary procedures, delaying the final approval of this law. In the meantime, the multinationals continue to exploit the resources and make profits, while there seems to be no end in sight to the parliamentary discussions. With the Constituent Assembly we will see a similar situation. Every new article of the law will take weeks or months to be passed, and meanwhile the masses will be asked to be patient until all the articles are passed. Meanwhile, all the old laws will continue to work. What the ruling class is trying to do is to win some time, exhaust the masses with endless parliamentary tricks and wait for a better opportunity to strike a decisive blow.

On the contrary, in Bolivia the context is extremely favourable to explain to the masses the limits of bourgeois parliamentarism, its falsehood, and its tricks. Why then insist on parliamentary alternatives like a Constituent Assembly? The current “support” for Mesa in parliament is a faithful demonstration of the “representative nature” and the working of the bodies of bourgeois democracy. The parties that today dominate Congress are the same parties that formed the so-called Mega-Coalition in support of Goñi, and that was overthrown by the October insurrection. They lack the social basis of support and prestige and only remain in power because of the automatism of bourgeois society. It is a den of counter-revolutionary cowards, and so far they do not have the force to try to discipline to the masses. They are simply the lackeys of imperialism. These people cannot remain at the head of society. They must be overthrown.

We are in favour of the widest democracy. But we explain that the most democratic regime that there can be is one based on direct democracy from below through assemblies and committees that elect their representatives to a nation wide Popular Assembly. This would guarantee common ownership over the resources of the nation under the democratic control of workers and peasants. That is, a regime of genuine workers’ democracy, genuine socialist democracy, in which every workers’ or peasants’ representative, or functionary, can be immediately recalled at any time by those who elected them, and whose wage would not be higher than that of a skilled worker. This would be a society where the tasks of the administration and running of society would be carried out in turns by the population as a whole, in order to prevent careerism and bureaucratism, and where there would be no standing army separate and apart from the people, but rather where the people are armed through workers’ and peasants’ militias.

Many Bolivian workers and peasants, in an intuitive way, probably identify the Constituent Assembly with the idea of workers’ power. But both bodies are completely different. Let us be sincere, the truth is that some leaders, despite their honesty and selfless commitment to the struggle, are clinching to this slogan to hide their lack of confidence in the revolutionary capacity of the workers and peasants, and their lack of a clear programme and strategy for the victory of socialist revolution. This demand allows them to use revolutionary language about the need for workers’ power while at the same time allowing them to get away with not explaining in practice how such a power can be organised and fought for. For this reason, regardless of their sincerity and commitment to the cause, their actions lead them to play with revolution, and will not lead to revolutionary victory.

It is therefore urgent that the leading revolutionary cadres in Bolivia honestly re-examine the situation and make a turn in the direction of the correct slogans, tactics and strategy which can make possible the victory of workers’ power in Bolivia.

The workers’ and peasants’ revolution is the only alternative and the only way to put an end to hunger, unemployment and low wages, to put an end to the oppression of the Indian peoples, and to cut across the reactionary plans of the oligarchy and the imperialists. A revolutionary socialist Bolivia would have an enormous impact throughout the region, accelerating the process that is being prepared in Perú, Ecuador and in Latin America as a whole. US imperialism would be paralysed and unable to intervene because it would face insurrections everywhere and a mass movement within its own borders. The only thing that is missing is a bold leadership, armed with a correct policy and programme.

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