The limits of reformism in Bolivia

August 10, 2010

Jason Farbman reports from Bolivia on the indigenous movement's challenges to the Bolivian government of President Evo Morales.

"Capitalism merchandises everything. It seeks continual expansion. The system needs to be changed. We have to choose between change or death. Capitalism is the number one enemy of mankind."
-- Evo Morales, Bolivian president

"[T]here won't be a socialist revolution in a nation of small producers...We aren't thinking about socialism for the immediate."
-- Álvaro García Linera, Bolivian vice president

FIVE YEARS after the historic election of Evo Morales and his Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party, ordinary Bolivians are beginning to realize the limitations of reforms possible in a world system of capitalism.

Bolivia remains one of the poorest countries in Latin America, and it's led to a regional version of state capitalism called "Andean-Amazonian capitalism." Vice President Álvaro García Linera, a former Marxist militant, laid out his vision for Bolivia's economic development:

The State is the only actor that can unite society. It is the State that takes on the synthesis of the general will, plans the strategic framework and steers the front carriage of the economic locomotive. The second carriage is Bolivian private investment. The third is foreign investment. The fourth is small business. The fifth is the peasant economy and the sixth, the indigenous economy. This is the strategic order in which the country's economy must be organized.

Participants in the Grand March organized by the Confederation of Eastern Bolivian Indigenous Peoples
Participants in the Grand March organized by the Confederation of Eastern Bolivian Indigenous Peoples

This approach has seen both advances and setbacks for Bolivian workers. New alliances with Cuba meant an influx of doctors and medical equipment, and medical scholarships, all of which Bolivia desperately needed. Early on, the Morales administration chipped away at labor "flexibilization," one of the more reviled and divisive attacks on the Bolivian working class in the neoliberal years that gutted hard-won job safeguards.

These and other progressive changes have spurred a U.S.-supported backlash by the right wing, which has threatened to use its influence Bolivia's eastern provinces to secede from the country.

But there has also been significant criticism of Morales from the left. This year saw a mass rejection of the government's wage policy, which was widely seen as failing to adjust wages to compensate for lost purchasing power.

On May 4, the Central Obrera Boliviana (COB) trade union federation organized the first coordinated actions from the left since Morales took office. There were demonstrations in the capital city of La Paz by industrial workers and a 24-hour strike by teachers, public health workers and miners. Meanwhile, the wives of rank-and-file policemen went on a hunger strike. Workers marched in other cities as well.

The protests came in the context of increased state spending. The renegotiation of oil, gas and hydrocarbons have provided a windfall of new cash for a number of programs. This was a large part of MAS's ability to increase public spending to $1.8 billion--a huge amount in relationship to the country's annual Gross Domestic Product of $17 billion).

Morales himself has become somewhat of a global voice for the environmental movement, hosting a climate change conference to build on the environmentalist movement that was spurred on by the U.S.- and European-dominated climate conference Copenhagen.

At the same time, however, Bolivia's need to continually generate new revenue has meant the gutting of many natural resources held sacred by the indigenous population. This includes the current megaproject to build highways through the Amazon in order to create trade routes connecting Brazil, Bolivia and Peru. This issue has increasingly brought the Morales administration into conflict with a variety of supporters, frustrated at their inability to meaningfully participate in decisions being made about their territories.

THE SHARPEST criticism of Morales from the left came June 27, when the powerful Federation of Neighborhood Councils of El Alto (FEJUVE), produced a document called the Political Manifesto of the Sixteenth Ordinary Congress.

FEJUVE was an important part of the Gas War mass movement against privatization of natural resources that toppled a president and paved the way for the election of Morales. Today, however, FEJUVE's statement contains bitter words:

In spite of having an indigenous president like Evo Morales, the state is still governed by a Creole oligarchy, although the MAS has taken command with the support of the original indigenous people and popular classes, but still keeping the system currently capitalist economic and neoliberal political system, and nothing has changed for the impoverished people still dominated politically, exploited economically by the capitalist system, and racially and culturally marginalized by the oligarchy.

But it was a recent month-long indigenous march that made it clear that although Morales still enjoys mass support, there is important dissatisfaction from below.

Such mass marches are a legacy of the militant miners' union. Resuscitated in 1990 by the Confederation of Eastern Bolivian Indigenous Peoples (CIDOB), the marches have become an important gauge of the politics of Bolivian social movements. This year's Grand March saw representatives from 34 of 36 ethnic groups make their way through the mountains of Bolivia in protest of the Morales administration.

CIDOB had organized the march to make 13 demands on the government. These included the right to consultation over use of land or natural, non-renewable resources; annulment of mining and forest concessions that affect indigenous territories; autonomy in indigenous territories; and greater indigenous presence within the government and additional seats for indigenous people in the Legislative Assembly.

After a series of mounting tensions and finger pointing, the president was able to come to an agreement with CIDOB. Neither the government nor indigenous leaders have released information about what was actually agreed to, making an assessment of the deal difficult. But what grabbed the attention of the press and many Bolivians was the fact that hundreds of indigenous people were committed to carrying out a major protest of the first indigenous president on the continent.

