Bolivia: going beyond Morales?

Submitted by Anon on 25 March, 2006 - 2:43

David Broder outlines a critical view of Evo Morales’ rise to power in Bolivia and subsequent programme

When Morales was elected in December 2005 the mainstream media saw it as the victory of the — workers’ and peasants’ “social movements” whose demonstrations and strikes shook the establishment last summer. This was a crude mischaracterisation.

By then it had already become clear that the Movimiento al Socialismo leader will have to be pressurised into making any of his promised reforms.

Morales lacks some of the autocratic tendencies of Venezuela’s president Chávez, with whom he has been compared. Nevertheless Morales is hardly the closest ally of, never mind a potential leader for, the struggle for socialism in Bolivia. His vacillation over key demands of the unions and social movements such as the nationalisation of gas is a bad sign for the future plans of the MAS government. Workers will have to take to the streets once again.

Before the election Morales had promised massive reforms — along the lines of what workers had demanded in the summer’s struggles: nationalising gas without compensation, calling a representative constituent assembly of Bolivian social movements, and decriminalising coca growing, which had been subject to raids by US-backed soldiers. Before coming to power he been the leader of the coca growers’ union, and he had promised to be a “nightmare” for the United States government.

Immediate steps taken by Morales after his victory implied a genuine desire for democratisation of Bolivian government — he slashed his own salary to $1700 per month (though extraordinarily high for a Bolivian coca grower…), and angered right-wing papers in Spain by meeting King Juan Carlos in his trademark jeans and stripy jumper rather than the “proper” attire of a head of state. But the government continues to do almost nothing to improve the lot of the Bolivian masses. What is the record of four months?

Coca-growing is, in essence, policed by the American government under an agreement reached in 2004 by former right-wing Bolivian president Mesa. For sure Morales wants to defend coca growers and will not let them starve by denying them their right to grow and sell the crop, sometimes used to make cocaine.

However on 1 February he signed a deal with the American government to extend the status quo — large-scale coca plants can continue to be eradicated. Production of cocaine is not a commendable activity.

But the US “war on cocaine” is an attack on poor people. When American anti-narcotics tsar William Francisco III claims that “(the US) are only against cocaine, not coca” he cannot be believed. The US army attacks coca plantations right across South America.

For the sake of “the war on narcotics”, the US heavily supplied infrastructure to the Bolivian army under Mesa. It is obvious that the USA wants to suppress coca growing by any means necessary. It also wants to justify a military sphere of influence in the continent.

After extending the Mesa-USA deal, Morales’ ally Cáceres said “we can’t reject foreign help, whether from the USA or EU, in the war on drug trafficking”. It seems odd that a self-styled anti-imperialist would so blindly submit to the American government’s explanation for its “war on narco-terrorism”.

A representative assembly? Bolivian workers and peasants had demanded an assembly which reflected the ethnic and social mix of the nation better than the current parliament, in which the wealthy, white minority are heavily over-represented. The assembly should mirror the social movements which brought down the Sanchez de Lozada and Mesa governments, reflecting the important role of women and indigenous peoples. Given that their protests saw more than 60 dead and 400 injured, the workers and peasants want more control over the state.

Morales’ feeble “Law on the Convocation of a Constituent Assembly” was panned as a total betrayal of such hopes. FEJUVE (the Federation of Neighbourhood Committees) said that the president was “turning his back” on demonstrators by “engaging [existing] political parties rather than social movements”. The COB trade union federation attacked the exclusion of workers from Morales’ assembly. Two of a group of feminists were arrested simply for protesting against the law in the Plaza Murillo. While not exactly similar to the right’s harsh repression of protest, it is concerning that this government is so scared of such campaigners.

Increase in the national minimum wage? This was promised by MAS in the run-up to the December election. At the time the Bolivian papers were full of Morales’ claim that he would improve the minimum wage from around $55 per month to $185. On 8 February the government opted for an increase of just $6.

Morales claimed that the policy of a $185 minimum wage had in fact not been on his manifesto at all! Out of context, the increase might be seen as a fairly admirable reform from a quite left-wing government. But the failure to meet expectations made Bolivian workers more angry. The COB declared “a state of alert and mobilisation” to reject the new president’s weak proposals.

