The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Bolivia:
The Working Class, the Left and the Union

Aug 31, 1985

On July 14, national elections were held in Bolivia. They were called one year in advance of their scheduled date, a reflection of the problems facing the left government of Siles Zuazo’s UDP (Democratic and Popular Union). Leading up to the elections, the UDP faced several months of disruptions by the working class and peasantry. Bank workers struck for three weeks demanding a wage increase and the nationalization of the state bank, and holding up funds for the election. Printers struck, preventing the ballots from being printed. There were also strikes by postal, road, electrical workers and school teachers. There was a stoppage in public transport. Peasants in several areas blocked the roads, demanding lower interest rates and representation on the state agricultural bank. In Santa Cruz and Chuquisaco, oil producing regions, there were organized protests to demand higher local oil production royalties. In one city, crowds burned official vehicles and the army was brought in.

These strikes and protests were both an indication of the general popular discontent with the government’s economic policies, and at the same time a protest against the coming elections which the main peasants’ and workers’ organizations denounced as a maneuver to put the governmental power in the hands of the right wing.

It is unlikely that the elections will resolve very much. Lack of voter registration, reports of widespread fraud, and irregularities put the results in question. In any case, since no candidate got an absolute majority of the vote, the Congress has to decide who will be the next president. Both before and after the elections, there were rumors of a possible coup, both from the right and the left. This is not an unusual event in Bolivia which has seen 180 coups in its 160 year history as an independent country.

If the election results cannot be taken at face value, they are nonetheless an indication of the situation. It was the right wing which wanted the elections, and it is the right wing, in the person of General Hugo Banzer, which appears to have won them. Banzer, candidate of the AND (Nationalist Democratic Action) Party, is no newcomer to Bolivian politics, having served as a military dictator from 1971-1978. He appealed to the electorate as the man of order, able to bring stability and economic prosperity back to the country. Of course, what he speaks of as stability and prosperity could be described this way only in comparison with the disruption and economic problems in Bolivia over the last three years under the UDP government. Nonetheless, one can imagine such an appeal striking a sympathetic chord among sections of the urban middle class, a section of the peasantry, and even sections of the working class, disgusted and frustrated with the results of the so-called left government.

In second place in the elections is Paz Estenssoro, septuagenarian leader of the parliamentary opposition, a candidate of the center right MNRH (Historic Revolutionary Nationalist Movement), a leader whose roots go back to the 1952 Bolivian revolution and who served as president in the 1950s and again in the 1960s. He posed himself as the moderate, with the traditions of the left in the past, but opposed to the policies of Zuazo today.

Perhaps most telling, however, is not who is leading, but who is behind. The candidate of the UDP came in behind the other major candidates. When a party in governmental power, in a country like Bolivia, is unable even to make a respectable showing in an election, it is a clear indication of how discredited it is and how little authority and power it has. It is a sign it has lost all real support in the population. A large part of the poor population, the traditional support of the left, didn’t register and vote. And the majority of those who did, clearly chose other candidates. And yet in 1982, when the UDP coalition came to power, it rode the wave of a working class mobilization that pushed the generals to resign and hand over the power to a civilian authority. Siles, another veteran of the 1952 revolution, was backed by the popular organizations and greeted as the candidate of the left, of the workers and the peasantry.

If he could be seen this way it was in part because up until 1983 the MIR (Movement of the Revolutionary Left), a social democratic formation, was in the government, and the BCP (Bolivian Communist Party) up until 1984 was also in the government. If over the next three years his popularity and support was quickly eroded, the cause lies probably in two major factors: the effects of the world economic crisis on Bolivia, and the UDP’s inability to improve the situation, leading it to bear responsibility in the eyes of the population for making everything worse.

Economic and Social Collapse

Bolivia’s economy is practically on the verge of collapse. Its exports – primarily tin, oil and natural gas – have fallen to 1960 levels. Their prices have also declined drastically. Both of these problems are due to reduced demand in the industrialized countries. Its GNP declined by 21 per cent between 1980 and 1983, its domestic production fell 17 per cent in 1984 alone. According to Bolivian industrialists, 50 per cent of capacity is not being utilized. Bolivia’s inability to import goods and spare parts has further crippled industry, and it is estimated that almost 200 businesses have closed, a big blow to the economy of such a small country.

