Nov 13, 2003
One and a half times the size of Texas and inhabited by 8.5 million people, 65per cent of whom are Indios (Indians), Bolivia was recently hit by a political crisis. On October17, 2003, President Gonzalo Sanchez de Losada was forced to leave the country and seek exile in Miami, Florida. A few days before, on October11 and 12, he had ordered the army to machine-gun anyone who demonstrated in the streets, which included mostly workers and peasants. A total of 78people were killed and a few hundred wounded in the crackdown.
Sanchez de Losada had become president in August 2002, following his quasi-victory in the June elections. He had gathered only 22per cent of the vote, but according to Bolivia's electoral system, whenever a candidate fails to clearly win the election, the president is then chosen by the political parties. Losada gained the presidency as the result of bargaining between his own party, the Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (MNR, Revolutionary Nationalist Movement), which since World WarII has been the party of the wealthy, and the Movimiento de la Isquierda Revolucionaria (MIR, Movement of the Revolutionary Left), a left-of-center party.
When Losada came to power, the election results indicated a risk of instability. Indeed, the party with the second-best results (with 32elected representatives – that is, 25Members of Parliament, or MPs, and seven senators) was the Movimiento Al Socialismo (MAS, Movement toward Socialism), led by Evo Morales, the peasant union leader of the cocaleros, the coca leaf growers. He had been an MP in the preceding parliament, but was excluded in January 2002 for his support of the peasant victims of repression. This time, as a candidate for president, he gathered 21.9per cent of the vote, twice the result indicated by pre-election opinion polls. The United States, which has a long experience of influencing the choice of South-American leaders, did its best to prevent his becoming president and to exclude him from any governmental combination.
For years, the United States has put pressure on Bolivian leaders, asking them to eradicate the production of coca leaf – the basis of cocaine. Washington was convinced that peasant leader Morales had to be neutralized. All the more so because another peasant leader, Felipe Quispe, head of the Confederación Sindical Unica de Trabajadores Campesinos de Bolivia (CSUTCB, Bolivian Peasant Workers' Single Union Federation), had met with some success. His party, the Movimiento Indígenista Pachakuti (MIP, Pachakuti Indigenous Movement), had gathered 6per cent of the ballot and five MIP candidates had been elected as MPs.
The candidate favored by the United States was Sanchez de Losada. Formerly a boss in the mining industry, Losada knows the United States better than his own country. Some even say he speaks English better than he does Spanish. Between 1986 and 1989, when Bolivia went through a period of ultra-liberalism, Losada, the then Minister of Planning, applied the recommendations of U.S. economist Jeffrey Sachs. The ensuing "shock therapy" which hit the public sector caused tens of thousands of state employees to lose their jobs. During his first term as president (from 1993 to 1997), Losada continued the job he had undertaken as minister and privatized the whole public sector. The railway, mining, telephone, oil, electric power, air transport and water companies were all denationalized to the benefit of major multinational corporations – most of which were U.S.-based, with a few European exceptions.
Losada's predecessor, President Jaime Paz Zamora (MIR leader and president from 1989 to 1993), failed to satisfy the United States' demands concerning the eradication of coca crops. But Losada approved the eradication program and started applying it, bringing about the ruin of hundreds of thousands of peasants who had no other source of income.
When in 2002 he became president for the second time, Losada announced a "Bolivia plan," thanks to which he promised 200,000jobs would be created. In 1993, he had promised 500,000new jobs which never materialized. His new plan had been put together in collaboration with senior officials of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). A five billion dollar credit line was needed to finance the plan. As usual, the IMF made its loan dependant on the adoption of austerity measures aimed at reducing a budget deficit which exceeded 8.5per cent of Bolivia's gross domestic output. Losada was ready to satisfy the IMF, but he hesitated between two solutions: increasing the taxes on fuels (mainly on gasoline), or reducing the income of the poorest people in Latin America (60per cent of Bolivians are below the poverty level). He excluded taxing the companies' profits or the wealthy. Finally, in early February 2003, he announced a new 12.5per cent tax on all incomes above 840bolivianos (approximately $125) a month, which still hit heaviest on the poorest.
