“Summing up the aims of the new regime, Villarroel uttered his most memorable refrain: ‘We are not enemies of the rich, but we are better friends of the poor.’ This impossible pledge to favor the poor without estranging the rich – couched in a language of intimate ties – encapsulates the military populist’s ambitious but doomed reformism.” Thus writes historian Laura Gotkowitz of Colonel Gualberto Villarroel’s government in the early 1940s.
Villarroel was captured and hanged by protesters in the Plaza Murillo in La Paz, just outside the Presidential Palace, on July 14, 1946. International capital and the Stalinist Partido de la Izquierda Revolucionaria (Party of the Revolutionary Left, PIR) helped to channel these protests in a counter-revolutionary direction. The tin-mining and large-landowning oligarchy that had been threatened by the reforms of military populism in the post-Chaco War period of the late 1930s and early 1940s began its restoration after Villarroel’s lynching.
The period between 1946 and 1952 – under the regimes of Enrique Hertzog (1947-1949), Mamerto Urriolagoitia (1949-1951), and Hugo Ballivián (1951-1952) – came to be known as the sexenio. The era was marked by authoritarianism and repression in the face of rural and urban unrest, constituting essentially the ultimate effort to restore the oligarchy before it was strongly challenged again in the 1952 National Revolution.
Between April 9 and 11, 1952, an insurrection led by Hernán Siles Zuazo of the Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (Revolutionary Nationalist Movement, MNR) quickly escaped the boundaries of the basic coup envisioned by the MNR leadership.
Popular militias of factory workers and miners, and MNR rank-and-file militants and urban dwellers, overran most of the armed forces of the ancien regime, compelled swathes of low-ranking troops to switch sides, and sent many of the remaining hostile forces fleeing into exile. Chaco war veterans were armed with their twenty-year-old weapons, miners were equipped with the dynamite of their trade, and the mutinous troops who joined the revolutionary forces brought with them the arms of the state. The coercive apparatuses of the old order caved in almost completely under the weight of revolutionary advance.
The counter-revolutionary whip of two early coup attempts against the MNR regime, helped to spur radical direct actions on the part of the revolutionary Marxist tin miners and militant sectors of the indigenous peasantry. The Trotskyist Partido Obrero Revolucionario (Revolutionary Workers’ Party, POR) also made a crucial contribution to the radicalization of the revolution in this period. Between 1952 and 1956, the major reforms of the revolution had been won: the nationalization of three big mining companies and the establishment of the public mining company, COMIBOL; agrarian reform; and universal suffrage.
Tragically, however, those social forces seeking revolutionary socialist transformation lost out to the right-wing of the MNR’s populism over time. Beginning in 1956 the MNR introduced a reactionary economic stabilization plan backed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). With the help of the US imperialism, the MNR disarmed the popular militias and rebuilt a professional army.
In 1964, the right-wing took advantage of this scenario and René Barrientos came to power through a military coup. The reforms of the revolution were steadily reversed, and Bolivia entered a long and dark era of dictatorship until the return of electoral democracy in 1982 – achieved, again, by the militancy of indigenous peasants and revolutionary workers.
The Centre-Left government of the Unidad Democráticia Popular (Democratic Popular Unity, UDP), under the leadership of the same Hernán Siles Zuazo, came to office in 1982. Popular aspirations for moving from limited electoral democracy to socialist and indigenous-liberationist democracy had rarely been so stoked. Yet again, however, these aspirations were crushed and capitalist power restored in just three years. The Siles regime inherited from the antecedent right-wing dictatorships an enormous external debt, low growth rates, and uncontrollable inflation.
The UDP’s strategy of seeking compromise between the IMF, the US state, and important fractions of domestic capital proved disastrous. The UDP coalition itself fragmented, as the Central Obrera Boliviana (Bolivian Workers Central, COB) from the Left, and the Confederación de Empresarios Privados de Bolivia (Confederation of Private Entrepreneurs of Bolivia, CEPB) from the Right, organized opposition to the new governments in the streets. Benefiting from the chaos of hyperinflation, a new neoliberal right-wing coalition emerged and fundamentally transformed the political economy of the country when it came to power in 1985 – ironically, under the leadership of Paz Estenssoro and a revamped MNR.