Nationalisation of gas without compensation? This was the key pillar of Morales’ electoral campaign, a campaign which secured him 54% of the vote. But on 4 January Morales agreed with Zapatero to initiate a “symbolic nationalisation” of gas, whereby Bolivia might either buy its own resources back, or simply rearrange trading rules with multinational investors. Two weeks after signing this deal, Morales claimed that “we are not only going to respect private property, we are going to protect private property. Public and private investment are both important” — fiery rhetoric indeed!

Given his open support for Castro and Chávez’s “anti-imperialism”, it might seem odd to claim that Morales is courting middle class support. But these are his own words at his inauguration speech “I am very proud of them, proud of the middle class, the working class, the professionals, and the businessmen”. Before the election, Morales told business leaders that he would rather raise corporate tax to 50% than nationalise gas.

Several months into his government, the social movements whose success Morales relied on are angry. FEJUVE El Alto, a citizens’ association which played a very prominent role in organising resistance to the Mesa administration, have accused Morales of “once again opening the doors for the oligarchy” and “treachery” against the Bolivian people’s struggle against neoliberalism.

The secondary students’ federation condemned Morales for failing to live up to electoral promises. their criticism of his vacillation on the gas question was backed by two of the most significant trade unions, the COB and the COR.

A conference has been called by FEJUVE for the end of April for all the social movements and unions to once again demand the expulsion of multinationals who control gas and water, a democratic and representative Assembly, decriminalisation of coca and more investment in benefits, environmental protection and education. These people are dissatisfied with the government on a large number of fronts.

Was it a good thing for the oppressed that Morales won the election in December? Yes, because he’s indigenous, because he increased the minimum wage by 10%, and because he can protect the rights of coca growers much better than the right-wing lackeys of capital who sat in the presidential palace before him. But the Morales government should also prove something about reformism. In a country where workers’ organisation is strong, a government like this is patently little but a social brake, seeking to appease “the people” while following any number of more “pragmatic” policies which upset the apple-cart less.

Morales’ victory makes obvious how reformist government are bereft of solutions to neo-liberalism. While Chávez pretends to be creating a socialist alternative, Morales has failed even to create such an illusion – the social movements have very quickly become critical of his government. No doubt he is held in adulation by a significant part of the Bolivian population, but every failure of the MAS government serves to underline the fact that the fundamental changes which the labour movement wants cannot be achieved just by tinkering with the system from above.

It would be meaningless now to tell workers that they need to vote for another reforming, or a better reforming president. This is the time to emphasise the importance of working-class political organisation along a socialist programme, which can pull together the social movements into a political party and could overthrow the existing order. Whatever his own class background or the constituency of his party, Morales clearly does not represent this.

Current tactics in the workers and peasants movement are weak. Ultimatums to leaders such as Rodriguez and Morales to issue reforms top-down or be deposed have so far made no concrete gains. The victims of the system need to take power for themselves, rather than seeing their demands as separate from the politics of parliament and state. Oscar Olivera, prominent in the campaign to nationalise water, said recently that “we are creating a movement, a non-partisan social-political front that addresses the most vital needs of the people through a profound change in power relations, social relations, and the management of water, electricity, and garbage”. But since most anti-capitalist organisations in fact called for a vote Morales in December’s elections, they implicitly rely too much on him making these social changes on their behalf.

An article on the Bolivia Solidarity Campaign website says “There is probably no other country in Latin American where social movements are so well organized and have such a great capacity to threaten the presidency. This balance of political muscle between the street and state makes it unlikely that Morales could replicate Lula’s ‘pragmatic’ concessions to neo- liberalism, even if he wanted to”. Yet since the social movements seem to lack a united plan of action to put an alternative political leadership in Morales’ place, all they can do with strikes alone is hope to pressurise him into more radical reforms.

With such a well organised workers’ and peasants’ movement, the question should clearly be “how can we take over the government for ourselves”? This is what the April social movement conference must address, and the answer must not be to naively rely on Morales’ goodwill in giving them places in his constituent assembly. Building a political organisation based on the trade union movement, with a revolutionary agenda to dispossess the multinationals and socialise the economy, is the immediate task at hand — not simply to tail Morales, who thinks that expropriation is merely “looting and stealing”.