Bolivia shifts left

Which effect will Evo Morales' victory have on the working class and the political landscape in South America? Eddie Ford takes a closer look

Following the December 18 elections Evo Morales, Amerindian leader of the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), became president elect of Bolivia. Due to take up his post on January 22, Morales secured 51.1% of the vote, becoming the first ever Bolivian president to win a popular electoral mandate and thus not have to rely on - or hope to get - a second vote in congress in order to cross the finishing line. If only for that reason, Morales' victory must be considered of utmost significance - and not just for Bolivia, but for Latin America as a whole.

As the world has seen, in recent years Bolivia - once again - has been the site of a tumultuous and inspiring class struggle. This political whirlwind has involved an inventive series of strikes, demonstrations, occupations, road blockades, etc, which succeeded last year in ousting the then president, Carlos Mesa - and, in turn, a jittery ruling class failed in its attempt to foist its preferred candidate, the neoliberal leader of the senate, Hormando Vaca Diez, upon the country and the masses. Instead, a 'compromise' candidate, Eduardo Rodriguez Veltzé, the former chief justice of the supreme court, emerged as the new interim president. Now, almost inevitably, Veltzé has given way to Morales ... who clearly has the support of the most oppressed and disadvantaged in society.

So is Bolivia now in the grip of its own Bolivarian revolution - with Evo Morales acting as the new Hugo Chávez? Whether Bolivia goes down the 'Venezuelan road' or not, it is clear that - this time - the masses want more than a meagre pay rise or the usual vague promises of political reform that come from the political elite. Proof of this is to be found in the fact that two key demands have been heard loud and clear above the din of struggle - for a constituent assembly and the nationalisation of the gas industry.

Given the history of Bolivia, it is hardly astonishing that Evo Morales and the MAS have risen to such prominence. The country adopted its first constitution in 1826, and ever since then it has been extraordinarily unstable - suffering from over 190 military coups and counter-coups. Throughout most of the 19th century Bolivia was governed by a series of caudillos. After the early 1870s, white and mixed-blood (cholo) landlords took virtually all the land that was still in indigenous hands - and ever since then the Amerindians have been subject to callous discrimination or marginalisation. For instance, following elections three years ago, only 30% of the 157-member national congress were Amerindians - despite the fact that they comprise over 60% of the eight million population.

Therefore, the call for a constituent assembly is not an example of parliamentary cretinism - as some leftists have suggested - but rather a militant demand to redress the gaping democratic deficit that lies at the very heart of Bolivian society.

Nor is it particularly surprising that the cocaleros (coca farmers) - such as Morales - have been at the vanguard of anti-government agitation over recent years. The cocaleros have being amongst the hardest hit by the decades of neoliberal 'reforms' - as many were former tin-mine workers, who were summarily thrown onto the dole queue when the mines were closed down in the mid-1980s in order to comply with the International Monetary Fund's project in Bolivia. Inevitably, these former miners brought with them the heritage of militant, class-struggle trade unionism. Essentially, the MAS (formed in 1995 and originally called the Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples) came into being as the cocaleros' 'party' and Morales rapidly became its undisputed leader and charismatic star, shored up by his power base in the Chapare region - where he is head of the cocalero union.

Equally as important to understand is that, in the specific context of Bolivian history and politics, the call for the nationalisation of the gas industry is a red-hot one that cuts straight to the issue of class power. The current '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. Within Latin America as a whole, this made Bolivia's reserves second only to Venezuela. Indeed, Bolivia's gas is potentially worth at least $250 billion - a tidy 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, of course, amongst those of Amerindian descent. Consequently, the demand for nationalisation of the gas industry - just as with the call for a constituent assembly - comes loudest and clearest from this section of the masses.

Naturally, with such huge profits up for grabs, 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 markets such as the United States.

Which brings us to possibly the single most important factor when it comes to explaining Morales' electoral victory - an understandable 'anti-Yankeeism' born of bitter experience of many years of super-exploitation. Throughout the 20th century Bolivia has been a virtual US colony - which has constantly intervened, in one form or another, in order to prevent or sabotage popular movements and uprisings. So, for example, when in the 1951 election, Victor Paz Estenssoro, the National Revolutionary Movement candidate exiled in Argentina since 1946, nearly won an absolute majority in the first round of elections, an army junta immediately took power with CIA help.

Most famously, US special forces directed the counter-insurgency which crushed Che Guevara's heroic but doomed attempt to recreate the Cuban revolution in the Bolivian jungle. When US agents and their Bolivian henchmen proudly displayed Guevara's dead body to the world, it was supposed to be a brutal reminder of the reality of international power relations. Nevertheless Guevara became a potent symbol of the anti-imperialist struggle in Latin America and throughout the globe.

Predictably, US imperialism has watched the MAS's rise to ascendancy - and now the presidency - with undisguised alarm. Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state, has regularly indulged in anti-MAS baiting, on one occasion telling the world's media that she was "very concerned" by the strengthening in Bolivia of a "party made up of coca growers".

