“Change comes from mobilization”

August 15, 2008

An August 10 recall referendum confirmed Bolivian President Evo Morales' tenure in office with a 68 percent vote--but also saw right-wing prefects, or governors, win big in four eastern departments that have been pushing for autonomy.

While the opposition prefects of Beni, Pando, Tarija, and Chuquisaca have agreed to dialogue with the government, Santa Cruz Prefect Ruben Costas is threatening to convoke elections for a "autonomous government of Santa Cruz" in January 2009--an indication that the right will continue to seek to destabilize and divide the country.

Meanwhile, the problems facing ordinary Bolivians remain unsolved, according to Oscar Olivera, the Secretary General of the Federation of Factory Workers of Cochabamba. Sarah Hines interviewed Olivera in Cochabamba shortly before the referendum vote.

WHAT IS the significance of the recall referendum?

THE RECALL referendum--a measure that we have demanded for a long time--can mean a deepening of democracy. When the Water War took place here in Cochabamba in 2003, we organized a referendum around the issue to allow the rank and file to make their voice heard regarding this imposition [of the privatization of water] by the government.

At that time, the referendum was illegal--it was not thought of as a democratic norm. I believe that a referendum serves to deepen democracy a bit more, in that the citizens are asked once in a while if the rulers are doing their job well. But I see it as having more of a symbolic value than being useful as such. While a referendum can be a signal from the people, I believe the only way to change how the politicians govern is the mobilization of the people.

Nor do I think that the political system, as it is currently designed, is going to change things either. The people have serious economic problems--problems of employment, problems with housing, problems due to inflation. These are not totally consequences of this government. We know that the Bolivian economy is a product of a totally globalized international economy. But the politicians--either in the government or the opposition--are not taking the economic problems of the people seriously.

Residents of La Paz vote in the recent Bolivian referendum
Residents of La Paz vote in the recent Bolivian referendum (Sarah Hines | SW)

So I don't think that the current economic system in Bolivia will solve the problems of the people. Instead, the solution will necessarily have to be a fundamental change in the structure of the economy. I do not think that the politicians are interested in the economy right now. What they care about is keeping themselves in power. So I do not believe that the referendum will change things. Rather, the referendum process should serve to push the government to reflect on its performance, and redirect the process at work.

But from what I've seen, I don't think this will be possible. While the referendum will show the fact that the government still maintains majority support, things will not change much at the top. The only way to change things--to change people's lives, to transform their economic situation, to achieve their participation in the construction of a more just society--is through the mobilization and organization of the people. I do not believe there is any other way.

COULD YOU comment on the current strike being waged by the Central Obrera Boliviana (Bolivian Workers Confederation, COB) to demand a new pension law and the response of the government--particularly Vice President Álvaro García Linera's accusation that the strikers are "agents of imperialism" and tools of the right-wing opposition?

I BELIEVE that for Evo Morales and for his government we workers do not really exist. They have ignored our existence--and not only in this government. The attitude of Evo Morales, since before he became president, has always been one of underestimation and contempt towards the working class, toward salaried workers and workers in the cities. He has what I consider to be a very mistaken vision of the world of work.

Evo Morales has not only ignored the importance of this [working class] sector. He has also ignored the historical importance of the struggle of the workers' movement in Bolivia, a very important struggle in the history and life of this country. Evo Morales needs to become more familiar with this history, to better understand this reality.

The current pension law is a product of a total economic model that, in a completely unjust and immoral way, robs workers of their salaries to supposedly guarantee them a respectable retirement. It's a terrible law that only benefits transnational capital. Behind this pension law there is a contradiction between the interests of the working class and a government that isn't concerned with the working class.

Specifically, with regard to the pension law, I don't think we can return to a system strictly controlled by the state. Because the state, as has happened with the private sector's handling of retirement funds, has done much harm to the workers. Neither the COB's nor the government's proposal contains anything new. While the involvement of the state and the obligation of the private sector is important in order to achieve a much more respectable retirement system, what is also important is the participation of the workers in establishing mechanisms of fiscal standards, of participation, of management--things that I do not see happening.

I haven't had the opportunity to read either of the two proposals [for pension reform], but it appears to me that there aren't many changes. They don't guarantee the sustainability of the system over the long term, the effective participation of the people, or meeting fiscal standards in the management of the pension funds. So while it's easy to say so, we workers should actually be part of the pension law proposal. This was another problem--that the [proposed] pension law that the COB is currently defending was developed by a few experts. This is also the case with the government's proposal, and with the current system created with the passage of the [current] law 1732, in which the rank-and-file workers haven't really had any participation.

It's therefore very difficult to fully support the COB's demand, which is also the teachers' demand. We should also look back at what happened in 1996 and 1997, when the law currently in effect was implemented. The sectors that today are making the demand [for improvements] weren't involved in the fight then. It was only the productive sector, the factory workers, basically, who resisted the implementation of the pension law 1732 until the end.

The current fight between what remains of the COB and the government, like other struggles--such as the factory sector hunger strike a month ago, for example--is the manifestation of a government, I reiterate, that is not concerned with the working class.

At the same time, while the demand for a change of the pension law may be legitimate, the demand doesn't go beyond a narrow focus on returning to state forms of management to solve the problems of the people. I don't believe that this will get results.

WHAT DO you make of the COB's decision to carry out this strike in the weeks just before the recall referendum?

THE SIMPLE fact that a strike is decreed on a popular level can give rise to many conjectures. I know some union leaders who have always had a very flexible position and attitude, and who have popped up in moments when the people have demanded something.