The new MNR government ushered in the most severe neoliberal restructuring in Latin America since the policies of Pinochet’s regime of terror in neighbouring Chile in the mid-1970s. The popular capacities of the largely indigenous working classes and peasantry were hammered as domestic and international capital reasserted their authority in the country. For fifteen years (1985-2000), there was no serious opposition to this right-wing neoliberal assault.
The tide began to turn again in 2000 with the heroic Cochabamba Water War, which ignited five subsequent years of left-indigenous insurrection in the countryside and cityscapes of Bolivia. The insurrectionary cycle reached its apogee in the “Gas Wars” of 2003 and 2005, with their base in the western altiplano (high plateau) and the twin cities of El Alto and La Paz. Two neoliberal presidents – Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and Carlos Mesa – were overthrown in less than two years.
Lacking a revolutionary party and project to overthrow the existing capitalist state and rebuild a new sovereign power rooted in the self-governance of the largely indigenous proletarian and indigenous majority, however, the insurrectionary cycle of 2000-2005 was channeled once again into the more domesticated terrain of electoral politics, in which the Movimiento al Socialismo (Movement Towards Socialism, MAS) party was the only viable option for voters who sought change of internally colonial race relations and the system of capitalist exploitation in the country.
It was in this context that Evo Morales won 54 percent of the vote in the elections of December 2005, despite the MAS’s absence in the streets during the 2003 revolts and support for the neoliberal government of Mesa during its first 14 months in office.
During the first two and a half years in office Morales’ administration has given concession after concession to the extremist autonomist Right of the media luna departments – Santa Cruz, Pando, Beni and Tarija, while offering only moderate reforms to its popular constituency. It has declared socialism to be an impossible aim in the country for 50 to 100 years, and instead seeks “Andean-Amazonian” capitalism that tries to reconcile the conflicting interests of imperialism and capital on one side and those of the impoverished peasantry and working classes on the other. The right-wing has used the space provided to it by the MAS to rearticulate its political bases from historic lows in 2003 and 2005, to a situation of dominance in half the country, including in the richest and most populated department of Santa Cruz.
This is the historical backdrop that needs to be taken into account when we consider the meaning of the referendum results of August 10, 2008. Bolivia is living once again through a critical moment.
It would be a tragedy of immense proportions for left-indigenous forces and the Morales government to follow the paths of Villarroel in the late 1940s, the MNR of the 1950s, and the UDP government of the early 1980s. Viewed together these experiences represent the signature failure of left-wing populism when it does not confront the economic and political power bases of the urban capitalist and landowning elite, even in situations when popular mobilization and radicalization was positioned to make these sorts of inroads on elite control of society.
The restoration of right-wing power – today articulated through a fiercely racist “autonomist” movement – must be stopped by a shift in the MAS’s moderate reformism to revolutionary audacity. This will depend on the self-organization of the popular classes and indigenous majority to mobilize strategically against imperialism and the media luna racist elite, and to force the Morales government off its track of conciliation with the far-Right.
It will also depend on the widest international anti-imperialist efforts to combat the financing and training of Bolivia’s autonomist Right, support for the Morales regime when it makes reforms that improve the livelihoods of the popular majority and their chances of pushing reforms further, and solidarity with the worker and peasant radicals that are seeking to transcend the strict parameters of the reformist government.
The August Referendum, 2008
Over 400 observers from the Organization of American States (OAS), the Latin American Council of Electoral Experts, and parliamentarians from Europe and Mercosur countries (Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay) were present for the recall referendums of 8 departmental (state) prefects (governors) and President Morales and Vice-President Álvaro García Linera on August 10. All stood to lose their jobs or reinforce their support base.
Referendum day went relatively smoothly, with the only reported irregularities being intimidati