Thursday 13 November 2008

Branch Meeting: Bolivia and Revolution

At tonight's branch meeting, Brother G presented his debut lead off. As our resident Bolivia specialist and attendee of the session on that country at last weekend's Socialism, it was only right and proper he did something on the unfolding events in Bolivia.

He began right back at the beginning, at the proclamation of the Bolivian state itself in 1825.
Simón Bolívar, Bolivia's first president and the leading figure in the Latin American wars of independence in the early 19th century from Spain, saw himself as a liberal in the American (as opposed to French) revolutionary tradition. Nevertheless, though the anti-colonial struggle was a step forward it was business as usual for the majority of the population. Recognised citizens of the Bolivian republic made up only 2.5 per cent of the total population, and this of course coincided with the European elite who (apart from 1952) have only recently had their monopoly on power seriously challenged. Bolivia is also unique among Latin America for managing to keep the majority of its indigenous population, mainly because the African slaves the Spanish shipped over we found to be unsuited to labour in the country's climate and altitude. In effect the country's geography saved the indigenous from genocide, and they now (depending on who you believe) account for between 55 and 70 per cent of Bolivia's population.

Bolivia has historically been a byword for political turbulence on a continent known for political turbulence. But also it has been the nation most heavily pregnant with revolution. After independence, the disenfranchised indigenous peoples were enserfed on the land and worked in mineral extraction in conditions that were little better than forced labour. There were no opportunities for them outside of this lot. They were used as cannon fodder in Bolivia's unsuccessful war against Paraguay in 1932-5. This was to prove something of a turning point in their history. In total 100,000 people perished in a fruitless struggle, but their anger and frustration found political expression in the Revolutionary Nationalist Movement (
MNR). This left wing party was founded in 1941 and rapidly spread its influence among the trade unions - particularly the strategically vital mining sector. Over 1946-52 the MNR developed militias and participated in the round of coups, insurrections, rebellion and a general strike as part of its struggle against a succession of authoritarian governments. In 1952 the MNR finally seized power after overrunning the armed forces, and embarked on an ambitious programme of nationalisations and agrarian reform. But it could have been more. In G's opinion this was the nearest a country had come to socialist revolution since 1917, but owing to mistakes on the part of revolutionaries active in the movement the leadership were able to centralise power in its hands, and an opportunity was lost. The MNR carried on in power until they were overthrown by the military in 1964, ushering in a period of dictatorship and a rolling back of progressive reforms.

This turbulent period was not enough to break the miners and the socialist movement though. The restoration of liberal democracy in 1982 coincided with a roll out of a neoliberal programme that saw Western multinationals come in and take half ownership of public utilities and state infrastructure. There were a number of important disputes during this period, but things came to a head between 2000-5 over the privatisation of
water (where residents were forbidden from even collecting rain water!) and the Gas War. This was the background for the rise of the Movement for Socialism and Evo Morales (pictured), who won the presidency in 2005 with 54 per cent of the popular vote. The renationalisation of the hydro carbons sector of the economy plus an 85 per cent rate of corporation tax has allowed the Morales administration to pursue poverty reduction strategies (already down 15 per cent) and make major inroads into illiteracy.

But there are major problems in Bolivia. The right have moved heaven and earth to oppose the Morales agenda, which has assumed constitutional expression in a movement for autonomy in Bolivia's richest provinces. This has occasionally erupted into naked violence, but civil war has only been averted by (so far) by grass roots mobilisations. Nevertheless the right suffered a set back when its inspired recall referendum saw popular support for Morales increase from 54 to 68 per cent. Some of his opponents in the provincial governors offices were voted out, though they do not recognise the legality of the referendum. And also the Senate does not have a majority for the MAS and its allies. In short, the situation is on a knife's edge. Bolivia could go either way - forward to the revolution, or into the hell of counterrevolution. But the popular support for the MAS and Morales programme is there - will it encourage him to act more boldly?

In the ensuing discussion, A noted that there have been many such knife's edge situations in Latin America in the past. For example, in Nicaragua the
Sandinistas held power for 11 years, nationalised 50 per cent of the economy and fought US-backed counterrevolution, but in 1990 reaction came to power constitutionally. In Chile, Allende's Popular Unity government also sought to incrementally advance socialism, which ended in violence. To avoid a similar fate, be it a peaceful electoral defeat or a bloody coup, Morales has to take decisive action. At present the masses are certainly behind the government, including widespread support in the regions seeking autonomy (on average, approval for Morales here was 40 per cent). Morales is still committed to land redistribution - the MAS-sponsored constitution puts limits on the amount of land that can be held, which will go to referendum in January and is likely to pass (five million hectares are currently owned by two million peasants, whereas 25 million is owned by just 100 families - it is under the latter where the majority of gas reserves are to be found).

Some comrades also flagged up what an Obama victory can mean for Bolivia. The election was enthusiastically welcomed by masses of peasants and workers who, like many others, take his change rhetoric at face value. However, his comments on energy independence from the Middle East might indicate an eyeing up of Latin America and moves to secure energy sources once sufficient disengagement from the Arab world has taken place. There was also some discussion about the agrarian question - how to reconcile the desire to redistribute the land with the need to socialise agricultural production and democratically plan it? The former would certainly appeal to peasant consciousness from the most advanced to most backward than slogans around socialisation, but they need not be mutually exclusive - to be successful it would have to proceed on a voluntary basis, and the state could play a role in incentivising cooperatives.

In summing up, it was felt that the situation in Bolivia is more favourable from the standpoint of socialist politics than even Venezuela. There is a strong tradition of trade unionism, independent working class organisation, and is one of the few places where Trotskyism had a mass influence and struck deep roots among our class. A leadership and programme that links together the various Bolivian social movements to self-defence militias, fraternisation with the armed forces and workers' councils is what the situation demands. Already the Bolivian trade union federation, the
COB support many of these and related demands, so there is every chance a revolutionary party organic to the movement of peasants and workers could emerge.

As Bolivia is probably the country closest to socialist revolution, and demands the attention of our movement, wherever we are.


Anonymous said...

A number of translated documents attesting to the political independence and militancy of important sections of the bolivian working class appear here:

Anonymous said...

CWI USA back again.

There is reference made to "mistakes made by revolutionaries" but not to the POR in particular in the 1950s.

This is worth discussion. Also, the work of the CWI in Bolivia...

Phil said...

I know - we didn't discuss the revolution of 1952 and the POR in any real depth, which is a shame. It's something we will have to revisit at some point, which could perhaps lead to a CWI article/Socialism Today piece at some point.

Leftwing Criminologist said...

I was at the session on Bolivia - i'm going to blog about it soon - I promise! The stuff about 1952 really interests me though

Anonymous said...

I think that the POR probably made some crucial mistakes of over-accomodating themselves to the MNR.