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The new shape of the struggle
Bolivia under Evo Morales

October 27, 2006 | Page 6

PROTESTS, VIOLENCE and political polarization have re-emerged in Bolivia--this time challenging the reformist government of President Evo Morales.

While a deadly clash between rival groups of tin miners captured headlines, the violence reflected more widespread social tensions as Morales attempts to balance between pressure from the social movements that got him elected and a well-orchestrated backlash by big business and the right.

Formerly a leader of Bolivia's coca growers who fought the U.S.-imposed eradication policies of his predecessors, Morales and his party Movement Towards Socialism (MAS, according to its initials in Spanish) campaigned on the promise of land redistribution, increased state funding for education and health care, a doubling of the minimum wage and respect for coca production.

Morales, the first indigenous president of Bolivia, did carry out his main campaign promise--the nationalization of Bolivia's hydrocarbon resources, a break from the free-market, neoliberal policies of previous governments.

At the same time, however, the MAS government continues to implement other parts of the neoliberal agenda to the detriment of Bolivia's workers and poor. But Morales' policies haven't placated conservative forces--and rumors of a right-wing coup swept the country in early October.

SARAH HINES reports from Bolivia on the growing confrontation.

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OF THE many terrible legacies of neoliberalism in Bolivia, October's bloody confrontation among tin miners in Huanuni is particularly tragic. Sixteen miners were killed and at least 60 wounded in a battle that began October 5 between asalariados, salaried miners employed by the state-owned Bolivian Mining Corporation (COMIBOL), and cooperativistas, owners and employees of private mining companies.

Actually, the mid-sized and larger "cooperatives" are profitable businesses that pay low taxes and employ miners to work under quite oppressive conditions for less than their asalariado brethren.

Under neoliberal economic policies starting in the mid-1980s, the government closed the mines, declaring (falsely) that they were exhausted of minerals, and "relocated"--i.e. fired--Bolivia's miners. As a result, one of the world's most powerful and militant unions was all but decimated. The subsequent rise of privatized and cooperative mining left Bolivia's miners divided and impoverished

As a placard posted in Cochabmaba's principal plaza read in the days following the clash: "The events in Huanuni are the legacy of the politics of privatization and 'relocation' in the mines...Today in Huanuni, we see the consequences: fighting between brothers...We demand: Nationalize the mines!"

In the violence in Huanuni, Morales correctly blamed neoliberalism for the miners' deaths, but his government has largely maintained his predecessors' policies in the mining sector.

Morales' Minister of Mining, Wálter Villarroel, a shareholder in the cooperative La Salvadora, signed contact after contract surrendering state possessions to cooperatives and transnational corporation, all on exceedingly generous terms. Furthermore, the Central Obrera Boliviana (COB) repeatedly warned the government of potential violence months and even hours before the crisis erupted, but their messages fell on deaf ears.

In the wake of the violence, it became clear that the cooperative miners had provoked the crisis by invading COMIBOL territory in the face of a protest march of miners and other unionists calling for nationalization and Virrarroel's dismissal. Morales responded by ousting Villarroel, promising to nationalize Bolivia's mineral wealth, and proposing that cooperative miners become salaried COMIBOL (state) employees.

The offer of work at COMIBOL is a step in the right direction, but the 4,000 Huanuni miners are less than 10 percent of the country's more than 50,000 cooperative miners. As Vice President Álvaro García Linera--a veteran leftist academic--made clear, "private mine investment will not be touched."

This limited nationalization reflects the contradiction of the MAS government--its claim to constitute the "social movements in power," while also claiming that the key to Bolivia's development is the fostering of "Andean capitalism." In other words, MAS has accepted the helm of the capitalist state and the logic of the international economic system that drives Bolivia's workers and peasants into poverty.

Morales hopes to maintain his base with anti-colonial revolutionary rhetoric--most recently at a rally of 20,000 of his supporters October 12 in La Paz--and limited reforms. At the same time, he seeks to appease local industry, international capital and the U.S. As Latin American expert James Petras puts it, "Evo is tying to ride two horses that are going in opposite directions."

For example, Morales promised the social movements the right to direct representation in the Constituent Assembly that is supposed to be rewriting the country's constitution. But he reneged on this promise in an attempt to mollify the right wing, which is based in the resource-rich eastern lowlands.

Morales further promised to consider the demand of "autonomy"--the demand of the wealthy elite in the eastern region, which would allow them to dominate natural gas reserves--and agreed to allow local referendums on the question.

Despite this conciliatory approach, the right has been emboldened and is growing, even raising the specter of "civil war" in an attempt to frighten away foreign investors and undermine the government's legitimacy.

Delegates from the new right-wing party Podemos and their allies are over-represented in the Constituent Assembly due to MAS concessions, and have succeeded in stalling the assembly's proceedings. The far right is also growing--to the point that a band of fascist youths in Santa Cruz physically attacked indigenous protesters last month.

