No trust in Morales

Caitriona Rylance looks at the faltering revolution in Bolivia and explores possible avenues for advance

The inspirational Bolivian revolution of 2003-05 united a movement of oppressed peoples that brought 500,000 insurgents onto the streets of the capital, La Paz, removed the neoliberal rightwing president, Gonzalo Sánchez De Lozada, and ultimately led to the election of the country’s first indigenous president, Evo Morales, on a leftwing platform, in January 2006.

Since then, however, Bolivia has seen the failure of that left government, the return of the rightwing threat and the erosion of the movement. How did this happen and what can be done?

Failure of  government

Morales, and his party, the Movimiento al Socialismo, came to power with the promise to ‘obey’ the people of Bolivia and their demands expressed in the revolution. His election, with a majority of 54%, was termed a pachakuti - an overthrow of time and space and the beginning of a new history, a new history free from colonialism and capitalism.

Two years on, however, a review of the role of MAS indicates that the hopes and expectations the Bolivian people had in Morales were misplaced. Though the movement had encompassed many different groups with varying motivations, it was, on the whole, unified by demands for the nationalisation of gas and for a constituent assembly, through which indigenous peoples could gain proper representation. Morales came to power on a platform that committed itself to fulfilling these demands.

The MAS reaction to the demand for nationalisation has been to buy a 51% share in the existing oil companies, Petrobras and Repsol. Though this has delivered greater degree of control of natural resources and increased government revenue, it appears more as a continuation of the conciliatory policies of the previous president, Carlos Mesa (who began moves towards partial state control of gas in reaction to 2003-05), rather than a reflection of the more radical nationalisations of 1937 and 1969. It is certainly not the “absolute control” of resources that the movement had demanded.

The record with regard to the constituent assembly is, perhaps, worse. Morales has ceded to the demands of the right by agreeing that any constitutional changes must be approved by a two-thirds majority. The assembly is therefore toothless in the face of a rightwing veto and incapable of making any significant changes. Moreover in its inception it was a betrayal of the essence of the movement’s demand. The MAS decreed that only political parties could engage in the assembly, thus excluding trade unions, neighbourhood associations and other local institutions that indigenous people have traditionally been organised and represented through.

This move served to undermine the very point of the constituent assembly - while MAS argues it is no longer necessary, as the indigenous are represented through the party, there has been no lasting constitutional change through which they can gain representation.

The Morales government has taken for granted those it promised to obey and has instead turned its attention to the consolidation of power. Power has been centralised away from the people and into the institutions of the president and vice-president - an attempt to demobilise the masses. Though clearly not on the same level as Chávez of Venezuela, this shift seriously threatens to undermine the movement that got MAS to power in the first place. There is a danger that the party degenerates in a similar manner to MNR, the once radical left party that produced the violent neoliberal, Sánchez De Lozada, as president in 2002.

Rise of the right

The right’s reaction to Morales’s reforms has been predictable. It has engaged in a political campaign to undermine the government. At the same time, the fascists have begun a spree of violence against indigenous peoples and trade unionists in an attempt to intimidate the movement into silence.

Whilst Morales attempts to broker some sort of alliance with sections of the bourgeoisie, the right consistently ignores or ridicules him and refuses to negotiate. The main thrust of this attack is through the eastern provinces’ bogus bid for autonomy. Santa Cruz, Pando, Beni, Tarija and Chuquisaca are where the majority of the property-owning class resides and also where the bulk of oil in Bolivia is found. The right has initiated a campaign calling for the autonomy of these provinces and it has managed to rally the middle class and many youths behind this fight for ‘self-determination’.

This is no genuine championing of democracy (in contrast to ‘provincial rights’, the movement itself wants the kind of autonomy that gives it real power). In reality the aim is to topple the government of Morales by taking away a major source of his income, oil. After such a coup the right would aim to win back Bolivia as a whole and all discussion of autonomy would end.

But Morales, by pandering to the right, has played into its hands. Violent gangs, controlled by the rightwing oligarchy, bolster this political attack with fear. The Unión Juvenil Cruceñista, a fascist paramilitary group, has launched a wave of violence against unarmed women, peasants and trade unionists, stamping on the bodies of indigenous people, whipping women in the streets and burning down the houses of known Morales supporters. The attacks are not reserved specifically for those involved in the movement, however: they are meant to be a message to all the oppressed, warning them to stay in their place.

Whilst the people of Bolivia are suffering such attacks, Morales is refusing to act forcefully, contenting himself with verbal condemnations and urging the movement not to respond. On the other hand, it is questionable what benefit state intervention ordered by Morales would have - does he really have the capacity to defend the people against the right, should we see it as his role and would it be productive? It was the movement, not Morales, who first defeated the right, and the people have the ability and history of self-organisation and have proven themselves up to the challenge that the right has presented. They should view Morales for what he is - an inept character in whom they should place as little trust as possible. If their defence was left up to him, it could never further the people’s cause.

