Bolivia: a new offensive of the oligarchy, the masses respond in the streets

After having won a two-thirds majority in the recall referendum, Bolivian president Evo Morales made an appeal to the oligarchy to negotiate and for national unity. As was to be expected, the oligarchy responded by launching a renewed offensive against the democratically elected government using all means at its disposal. But now we are seeing an organised reaction against the oligarchy. Building on the movement that started on May 4th, the mass movement of workers and peasants is being in the streets once again.

After having won a two-thirds majority in the recall referendum on August 10th, Bolivian president Evo Morales made an appeal to the oligarchy to negotiate and for national unity. As was to be expected, the oligarchy responded by launching a renewed offensive against the democratically elected government using all means at its disposal: street violence, fascist gangs, economic sabotage, etc.

On the night of the referendum itself, the prefect of Santa Cruz and one of the main leaders of the right wing opposition, Ruben Costas, declared that the results ratified the reactionary project of regional autonomy and that he was going to start dictating laws, including the setting up of a Departmental police force and a tax-raising office. This was a clear provocation which revealed that what the ruling class is really interested in is in controlling the state apparatus in order to prevent any real change from taking place.

While the prefects of Tarija, Pando, Beni and Chuquisaca attended a meeting with government representatives, this was just a formality. After a few hours, they walked out and announced they were not coming back to the negotiations and announced the calling of a "civic stoppage" (in reality a bosses' lock-out) on August 19th.

Polarisation to the right ....

The results of the referendum, far from solving the conflict in the country, further polarised the political scene. In the camp of the ruling class, Tuto Quiroga's PODEMOS party, which was seen as the more "moderate", "reasonable" opposition to Evo Morales' MAS government, collapsed, and has basically disappeared from the political scene. The most vocal spokespersons of the right wing are now the reactionary prefects and the so-called "Civic Committees" of the departments in the "Eastern Crescent" (la media luna oriental). These Civic Committees represent the interests of the land owners, cattle ranchers, capitalist agro-businesses, and their interests in banking and industry. This is the backbone of the Bolivian ruling class and the section that has been receiving support, advice and financing from US imperialism.

The tactics they are using are a copy of those used by the reactionary opposition in Venezuela in the run up to the coup in 2002, which in turn were the same used by the ruling class in Chile against the Allende government in 1973. The mobilisation of the masses of the middle class - whipped up by tales of "Communist take over", racism against the "Indian" president, fear of a Cuban-Venezuelan plot to dominate the country, etc. - economic sabotage and bosses' lock-outs, and the organisation of fascist gangs (the Union Juvenil Cruceñista), are combined with accusations of electoral fraud, diplomatic pressure and appeals to the army officers to organise a coup.

... and to the left

In the camp of the workers and peasants, the referendum has been an expression of the new wave of radicalisation which started with the mass movement against the illegal autonomy referendum in Santa Cruz on May 4th. At that time, hundreds of thousands came to the streets in Cochabamba, El Alto, La Paz, Oruro, Potosí, and thousands more actively and passively resisted the intimidation of the oligarchy and its hired thugs in Santa Cruz itself. These mobilisations had not been called by the MAS government, which was appealing for calm, and which held back the miners' union and other organisations who wanted to march on Santa Cruz to prevent the referendum. In fact, Evo Morales himself announced that the referendum should be ignored, as it was just "an opinion poll".

However, the masses responded massively in the streets, called and organised precisely by the social movement organisations (peasant trade unions, neighbourhood juntas, regional workers' unions, etc.) which make up the MAS social base and brought Evo Morales to power. They were tired of the government's appeals for conciliation and the vacillations of the MAS leaders when faced with the offensive of the ruling class. They came out in support of the government they had elected, with the clear aim of defeating the right wing, but at the same time wanting to push the government to the left.

