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Will the movement that toppled a president go further?
What next for Bolivia's rebellion?

November 14, 2003 | Page 8

TOM LEWIS looks at whether last month's mass rebellion in Bolivia, which drove out the despised U.S.-backed President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, represents a breakthrough for the workers' movement in Latin America.

THE BOLIVIAN working class is arguably the most militant in South America. Workers carried out one assault after another against the country's ruling elite from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century.

In 1952, Bolivia's miners marched on the capital city of La Paz and disarmed the military. Workers took control of the mines and redistributed the property of wealthy landowners among the landless poor.

Bolivia's main labor confederation--the Central Obrera Boliviana (COB)--and its workers' militias emerged as an alternative power rivaling the power of the bosses' state. But the leaders of the revolutionary movement eventually put their faith in middle-class politicians, who soon derailed the revolution and moved to strengthen Bolivian capitalism.

In 1970-71, workers again attacked the power of Bolivia's bosses. A split in the army and the ruling class created an opening for a united front of the COB, the state labor confederations, left parties, student groups and peasant organizations to call a Popular Assembly.

This time, however, the workers weren't armed. Their leaders instead trusted "progressive military officers" to insure the movement's goals. The political parties reached backroom deals that limited the reforms of the Popular Assembly. The tragic outcome was a right-wing coup and a brutal military dictatorship.

In the mid-1980s, 10,000 miners armed with dynamite sticks returned to La Paz. They occupied government buildings and won the support of rural workers, students and the city's population. But illusions in the new "democratic government" once again scuttled hopes for transforming society. Despite taking over La Paz, the miners gained nothing from their militancy.

The new government introduced the agenda of austerity and free-market measures known as neoliberalism to Bolivia in 1985, and the workers' movement has still not recovered from the bosses' offensive.

In each of the revolutionary moments of the last half-century, Bolivia's workers and their leaders looked to supposedly reform-minded middle-class politicians or to "progressive" army generals, to solve their problems. That is why the revolutions failed--and why the lives of workers and their families inevitably suffered.

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THE WORKERS' uprising that unfolded a month ago--between September 19 and October 17--clearly had the potential to bring down not only President Gonzalo Sánchez de Losada, but also the Bolivian state. The revolt embodied the raw force and class fury necessary to seize control of the country's political institutions.

Several factors brought this united mass movement together. First, the ruling class found itself on the defensive in recent months. Protests throughout the year caused Sánchez de Losada's approval ratings to drop to single digits and stay there. In particular, last February's tax rebellion revealed important divisions within the armed forces, as well as bitter antagonisms between local ruling elites and the national government.

Second, the Coalition for the Defense and Recuperation of Gas held a nationwide demonstration on September 19. More than 150,000 turned out in Bolivia's major cities.

Demonstrators demanded a moratorium on government plans to allow British and Spanish transnational corporations to export Bolivian natural gas to the U.S. under a contract that promised few, if any, benefits for Bolivia. The Gas Coalition argued for renationalizing petroleum and natural gas, for workers themselves to manage the extraction and processing of gas, and for society as a whole to democratically decide what to do with gas profits.

Third, the fight of Bolivia's indigenous population for self-determination became a key component of the anti-government movement. When soldiers massacred indigenous protesters in the town of Warisata, in the high plateau above La Paz, the killings galvanized rural workers, the unemployed and miners from the regional labor confederation (COR) into action.

Indigenous workers could be heard shouting, "Civil war! Civil war!" The next day, the Gas Coalition vowed solidarity with indigenous protesters.

Fourth, the COB's decision to call a general strike beginning September 30 propelled the rebellion forward. Declaring solidarity with the indigenous struggle and the gas protests, the COB announced that it aimed to halt government repression and block gas privatization.

The strike didn't fully get off the ground until its second week. But outrage at the mounting death toll eventually prompted workers to overcome fears of losing their jobs in retaliation for participating in the strike. With the weight of the organized working class firmly behind the protests, the momentum that had been building against Sánchez de Losada proved unstoppable.

