New Strike Looms in Bolivia


With a new indefinite strike looming, Bolivia is on the verge of its third national uprising since February last year. That uprising brought hundreds of thousands of workers and peasants into the streets, but failed to resolve the political and economic crises facing the country.

President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada survived the February uprising only to face a new uprising in October. This uprising saw combined action by labour unions, peasant associations and neighbourhood organisations of the principal urban centres and led to Sanchez de Lozada’s resignation.

The October uprising brought to the forefront the political leadership of the Central Obrera Boliviana (COB), the increasingly radicalised trade union federation headed by Jaime Solares, a leader of the tin miners. Alongside the COB, the rural workers’ union (CSTUB), led by Felipe Quispe, played a key role in inspiring the struggle of the campesinos.

Also critical was the leadership of the neighbourhood organisations in La Paz’s satellite-city of El Alto, where the impoverished but combative mass of workers took over the streets and, alongside the miners, provided the uprising’s backbone.

Despite the urgings of the US embassy, the Bolivian political elite was forced to push Sanchez de Lozada overboard or risk the worker-peasant rebellion turning into a political revolution.

Sanchez de Lozada was succeeded by his vice-president, Carlos Mesa, a “self-made” media capitalist who is relatively independent of the pro-capitalist party machines that dominate parliament – the Nationalist Revolutionary Movement-Movement for a Free Bolivia (MNR-MBL) and the Movement of Revolutionary Left (MIR).

Mesa was able to do so mostly due to the critical backing of campesino leader Evo Morales and his Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), the major left-wing presence in the parliament. Even so, Mesa had to promise what he could never deliver – public consultation over the issue of state control of Bolivia’s gas reserves and a reversal of Sanchez de Lozada’s neoliberal “reforms”.

Neoliberalism’s end

The wave of neoliberal “reforms”, particularly the privatisation of government businesses and public utilities, began in South America as early as 1973 in Chile. In Bolivia, the prospect of rapid social polarisation, the unlikelihood of consumer spending-led economic growth and the continued impact of the 1952 national-democratic revolution, kept the neoliberals at the door until the early 1990s.

In the late 1980s, the MNR government of President Victor Paz Estenssorro began to explore the process of implementing neoliberal measures. However, it was the MIR government of President Jaime Paz Zamora that introduced laws in 1991 making it legally possible to privatise Bolivia’s key industries.

The first privatisations began in 1992 and the privatisation of the major public mining and energy enterprises in 1995. These measures extinguished half a century of national economic development. The resulting decline of mining was catastrophic, with its share of national production falling from 15.17% in the 1950s to 4.74% in 2000. Combined with the technological changes in the industry, this left tens of thousands of miners unemployed, many being forced into the coca industry.

Before the neoliberal “reforms”, Bolivia was already one of the poorest countries in South America, with a per capita GDP of US$828 in 1990. By 2002, per capita GDP had only increased to $878.

Neoliberalism accelerated already precipitous trends in the Bolivian economy and created a social time-bomb much more rapidly than it did elsewhere in South America. The explosion is now unstoppable.

No easy ruling-class solution

There is no easy way out for the Bolivian ruling class. Today they face – not a “coca war” or even a “gas war”, as many commentators have previously declared – but an intensification of the class struggle which makes stable capitalist rule almost impossible.

The popular struggle against the impact of neoliberalism is forging new radical political forces and working people have a historic opportunity to fundamentally change the power relations in Bolivian society.

On February 1, Mesa gave his much awaited presidential message. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is demanding a reduction of the budget deficit from its projected 8.75% of GDP to 6.8%, and a continuation of Sanchez de Lozada’s de facto privatisation of natural gas production, continued destruction of the public sector and a renewed offensive against workers’ wages.

Under the pressure of the COB-led opposition, Mesa tried desperately to present a “middle road”. This included a proposal to subsidise house purchases, which will largely exclude the poor majority, and a promise not to increase domestic gas-fuel prices, but to link them to the international market instead.

This is a less than sly attempt to fool Bolivians, which has barely appeased even the least politicised masses. At a time when US multinational corporations stand to make billions from Bolivia’s gas reserves, working people are facing increases in the cost of both transport and domestic gas.

On top of this, in order to meet the IMF’s demand for the reduction of the government budget deficit, the Mesa government has introduced an annual tax on Bolivians with possessions valued at more than $50,000. This will severely impact on the increasingly impoverished middle classes. Middle-class people are likely to be heavily taxed for simply owning a car and a house, further eroding the slight social base of the MNR government.

Following the presidential message, the COB leadership instructed all organisations that participated in their extended Cochabamba meeting (involving trade unions and other mass organisations) to begin preparations for an indefinite general strike beginning in mid-February.

A one day city-wide strike has already taken place in La Paz in protest at the parliament’s decision to meet somewhere in the middle of the country to avoid public protests.

Roberto de la Cruz, the COB’s key leader in El Alto, expressed the sentiment of the radicalised masses: “If the government does not modify its economic measures we will see the mother of all battles in the coming days.”

The COB’s call for an indefinite general strike has been endorsed by Felipe Quispe.

Given Mesa’s failure to fix gas prices, the powerful transport workers’ union is also likely to maintain its stance and organise a 48-hour stoppage as part of the COB’s call to action.

Mesa’s only hope would seem to be the vacillations of the MAS. Evo Morales’ response to the presidential message was to try to have it both ways. “It’s important to support the program of the government while it’s in the framework of trying to resolve the economic problems of the country, but it’s also important to advance toward changing the economic model”, he declared.

Since the October uprising, the leadership of the MAS has been timid toward the organised revolt of the Bolivian masses, on more than one occasion pitting its views against those of the COB and the CSTUB leadership.

Solares has attempted to draw Morales back into the movement while not restraining his criticisms. According to a January 23 report posted on the Econoticiasbolivia.com web site, Solares publicly challenged Evo Morales to define clearly “whether he is with the people or with Mesa’s government”.

While the MAS have not taken a definitive step toward the right, it seems paralysed by its hopes of sweeping the municipal elections later this year and winning the 2007 presidential race.

>From Green Left Weekly, February 11, 2004. Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.

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