Inevitably the oligarchy and the counterrevolution have had full US backing. It actively supported president Sanchez De Lozada in 2002-03 and sheltered him when he fled Bolivia, refusing to extradite him to face trial for the state violence he committed in 2003. Since his downfall they have funded and armed the rightwing parties and gangs opposing Morales. The US is obviously concerned about the rise of ‘communism’ and anti-American sentiment in Latin America. However, direct intervention via a coup, such as Chile 1973 and (according to speculation) Venezuela in 2002, is not an immediate prospect in contemporary Bolivia. Perhaps this is a sign of a reduction in the interventionist capacity of the US in the face of the modern mass media and anti-imperialist feeling internationally. On the other hand, it could simply be a reflection of the fact that Morales is not a radical revolutionary posing a considerable threat to the US. More positively however, it could be because in Bolivia it was a popular movement that brought MAS to power and this has made the US more cautious.

It is interesting to note that the threat from the right did not arise on a comparable scale even during the insurrection of 2003-05. This was a time of great mass mobilisation and the local organisations would most likely have formed people’s militias at the first sign of a counterrevolution from the right. Instead the right has waited until the movement demobilised and placed its faith in the reformist MAS government. They may have the power to ignore Morales, but they do not have the power to take on the movement in its full force.

Erosion of  movement

“Do not be divided, do not be indifferent” - that was the call made in the city of El Alto in October 2003. This plea has great significance for the movement now.

The question of division is based on the inherent tensions between the indigenous/socialist, peasant/worker and rural/urban elements within the movement.

The revolution was not a specifically socialist one: it was driven equally, if not more so, by indigenous anti-colonialist demands that have resonated in countless uprisings since 1780. However, in the risings of 1780-81 Tupaj Amaru declared the enemies of the indigenous peoples to be the rich and property-owning class, not the non-indigenous peoples. This theme returned in 2003-05, as the two strands of the movement merged and the distinctions between them blurred, as expressed in the joint demands for a constituent assembly and nationalisation.

Historically, though, this unity has been subject to deep divides that are often played on by the far right and the ruling class. In the late 1950s and 60s the right worked towards a military-peasant pact, handing out gifts to peasants, while crushing the workers. This culminated in the San Juan massacre of 1967, when the government murdered 87 miners, their wives and children, whilst the peasant community looked on, apparently indifferent. The workers’ movement, too, has often refused to act in solidarity with other oppressed Bolivians - the left has sometimes portrayed the indigenous movement as divisive and has ignored or demeaned the demands of the peasants.

The danger now is that the left may fail to see the fascist attacks on indigenous people for what they really are: not an issue of ethnicity, but one of class, the desperate actions of the landowners against the claims of the underclass. As the Huanuni miners declared in their statement of May 28, workers must act in solidarity and defence of their peasant comrades against the oppressive divide and rule tactics of the right. For the issues of colonialism and capitalism are intrinsically linked: both are means for the ruling class to monopolise the resources and labour of Bolivia. The fight of the peasants and of the workers must fuse together if an effective opposition is to be provided.

The second fear for the movement is that it may dissolve or become indifferent. The election of Morales gave many the sense that they had won the battle on the streets and now they had somebody who would fight for them and represent them within the state. The MAS call for the social movements not to respond to the provocations of the right still has resonance. Institutions and unions that have traditionally mobilised the Bolivian people are still largely dominated by those on the left who wish to give Morales a chance to fulfil his promises. This was symbolised by the decision to call off a general strike in June following pressure from Morales supporters within the main union federation, the Central Obrera Boliviana. These elements are prepared to subordinate themselves and their power to the party - despite the fact that it was they and not the party who drove the revolution.

The movement in Bolivia has always ebbed and flowed and has always re-emerged after setbacks. However, we should not be indifferent to the weakening of possibly the strongest unity ever between the oppressed peoples of Bolivia.

Naturally the western media could be relied on to obscure the events of 2003-05, rubbishing talk of a revolution, branding Morales ‘authoritarian’ and sympathising with the right’s demands for ‘autonomy’. However, they are not alone in portraying the Bolivian revolution in a skewed manner: many on the left have failed to see the specific individuality of the revolution and have instead viewed it simply as another domino in the backlash against neoliberalism. This ignores the unique Bolivian historical experience of revolt and community organisation - which meant that the 2003-05 events had very little in common with Chávez’s top-down revolution, and to ignore the bottom-up, locally driven nature of the revolution in Bolivia is to ignore its continuing potential.

Party question

Dogmatists on the left will always, inevitably, view contemporary revolutions through the lens of 1917, measuring their success in comparison to it and identifying their failures as divergences from it. However, the striking factors of 2003-05 - a lasting alliance between workers and peasants raising common demands, an absence of a leading party or group in the revolution and the refusal to take over the existing state - bear minimal resemblance to the Russian Revolution yet often seem potentially more desirable.