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THE MOVEMENT Toward Socialism (Movimiento al Socialismo, or MAS) is the main opposition party in Bolivia. Its leader, Evo Morales, finished second by only one percentage point in last year's presidential election. Morales is also the leader of Bolivia's coca growers--or cocaleros--a powerful social movement representing more than 40,000 families whose livelihood has been destroyed by the U.S.-imposed program of coca plant eradication.

Morales didn't initially commit the cocaleros to building the October unrest. Although the growers did participate in the September 19 demonstration called by the Gas Coalition, Morales held back the bulk of his forces until the second week of the general strike--when it became apparent that he had to join in or risk losing credibility.

The MAS, too, balked at jumping into battle. According to Luis Arce Borja, a well-known analyst of the Latin American left, the main contribution of the MAS was not to advance the struggle, but to steer it in the direction of a negotiated settlement with establishment politicians.

Like Felipe Quispe, the head of the Bolivian Peasant Workers Union (Confederación Sindical Única de Trabajadores Campesinos de Bolivia, CSUTCB) in the high plateau, Morales intervened to save the Bolivian state. Both the MAS and CSUTCB lobbied hard for Vice President Carlos Mesa to succeed Sánchez de Lozada.

The MAS also called for a Popular Constituent Assembly to be held under aegis of the judicial branch of the government. And after Mesa's first speech as the new president, Morales declared that "80 percent of the [Mesa's] message" could have been written by the MAS.

A few days later, Morales was forced to tone down his enthusiasm. The government announced that it would go ahead with selling natural gas to the transnationals. It also reaffirmed its total commitment to the coca eradication program.

Nevertheless, the damage to the revolutionary movement caused by the MAS had already been done. Its electoral ambitions, as well as those of Quispe's, insured that it would act to stem the revolutionary tide. Once again, reform politicians led ordinary working people back into the arms of the bosses' state.

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DESPITE THIS lull, the fight for social justice in Bolivia is far from over. Leaders of the MAS, the Gas Coalition, the COB and other components of the social movements have said that "the Bolivian people are tired at the moment and still filled with illusions in the Mesa government." Now is a time for "making positive proposals instead of throwing rocks," they argue.

But the demands of the indigenous nations remain unfulfilled, the coca eradication program continues to ruin lives, and no action has been taken to give control of natural gas to the Bolivian people. The gas issue, in particular, pits the interests of working people against the interests of the bosses and their state.

The question of "who will control natural gas?" can't be resolved in the interests of Bolivian workers within the framework of capitalism and existing political institutions. Opposition to coca eradication also means an eventual face-off with U.S. imperialism.

Following Sánchez de Losada's resignation, a mass meeting held by the COB in La Paz assessed the recent uprising and drew an important conclusion. "After initiating and leading a great social upheaval, which resulted in more than 70 deaths from government bullets and more than 500 wounded, the workers, the peasants, the oppressed nations and the impoverished middle classes did not bring down the power of the dominant class because they had no revolutionary party to rely on," concluded a report on the meeting.

The Bolivian revolution suffers from a similar weakness to the mass revolt in Argentina in December 2001--a revolt that succeeded in toppling a hated government, but failed to solve the problems of mass hunger, unemployment, education and health care. No revolutionary party existed in Argentina with sufficient influence within the working class to fight against the politicians and union presidents who sought to deflect the movement away from attempting to take state power.

In other words, no revolutionary party--or revolutionary united front--existed that could lead a movement for socialism. The great difference between the recent rebellion in Bolivia and the earlier experience in Argentina, however, is that the organized working class stands at the heart of the movement in Bolivia.

And workers have already begun to draw the lessons of the failure to push beyond toppling a president toward creating a new state that can actually meet workers' needs. The potential exists now for bring together the rank-and-file leaders of the October uprising from all over Bolivia into a revolutionary workers' party than can build a conscious mass movement for socialism from below.

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