Bolivia: The struggle for justice and development

Issue 

Franz Chavez is a noted Bolivian journalist who helped found La Prensa and La Razon — two of Bolivia´s most widely read news sources. Chavez currently works for Inter Press Service as part of their Latin American bureau.

Green Left Weekly´s Rachel Evans and Aranzazu Guevara from Corriente Praxis de Argentina, spoke to Chavez in La Paz about the process of change unfolding in Bolivia, which is being led left-wing President Evo Morales aimed at overcoming centuries of genocide and Apartheid-like discrimination against Bolivia's indigenous majority.

Elected in December 2005, Morales — a leader of the coca growers union — is Bolivia's first indigenous president and, backed by powerful social movements, has implemented policies aimed to redress oppression of indigenous people and develop the economy of South America's poorest country. These moves have sparked fierce resistance by the Bolivian oligarchy, backed by the US government.

Chavez explained: "The conflict that is taking place in Bolivia is an unavoidable chapter, almost predictable to solve Bolivia´s social conflict. The conflict had to happen, given the circumstances.

"There are many circumstances that coincided. Morales was pressed by the circumstances, but he didn't believe that he could be a president. He is very humble. There were many weaknesses in the right wing in the lead up to Morales´s election in December 2005, and that helped.

"The people had little money and lot of frustration. There was disenchantment with corruption, and how the state was not functioning."

The traditionally dominant parties in Bolivia "rotated in and out of power but there was no difference between them", Chavez explained. "The people didn't see any results, so people started to revolt." He said this revolt was "also because of the privatisation of water and gas".

"Evo was an isolated and small leader", when this revolt began in the 1990s, "yet people saw that he was a fighter and identified with his capacity to struggle. They identified with him because of his skin colour. He didn't have a broad discourse, he only defended coca culture. He had support in the middle classes who were tired of the right wing."

Background

Since the 1952 national revolution in Bolivia, every party had sought to take advantage of the popular movements, according to Chavez. "I think this current process of very deep change is similar to the 1952 uprising. The difference is that now we have the indigenous in power", Chavez argued.

"The political system in Bolivia moved from democracy to dictatorship, to democracy. The forces [required] to stop this pendulum between democracy and dictatorship are the indigenous and middle classes."

"1952 was a revolutionary period. The working class was a much greater force than the campesinos [peasants] who, conversely, are a greater force than workers today."

In the years following the 1952 revolution, the working class fought against dictatorships imposed by the military.

Then, in 1985, came the neoliberal structural reforms that opened the country to much greater exploitation by foreign corporations.

This led to a renewal of struggle in the 1990s with indigenous people playing an increasingly important role. This led to the ultimately successful "water war" in Cochabamba against attempts by US corporation Bechtel to privatise water, and the "gas war" in 2003 against the government's attempt to privatise gas — Bolivia's most important industry.

Mass uprisings overthrew presidents in 2003 and 2005, paving the way for Morales' rise to power. Morales has carried out the nationalisation of Bolivia's gas reserves and convoked a constituent assembly to draw up a new draft constitution to codify the countries new direction — with the draft to be put to a referendum this year.

Class struggle

During the 1950s, an ideological trend was forged out of links between the working class and intellectuals that sought to base itself on Marxism. "Now there is a greater participation of the popular sectors that has generated another kind of leadership. In this current political process, the thought is a mixture of indigenous, corporative, intellectual and middle class. Now its more complex", Chavez said.

Chavez explained that the basic salary in Bolivia is US$72 per month. The sectors supporting Morales are campesinos; coca producers; the industrial working class; the mass of poor people without permanent employment or who work in the "informal economy"; and the urban lower middle class.

The once-powerful Workers Confederation of Bolivia (COB) "supports Evo but it now has a Trotskyist direction that questions the president a lot", Chavez said.

"The COB was very important in the past. They were a great force representing many workers — in the past there were 27,000 miners in Bolivia and they were all in the COB. Now their strength has declined.

"The reasons for this are historic. After 1985 the private sector grew as the value of tin started to rise. At this time mining cooperatives appeared. Through cooperatives some miners began operating as bosses, and exploitation of other workers developed."

Chavez explained that in Huanuni, there were no cooperatives involved in the town's tin mining, only 5000 unionised workers, as a result of Morales nationalising the mine.

Other mines however, that are privately run include cooperatives. The cooperatives form federations that back Morales on the condition that he doesn't nationalise the mines they work, according to Chavez.

In relation to Morale's support base among the poor, Chavez argued that in places like El Alto, on the outskirts of La Paz where many impoverished indigenous people live, "there has not been enough help yet from the government".

