Which way forward for the Bolivian mass struggle?

On Dec. 18, 2005, Evo Morales was elected president of Bolivia. In the 180 years since Bolivia’s independence from Spain, Morales will be the first Indigenous president in Bolivia, a country with the largest percentage of Indigenous people—60 percent—in the hemisphere.

Indigenous Bolivians celebrate the election of Evo Morales, center, Jan. 1, 2006.

Photo: Reuters/David Mercado

He won on the first round of balloting with 54 percent of the popular vote in a field of eight candidates—the highest percentage in presidential elections in the past 20 years. Washington’s candidate Jorge Quiroga took only 28 percent of the vote. Morales’ Movement Toward Socialism Party (MAS) also won a majority of seats in the lower house of parliament.

The election of Morales was a major historical event in this Andean nation, where 70 percent of Bolivia’s 8.2 million people live below the poverty level, surviving on $2 a day. His victory continues the current trend of Latin American countries electing governments that oppose International Monetary Fund and World Bank domination.

Using creative forms of struggle in the last five years, Bolivia’s majority Indigenous population ousted two presidents. It bravely fought the privatization of their water, resulting in the Bechtel Corporation being forced to pack their bags and leave the country. Also, the Bolivian mass movement fought tirelessly in favor of the nationalization of the natural gas. But despite the courageous stand of the people of Bolivia, their efforts fell short of taking power.

In October 2004, poor and indigenous people in Bolivia furiously protested plans by then-President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada to export gas through a port in Chile. In the struggle against the plan, more than 80 people died. Sánchez de Lozada ultimately resigned.

His successor, Carlos Mesa, also had to resign. Mesa was under enormous mass pressure to nationalize the natural gas reserves, and his failure to respond to this popular demand led to his ouster.

This series of events was the background to Morales’ election. Hopes are high among the country’s poor, workers and peasants that his election will mean a break with past governments’ subservience to U.S. imperialism.

‘We want a change’

“The population gave total support to Evo Morales because we want a change,” La Paz activist Maria Caceres de Gonzales told Socialism and Liberation. “All previous governments took away our natural resources; they enriched themselves in our name, killed many of our leaders during street protests, strikes, marches, highway blockades. They repressed us when we were fighting for the nationalization of our hydrocarbons, or for the defense of our millenary coca leaf.”

Photo: Reuters/David Mercado

Bolivia has the second largest oil reserve in South America, after Venezuela. Its natural gas wealth is worth anywhere from $70 billion to $210 billon. Yet Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in the region.

Bolivia is also the world’s third-largest coca grower, after Colombia and Peru. Morales earned his reputation as a leader of coca growers. In the lead-up to the elections, the U.S. government tried to discredit Morales because of his support for coca growers and defense of the medicinal use of the coca leaf. But Morales has not backed down, declaring in France that the United States is wrong in demonizing the MAS. He said he is ready to cooperate in the struggle against drug trafficking but from a position of “national independence.”

Washington’s bullying backfires

During the 1980s, the U.S. government was very effective in pouring million of dollars into electoral campaigns throughout Latin America to help the candidates that were allied with U.S. foreign policy. In these elections, fear was also an effective tactic.

The Bush administration tried the same tactics in Bolivia. It blamed Cuba and Venezuela for the unfolding situation in Bolivia. An Aug. 18 Associated Press report quoted U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as saying, “There is certainly evidence both Cuba and Venezuela have been involved in the situation in Bolivia in unhelpful ways.”

But the U.S.-inspired attempts to discredit Morales during the presidential elections, and the assertions that the government of Cuba and Venezuela provoked and funded the social unrest in Bolivia, did not find any echo among the disenfranchised citizens of this country. On the contrary, many claim they actually helped Morales’ campaign.

After the elections, the United States government congratulated Morales, but State Department spokesperson Sean McCormick warned that the quality of the U.S.-Bolivian relationship under Morales would depend on the policies his government pursues. “Do they govern democratically, and do they have a respect for democratic institutions?” he asked.

This type of scolding by Washington is reserved for any elected government that indicates even the slightest amount of independence from the clutches of imperialism. What the State Department really means is that the quality of the relationship between both countries depends of the willingness of the newly elected president to continue the course and collaborate with the plans of U.S. imperialism in the region.

What the imperialists fear most is that Morales’ election will change the balance of forces in the region. Morales has already spoken of joining an “axis of good” with Cuba and Venezuela. Other social-democratic governments in Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay are already cooperating along with Cuba and Venezuela on a range of regional economic initiatives designed to weaken U.S. influence.

In the past, it has been normal protocol for newly elected Latin American presidents to make their first visit to the United States. Evo Morales’ first visit was to socialist Cuba. During this initial meeting in Havana, Morales signed an agreement with Cuban president Fidel Castro that will provide technical resources and other support for a literacy campaign beginning in July.

In addition to the 800 students from Bolivia already studying medicine in Havana’s Latin American School of Medicine free of charge, Cuba is extending the program to offer 5,000 additional scholarships for medical students in the next two years. Cuba has also offered free services to Bolivians who cannot afford access to eye doctors and surgeons.

Soon after visiting Cuba, Morales flew to Venezuela. President Hugo Chávez also offered aid to the Bolivian government, including technological and human resources for future plans.

Decisive moments ahead

With regard to the issues facing poor and working Bolivians, Morales has been cautious. On Dec. 20, two days after the vote, he told the French news agency AFP, “We will nationalize gas, natural resources, but we will not nationalize the property of transnationals.” While he has repeatedly called for “changing the economic model,” he also told business leaders in the wealthy stronghold of Santa Cruz, “his government would create a stable legal and economic environment to attract investment and create jobs.” (AP, Dec. 28, 2005)

Foreign investors were looking for signs of which direction the new government will follow. Fitch Ratings, which assigns credit ratings to borrowing countries for the purpose of international financial institutions, left Bolivia’s credit rating unchanged after the election.

“A loss of international support or a further deterioration of the social and political environment that affects debt service capacity or willingness could trigger a downgrade,” the company stated in a Dec. 21 release. “Conversely, more clarity on debt forgiveness and/or an easing of social tensions, which results in improved governability could lead to a revision of the outlook back to stable.” (AP, Dec. 21)

Two trends are emerging within the mass rejection of U.S.-backed neoliberal policies that is sweeping Latin America. Will Morales follow the path of social democratic governments in Latin America that continued neoliberal policies? Or will he attempt to follow the path of Venezuela, where the Chávez election has unleashed a deep-going revolutionary process with the participation of the working class?

The millions of Bolivians who have mobilized to confront the multinational corporations and their local lackeys will be decisive in how that question is answered.

Articles may be reprinted with credit to Socialism and Liberation magazine.

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