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Bolivia: a new phase begins

EVO MORALES of the Movement towards Socialism (MAS) was swept to power in Bolivia’s presidential elections in December 2005. With more than 53%, he won a higher share of the vote than any president in the last 30 years.

Morales’ election represents a new phase in the struggle of the masses in Bolivia and has already had significant international repercussions. To the irritation of George Bush and US imperialism, the first visits made by Morales were to Havana and Caracas, where he announced that Bolivia was now joining a struggle against neo-liberalism and forming an "anti-imperialist front" with Cuba and Venezuela.

His nearest rival, Tuto Quiroga, the favoured candidate of the ruling class and US imperialism, trailed behind with a mere 28.5% of the vote. Even in the wealthy province of Santa Cruz, where the vast oil and gas reserves are concentrated, support for Morales was surprisingly high at 33%.

This overwhelming victory is a consequence of the massive revolutionary uprising of the miners, peasants, public-sector workers and others against the former president, Carlos Mesa. This tremendous movement, which included insurrectionary features, drove Mesa from office in May-June 2005, as tens of thousands took to the streets demanding the nationalisation of Bolivia’s rich gas reserves.

Mesa was the second president in two years to be overthrown by a mass movement. His predecessor, Sanchez Lozada, was forced out in October 2003. These movements formed part of a revolt against neo-liberalism and privatisation which has swept Latin America over the last five years. In Bolivia, the mass struggles began in 2001 in Cochabamba, where a popular uprising in the city prevented the privatisation of the water industry.

Morales’s landslide is a consequence of these mass protests and also directly reflects the struggle of indigenous peoples. For the first time, a candidate from the indigenous people who make up 60% of the Bolivian population has been elected. The emergence of the struggles of indigenous peoples in Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, Mexico and Chile has been an important feature of the movement against neo-liberalism in recent years.

In Bolivia, this is particularly important. The majority indigenous population has been left in virtual destitution in the cities, ruled over by an elite ruling class of European descent. In El Alto, which has been at the forefront of recent struggles, 75% of the population barely survive on less than $2 per day. Notorious for the most unequal wealth distribution in Latin America, the richest 20% of Bolivia’s population have an income 41 times greater than the poorest 20%.

The election of Morales was a vote against the pro-imperialist, neo-liberal policies of the ruling class and a demand for change. Above all, those who voted for him were demanding that gas and oil reserves be used for the benefit of the mass of the population rather than the multi-national giants which have economically raped the country. Enjoying a profits bonanza, companies like Exxon (USA), Repsol (Spain), British Gas (UK) and Petrobas (Brazil) have sucked oil and gas from the country like vampires. They have seen the amount of tax paid to exploit these resources slashed from 50% to a mere 18% during the 1990s. This giveaway went side-by-side with the privatisation of the former state oil company.

A vote for Morales and MAS was a vote for the nationalisation of these industries. These developments represent an important change in political consciousness. For the first time since the 1990s and the pro-market ideological offensive launched by imperialism (following the collapse of the bureaucratic dictatorships and planned economies of the former USSR and Eastern Europe), a mass movement has erupted demanding nationalisation of a key sector of the economy. This follows the devastating experience of privatisation which ravaged Latin America throughout the 1990s.

Despite the vote and hopes that the new government will introduce measures against the interests of capitalism, significant sections of the workers’ movement are wary of what Morales will do now he is in office. The main trade union confederation, COB, issued a statement giving the new government three months to nationalise gas and energy or it would take to the streets. The teachers’ confederation has given the government two months to raise wages.

These doubts about Morales’s determination to challenge capitalism exist because of his role in previous mass movements. During 2003, he was in Europe and played no role until he returned. After Lozada was overthrown, he helped prop up Mesa’s government. When a referendum was called with rigged questions on the issue of ownership of the oil industry, the mass organisations called for a boycott. Morales and the MAS leadership urged participation, which was partly responsible for his formal expulsion from COB at the time. In 2005, he vacillated over support for nationalisation, counterposing support for a 50% tax on the profits of the private companies. What role his government will now play is the central question facing the mass movement.

One of his first announcements was to reduce presidential and ministerial salaries by 50%. He also announced that he will not wear a tie at the swearing-in ceremony because it is a symbol of the ruling elite but will wear traditional clothes of the indigenous peoples. These steps are undoubtedly very popular.

Yet he has also sought to reassure sections of the ruling class. Apart from Venezuela and Cuba, he rapidly visited Spain and other European countries. The Spanish oil company, Repsol, the second largest foreign investor, has $800 million invested in Bolivia.

Morales tried to reassure Spanish monopolies that his government could collaborate with them. The new Bolivian government is "going to nationalise but it will not confiscate or expropriate". A "symbolic nationalisation" was what he promised in Madrid. He seems to be suggesting that the gas and oil would be ‘nationalised’ but the assets of the companies would be left in private hands, and contracts renegotiated with the likes of Repsol and Exxon.

Morales also spoke of the need to take action against "bandit" companies, but assured the Spanish ruling class that he does not consider Repsol and other Spanish companies to be "bandits": "Spanish companies can play the role of foreign investors like a motor for development, with a stable market but combining it with social progress". In other words, it is a question of building a more progressive, social capitalist economy – capitalism with a more human face. This was the same idea that Hugo Chávez initially defended when he first came to power in 1998.

In an interview with the Journal of Bolivian Business, Morales’s running mate for the vice-presidency, Álvaro García Linera, spelt out the programme. Asked if MAS wanted a socialist government, he replied: "No, no way, because it’s not viable. It’s not viable because socialism can only be built on the basis of a strong proletarian presence… you don’t build socialism on the basis of a family economy; you build it on the basis of industry, which there is none in Bolivia". He argued for an "Andean capitalism": "A strong state and that is capitalism; the state is not socialism, it’s a strong state in hydrocarbons, foreign investment, local private investment, the family economy and small businesses… It’s not even a mixed economy". Once this task is achieved then, maybe, socialism will be posed. For Linera this is off the agenda in Bolivia for at least 50 years!

Developing of industry, land reform, establishing parliamentary democracy and unifying the nation have been the historic tasks of the capitalist class. In the modern epoch, domination by major imperialist countries and the weakness of the local capitalist class, mean that the latter has been incapable of resolving these questions of the bourgeois democratic revolution.

Even with large state intervention in the economy (for example, Peru, Bolivia and other countries in the past), capitalism has proved incapable of resolving these tasks. Yet this seems to be what Morales is now advocating in Bolivia along with Chávez in Venezuela.

Only the working class together with the poor peasants and others exploited by capitalism can complete these tasks by taking over the running of society and through the introduction of a democratic, state-planned economy and by spreading such a revolution to other more industrialised and economically developed countries.

Nonetheless, Morales in Bolivia, Chávez in Venezuela and Néstor Kirchner in Argentina represent a significant break with the dominant neo-liberalism of the 1990s. All have been swept to power by the masses as part of a mass rejection of neo-liberalism and privatisation. All to varying degrees have adopted policies of greater state intervention in the economy, including some nationalisations, price controls and other similar measures.

Tony Saunois


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