A month before, the cocaleros had already started putting up roadblocks with the support of the Central Obrera Boliviana (COB, Bolivian Labor Federation), various peasant movements, the Water Coordination and other organizations. They hauled big rocks into the middle of the roads, stopping the traffic between Evo Morales's stronghold of Cochabamba and Santa Cruz, the coca producing center of the Chapare area. The peasants' intention was to protest against any new destruction of coca leaf crops. The Bolivian law allows the cultivation of some 30,000acres of coca in the Yungas area, to supply the pharmaceutical industry and cater to the local habit of chewing coca leaves to stave off hunger. Any other production, in particular in the Chapare area, was illegal, alleged to be controlled by the narco-traffickers. The protest action was brutally repressed and 15people were killed.
On January20, the opposition announced the creation of a "people's general staff," in which most opposition parties were represented. The leader of the MAS, Morales, issued an order asking the president to either satisfy the people's demands or resign.
On February11, the announcement of the new tax triggered a mutiny in the police. The Special Security Group asked for the repeal of the new tax. Within a few hours, other layers of the population were showing their discontent. Workers, students, the unemployed took to the streets; on February12, the president's palace was sacked by demonstrators. The president and his ministers had by then magically disappeared. With the police having chosen sides with the protestors, the army was called in and cracked down on the crowd: in two days, 33people were killed and more than 200 wounded.
On February19, to put an end to the rioting, the president announced on television that he was repealing the tax measure. He dismissed four ministers, and talked about giving up his own salary – (having made a fortune in the mining industry and during the privatization process, he could afford such a gesture). He also promised to lower the wages of his ministers. More importantly, he announced the creation of a ministry in charge of "revising the privatizations." The IMF suddenly became a bit more lenient. But none of this brought back political stability.
At the time of his ultimatum to the president, Evo Morales explained that given the impossibility of changing the system from inside parliament, he had been forced to choose street mobilization to prevent the government from selling off the country's hydrocarbon resources to foreign multinationals (especially its natural gas which was about to be sold to Pacific LNG) and to stop the total eradication of coca in the Chapare area. The violence of the government's repression caused people to close ranks around the opposition, which included the COB, the CSUTCB, the Water Coordination and two political parties, the MAS and the MIP. The people's anger now revolved around the question of the natural gas sale. They viewed the proposed sale at a very low price as yet another example of the looting of the country's natural resources (Bolivia is said to have Latin America's second biggest natural gas reserves, just after Venezuela).
The opposition did not merely question the price at which the president was ready to sell the country's natural gas; it also challenged the means of transportation chosen by the government. The authorities had approved transportation via a gas pipeline to a Chilean port, despite the fact that Peru offered better conditions. To convince people its choice was valid, the government asked a specialized company, Intec, to make an independent report on the question. In fact, Intec was not independent; it was linked to Bechtel (a U.S.-based corporation which had already been targeted by Bolivian peasants during a conflict over the price of water in 2000) as well as to Repsol-YPF, British Gas and BP Amoco (which altogether controlled Pacific LNG, the company to whom the gas was to be sold).
In September, people were on the move again with more roadblocks and protest demonstrations. The opposition had already diverted the people's anger in the wake of the October11 and 12 crackdown by asking for the president's resignation – at a time when the military openly said it would not support him. The opposition now channeled the popular discontent into a new dead end, by asking former vice-president Carlos Mesa to assume power. Named interim president, Mesa can use the present reprieve to lull people's distrust while carrying on an economic policy that serves the interests of the big imperialist powers which have always considered Bolivia as a bottomless pool of cheap raw materials.
