For a South American continental federation

Eddie Ford reports about the situation in Bolivia - a country between revolution and counterrevolution

Over recent months, Bolivia has been convulsed by crisis and an atmosphere of near insurrection. There have been mass demonstrations, occupations and hunger strikes in all the major cities. Dramatically, the capital, La Paz, has been brought to a virtual standstill by angry protesters - who have blockaded the city and prevented fuel lorries from entering. Everywhere, 'people's power' is evident. Centrally, the wave of protest and mass discontent has focused around two key demands - for a constituent assembly and the nationalisation of the gas industry. In return, the army has issued a terse and sinister-sounding statement exhorting Bolivians to allow the "constitutional process" to proceed in a "framework of serenity" and complaining about how "the political system has not been able to exercise its constitutional mandate to establish conditions of order inside a state of law and respect". Clearly, violent state repression of the protests is a constant threat. Soldiers prowl the streets of La Paz, Santa Cruz, etc. However, the protesters have scored the first victory - with the resignation of the president, Carlos Mesa. Somewhat ironically, Mesa himself had been brought to power a few years earlier by a similar round of protests and strikes. Furthermore, at a de facto emergency meeting of the congress over the weekend, the ruling class failed in its bid to foist its preferred candidate, Hormando Vaca Dà­ez, on the country and anoint him as the new president. Dà­ez is the conservative-reactionary leader of the senate and a notorious champion of neoliberal free market economists - and hence hated by the masses. In the end, weary - if not downright scared - of the reaction that such a deeply unpopular appointment could have provoked, they chose instead Eduardo Rodriguez Veltzé, the former chief justice of the supreme court, as the new interim president. Veltzé promised early elections and called for "a national agreement". Bowing, at least partially, to the anti-government agitators, he promised "action" on gas and constitutional reform. Clearly, at this current juncture, the ruling class are back-pedalling in order to gain some breathing space. Additionally, you can reasonably argue that in Bolivia we are confronted by a situation bearing some of the typical characteristics of a dual-power situation. But, by very definition, this can only be a temporary situation and hence this poses the stark question: which class is going to take power in Bolivia? Bolivia has become a case study in capitalist exploitation and its attendant state repression. Millions have become victims of neoliberalism, which has wrecked the country's agricultural system and, like a modern-day vandal, closed down the previously state-owned tin mines, throwing thousands into unemployment. Inevitably, substantial numbers have been forced into coca leaf production just in order to survive - and, of course, the coca leaf forms the base of cocaine. Thus, the neoliberals in La Paz and Washington have literally criminalised a section of the Bolivian people - who in turn are now open targets for the United States' brutal, crazy, irrational and utterly hypocritical, 'war on drugs'. The capitalists' 'scramble for Bolivia' began in the 1990s, when immense reserves of natural gas were discovered - some 50 trillion cubic feet at the last, almost certainly cautious, estimate. Accordingly, within Latin America as a whole, this made Bolivia's reserves second only to Venezuela. In other words, huge profits were up for grabs. Naturally, Bolivia became ever more attractive to external predators, with companies like British Gas very keen to get supplies out of the ground, down to the coast, and off to California. When we look at this 'dash for gas', we see that in Bolivia history has a distinct tendency to repeat itself - sometimes very quickly. After all, it was the previous attempt to secure the export of gas through Chile that in October 2003 led to violent protests in El Alto - a predominately indigenous or 'Indian' city - and eventually to the toppling of the government of Sanchez de Losada. Bolivia's gas reserves are worth around $50 billion - a quite staggering sum when one considers that the country is the poorest in Latin America, with around 30% of the population living on an income of less than $1 a day. It is also one of the most grotesquely unequal societies on earth, as the grinding poverty is disproportionately concentrated amongst those of Amerindian descent - comprising over 60% of the eight-million population. Therefore, the demand for nationalisation