I believe that the moment was not opportune. Everyone knew that there was going to be a referendum that, while it won't solve many problems, will be a form of expression of the people, a way to make the government reflect on its politics. But I think that the COB wanted to take advantage of the moment to see what the government would accept in the face of the close proximity of the referendum.

The problem became still more complicated, because the strike coincided with positions of the right. What both sides are trying to do, I think, is destabilize the government and, obviously, weaken the process.

HAS THE right-wing opposition gained more support in recent months?

I THINK that more than the right [gaining], it's the government that's weakening. It's a government that is a sort of labyrinth. It has conflicts with the COB, it has conflicts with the disabled, conflicts with regard to [gas and petroleum profits], it has regional conflicts. There are conflicts that result in deaths, and there is no light being shed on the 44 deaths that have already taken place, plus these latest deaths [two miners were killed on August 5 in confrontations with police sent by the MAS government to open a key highway that the miners were blockading].

I would say that it is a government that doesn't know what to do. I see the government as lacking an understanding of reality, a clear program, and a course that could assure one that it is going to carry forward and push forward this process. Also, the social movements are weak and fragmented, with some subordinated to the government and the rest also very weak.

What the right is trying is to humiliate the government and Evo Morales, to drain the government's spirit and morale, and to weaken it structurally. The right has a plan, and has taken the initiative to corner the government. And in the face of practically no initiative from the government or from the social movements, the right has taken up some very legitimate demands of the people--for example, around autonomy--and has gained a social base.

The autonomy of the right clearly is not going to change anything. But it is a demand that is widely felt, and has particular resonance in the face of the government's myopia when it comes to establishing links with the population. The right has achieved this, and has a social base that is growing. There is a tendency of the government to blame everything on the right and on imperialism before recognizing its own weaknesses, limitations and lack of a more long-term vision. I see this as very worrisome.

IN WHAT sense is the demand for autonomy legitimate?

IN THIS country, like in many countries around the world, the political and economic system is completely authoritarian, vertical, exclusive, racist, and does not allow for the participation of the people in the construction of a more just society, nor for the most needy to define the use of the country's natural resources.

With regard to autonomy, it was something that we in the social movement proposed many years ago, starting in 1992 and in 2000 with much more force, in order to change the political and economic structure such that power would not be simply the privilege of a few, but instead that decisions would be made by the people.

For us, autonomy is exactly this--participation and decision-making by the people. Autonomy is not separatism, it is not splitting, and it is not division, as the right is posing it. For us, autonomy is participation and decision-making by the people in the construction of politics and the economy.

While they are not offering us this kind of autonomy, the right's discourse has been able to capture some social sectors. This absolutely legitimate demand of the population now is being capitalized on by the right.

For us, autonomy means horizontalizing power, such that power would return to the people so that they could decide for themselves. [This is different from] the autonomies are now being posed [by right-wing governors] in four regions, where once again the elites, in the name of autonomy, continue to make decisions for the people.

WHAT IS the state of the social movements, particularly in terms of their relationship to the government?

THE SOCIAL movements are fractured, and there's much more conflict now with the pension law issue. Even if it is only among the leadership, we are seeing a division between the rural areas and city.

I don't see a process of articulation of the popular movements through demands that could unite the social sectors. Instead, the social sectors are moving away from the process, and are moving toward positions of the right Because they see that up until now things haven't changed. Many social movements, fundamentally in the rural areas, are subordinated to the will of the government, while others are subordinated to the interests of the right. This is undeniable.

I don't see the establishment of autonomous spaces that could perhaps capture the interests, demands, and concerns of the people. Some attempts have been made, but the leaders and spokespeople for these social movements are unwilling to push forward a process that could go further than the government of Evo Morales.

In my view, the state of the social movements is very, very worrisome. Instead of encouraging the articulation of the social movements and fostering their autonomy, the government wants to completely subordinate the social movements and the labor movement. The relationship between the government and the social movements is exploitative. The government is afraid of the revival of the popular movements, and is trying very hard to make sure that this does not happen.

While my view of the state of the social movements may be pessimistic, I think it is realistic. I hope that starting from this reality we can find new ways to recuperate and reinforce the social and labor movements. I don't see that happening in the short term.

WHAT WILL be necessary to deepen and push forward the process of change here in Bolivia?

FIRST, IT'S necessary to say that there is no revolutionary process going on here, even if that's the image being presented.

For us, "revolutionary" means a fundamental change in the economic and political structures, and this is not happening in Bolivia. The right has not been touched at all. Not a single cubic meter of land has been taken from the large landholders, not a single gas company has been expropriated, nor has any bank been confiscated. What we have is simply a series of reforms. And while it is important to recognize that these reforms are important--for example, that there will be more resources from gas and petroleum profits--the population is not deciding how these resources will be used. Rather, it is the same political leaders who are controlling these resources that belong to the people.

There is no real process of transformation going on here in Bolivia, and the government should recognize that it's simply a government of reforms. But there are people who, I believe, despite the challenges, are conscious and resolute. I believe that the people, in time, are going to find ways to continue to push forward this process, which has cost the people so much, including our blood.

In organizing and mobilizing themselves in the face of a conflict, the people have developed the capacity of being able to define the way forward--of having a perspective on the present and future. We are not going to lose these abilities, and at some point we will use them in order to continue to move ahead. I am confident of this.

But, at the same time, we can't ignore the possibility that the right could provoke a confrontation. We also need to be prepared for a situation where we will not be mobilizing to move forward, as we have done in the last few years. Instead, we may face a situation that the right is surely going to want to provoke. In this situation, there may be more deaths, and more people wounded. I think that we also need to be prepared for this.

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