A plundered economy: the expression sums up the entire history of Bolivia. As soon as it was conquered by the Spanish conquistadores, in 1538, the colony of Higher Peru (Bolivia was then a Peruvian province) contributed to the development of capitalism. For centuries, thanks to a feudal system based on the serfdom of Indian workers, the silver mines of the Potosi area furnished the precious metal which transformed the Spain of CharlesV and his successors into a great power, at the same time that it accelerated the development of capitalism in Europe. As Europe set about to conquer the world, the inhabitants of Higher Peru sank into poverty: the colony's metal-rich subsoil was plundered, its hardwood forests cut down and its land transformed into a grain storehouse for the benefit of Western capitalists.
Today, natural gas is Bolivia's main raw material and export product (which has been exploited since 1972). It whets the appetites of imperialist multinationals, and the Bolivian leaders are ready to hand it over to them for a song. But no matter what product Bolivia has sold on the world market, including the coca leaf, only a derisory share has gone to the people. Bolivia may have been politically independent since 1825, but it never won its economic independence and has been permanently dominated by imperialism. Its history has been the result of the demands formulated by the big powers – and first and foremost (but not only) by the United States. For 180years, the population was bled white. What had been, at the outset, the most populated, most developed area of Latin America has become one of the least populated countries of the continent and the poorest one.
The province of Higher Peru was the first to revolt against Spanish domination in 1809, but it was the last to get its independence, on August6, 1825, when General Sucre (one of Simon Bolivar's lieutenants) defeated the Spanish army in Ayacucho. In homage to its "liberator" Bolivar, Higher Peru was called Bolivia and, with Bolivar's approval, General Sucre assumed power. In May 1826, Bolivar gave Bolivia a very undemocratic constitution which granted executive power to a president elected for life. According to this constitution, the "active citizen" was a male who was either married or over 21years of age, could read and write, and held a job or was self-employed. Each group of ten "active citizens" designated an "elector" – who was the only one to actually have the right to vote. In a population of one million inhabitants, there were only 25,000"active citizens" and 2,500voters! With these restrictions, the constitution excluded the Indian majority and reinforced the domination of the white minority and of a handful of "whitened" mestizos (mixed blood). As for Peru, it had lost a province, but it was content to have a buffer state between itself and Argentina.
The same year, Bolivar's dream of creating a single South American federal state met with the opposition of the various Creole bourgeoisies who feared the upsurge of the Black and Indian poor and were quite satisfied with their own national fiefdoms. The wars of independence waged against Spanish domination could have paved the way for the unification of the continent. In fact, they led to the carving up of South America into rival states, a situation which served the big powers' own rival interests by allowing them to play one against another. Spanish power was ending, but starting in l823 the main imperialist power of the 19thcentury, Great Britain, was imposing itself over the region. In the 20thcentury, the United States replaced Great Britain – in the name of the Monroe doctrine, summed up by the slogan "America for Americans" – which actually meant that Latin America belonged to North American big capital.
After Bolivia's independence, the country's mining resources were soon coveted by its neighbors. There was a succession of wars; by the middle of the 19thcentury, Bolivia had already lost some 463,320square miles (half its original territory) to Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Peru, and Paraguay, to the profit of raw-material-hungry British companies exploiting nitrates, saltpeter, copper, silver and guano. The most harmful conflict was the 1879-1880 war with Chile which led to the loss of the Bolivian province of Atacama, the country's only access to the Pacific Ocean.
This defeat discredited the military leaders who had run the country up until then, opening the way for a civilian parliament. There were some 40,000"active citizens" in the country by that time. Then began the reign of the silver mining oligarchs, through the Conservative Party. They built railroads linking Bolivia to ports on the Pacific Ocean, facilitating the export of mining products to their most important clients, the big European imperialist centers. They also developed the cultivation of cinchona (1847-1864) and rubber (1880-1919).
With the merchandise value of silver declining after 1893, tin took over. Demand reached new heights during World WarI and tin was continuously exploited until 1985. Western industry needed tin in quantities which European mines could not supply. The United States was also short of tin and, with the conclusion of World WarI, Washington viewed Bolivia as its exclusive tin reserve.