Eight hundred indigenous men and women, with their children and babies, as well as the elderly, participated on the march, which was to last two months. Until it was ended by the agreement, there was every indication that they would keep trekking the 900 miles from Trinidad to the capital city of La Paz, via the major cities of Santa Cruz and Cochabamba.

The march continued through a winter in Bolivia that saw record low temperatures close schools across the country and led to at least 21 deaths. The weather was particularly difficult for children and the elderly on the march, although it was not so cold that it didn't rain. As Carwil James reported from near Santa Cruz:

When the rain comes, the marchers pull out white tarps or lift their plastic banners above their heads. When it gets worse, small virtual tents are made on the side of the road. And when it stops, they go back to marching.

The march continued up and down elevations of nearly two miles, a 69-year old elder at the lead. Communities along the way offered shelter for a day or two, in churches or schools or whatever buildings were available. Clothing arrived from collections taken up in the central plazas of several cities.

Solidarity came from other workers encountered along the way, who provided the resource-starved marchers with money. According to James:

As we marched, we were stopped by the workers at one ranch on the road. There, a cluster of construction workers from Beni department came out and handed over 100 and 200 Bolivian bills to someone at the head of the march, and expressed that this was their struggle, although they had obligations to work. It's our rights you are marching for, they said.

THE MAS government responded to the action by flexing a bit of muscle. It was made clear through the Bolivian press' considerable coverage that the march would encounter trouble when arriving in the Chapare region, where the majority of Bolivian coca is grown. President Morales is still also president of the major coca producer associations, and the cocaleros announced they would not allow the march to pass through.

Morales also accused the marchers of providing cover for his enemies, saying, "Since the Right can't find arguments for opposing the process of change, it's using rural, indigenous or original people leaders who have been paid off in special favors by NGOs."

What sort of "special favors" could NGOs possibly have offered to convince nearly 1,000 people to walk hundreds of miles through the Bolivian mountains? In the winter, through the cold and rain? At the risk of being blockaded or surrounded by cocaleros? Did NGOs also bribe those who offered clothing, shelter and money?

To be sure, there are legitimate and numerous threats facing Morales and the MAS. Whatever clandestine operations that exist are supplemented by U.S.-backed programs to aid the Bolivian right, as shown by a wealth of publicly available information made available through Freedom of Information Act requests.

According to independent reporter Reed Lindsay, "The U.S. government has spent millions of dollars to rebuild discredited political parties, to undercut independent grassroots movements, to bolster malleable indigenous leaders with little popular support." As early as 2002, the U.S. embassy was planning USAID projects to "help build moderate, pro-democracy political parties that can serve as a counterweight to the radical MAS or its successors," Lindsay said.

Some indigenous groups may well have accepted money from foreign NGOs. But insisting support automatically leads to co-optation is a tricky claim for Morales to make.

After all, Bolivia's 2006 constitution was partly underwritten by USAID, which provided funding for the Constituent Assembly's Coordinating Unit. Also, once in power, the MAS government continued to receive grants from a Millennium Challenge Account (MCA). MCAs, set up by in 2001 by George W. Bush, are a variant of the standard neoliberal loan package, where conditions must be met before any funds are disbursed.

The mental gymnastics required to reconcile these contradictions with socialist revolution has led Morales to curious public statements about the class antagonisms undergirding capitalism. Pablo Stefanoni describes this outlook:

Far from encouraging the class struggle in its Marxist sense, Evo Morales has updated the divisions already mentioned--nation/anti-nation, people/oligarchy and in practice is promoting a new "class alliance"--without using a term reminiscent of the 1950s. This alliance includes "patriotic entrepreneurs" and "nationalist military," to build a "productive and modern country," thanks to the profits from natural resources "repossessed by the State."

FRAMED IN this way, the Bolivian experience can still seem a revolution moving forward at full steam. But in the everyday lived experiences of millions of Bolivians, the sense of victory is much less clear. Marcela Olivera, an international water activist from Bolivia, expressed frustration at this gap:

We all understand there are limitations and we cannot get everything at once. It's something we learned after the Water War [the mass movement that blocked privatization of Cochabamba's water system], when we tried to make the water company work and realized it's a process. For me, it is inexcusable to say we're making the revolution. They call this the revolution, when it is just reforms. You cannot make a semantic revolution.

Nor can a revolution be made in isolation or survive there for long if it doesn't receive support from others. The cutthroat competition that drives capitalism, in war and peace, is by necessity a global system.

The political debate in Bolivia underscores the fact that what Marx and Engels wrote over 150 years ago in the Communist Manifesto is every bit as true today: "The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe."

Until the bourgeoisie are chased around the globe not in search of profits, but for places to hide from the expanding international revolution, the prospects for actual socialism are remote. The idea that any post-capitalist society can exist as an island ignores a sea of hostile states, eagerly waiting for the opportunity to pry open new markets for their own corporations.

Whether or not Morales believes his course for Bolivia will genuinely arrive at socialism isn't decisive. What matters is whether pressure continues to build from below. A gulf is slowly growing between a MAS party in power and the radical, highly combative left that propelled them there five years ago.

There is no telling if and when the next explosion of class struggle will happen in Bolivia, but it's clear that the left and the social movements must stake out an independent course to fight for the revolutionary transformation of their country.

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