Reflection on 1917 does, however, highlight an important point. Is there a need for a leading party in Bolivia to rectify the failings of previous revolutions? I would argue, yes: Bolivia does require a party. However, I would hesitate to describe this as a ‘leading’ party, along the lines of the Bolsheviks, that directs, determines and, ultimately, rules the revolution. Firstly this is largely a ridiculous suggestion in the example of Bolivia as, in the height of the revolution, the movement was beyond the control or direction of any group.

Moreover, examples in Latin America of a vanguard attempting to incite a revolution have ended in failure, particularly that of Che Guevara in Bolivia 1967. History has shown the failings of minority groups with no long-term association with the peoples (even, comparatively, highly revolutionary ones) attempting to lead and mobilise society. Latin American guerrillas have experienced, first hand, the weakness of the ‘foco’ model: we should not attempt to impose objective dogma upon their subjective experiences.

Secondly, the creation of a ‘leading’ party could potentially be detrimental to the movement. As a general point we should be wary of the automatic and informal positions of power assumed by those of leading parties in the post- revolutionary society. Specific to Bolivia, the creation of a leading Marxist party could serve to divide the movement. The Marxist parties that emerged in Bolivia in the 30s were often characterised by an elitist alienation of indigenous and peasant peoples, treating them as intellectual inferiors and their demands as unimportant.

Given the largely indigenous character of the revolution, a party such as this could be counterproductive. Nor would a party that buys peasant support by deviating temporarily from their own programme be of any use, as this would merely delay the division.

In the absence of a party the workers and peasants of Bolivia have managed a comfortable alliance based on shared interests. Ultimately it should be remembered that the interests of the peasants and the interests of the workers are not the same (and a workers’ party should be what we would aim for), this does not, however, necessarily equate to the need for division of the movement or the need to ignore, patronise and demean the peasant class.

Obviously, however, it must be recognised that something has been going wrong in the Bolivian movement. It is without direction or clear purpose. More importantly the demands and successes of the movement in no way reflect its potential: it does not appear to be capable of seeing beyond the current state system.

Ideally I would see a party of sorts growing in an organic manner from existing unions and neighbourhood associations, incorporating the different tendencies, thrashing them out and educating the population in revolutionary thought from within these unions and associations which have a traditional grounding in Bolivian society. Any party should emerge from those radicalised, educated and created through revolt and its theory should be forged in action.

Parties and theory are not unchanging, isolated concepts which are used to model the material world; it is the material world which models them. The role of the party should not be to organise, direct, mobilise or ‘lead’ the revolution: the Bolivian people have shown themselves in every respect capable of addressing this aspect. The role of any revolutionary party in Bolivia must be to educate and unite.


What may now appear to be an impasse in Bolivia for both the movement and the government threatens to tip dangerously over the edge. If Morales continues to make concessions to the right and quell the revolutionary sentiment within the movement; if the movement continues to dissolve and accept the Morales government come what may; and if the right succeeds in dividing the movement and undermining Morales, then the consequences will be severe.

The oligarchy could succeed in their coup against Morales and replace him with a dictator figure or an elected equivalent; or, failing that, Morales himself will enter into an alliance with sections of the right in order to retain power. At worst, perhaps, the country will descend into an ideological civil war (having potential parallels with the Spanish war and the same disastrous result, considering US support for the oligarchy).

To prevent this, the movement must take the initiative. It should regenerate itself and renew the momentum of 2003-05. It must aim to once more become a united body with the confidence to withdraw support from the government, and turn instead to its own organisations, creating armed people’s militias to challenge the fascist bands, reinforcing solidarity between workers and peasants by recognising combined interests and pledging to defend each other against the common enemy, the oligarchy. It must occupy the rightwing-controlled councils in the east and initiate a new popular insurgency to achieve its demands.

Alongside this the movement must use its power, experience and initiative to inspire the working class throughout Latin America. Even a successful revolution nationally must always be framed within the international dimension; a Bolivian revolution in isolation would either moderate itself into ameliorating capitalism or degenerate into an authoritarian state. Latin America is charged with potential and, as the strongest movement on the continent, it is the duty of the Bolivians to make the call for revolution.

Signs of such a fightback are beginning to appear. Morales is losing support among even moderate sections of COB, whilst it is virtually non-existent among the radical Huanuni miners. Direct action in the form of use of protests, blockades and strikes have begun to reappear.

Ultimately, though, if the movement is to succeed, it must recognise that the failure was not that of Morales. He was capable of achieving the movement’s demands only to the extent that the state would allow it. If the movement continues to rely on a solution within the system, it will continue to sabotage itself. The state is the failure. It is rotten at its roots.

There has been no revolution to sweep away the remnants of Spanish colonialism, which ravaged Bolivia, its people and resources, and the current state is its direct successor. A state like that cannot be engaged with, but must be destroyed in its entirety, together with all its oppressive mechanisms, in order to realise the movement’s full potential and end the cycle of revolution and failure.