Tin mining enriched a handful of Bolivian mine owners, known as the "tin barons," linked to the imperialist system. Two were Bolivian-born: Simon Patino and Felix Aramayo, a former silver mine owner who had been clever enough to diversify his activities. The third one, Maurice Hochschild, had come from Europe to seek his fortune. The three of them controlled 80per cent of tin extraction, but they also had investments in copper, lead and zinc mining. The remaining 20per cent in tin was shared out among smaller Bolivian and foreign companies. Simon Patino, the owner of Bolivia's most famous mine, SigloXX, became the fifth richest man in the world. In 1900, he had discovered a particularly rich vein of tin. By 1910, he controlled 50per cent of tin production. In 1916, he bought William Harvey & Co. in Liverpool, England, the biggest tin foundry in the world. Like most absentee landowners, who live in town while the people on their land work for exportation, Patino lived most of the time outside Bolivia, among his peers, the wealthy of the imperialist centers.
As with the earlier silver mining, these fortunes were based on a ferocious exploitation of miners who were treated like slaves. The miners' living conditions were characterized by extremely hard work (the temperature inside the mines often reached 120EFahrenheit) and very low wages. Any attempt at organizing or protesting was ruthlessly repressed by the army.
This shameless exploitation was all the more frenzied since the tin barons sold most of their production to the United States at a low price. When tin was worth 52cents a pound on the world market, they sold it at 40.5cents a pound to the United States.
It has been estimated that, during that period, Bolivia lost some 675million dollars on its sales of tin, tungsten and other strategic raw materials. Since the tin barons managed not to lose in the deal, it was the miners who were made to pay for the difference through their superexploitation.
The tin barons wanted full control of the country. In order to push their rivals from the silver mining industry to the sidelines, they promoted a new bourgeois party, the Liberal Party, whose leaders were regularly reelected and ran public affairs until 1920.
In 1920, the Liberals were ousted from power by yet another bourgeois party, the Republican Party. A number of Republicans were favorable to a war against Chile in order to get access to the sea. The party soon split over the issue. In the post-World WarI period, Bolivia, like most countries in the world, went through a series of social upheavals. The Republican Party was confronted with a very determined miners' strike and a peasant insurrection, which were both severely repressed by the army. The Republican Party then decided that nothing could save their political future except the full conquest of the Chaco area. That so-called conquest had already started behind the scenes in the late twenties; it became official policy in the years 1932-1935.
The purpose of this policy was to offer a solution to the problem of Bolivia's lack of access to the sea by claiming the Paraguayan province of Chaco – which would have allowed Bolivia to reach the Atlantic Ocean via the Paraguay River. However, there were other interests involved. Two oil companies were active in the area: Standard Oil of New Jersey (USA) and its rival, Royal Dutch Shell (Great Britain). The former had been present in Bolivia since 1921 and the latter intended to keep Chaco to itself. In the end, Paraguay (and Shell) won the war – which killed 100,000people (65per cent were Bolivians and 35per cent Paraguayans), most of them Indians from different ethnic groups.
Paraguay had won the war, but after its victory, the country experienced two decades of civil wars and short-lived dictatorships. Eventually, in 1954, it fell under the dictatorship of General Stroessner who ruled the country for thirty-five years.
In Bolivia, the Chaco War reinforced the country's isolation and brought about a wave of protest among the younger officers and the Indian soldiers who now refused to be treated like slaves. In 1941, the "Chaco generation" gave birth to the Movimiento Nacional Revolucionario (MNR, Revolutionary National Movement), headed by lawyer Victor Paz Estenssoro. The MNR aimed to defend the interests of the national bourgeoisie against foreign capital, with the support of the urban petty bourgeoisie.
Following the example set at that time by many newly-created parties in Latin America (for instance, Argentina's Peronist party), the MNR drew its inspiration not only from the Mexican party led by Cardenas, which had nationalized the oil industry at the end of the 1930s, but also from Europe's fascist parties. The MNR rejected socialism and communism; it aimed to get the support of both the petty bourgeoisie and the unions of the workers and of the peasants, in order to break up the privately-owned monopoly of the tin barons, nationalize the public services and address the agrarian question.
