Uprising in Cochabamba

Submitted by cathy n on 23 February, 2007 - 10:55

By David Broder

The movement against the far-right in Bolivia stepped up last month with a mass uprising in the nationÕs third city, Cochabamba, which dislodged the right-wing governor Manfred Reyes Villa and put forward the demand for genuinely democratic representatives. This was twinned with a solidarity strike organised by residents’ association FEJUVE in the city of El Alto, also seeking to get rid of a governor who wants to see the country split up.

At the heart of the struggles is the so-called self-determination movement of the Santa Cruz province, in eastern Bolivia. Although, as in all provinces, indigenous peoples are the majority and the white Spanish are a minority, the latter are demanding their right to independence.

The whites (representing 10% of the country’s population) are largely landowners and magnates, the aim of their project clearly being to secede from Bolivia while keeping control of its major resources, both land and hydrocarbons. Multinationals and oligarchic interests are overwhelmingly concentrated in the Santa Cruz province. The wave of workers’ struggle witnessed in Bolivia over the last seven years has threatened their control, and so they want to carve out their own statelet in order to protect their interests. They have organised private armies and staged fuel strikes and lockouts in order to push this agenda.

This has been vehemently opposed by the large majority of Bolivians, who in last year’s referendum voted against greater autonomy for the provinces.

Centre-left president Evo Morales and his government, now in power for over a year, are strongly opposed to this. However, rather than expropriating the big magnates and disarming the ruling class, as the social movements have always demanded, he is offering the far right appeasement. He has drawn up a constitution whereby any measure taken by the Constituent Assembly will require a two-thirds majority. Since the candidates to the left of his MAS party were all undemocratically thrown out of the elections, and MAS holds barely half of the seats in the Constituent Assembly, this necessarily means that he will have to make alliances with the reactionary parties of white oligarchs.

The attitude of many rank-and-file MAS members, and indeed the millions who voted for them, has not been the same - they are burning with anger about the death blow which the right hope to inflict on the Bolivian economy.

On 4 January, this opposition exploded in Cochabamba, which saw two weeks of blockades, strikes and protests in order to unseat Reyes Villa, a multi-millionaire governor who has publicly supported the Santa Cruz movement, including organising racist militias which have murdered peasants. His call for a referendum on a proposal for regional autonomy (even though this was only recently defeated in a referendum) sparked a mass uprising. With threats of fresh reactionary strikes to further cement this push for Santa Cruz autonomy, the people of Cochabamba took to the streets themselves, demanding the governor’s resignation. On the 8th the prefectura (governor’s building) was set on fire, and a peasant was killed in fights with the police. The governor fled the city and went to Santa Cruz, from where he is still yet to return.

The Coordinadora, the collective which organised the 2000 mass movement against water privatisation in the city, was a leading element in the demonstrations against Reyes Villa. The 2000 struggle was a detonator for other movements in Bolivian society, setting off a wave of class struggle over demands for nationalisations and democracy nationwide.

MAS however has not supported the movement in Cochabamba. Evo Morales, objectively agreeing with Reyes Villa’s refusal to resign in the face of mass pressure, demanded that he come back to Cochabamba to ‘resume his constitutional duties’. In the face of a struggle between the oppressed masses and a right-wing oligarch responsible for several deaths, Morales could only comment “I ask the social movements to act democratically and not vindictively...The social movements must respect human life and seek democratic solutions”. Another minister, Juan Ram—n Quintana, said that “we will never demand [Reyes Villa’s] resignation, we have offered him guarantees. In spite of his behaviour, we respect the fact that he is the elected governor. This is the rule of law, whether we like it or not”.

As a result of these strikes and protests, 16 January saw a popular assembly called by the local trade union leaders in order to elaborate a plan to replace Reyes Villa by MAS representatives through legal channels. At the meeting, which attracted thousands of workers and peasants from various social movements, the majority disagreed with the official trade union line, instead calling for the occupation of the prefectura and immediate elections for their own candidate.
Thus forming a “Revolutionary Provincial Government”, the candidate elected by the social movements was Tiburcio Herradas, a former leader of the Tupac Katari Guerrilla Army (EGTK) independent from any political party.

Although the MAS national leadership has been opposed to the whole movement against Reyes Villa, and did not even mobilise for the “anti-fascist” demonstrations, many of its activists took part in the creation of this new centre of power. The leadership, angered that things had got “out of hand”, denounced the trade union leaders for “losing control over the rank-and-file” and accused the movement of being a “provocation” by “Trotskyists” and “ultra-leftists” - terminology reminiscent of that formerly used by Stalinists to denounce “adventurists” who challenged their divine right to lead the working class.

That said, the FEJUVE residents’ association in El Alto, which in the previous years of struggle had been a major centre of radicalisation of the movement, contains many MAS activists, and in late January called two days of strikes and blockades both to solidarise with the movement in Cochabamba and to demand the resignation of their province’s governor José Luis Paredes. Central to the days of action they organised was a wish to reassert their authority on the first anniversary of Evo Morales’ coming to power. However, when the resignation did not happen, FEJUVE had no strategy to keep the movement going.

What exists now in Cochabamba is a state of limbo, which surely cannot continue for long. Manfred Reyes Villa has no legitimacy whatsoever, and his government is not functioning at all. But neither does the Revolutionary Provincial Government exercise effective power - it is a campaign and a flag to rally round, but it does not control the police or communications. This is not an insurmountable challenge - 2003 did, after all, see a widespread police mutiny where the (poorly paid and over-stretched) police supported the demonstrations and general strikes for the nationalisation of gas reserves, refusing to fight the people, and then actively battled with the army in defence of the mass movement. However, the level of struggle in Cochabamba is not what it was one month ago. There is quiet - but the situation of a lack of provincial government cannot last forever.

All of this however reflects a more central problem for the Bolivian working class and the peasantry rallied around its struggles. Sporadic outbursts of the masses’ anger, or indeed generalised disappointment with Morales’ failure to nationalise, never mind expropriate, energy multinationals and the landowners’ estates, struggle to have any concrete impact, since they have no real direction. Political strategy is lacking. Whereas the struggles since 2000 included an impressive array of general strikes, a mass police mutiny and the forced resignation of two presidents, the workers have been unable to take power for themselves. And they cannot rely on Morales to fight the right-wing for them - his concessions and appeasement of the oligarchs are little but an undemocratic sell-out, a carve-up of power between the big bourgeoisie and the “indigenous face of the bourgeois state”.

With MAS in government, and manipulating the electoral commissions in order to prevent the trade unions and social movements from posing candidates in elections, the movement has done nothing to organise their long-dormant project for a “Political Instrument”. This question is however central - that the mass organisations and social movements built in recent years lead to political organisation; not an ossified bureaucratic and cross-class party like MAS, but a democratic workers’ party forged in struggle which can