Another expression of this radicalisation was the massive demonstration in La Paz on June 10th, when 50,000 workers and residents from El Alto and La Paz surrounded the US embassy bunker, protesting the fact that the US had conceded political asylum to Carlos Sanchez Berzaín, who was the Defence Minister in Sanchez de Lozada's government and co-responsible for the brutal repression in El Alto in October 2003.

Immediately after the victory of the recall referendum, a whole series of workers' and peasants' organisations demanded a shift to the left in the government. In a meeting with Evo Morales on Sunday August 17, representatives from different mass workers' and peasants' organisations named those ministers that they see as not committed to the revolution (Minister of the Presidency Juan Ramón Quintana, Vice-Minister of Social Movements Sacha Llorenti, and Rural Development Minister Susana Rivero) and asked for them to be removed. The General Secretary of the peasants' union CSUTCB, Remigio Figueredo, said: "These comrades are not with the process of change, they should go". They also asked Morales to move to a referendum on the proposed Constitution (which includes a wide-ranging agrarian reform and which is opposed by the oligarchy) and not to make concessions on the issue of who controls the revenue generated by the nationalisation of gas (another of the main demands of the oligarchy).

These same organisations have called for a national meeting in Cochabamba on Saturday, August 23rd, to discuss the way forward for the movement in the face of the oligarchy's offensive and to put demands on the government.

The oligarchy's offensive

As part of their strategy to take control of state power, the oligarchy in Santa Cruz attempted to take over control of the national police in this region, which is still loyal to the national government. On Friday, August 15th, gangs of the Union Juvenil Cruceñista and other fascist youth organisations marched on the headquarters of the police force in Santa Cruz and tried to take it over. Later in the day, the commanders of the police went to negotiate with the Civic Committee and when coming out of the meeting they were attacked by UJC gangs. The police commander, Wigle Obleas, and his aide were thrown to the ground and beaten with sticks and bats. As a result of these incidents, Obleas has resigned from his post and the pro-oligarchy prefect Rubén Costas has announced that he will not accept the nomination of a new commander unless he himself approves it. This is a direct challenge to the power of the state. The state is, at the end of the day, armed bodies of men in defence of private property. If the national government does not have power over the police in Santa Cruz, then it no longer rules in this department.

The August 19th "civic stoppage", which took place in five of the country's nine departments, coincided with the anniversary of the Banzer coup in 1971. The so-called stoppage was a very violent affair. From early in the morning, groups of armed thugs in official vehicles from the regional and local governments - controlled by the oligarchy - forced the closure of shops and businesses, local street markets and set up road blocks. Peasant and trade union organisation offices were assaulted by armed gangs in several cities.

Even so, the stoppage had no impact in the rural areas (which are solidly in support of the Morales government) and only partially paralysed activities in the cities.

And the reaction of the masses

For the first time, encouraged by the very good results in the recall referendum, the MAS rank and file and masses of supporters actively defied the violence of the right wing. In Santa Cruz, around 300 members of the UJC, armed with sticks, knives and handguns, and driving vehicles from the Prefect's office, arrived at the entrance of Plan 3000, a massive working class neighbourhood which is a stronghold of support for the MAS. They were confronted by thousands of residents, who chased them away and guaranteed the security of street vendors and local shops.

Later in the day, a massive cabildo abierto (open assembly) in Plan 3000 declared their autonomy from the Santa Cruz council and established the "Andres Ibañez egalitarian council", a territory "free from fascism, racism, discrimination and the oligarchy".

In San Julian, another MAS stronghold in Santa Cruz, a mass meeting on the eve of the stoppage announced that they would oppose the oligarchy, and threatened to blockade the city of Santa Cruz if Rubén Costas did not cease in his provocative attitude. They have now announced that their blockade will start on Monday, August 25th.

Until now, the opposition prefects and the Civic Committees had had a more or less free ride. They were able to mobilise layers of the middle class because the workers and peasants were not organised to offer any resistance. Their support appeared much stronger than what it was because the leaders of the MAS and the government were not prepared to mobilise their supporters in the streets. But this has come to an end. Now we are seeing an organised reaction against the oligarchy in these provinces, including their stronghold of Santa Cruz. Building on the movement that started on May 4th, the mass movement of workers and peasants is being in the streets once again.