Among other things, the MNR leaders criticized the low price of the tin sold by Bolivia to the United States. U.S. imperialism had used its participation in the war against Japan and Germany as an excuse to plunder its semi-colonies more than ever. Its allies had to "share the war expenses," claimed the United States. But of course, when the war was over, the price paid to Bolivia for its tin remained as low as before. The nationalist policy developed by the MNR coincided with the development of the union movement, especially in the mines. The pressure exerted by the United States on the price of tin was of course passed on to the workers, increasing their superexploitation but also kindling their aspirations. Starting in 1944, the repeated and growing efforts of the miners and the workers in general finally led to the creation of the COB, the Bolivian Workers' Federation, in 1952.
The MNR leaders were intent on channeling the workers' rising force and, for that purpose, established links with their organizations. This was easily done since, as a new opposition party, the MNR used a radical language, critical of U.S. imperialism and in tune with the feelings of Bolivian workers.
In the post-war period, the workers' growing mobilization also meant a growing politicization which mainly benefited the MNR. But other parties also developed: the Trotskyist current, represented by the Partido Obrero Revolucionario (POR, Revolutionary Workers' Party), led by Guillermo Lora, gained some credit among the miners. Two POR militants, including Lora, were elected to represent the miners at a union Congress held in Pulacayo in 1946. Furthermore, the program which was finally adopted by the Congress drew much of its inspiration from the POR's platform.
However, this was not enough to counterbalance the weight of the COB's union apparatus and leadership, whose main leader, Juan Lechin, promoted the MNR's political line inside the union. In fact, thanks to the union's leadership and bureaucracy, the MNR, a bourgeois party, successfully took control of the organized workers' movement. The labor movement's subordinate position turned out to be a disaster when the workers' mobilization reached its peak.
The ties between the MNR and the COB were further strengthened by several workers' uprisings, like those of the SigloXX miners in 1949 and the LaPaz miners in 1950, both of which were severely repressed by the army.
On June 6, 1951, the MNR's candidate for president, Victor Paz Estenssoro, won the election with 43per cent of the ballot. Once again, the army stepped in. However, on April9, 1952, the MNR reacted by organizing an armed insurrection in LaPaz. The army was defeated by the miners' and peasants' militias, who had been armed under the control of the MNR. One of the insurgents' first measures was to disband the army, which was reduced to a very small nucleus. The policing was done by the people's militias.
Having used the poorest people's support to achieve their own goal, the MNR leaders could not do less, in return, than to establish universal suffrage. During the 1951 presidential election, Paz Estenssoro's 43per cent had come from 39,000voters out of a total population of 3,000,000. The number of voters was now 800,000. But the MNR's radicalism had its limits: only men were given the right to vote.
Part of the MNR leadership did not want to go any further, but they had to take into account the leading role played by the mobilized workers, especially the miners, who were at the peak of their combativeness and quite numerous (around 53,000). So, they gave in to the COB's pressure and nationalized the mines in October 1952. At the same time, they officially organized the integration of the labor movement into the bourgeois state. One of the symbols of this integration was the nomination of COB's founder and Secretary General Juan Lechin as Minister of Mines and Oil. After occupying this position from 1952 to 1956, Juan Lechin pursued a brilliant career at the service of the bourgeoisie. He was Bolivia's vice-president from 1960 to 1964, when the MNR decided to return to the fold of the United States, once the workers' mobilization had subsided.
The COB union machine also drew benefits from its submission to the MNR: its leadership had their say in the nomination of Civil Service higher officials and had representatives in the COMIBOL, the special committee which managed the nationalized companies.
As for the workers, whose mobilization had shaken the whole system and set other social categories in motion, they kept the benefits they had gained only as long as they remained mobilized.
In the first months of the new regime, the small peasants, following the workers' example, challenged the power of the big landowners. On August2, 1953, a decree on agrarian reform was signed. A reform of the school system was also adopted to combat illiteracy (it is estimated that 70per cent of Bolivians were illiterate).