While Bolivia has seen its exports and production decline, it faces at the same time a squeeze from the world banks. At the end of 1984, it had a foreign debt of about five billion dollars. It was $75 million in arrears in interest payments and $144 million in principal. It has made no interest payments since March of 1984.

The Bolivian economy is reminiscent of that of the Weimar Republic in the 1920s. It has a skyrocketing inflation, reputedly running at over 2000 per cent at the end of 1984, the highest rate in the world. The peso went from 200 to the U.S. dollar in 1982 to 45,000 in 1985. The ratio is much higher on the black market. As a result, paper, primarily used to print currency, is the third largest import in Bolivia today.

In response to these problems, the UDP government has resorted to a series of currency devaluations and austerity drives that have closed like a noose around the necks of the working class and peasantry. This comes at a time when the workers are already suffering from a staggering unemployment, which jumped 67 per cent between 1980-1982, and increased five fold in 1984. Between 1982 and 1983, buying power dropped 45 per cent. The per capita income fell over the last four years by over 30 per cent. A recent study by UNICEF, reports 80 per cent of the Bolivian population lives in poverty. To give a more concrete example, the cost of a box of powdered milk to feed a child for two weeks is higher than the monthly wage of a worker in La Paz.

This is what the working class has faced during the reign of the so-called government of the left, a government which it has been told repeatedly is its representative. What is clear today in Bolivia is that the left politicians who had been supported by the union leaders, have not been able to offer the population any real road out of the crisis. But the working class has not simply consented passively to accept its fate. Instead, over the last three year period, it has engaged in a series of militant and large-scale struggles, including five general strikes in less than two years. These struggles have shown the power of the working class, its ability to bring society to a halt. But these struggles have failed to give the working class new prospects, and for the most part have even failed to give a temporary relief from the problems crushing the poor population.

The Struggles of the Working Class

The most telling example of the nature and limits of these struggles was probably the general strike in March. The strike came in response to a new government devaluation of 80 per cent, coupled with price increases of 450 per cent, and a proposed wage increase of a smaller level, and not even proposed for the whole working class. In response, tens of thousands of miners, long the vanguard of the Bolivian working class, flooded the capital, La Paz, held massive daily meetings and demonstrations, blocked traffic, set off dynamite. The general strike, at least for a time, paralyzed the country, allowing only emergency services to run, and costing a reputed ten million dollars a day to the economy. But the working class was not uniformly mobilized. In some areas peasants blocked the roads but the movement never generalized in the countryside.

The miners demanded an immediate wage increase, and a future indexing of wages to inflation. The peasants demanded agricultural machinery, and markets where they could sell their products directly. There were also demands for a price limit on basic necessities, for the government to refuse to pay its debt to the IMF, for the resignation of the Siles government, and once more the postponement of the elections.

The army issued threats, called up the reserves, and sent riot police to guard the presidential palace. Some tear gas was used, but the army basically stayed on the sidelines. There were many rumors of the possibility of either a left wing or a right wing military coup, but the generals seemed as reluctant to assume the power in the name of the people, as they were to crush the popular movement.

The church intervened to mediate, and the government offered a bonus, and an income increase of 400 per cent. It also gave a raise to the army. The workers accepted the government’s terms, ended their strike, got in their trucks, and went home. Perhaps for two weeks the miners looked like the masters of La Paz, but it was an appearance that belied reality. The working class clearly saw no way to go forward. It saw nothing to propose to the rest of the population. If the working class finds itself in such a situation today, in spite of its militancy and will to fight, it is due in large measure to the fact that the COB (Bolivian Workers Confederation) has not proposed any policy which serves the working class’s interest.

The COB: Straight Jacket for the Workers’ Movement

The COB is the central union structure in Bolivia, containing almost all of the Bolivian unions and including a peasant section of the CSUTCB (Unique Confederation of Bolivian Peasant Workers) organized in 1979, as well as tenants, housewives, and students. The COB is a strange animal – a union but one which plays a very important political role and has a big social weight in the country. The COB is unquestionably the leader of the working class’s economic battles. It has presented its leaders as political candidates. In local areas COB committees regulate many other problems like price control.

