Bolivia’s advancing class struggle

Evo Morales gives a land title to an Indigenous peasant.

Photo: Reuters/Stringer

On June 3, President Evo Morales of Bolivia handed over 10,000 square miles of state-owned land to poor Indigenous farmers. The Morales administration announced the move as the first step in a longer “agrarian revolution,” which would at first involve the redistribution of 77,000 square miles of state land long promised to the Bolivian people.

As part of the agrarian reform, the Bolivian government has furthermore announced a plan to seize privately owned land that is unproductive, used for speculation or obtained illegally. Vice President Alvaro García Linera explained the reform will go after the latifundios, the larger underutilized holdings that are “gangster-like systems of extortion based on commercial, mercantile and political coercion.”

A majority of the land slated for eventual expropriation is located in the eastern province of Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz is the country’s most developed economic region, producing agricultural exports like soybeans and cattle. Over the last three decades, the country’s big landholders have used their political connections to take hold of many of the province’s large estates.

The rest of the country’s rural areas are left primarily to subsistence farming. Some three-and-a half-million of the country’s 9 million inhabitants—almost 40 percent—live in the countryside. Explaining the land reforms, Vice President García Linera noted the extreme poverty that characterizes peasant life in Bolivia. Forty percent of peasants and inhabitants of the Indigenous communities earn less than $600 a year.

Because Indigenous women suffer especially, Garcia Linera promised they will receive “special treatment” in the agrarian reforms.

Landlords and peasants

The specter of land expropriation has driven the Bolivian and international capitalist class into a frenzy. The National Farming Confederation, for instance, announced the formation of “self-defense” groups—in other words, landlord-run militias—to defend private property.

Although Morales’ agrarian reforms have not yet done anything more than make good on promises made by previous administrations, the stage has been set for a more direct conflict between the Bolivian government and the land-owning ruling class.

The destitution of the Andean west has led many landless peasants, predominantly of Quechua and Aymara descent, to migrate eastward. There, they take grueling jobs on the large estates controlled by non-Indigenous owners.

Over the years, a movement has developed among the Bolivian landless to seize these landowners’ idle lands. The landlords have responded violently. According to Miguel Urioste, who directs the Land Foundation, an independent research center, “A climate of violence and confrontations over access to land has led to the injury and death of many peasants.”

Although the landless indigenous peasants make up Morales’ political base, their movement is by no means rooted in an electoral struggle. It is not under the Bolivian government’s control. They have long been engaged in direct class struggle with landowners.

Thus far, Morales has refrained from direct intervention in those conflicts. He can only hope to retain that political base to the extent that he assists the struggling peasants and defends their interests.

Sustained opposition in Bolivia’s Congress has stalled some of Morales’ intended reforms. But a new constitution to be drafted by a constituent assembly set to be elected in July is likely to restructure the country’s agrarian policies and political institutions.

The nationalization of oil and gas

The land reform announcement came only weeks after Morales moved to nationalize Bolivia’s hydrocarbon industry. On May 1—International Workers Day—he sent troops to guard Bolivia’s gas installations. He also gave foreign investors a 6-month deadline to either leave the country, or renegotiate their contracts so that majority control of their enterprises would be turned over to the state-owned company, Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales Bolivianos (YPFB).

During the six-month renegotiation period, the state will impose a 32 percent hike in royalties and taxes on the companies that own the country’s two largest oil fields. The government has initiated an audit of the foreign companies and installed new YPFB directors on the boards of their local subsidiaries. In the transition to state rule, Morales informed foreign companies they will not be compensated if they have recovered their original investments.

Repsol YPF, a Spanish-Argentine joint venture, and Brazil’s Petróleo Brasileiro have the largest investments in Bolivia’s energy industry. British Petroleum and the French company Total also have sizeable holdings.

As a result of this move, Bolivia is expected to earn an additional $460 million in its annual oil-related revenues.

International outrage

The May 1 decree set off alarms throughout the capitalist world. While the move was not itself a complete expropriation of foreign-owned assets, it set the stage for struggles ahead. The Spanish company Repsol YPF vowed to take legal action to protect its investments.