However, from the outset, all these measures were limited in one way or another. The only mines which were nationalized were those of the three tin barons; the other privately-owned mines were allowed to carry on. As for the oil industry, which was controlled by imperialist trusts, it was left untouched by the nationalization process.
Indeed, even at the height of the workers' mobilization, the MNR leaders did not dare expropriate the tin barons without compensation – despite the fact that the miners' superexploitation had long since paid the price of the few mines that were nationalized. In 1953, the MNR yielded to the compensation demands of the tin barons. With the help of the United States, which stopped buying Bolivia's tin, the ousted oligarchs had caused prices on the tin market to collapse. Patino refused to smelt Bolivian tin ore in his Liverpool plant. In the end, the tin barons were given compensations far exceeding the actual value of the nationalized mines, with their almost empty veins and worn-out machinery. As for the COMIBOL, it was managed like any other state-owned company in the capitalist world, that is, like a "milking cow" at the service of the state, which used the money it generated to support the wealthy and buy out the MNR and COB leaders – and certainly not to improve the lives of the miners and other poor people.
The agrarian reform spared most big landowners producing for exportation, while it failed to develop the technical means that could have made working the small pieces of land handed out by the authorities a viable solution. In the long run the heirs of those who were given these pieces of land ended up dying of hunger. But for several years, the small peasants were quite content with their new title deeds and formed part of the social base of the MNR – and its successors.
Despite its radical language, the MNR was a bourgeois party with no intention of upsetting Bolivian society. A genuine revolution could have been an example for the whole of Latin America. The MNR showed itself capable of using the workers' mobilization, with the help of the union bureaucracy, but it did so only for its own benefit. Its objective was not to help the mobilized workers go as far as possible, that is, as far as the seizure of power by the working class and its allies, the poor peasants.
In fact, like many other similar parties in Latin America or elsewhere in the Third World, the MNR feared the workers more than it did U.S. imperialism. When the workers' mobilization started to wane, the MNR even abandoned its "anti-imperialist" (or more precisely its "anti-U.S.") rhetoric and easily resumed the usual policy of parties that represented the interests of Bolivia's wealthy – in other words, the country's subordination to U.S.imperialism.
The MNR, more sensitive to the interests of the wealthy than those of the miners, soon moved to re-establish the usual privileged relationship between Bolivian leaders and the United States. A month after the MNR had given in to the demands of the tin barons (June 1953), the United States was again buying tin ore from Bolivia and sending food aid. During the following decade, Bolivia received economic aid which, in 1958, represented a third of the nation's budget. In return, Bolivian authorities protected and supported the North American companies operating in Bolivia. By 1955, a dozen oil companies, among them Gulf Oil, were planting themselves in the country. In 1960, Paz Estenssoro rejected economic aid offered by the USSR. In 1961, the Kennedy administration, with the assistance of West Germany, came up with a plan for the financial reorganization of the companies managed by the COMIBOL, aimed at making them suitable for an injection of foreign capital. At the same time, the plan restored the power of the military which were again present in every mining town and ready to crush any attempt at rebellion.
In May 1964, the MNR leaders were still in power when they were confronted with a revolt involving miners and students. This time, they ordered the military to crush the rebels. The MNR had thus run the whole cycle. Having so clearly taken the side of the wealthy against the workers, it had used up its credit, and thus had nothing left to offer the propertied classes. A few months after the May 1964 revolt, the MNR was pushed from power by the army.
Since 1950, U.S. foreign policy was based on the principle of "containment," which meant preventing new countries from joining the camp of the Soviet Union. This policy led the U.S. to intervene in Korea in the early 1950s, and in Vietnam in the l960s. At the same time, the United States moved to prevent the Cuban example from spreading to the U.S. back yard – that is, the rest of Latin America. In country after country, it pushed for the army to take power: first in Brazil, then in Bolivia, and later on in the Dominican Republic, Uruguay, Chile and Argentina.
On November3, 1964, the Bolivian army under the orders of General Barrientos dismissed the MNR and seized power. It was under Barrientos's dictatorship that the guerrilla warfare launched by Guevara was defeated and "Che" assassinated in 1967. The same year, the Bolivian army stormed into a number of mines, including SigloXX, slaughtering the miners and their families.