of the gas industry comes loudest and clearest from this section of the masses. Indeed, the Amerindian population has been marginalised by the political system. The composition of the current-day congress, or parliament, grossly underrepresents them. Following elections two years ago, only 30% of the 157-member national congress were Amerindians. Obviously, the call for a constituent assembly is a demand to redress the gaping democratic deficit that lies at the heart of Bolivian society - and has done since the very formation of the state in 1825, after 300 years of Spanish colonial rule. Bolivia adopted its first constitution in 1826, and ever since then it has been an extraordinarily unstable society - suffering from over 190 military coups and counter-coups. Throughout most of the 19th century Bolivia was governed by a series of caudillos. The first of these, Andrés Santa Cruz, seized power in 1829 and created a Peru-Bolivia confederation in 1836. The confederation lasted only three years before it was put down by Chilean troops in 1839. After the early 1870s, white and mixed-blood (cholo) landlords took virtually all the land that was still in Amerindian hands - and the latter have been subject to callous discrimination and 'exclusion' from the state and official society ever since. Misfortune and vain, ruling class stupidity has plagued Bolivia. During the War of the Pacific in 1881, Bolivia lost its coastal province and outlet to the sea. Two decades later, further territory was lost to Brazil. Between 1932 and 1935 the Bolivian army waged a disastrous war - the Chaco War - with Paraguay over the border region between the two countries. In recent times, of course, the country has been at the total mercy of US imperialism - which has constantly intervened, in one form or another, in order to prevent and sabotage popular movements and uprisings. So, for example, when in the 1951 election, Và­ctor Paz Estenssoro, the National Revolutionary Movement (MNR) candidate exiled in Argentina since 1946, nearly won an absolute majority in the first round of elections, an army junta immediately took power. However, this triggered a popular uprising, supported by the MNR and a section of the army, demanding the return of Paz, who became president again and began to carry out a programme of social reforms. He subsequently lost the 1956 election but returned to power in 1960. In 1964 a coup, led by the vice-president, general René Barrientos, overthrew Paz and installed another military junta. Two years later, Barrientos won back the presidency. He was opposed by various leftwing groups and in 1967 Che Guevara launched his doomed - and futile - attempt to recreate the Cuban revolution in Bolivia. His tiny band of ill-trained and ill-prepared guerrillas, both militarily and ideologically, were isolated and easily crushed by US-directed forces. Bluntly, Guevara's elitist and voluntaristic 'peasant road to socialism', brought into being by the superhuman will power of a handful of guerrilla fighters or 'great men', was a utopian, Maoist-inspired, non-starter. As we see, Bolivia has been almost permanently racked by revolutionary and counterrevolutionary crisis and turmoil - there have been huge class struggles. So no one, not even a tired cynic, can dismiss the possibility that Bolivia stands on the edge of another revolutionary upheaval and perhaps this time even a complete overturn of the old order. In such a case, given Bolivia's desperate poverty and general backwardness, there could be absolutely no possibility of building any form of proletarian socialism in that country if it remained isolated and unaided. Inevitably, no matter what the subjective revolutionary good intentions of the new leaders, they would end up in charge of a freakish, bureaucratically exploitative society - a society which had turned into its very opposite, like Stalin's USSR or Mao's China. The 'Bolivian road' to socialism is well and truly closed. No, instead, Bolivia must, like other 'weak links', act as a democratic spark for a wider regional, and ultimately worldwide, revolutionary process and transformation. There is every reason for the workers' movement to revive Simà³n Bolà­var's plan for a South American federation - but on new class foundations. The whole continent is pregnant with revolution. Argentina experienced dual power after its dramatic economic collapse, Venezuela is already in the grip of Chávez's Bolivarian revolution and Brazil is under the centrist government of Lula. What is needed is a single revolutionary leadership: to begin with, perhaps a regional alliance of left parties, trade unions and groups, but as soon as possible a Communist Party of South America. Eddie Ford