Not surprisingly, the European Union and the United States responded to the news of nationalization with a mixture of condescension and threats. Brazil and Argentina have both expressed concern, although they are negotiating new terms with YPFB.

During the European Union-Latin American leaders’ summit, E.U. leaders warned Bolivia and Venezuela that “their increasingly nationalistic policies could clip economic growth,” and urged them to open up their markets to promote trade. While E.U. nations import little natural gas from Bolivia, they fear that nationalization “may have a negative impact on markets, because the markets are now subject to considerable pressure as far as prices are concerned.”

Behind the nationalization

Morales, a former Aymara coca grower, won a resounding victory in the Dec. 25 elections. It was a historic event in the Andean nation, where more than 30 percent of the people survive on $1dollar a day.

Despite having the second largest gas reserves on the continent after Venezuela, neoliberal economic policies—cutbacks of social programs and the privatization of natural resources—have made Bolivia South America’s poorest country.

For decades, the people of Bolivia have been fighting for the nationalization of their natural resources. Mass struggles for nationalization that took place across Bolivia in 2004 and 2005 laid the basis for Morales’ election as the candidate for the Movement to Socialism (MAS) electoral coalition.

During the EU-Latin American Summit, Morales said that the nationalization of hydrocarbons is necessary to reduce poverty.

Bolivia, Cuba and Venezuela

Evo Morales’ first diplomatic visits after his election were to socialist Cuba and the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. In Havana, Morales signed an agreement with Cuban president Fidel Castro that will provide technical resources and other support for a Bolivian literacy campaign scheduled to begin in July. In Caracas, Morales signed numerous economic treaties that strengthened what he and Chávez called the “axis of good.”

Over the objections of profit-minded Bolivian doctors, Cuban doctors treated these patients for free, June 1, 2006.

Photo: Reuters/David Mercado

In this way, Bolivia has helped deepen the vision of regional integration by joining the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, an economic and political pact that was first launched by Cuba and Venezuela two years ago. On May 25 in La Paz, Cuban, Venezuelan and Bolivian representatives took part in the First International Fair of ALBA and the People’s Trade Agreement.

According to Bolivia’s Ministry of Production and Small Businesses, the organizer of the fair, the commercial event will allow for the exchange of information on market supply and demand of the three participating countries, as well as data on micro and small enterprises.

Agricultural cooperation in Bolivia has also been bolstered by Cuba and Venezuela. Venezuela has given Bolivia $100 million to organize, along with Cuba, a three-nation farming corporation. The project aims to activate Bolivia’s productive forces with lending to farmers and small- and mediumsized businesses. The project will also install food-processing facilities in rural areas.

In addition to the 800 Bolivians already studying medicine for free at Havana’s Latin American School of Medicine, Cuba has extended an offer of 5,000 additional scholarships for Bolivian medical students in the next two years. Cuba has also begun to deliver free services to Bolivians who cannot afford access to eye doctors and surgeons.

Cuba and Venezuela are sending advisors to Bolivian volunteers in the country’s burgeoning literacy program. Havana is providing reading material and 30,000 television sets, with the goal to teach 720,000 Bolivians to read and write in the next two years. The program will be conducted in the Indigenous languages of Aymara, Quechua and Guarani, in addition to Spanish.

Looming battles ahead

The land reform, the nationalization of the hydrocarbon industries and the developing relationship with Cuba and Venezuela are all positive steps for Bolivia’s poor peasants, workers and Indigenous people. Although capitalist enterprises still lord over the country’s productive infrastructure and much of its natural resources, Morales’ election has energized the struggle against these forces.

The struggle faces serious challenges. On May 30, Morales announced that he had uncovered U.S. plans to assassinate him. “They haven’t been able to, and now we’re organized, from the unions to this political party [MAS],” he told the Associated Press. “They can’t stop us anymore.”

The Morales administration has positioned itself to respond to the needs of the people’s movement. To the extent that it genuinely represents the interests of the Andean nation’s poor and largely Indigenous workers and peasants, it opens the possibility of winning new victories in the looming class battles.
Articles may be reprinted with credit to Socialism and Liberation magazine.

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