The military dictatorship lasted a full eighteen years, interspersed with brief periods of civilian power and new upsurges by the workers and peasants, such as the short-lived "People's Assembly" of 1971, which was crushed by General Banzer.
During the 1960s and 1970s, the military dictatorship allowed the North American multinationals to drain not just Bolivia's tin ore, but also its zinc, lead and silver ores as well as oil. It was during this time that the army top brass launched a very profitable activity: traffic of the coca leaf, which is the basis for the production of cocaine. The military dictatorship aided the big landowners with money and force, helping them invest in coca production. Twenty or so high-ranking officers were directly involved in the traffic, which yielded between one and two billion dollars a year. Washington eventually intervened and obliged those officers to resign.
In the early 1980s, it was Bolivia's turn to be hit by economic recession, especially after the drop in the world market price of tin. The military relinquished power and, in 1982, the Bolivian Parliament named a civilian president and vice-president. On July14, 1985, Paz Estenssoro, the MNR's historic leader, was once again elected president for a four-year term. His task was to carry out the privatization policy which was then being pushed by imperialist leaders throughout the world. Taking an opposite course to what had been the MNR's economic creed, he obediently carried out the instructions of the IMF and the World Bank. He did so well that these imperialist institutions eventually referred to him as "the IMF's best pupil."
For instance, the Bolivian authorities adopted decree 21060, the aim of which was to reduce the budget deficit through a wage freeze combined with a price increase and a reduction of state spending. This policy of course meant that many public service workers and employees lost their jobs.
Following a drop in the price of tin which brought about the 1985 worldwide crash, the authorities started selling off the state-owned mines. As a result, 23,000 of the 30,000 people employed by the COMIBOL were laid off. Such measures allowed the government to reduce a galloping inflation from 8,760per cent to 16per cent, but they spelled misery for most former miners, some of whom were left with no other choice than to become street peddlers (or rather near-beggars), or to leave town and become coca leaf growers.
The administrations that came after the Estenssoro government followed similar economic policies. At the same time, they tried to make more room for the parties on the political scene and allowed a certain amount of decentralization. This orientation was adopted to prevent the army, which had been involved in something like 200coups since independence, from being the sole recourse against social unrest – as was the case until then.
Due to the dismantling of the mining industry, the COB has lost some ground while the peasants' representatives have gained influence. The recent, relative electoral success of the MAS and the MIP, two parties that highlight their peasant and Indian identities, was to a large extent the result of this decentralization policy which has favored the development of local movements.
These two parties may make vague references to socialism. But the way they acted in the recent political crisis – with Evo Morales, for example, explaining that he did not want to block the political system or prevent the new president from reaching the end of his term (2007) – shows how Morales will use his party's influence. He is ready to use this influence to give himself a role in the renewed political game, but he will not help the workers' and peasants' social protests go as far as possible.
During last month's events, the Bolivian working class once again showed how combative it can be. The workers demonstrated that they can have a decisive influence on the political life of the country, that they can oppose their own democracy, street democracy, against the bourgeoisie's fake democracy, in which a president who lied in order to win an election can do the exact opposite of what he promised as soon as he takes office up until the end of his term. Thanks to their courage, they were able to overthrow the president, but this limited success also showed the shortcomings of their intervention.
Bolivian workers have led a number of victorious insurrectionary strikes and uprisings since World WarII. But each time, the political forces which came forward as an alternative to the fallen regime were bourgeois or petty-bourgeois forces. And each time, these forces have stolen the workers' victory. Indeed, there is no other alternative for the workers than to seize political power for themselves and to exert it directly, through organizations that really represent their interests.
The role of a revolutionary communist party is precisely to be the permanent embodiment of this perspective inside the working class, so that when the workers exert their revolutionary energy it will not be spent in vain, not used to establish a new bourgeois setup – or rather, to consolidate the same old setup. On the contrary, it should open the way to the transformation of society.