Bolivia: Failure of the referendum on autonomy

The attempt of the Bolivian oligarchy to use the referendum on autonomy as a lever to push forward their reactionary agenda has failed. They failed to get the votes they required, and at the same time they have enraged the masses of workers and peasants, who have risen once more in huge mobilisations.

The referendum on autonomy organized by the right wing and the Santa Cruz oligarchy has been clearly defeated, and received the response of mass mobilizations of workers and peasants throughout the country. While this article is being written, the right wing is still celebrating their "victory" in the "Plaza 24 de Setiembre" in Santa Cruz, but their defeat is clear for all to see: even if one accepts as real the provisional results announced by the Departmental Electoral Court and the mass media, the number of votes for Autonomy is significantly lower than the 2006 referendum. However, the real figures are even worse for them.

In Yacapaní and San Julian, peasants and local communities organised the burning of ballot boxes as part of the campaign to boycott this illegal referendum. In Montero, the second largest city in the Santa Cruz Department there were clashes between the workers' and peasants' organizations and the pro-autonomy right wing. Several polling stations could not open and abstention reached 60%. A similar situation developed in Camiri. In the working class neighbourhood of Plan 3000, in the capital Santa Cruz, there were also clashes and ballot boxes were burned. The local communities of this district showed the TV cameras the ballots that these boxes contained and they were all already marked with YES votes, before the polling stations had even opened!

Despite the appeals by government spokespersons to allow this "opinion poll" to go ahead, many trade union and social mobilized and organized an active boycott. The fascist gangs of the Union Juvenil Cruceña (the armed shock troops of the oligarchy) were not present in large numbers in these areas, which makes us think that they concentrated in forcing people who were doubtful to go and vote. According to initial "official" results, abstentions reached 39%, which means that the number of people who participated is significantly lower than those who took part in the 2006 referendum. To this we must add some 14% of NO votes and spoilt ballots. It is clear that in the last two years the basis of support for the oligarchy has shrunk, and it is likely that a majority of the people did not vote for autonomy, even taking into account the electoral fraud that took place.

It could not be otherwise. The oligarchy has tried to fool workers and peasants that this autonomy would benefit them, but they have learnt in practice that this is not the case at all. If we take for instance the key issue of land rights, the proposed Autonomous Statue in its article 13 "recognizes, protects and respects the rights of indigenous peoples from the Autonomous Department of Santa Cruz over their Community Land". But the guaraní people of Camiri who marched to demand these rights in Alto Parapetí, have been attacked, kidnapped and tortured by agents of the landlords and the regional government. When El Deber talks of a victory for the YES in the first polling station where votes have been counted in Camiri, we have no doubt that those who voted are only the landlords.

In the rest of the country there were mass demonstrations against the oligarchy and in defence of national unity. In El Alto a cabildo (mass assembly) of hundreds of thousands of workers, peasants, students and others, voted to demand the resignation of Jose Luis Paredes, the prefect of the La Paz Department, who has also sided with the oligarchy and is attempting to organize a similar process for autonomy. The demonstrators also demanded the expropriation of the businesses of the oligarchy. Some wanted to take over the TV stations which have played an important part in the campaign of the oligarchy, with groups throwing stones at the building of Canal 24, owned by the prefect. Others wanted to march through the police lines towards the presidential palace.

In Cochabamba, more than 100,000 people, factory workers, coca-growing peasants, students, small shopkeepers, marched against the oligarchy and for national unity. In Oruro the 20,000-strong march was led by the COD (Departmental Workers' Union) and ended with a warning from its leader Jaime Solares: miners and students are ready to go to Santa Cruz to smash the oligarchy and its cliques. In Potosí tens of thousands of peasants from all over the Department, including the remote border region of Villazon, have gathered in a cabildo in the "10 de Noviembre" square, reaffirming their struggle for land and social change.

As was to be expected the oligarchy was playing with fire and they have burnt their fingers. In the same way that the vacillations of the government had strengthened them and allowed them to reorganise their forces in the last two years, the offensive of the right wing has awoken once again the will to struggle of the Bolivian working class and peasantry.

In the leaflets that we have been giving out in the last two weeks, we explained that the aim of the right wing and the ruling class was to divide the Bolivian workers and peasants, to water down and put an end to the process of change.