The COB was the child of the 1952 revolution. In 1952, the miners led an insurrection, arms in hand, which overthrew the military government. Organized in their own militias, they in fact held the power, until their union the FSTMB (Bolivian Federation of Miners) handed it over to the MNR (Revolutionary Nationalist Movement). Juan Lechin, the leader of the miners, was instrumental in this process. He was to become the first Executive Secretary of the COB, and has held this position ever since. Lechin, a member of the MNR party, served as a minister in the new government. When the mines were later nationalized the new mining agency, COMIBOL (Bolivian Mining Corporation) included representatives of the miners in the management and was pictured as “workers control.” In fact it was a way to use the union as an extension of the government to discipline the miners. The government agreed to pay huge indemnities to the tin barons and quickly asked the miners to sacrifice, allegedly to protect the government from the pressures of imperialism. The COB has always accepted the goal of developing the national economy. Such a policy is not at all in contradiction with the goal of at least the most radical sections of the Bolivian bourgeoisie. Such a policy, however, has nothing to do whatever with the defense of the interests of the working class. But it does mean that Lechin and the COB have always accepted to follow behind nationalist politicians.

With increasing economic problems, Bolivia’s 12 year experiment with civilian rule came to an end in 1964 when the military once again seized power. Under the military, most of the time right wing and tied to U.S. imperialism, but sometimes proclaiming itself nationalist and even part of the left, the COB continued to function, often partly clandestinely at home with its main leaders in exile.

It led a series of economic and political struggles. For example, there were 139 strikes including 16 national ones between 1965 and 1967. There were major mobilizations in 1970, 1972, big miners’ strikes in 1976, protests in 1977, and then a more or less continuous mobilization starting in 1978 and continuing until 1982 when the threat of a new general strike forced the generals to hand over the power to the civilian government of Siles, elected in 1980, but never allowed to take office.

Throughout this whole period the focus of the COB was to win back civilian rule. Both at home, and abroad, it organized a series of electoral fronts. This did not prevent it, however, during the years of military dictatorship from using the power of the working class to support one general over another. It showed it was both willing and able to make compromises with the military dictatorship. Nonetheless, the working class paid dearly at the military’s hands with hundreds of lost lives, jail sentences, torture and exile. This included the leaders of the COB itself.

The COB apparatus has had several major political influences throughout its history: that of the MNR, the MIR and the BCP. The Trotskyist movement has also exercised some influence among the miners and even at the top of the COB. In recent elections at the COB sixth Congress, the DRU (United Revolutionary Leadership), a front of left organizations, had its slate elected, and got some of its proposals passed. Nonetheless, despite whatever “left” influence might exist today or have existed in the past, the COB remains dominated by Lechin, and those around him.

In the period of the last three years, the COB led big fights and protests. But on the political level it has either proposed a direct support of the Siles government, a government front between itself and the UDP, a new government made up of a coalition of left organizations, or a left wing military coup. That is, the COB has proposed every solution – except one – the power of the working class itself. The COB is faithful to its history. From the beginning the COB has always been an integral part of Bolivian society. Its only question has been what role to play within these limits. In no sense has the COB ever posed itself as a real opponent of capitalism, nor of the Bolivian bourgeoisie. It has never proposed to the working class to fight to build a new society. It has always defended what was put in place in 1952 – a nationalist government which relied not only on the army but on the apparatus of the COB itself. The apparatus of the COB, by its very nature, its traditions, its political ties, is first of all a part of the nationalist movement. The COB does not represent, and has never represented, the basic interests of the working class. The current leadership of the COB can neither lead the workers on the road to power, nor can it even give them a prospect to defend their immediate interests. To defend its interests, the working class will have to go beyond what the COB is today.

What Policy for the Bolivian Trotskyists?

The Trotskyist movement has existed in Bolivia since the 1930s. It has played a certain recognized role. Today there are a number of Trotskyist groups. Among them, the PST (Socialist Workers Party), a section of the International Workers League (Fourth International), put forward the slogan “All power to the COB” during the March general strike. The POR-U (Revolutionary Workers Party), a section of the USec of the Fourth International, called for the creation of people’s committees built out of the existing organizations of workers, peasants, and communities, a kind of expansion of the CCP (Council of Popular Coordination), a front of the COB and some of the left parties that was formed during November of 1984. They see the COB as the backbone of this formation.