The most ludicrous charge of the right is that an agreement between Bolivia and Venezuela to collaborate militarily represents a threat to their South American neighbors. This view has, unfortunately, been echoed by the governments of Peru, Paraguay and even the center-left government of Michelle Bachelet in Chile. Given the fact that Bolivia's eastern neighbor, Paraguay, has invited the U.S. to build a military base on its border, the hypocrisy--and the threat to Bolivia--is clear.

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MORALES' POLICIES may have antagonized the right, but they haven't satisfied the left. So far at least, his radical reform program is more bark than bite.

Morales has promised to distribute 20 million hectares (49 million acres) of land within five years to peasants and indigenous communities who have insufficient land or lack land altogether. More than 2.5 million Bolivians of the total population of 8 million meet these criteria.

Thus far, 3.8 million hectares (9 million acres) have been distributed to 60 indigenous communities. Yet many indigenous and peasant organizations have criticized the government for limiting the distribution to low-quality publicly owned land--in many cases, remote forested areas.

Morales himself confirmed in a speech that the government has no intention of touching private property: "[The right] has said, Evo will not respect private property, Evo will end private property. How false is that? What a lie...How could I think of finishing off with private property, compañeros?"

Despite the quite limited nature of the land reform, last month, the elite in the eastern provinces of Santa Cruz, Panda, Tarija and Beni staged a one-day strike from above, shutting down commerce and transportation in opposition. More than loss of their lands at the hands of the MAS government, the right fears that the land-starved peasantry will gain confidence to take matters into their own hands, as has already begun to occur.

Perhaps most demonstrative of the contradictory interests of the "government of the social movements" is its tenuous relations with the nation's coca growers, or cocaleros.

While the cocalero leader-turned-president has promised to restore dignity to the coca leaf, Morales has continued to implement U.S.-sponsored coca eradication and anti-drug trafficking laws with brute force. His "No habrá coca cero, sino cocaína cero"--there won't be a policy of no coca, but of no cocaine--is an enormous concession to the U.S.

Upon the death of two cocaleros in a confrontation last month with drug enforcement police trained by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, Morales defended the officers. He further accused the cocaleros of being drug traffickers, and promised that the area would not become a "mini-Colombia."

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WHILE THE social movements are somewhat disorganized and divided on their approach to Morales and MAS, struggles are taking shape. Cocaleros, prisoners, transport workers, miners and the COB are carrying blockades, hunger strikes, labor strikes and protest marches in an attempt to pressure the government to make good on its promises.

The biggest contradiction in Morales' reforms involves the nationalization of Bolivia's natural gas reserves, the country's most valuable natural resource and the largest in South America after Venezuela.

Former President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, known as Goni, had signed a deal that allowed transnational corporations to take 82 percent of gas profits, leaving only 18 percent for Bolivia. The resulting mass protests--called the Gas War--forced Goni to resign in 2003 and flee to the U.S.

Morales declared the nationalization of this valuable resource on May 1. While this was limited to subsoil rights, it did reverse the formula of the extraordinarily concessions signed by Goni.

The government also gave notice to multinationals operating in Bolivia that they had until October 31 to renegotiate their contracts with Bolivia on terms more favorable to the government. But the largest of these concerns, Brazil's Petrobras and Spain's Repsol, have yet to renegotiate their contracts, and continue to receive gas at prices far below international market value.

Bolivia did negotiate a multi-billion-dollar 20-year gas contract with Argentina, which also agreed to support Bolivia against countries that refuse to honor their obligations--a jab at Brazil.

Nevertheless, the Brazilian government knows that Bolivia is unlikely to expel Petrobras--the Bolivian government's largest source of income--in the event that the deadline is broken. And the price at which Bolivia will sell gas to Argentina is significantly below world market prices, meaning a loss of tens of millions of dollars a year.

There are other concessions, too. When Minister of Hydrocarbons Andrés Soliz Rada announced in September that the Bolivian government would determine the share of profit retained by foreign corporations, Petrobras protested--and Vice President García Linera immediately suspended the decree.

Soliz Rada's subsequent resignation dashed hopes for a renegotiation of gas company profits on Bolivia's terms. Meanwhile, Brazil is developing a substitute for Bolivian gas reserves by partnering with PDVSA, the state-owned oil company of Venezuela, Bolivia's supposed ally.

Thus, at the close of his ninth month in office, Morales had done much to assure that his government would respect private property and international capital, yet far less to fulfill his promises to the Bolivian social movements, workers and the poor.

Nevertheless, the tin miners' success in forcing the ouster of their pro-business industry minister shows that Bolivia's workers and poor are willing to fight to hold the MAS government to its promises. These struggles can renew the Bolivian working class' long tradition of militant class struggle--and lay the basis for a challenge to the capitalist system that depends on their misery for its progress.

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