Everybody knows that tomorrow nothing will change; the transfer of power from the central to the departmental government cannot be unilaterally decided on by the latter. The right wing wants to use the Autonomy issue in order to force more concessions out of the government. This was clearly expressed by Branko Marinkovic from the Santa Cruz Civic Committee in an interview with El Mundo on Saturday 3rd: "Hopefully we will be able to go back to a Constituent Assembly where the minimum requirement of a two thirds majority to pass any articles is respected and thus the people's will is respected." This is the same line put forward by the prefect Rubén Costas in his speech in the "Plaza 24 de Setiembre": he asks the government for a "political agreement without any tricks". Faced with the mobilizations that are taking place throughout the country, a journalist from ATB commented that he wished that Evo would be able to make his ranks accept such an agreement with the right wing. In the last few weeks several individuals within the government had already declared their readiness to dialogue with the oligarchy, even opening up again the discussion about the new Constitution. This would be a serious mistake; workers and peasants must be always en garde to prevent the strength of our mobilization from being diluted in the parliamentary spider's web as the right wing would like.

Some analysts are saying that the government is now in a weaker position, as it has not been able to prevent by force the celebration of the referendum. In fact, the opposite is true: the massive mobilizations throughout the country and in Santa Cruz itself strengthen the government and would allow it to strike decisive blows against the ruling class. It is for this reason that we agitated for marches to be organized in Santa Cruz and for a mass struggle against the oligarchy and the right wing all over the country. We cannot let this opportunity pass in vain.

The vacillations of the government led it to falling into the trap of the right wing, accepting the need for a 2/3 majority in the Constituent Assembly, not launching a serious campaign of expropriation of the latifundia when it had the necessary support to do so. The ruling class, owners of the means of production, has organized the sabotage of the economy in order to create disillusionment amongst the people. Tomorrow workers and peasants will wake up facing the same problems: increases in the price of bread, transport, scarcity of fuel caused by the oil multinationals, the scarcity of rice, etc. The oligarchy at the same time has changed its discourse in order to present itself as the one who can solve the problems it has created. Rubén Costas is talking about a "democratic socialism which can fight against poverty". The oligarchs' Autonomous Statute talked of a "Departmental Minimum Wage which would always be higher than the National Minimum Wage" (art 57), even though they were planning the creation of a corporatist structure along the lines of the old MNR, where the workers would be completely subjected to the rule of the oligarchy. But it is with this demagogy that the idea of Autonomy won some support amongst the workers of Santa Cruz. The only way to effectively fight against the ruling class is by offering concrete solutions to the concrete problems of the working class, the peasants and the youth. And this can only be done by fully implementing the Agenda of the October uprising: to recover full control of the natural resources and the privatised utilities so that they can be used to industrialize the country, to expropriate from the agricultural and financial capitalists their political and economic power, putting them into the hands of the working people, so that Bolivia can be freed from their backwardness and dependency. We ask ourselves what would happen if the government were to immediately abolish Decree 21060 which allows for the right to fire and hire and divides the working class, and which opened the way for the privatisation of state-owned companies? The idea of Autonomy in Santa Cruz would be completely smashed and the working class would be enormously strengthened uniting the exploited from the cities and the countryside.

On May 1st, the COB union confederation sealed an alliance with the government. For some time now we had been calling for such a united front, which cannot be simply a defensive measure. The Bolivian working class must be organized and mobilized together with the peasant organizations in the struggle for land reform and against the ruling class and imperialism. All the agents of the old rotten political and economic system must be removed from the government. The defeat of the Santa Cruz referendum cannot be squandered. The active and militant presence of the working class in the mobilizations strengthens them, radicalises them and clarifies the issues, as has been shown particularly in Oruro and El Alto.

The comrades of El Militante are participating in this battle with our ideas and our activity. In the weeks leading up to May Day and the days following on from it, we have produced with our own limited resources some 4,000 leaflets explaining these ideas, which we have distributed in factories, markets, universities and the demonstrations in La Paz, Potosí and Santa Cruz. In Potosi we participated with our own banner in the May Day demonstration. Our leaflets ‑ in which we explained the need to expropriate the land and the means of production ‑ were taken up and given out by comrades from the MAS and from other political organizations. On Sunday we met the peasants that were arriving in Potosí with placards greeting the nationalization of ENTEL and calling for the nationalizations to spread. The enthusiastic response we received shows the need to build a political point of reference in our country, and the thirst for ideas that any revolutionary situation creates. We do not want to replace anybody: our struggle is for international socialism and workers' democracy and we will not betray it. Join El Militante!

Potosí, May 5th, 2008

English translation of El fracaso del Referéndum Autonómico: ahora a unir Bolivia con la Agenda de Octubre

See also:

Join us

If you want more information about joining the RCI, fill in this form. We will get back to you as soon as possible.