But what does it mean today in the current situation in Bolivia, when the COB is at least as much in support of the government as against it to demand “All power to the COB”? After 33 years of experience where the COB has over and over again demonstrated the same policy of betrayal of the workers’ interests, there is no reason we can see to justify imagining the COB could choose a different policy. Lechin has already served in the government twice. On and off the COB has shared the responsibility for the management of the state run economic sector. At different times in the last few years both the COB and the UDP have proposed a co-government. So when we demand “All power to the COB” is there not a danger that this will end up helping simply to prepare a new political solution for the Bolivian bourgeoisie, by making the COB share responsibility for the government, and to see the COB become even more than now an instrument to keep the working class and the poor in line?

Possibly, in the minds of the Trotskyist militants, such a slogan seems like a way to expose the real nature of the COB. Since the COB is not prepared and not willing to take the power, they hope that its anti-working class policy will be made more obvious in the eyes of the workers. But to make such a demonstration requires that the revolutionaries not only raise the task that needs to be done, but also have the strength to either push the COB to go forward – or to bypass it if it retreats. And the revolutionaries obviously lack this strength today in Bolivia. What we fear is that for the working class such a slogan can seem like a revolutionary support to the COB apparatus. At best such a slogan can make the Trotskyists appear no different than the ordinary supporter of Lechin. At worst it could reinforce the workers’ illusions in the COB and Lechin. And this means to reinforce perhaps the worst enemies of the workers.

When the POR-U gives the hope that the leadership of the COB would participate in the formation of a kind of a soviet coming out of a unification with other reformist organizations, it is proposing the same formula as the PST, but in different clothing. The leaders of the COB have no intention to do something like this, if what is meant by such a proposal is a real organization for a revolutionary fight by the working class. If the leaders of the COB ever do decide to do it, it will be because they are submitted to a tremendous pressure from the working class. It will be because they fear the workers will go forward without them.

And if they set up such committees, with other left groups, it would be in a bureaucratic manner, from the top, against a real participation and control by the rank and file workers, and with the intention of diverting a possible revolutionary upsurge. In 1970-1971, the COB organized Popular Assemblies with the left, as a support for General Torres.

The POR-U is certainly right to insist on the necessity for the working class to give itself a class organization which could be the embryo of a state apparatus in the future, and at least right now a tool to lead its struggles.

But instead of calling for the COB to set it up, isn’t it instead the task of revolutionaries to explain that such an organization can only be established by the workers themselves, and to warn the workers against the possible betrayals and maneuvers by the bureaucratic apparatus?

The First Tasks of Revolutionaries

The policy of the revolutionary organizations must be to help the working class become conscious of its potential force, and to organize this force. The task of revolutionaries is to show the working class that, in the short or long run, the workers not only have to get rid of the bourgeoisie, but also need to get rid of their own so-called leaders. Doesn’t a call of “All power to the COB”, or the call for the COB to organize popular committees, mean instead one more time, calling on the big recognized leaders to do what should be done, but what these leaders have made clear for more than 30 years that they are unwilling to do? In Bolivia the working class needs a new policy, a new leadership, not a continuation of illusions in the old ones.

Of course, from afar if it is easy to raise questions and to make a critique, it is impossible to define a correct revolutionary policy. To do this requires living, active militants implanted in the working class and able to lead its struggles, to evaluate its consciousness accurately. Our tendency is not in a position to speak from this vantage point in Bolivia today.

Certainly the first task of revolutionaries in Bolivia, as in the U.S., is to find the ways and means to build a revolutionary party, one able to address the consciousness of the working class, as the Bolivian Trotskyist militants are trying to do. But to address that consciousness means we have to tell the truth to the working class. The revolutionaries therefore have to show the workers who the different leaders really are – whether these leaders are left politicians, generals or trade union officials. Revolutionaries have to remind the working class of the history of these leaders, show their true class nature, expose their policies.

Probably in doing this, the revolutionaries have to propose to the working class tactics corresponding to the circumstances. We understand, for instance, that according to the specifics of the situation the revolutionaries should defend the COB, or maybe even the UDP government, if they were attacked by the right wing, or threatened by a military coup.

But such tactics should in no case go against our general and primary task – to give the working class its own organizations, its own independent policy, a confidence in its own activity – an understanding that its liberation can depend only on its own struggles and its own organized power.