"In the countryside you have two types of organisations — cultural and political, organised within a union. The organisation of campesinos in a union is very similar to workers organisation, but with a lot of cultural aspects.

"1952 is a point of reference [for the campesinos] because there was agrarian reform. The land was redistributed to campesinos individually. That was mostly in the Occidental region, in the west." Other regions, including the "media luna" (half moon), made up by the four departments (states) in the east that are a stronghold of the right-wing oligarchy, were forgotten in this reform, according to Chavez.

In Oriental region, for instance, some land owners today own land twice the size of the city of La Paz. Chavez also argued that "if the reform had been in the sense of communal ownership it would have been better".

"Now the government encourages the communal production", he said. "Since 2006 it has given people, original inhabitants, titles to their land. This is called Community Land of Origin. Morales is also creating new towns. The land around these towns can't be sold nor divided. In the Oriental region this does not work because the capitalists still buy the land."

National development

"Bolivia needs human and industrial capital development", Chavez explained. "Morales only completed secondary school. The indigenous community have very few intellectuals. When they came to this [state] bureaucratic machine, lots of politicians of the right-wing tried to impress them.

"There are people interested in having the same situation as before. They don't want change. The right-wing infiltrate MAS [Movement Towards Socialism — Morales' party]. The indigenous sectors are entering the administration, but in very low positions of power. Evo started to look for professionals that have commitment to help him [fill crucial positions]."

Chavez explained the struggle industrialise Bolivia, arguing that "Bolivia has always been robbed of its natural resources. Multinationals are exploiting gas.

"There is now a plan to separate the gas into each of its components. These two problems of a lack of human and industrial capital has included a brain drain from Bolivia. All governments before now, have not been interested in education, so we have a lack of education. The question of education will take 100 years to resolve."

Chavez highlighted the international trade agreements based on solidarity and mutual development that Bolivia is part of, organised through the Bolivarian Alternative of the Americas (ALBA), the anti-corporate trading bloc spearheaded by revolutionary Venezuela and Cuba that includes Nicaragua and Bolivia, with Ecuador, Uruguay, the Dominican Republic and St Kitts currently having observer status. He pointed out that "ALBA produces $220 million worth of trade with Bolivia".

However, he also pointed out that "trade with America is worth $400 million. Bolivian produce is basic — soya, minerals and other agricultural products. We export gas to Brazil and Argentina . All of Bolivian exports are primary products. We have real problems of industrialisation."

The government has introduced a new tax on gas and oil corporations. Chavez said that in 2003, these companies paid $180 million in tax to the Bolivian government, but in 2007, they paid $2 billion.

Chavez explained that this "is not a nationalisation — but a good negotiation. The nationalisation of gas and petrol was not just a straight 83% [of profits from operations involving large gas fields] going to the Bolivian state [through taxes and royalties]. The government also negotiated individual contracts with 44 of these companies.

"There is not yet a [properly functioning] public, government owned hydrocarbon company. It is necessary to reconstruct it, because it died in 1996. This is a long process — in this, we are 150 years behind Europe."

Challenges

Chavez argued: "Government hand-outs like Renta Dignidad (a new pension) and Juancito Pinto (payment to families for children's schooling) are welcome if they contribute to improving people's quality of life. Money that before went to corruption now goes to people.

"But, it mustn't stay at this level. It must be accompanied with a greater stimulation to education, technical and professional formation. And to the industrialisation of the country. The private sector is a great engine", Chavez argued, as "it generates employment. The government now is pushing micro-enterprises, but they mustn't forget the other private sectors."

Chavez pointed out that Morales has "inherited a system of the right-wing that lived on corruption". "Corruption lives mainly in banks, within the export industry and within agribusiness. The corruption Morales inherited wasn't very explicit but the system is complex because it is very important to generate business."

He said that "the problem is not solved. It has continued, but in different ways. It has also effected MAS — and the leaders of MAS. They have sold state jobs to friends and contacts. The judicial system — the courts — are weak. There is the most corruption here."

Speaking on the direction and nature of the process of change, Chavez commented: "There is a Marxist, socialist wing in MAS. In practice, there are not changes that show this country is moving towards socialism. The economic structures are maintained. The economy has been stable, alongside the social conflict.

"The left parties have not achieved influence within the Bolivian people's struggle to look for new ways of life. Besides the differing ideological thoughts and tendencies the ones who are in the government must do things for the future.
They must make Bolivia a country with a future.

"It is a challenge to build a nation that is so underdeveloped. If they fail they will leave the doors open to the right wing. It will be a bad example for other countries" attempting social change, Chavez concluded.