Similarly, the much hated US ambassador to Bolivia, Manuel Rocha, has for some time now been involved in a vitriolic, almost personal, feud with Morales. This had led Rocha to compare Morales to Osama bin Laden, and label the cocaleros the "Andean Taliban". Even more brazenly - shouldn't ambassadors at least pretend to be above party politics in their host country? - just several days before the December presidential elections, in a speech given in the presence of the soon to be ex-president, Jorge Quiroga, Rocha commented: "I want to remind the Bolivian electorate that if you elect those who want Bolivia to become a major cocaine exporter again, this will endanger the future of US assistance to Bolivia."

Naturally, with every attack on him by US imperialism, Morales's popularity has grown. Cheekily, but quite correctly, Morales has credited Rocha in particular for the success of the MAS: "Every statement [Rocha] made against us helped us to grow and awaken the conscience of the people." In a deliberate affront to US imperialism, one of Morales' very first acts as president elect was to fly to Cuba, where he was awarded full state honours and warmly greeted by Fidel Castro - the latter being described, alongside Hugo Chávez, as "brothers" in the "struggle against US imperialism" by Morales during his election rallies.

After his Cuban visit, in a brief statement to the press, Morales declared that his visit to Cuba was "a joy, an emotion, a friendship with the Cuban people". In return, an official Cuban communiqué stated that Morales' presence "honours and pleases our people", and "constitutes an important stimulus that strengthens the bonds of friendship and cooperation between the government of Cuba and the next government of Bolivia".

When looking at Morales' very cordial relations with Chávez and Castro, the question has to be asked - has imperialism good reason to fear president Morales and the MAS? Well, some trade union and workers' leaders in Bolivia certainly suspect not. Leading figures within the country's TUC, the Bolivian Workers Central (COB) - not to mention the El Alto Federation of Neighbourhood Committees (FEJUVE) and the Regional Workers Central of El Alto (COR) - have routinely denounced Morales for being a "traitor", a "sell-out", etc. Furthermore, just over a year ago Morales was expelled from the COB and was even denounced as an "enemy" of the people of El Alto - the Amerindian capital, if you will - because of the role played by the MAS in demobilising peasant militancy.

In truth, a frank examination of the MAS, its leadership and political programme/orientation reveals that as currently constituted it cannot lead the self-liberation of the masses, or bring any form of proletarian socialism from below.

Hence, in an illuminating comment, MAS founder and theoretician Antonio Peredo Leigue described the MAS as the coming together of "a permanent contradiction between indigenists, Marxists and social-democratic concepts" (Green Left Weekly June 22 2005). Morales, though, clearly tilts towards left populism - which, as we know, is a tendency that can end up going in many different directions, depending on the specificities of political struggle.

In this vein, Morales rhetorically asks: "What is Marxism? I come from the peasant communities, from the people, not from the universities or the learning centres. I can talk about Marxism, but what importance does that have? It is not about importing politics, ideologies, programmes. The people know. Our organisations are wise enough to resolve their problems - in fact they are the reservoirs of knowledge in the defence of life, of humanity. Don't speak to me about Marxism, Leninism, Trotskyism - we lose time. Here it is about understanding and living our problems in order to propose solutions" (ibid).

Any organisation built on Leigue's "permanent contradiction" is destined to collapse, or betray the masses. In the ceaseless battle and tug-of-war between the contending classes, the MAS - or any other group or party - cannot serve two masters. Subjective good intentions aside, all the evidence points to the fact that the MAS leadership - including Evo Morales, of course - cannot be trusted. For example, with regards to the October 2003 uprising, which led to the toppling of the Sánchez de Lozada government, the MAS was of the view that it "should put forward critical support of the government without participation in the cabinet and other forms of the executive". For further evidence of Morales' untrustworthiness, Socialist Worker quotes him telling businessmen in gas-rich Santa Cruz shortly after his election: "I do not want to harm anybody. I do not want to expropriate or confiscate any assets. I want to learn from the businessmen" (January 7).

Unlike the MAS leaders, communists fight for an independent working class perspective, which aims to win the battle for democracy. What does this mean in the context of Bolivia? Firstly, the existing constitution must be junked. Cobbled together in 1967, it "recognises and upholds the Roman catholic apostolic religion" (article 3).

Nor should a democratic constitution have any place for a powerful president - especially when directly elected presidents become to all intents and purposes monarchs. If there is to be a president at all, he or she should just be a symbolic figure - perhaps the speaker of the assembly. Furthermore, given the over-blown size, corruption and self-perpetuating nature of the Bolivian state, communists should stress the relevance of the basic rules of the Paris Commune: regular election of all state officials, including judges; the right to recall all elected representatives at any time; no standing army, but the armed people; no official to receive a higher wage than the average skilled worker (a principle rejected, of course, by George Galloway and the Socialist Workers Party in Respect).

Interestingly - showing the egalitarian mood - one of the first presidential pronouncements made by Morales was that he is to voluntarily take a substantial pay cut. Instead of 28,000 bolivanos a month - about £2,000 - he will receive 14,000 bolivanos. Of course, in Bolivia this still represents a small fortune - even for a skilled worker.