The masses of the middle class are never brave; on the contrary, they tend to be rather cowardly. They feel secure if they sense that they are in control, that they hold power. And this was the situation until now. They were mobilised by the prefect and the mayor, and all the men of power and influence in the Civic Committee were on their side. But faced with the mass movement of workers and peasants they can be quickly disbanded and the real balance of forces clearly revealed. A few hundred or even a few thousand armed fascist youth, however well trained, organised and equipped, are no match for the masses of workers and peasants, once they are mobilised and on the march. This is the main lesson of the so-called "civic stoppage" in Santa Cruz.

Also in Chuquisaca, where Morales won a clear majority in the recall referendum, there was a massive response by the peasant organisations against the oligarchy's "strike". The peasants demanded that the sub-prefects, the provincial authorities, should be elected, a measure that would ensure that they are MAS supporters, thus defying the power of the newly elected opposition prefect. The situation in Chuquisaca is a peculiar one. The opposition was only able to win Chuquisaca (by a small margin) by presenting a candidate, Savina Cuellar, who was a former MAS member and an indigenous woman. The peasant trade unions in this Department have now announced a blockade of its capital Sucre until Cuellar gave in to their demands. At the time of writing, this threat is being implemented and Sucre is almost completely blocked off from the rural areas and from the rest of the country.

The oligarchy steps up their challenge

Sensing their own weakness, the oligarchy did not insist on continuing the "stoppage" as they did in 2002 in Venezuela, where the bosses' lock out lasted for over two months. However, they have by no means stopped their campaign of challenging the authority and power of the government. Meat producers in Santa Cruz and Beni announced that they would stop sending meat to La Paz and El Alto. They are trying to use their economic power in order to topple the democratically elected government. At the same time, their appeals for a military coup have been redoubled. MNR MP Roxana Sandoval called on the Armed Forces and the Police to disobey the orders of the national government. There were also appeals for road blockades in the five departments with opposition prefects, and they threatened to forcefully take over all public institutions in these regions.

Despite all of this, sectors of the government are still calling for conciliation. For example, government spokesperson Iván Canelas insisted that: "The government will continue to offer an open hand, will continue to propose dialogue, in an effort to solve the problems of the country in the most peaceful way possible". Felix Rojas, the head of the MAS Senators, announced that the MAS was prepared to negotiate with the opposition on the questions to be put to the people in the referendum on the new constitution (thus allowing for a change in its contents), and that he would rather "build and democratically dialogue" rather than just put the new constitution to a referendum, which is what the mass organisations are demanding.

But the oligarchy is playing a very dangerous game. As was seen by their reaction on August 19th, the masses of workers and peasants have already lost their patience. They are demanding that the government acts with mano dura (a firm hand) against the oligarchy, and are already taking direct action to show their own strength. Further provocations could spark even more radical action by the workers and peasants, which is precisely the only thing that can break the current deadlock. However, if the situation of deadlock between the classes continues for too long, then there is a real danger that a section of the army and the police will intervene to "restore order" and "the rule of law".

Now is the time to take decisive measures against the oligarchy. If they sabotage the distribution of food against the democratic will of the people, then their land, ranches, food processing plants and transport companies should be occupied by the peasants and workers and be expropriated by the government. If they take over oil and gas fields, as they have threatened, then workers and peasants must retake them (as in Venezuela) and put them to work under workers' control. If they blockade roads, workers and peasants must organise to keep them open.

Evo Morales, correctly, has warned that what is being prepared is a "civic coup". But in order to defeat it, appeals for negotiation and conciliation are useless. The full power of the masses of workers and peasants that support the government and that gave Morales over 67 percent of the votes on August 10th must be mobilised, and the economic and political power of the oligarchy smashed.

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