Stalemate to be resolved in Bolivia?

December 8, 2007

Bolivia's indigenous, left-wing President Evo Morales has announced plans to hold a referendum on whether or not he will continue in office, according to a December 5 New York Times article. The aim is to overcome the stalemate the country has faced between the right-wing elite — opposed to the process of change pushed by Morales — and the poor and indigenous majority that put Morales in power. The vice president and nine state governors will also a vote on continuing in office.

The reasons for this move are easy to understand. Bolivia is in upheaval. Events that began on November 19, with violent right-wing protests in Sucre, could mark a decisive step in the countries battle for justice for the indigenous majority and for social-justice orientated industrialisation to overcome poverty and the crippling effects of underdevelopment. It was to achieve these aims that Morales was elected in December 2005. He has since implemented the demand of Bolivia's powerful social movements for a constituent assembly to draw up a new constitution according to these principles.

On November 24 it was decided to move the assembly, meeting in Sucre, to military barracks on the outskirts of the city in an attempt to escape the wave of violence already washing over the city — which saw the brutal eviction of 300 campesinos (peasants), who had arrived in Sucre to help physically defend the assembly, from their sleeping quarters. The move sparked further violent protests.

In an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of the assembly, right-wing opposition delegates had already walked out, declaring the process had become "illegal". On November 23 — free of the stalling tactics of the opposition that has seen the assembly miss its one-year deadline for a new constitution in August — 139 of the 255 assembly delegates approved the broad outlines for a new draft constitution. The assembly is yet to adopt the specific clauses and content of the constitution. Once completed, the proposed constitution will be put to voters in a referendum.

The fight to pass constitutional changes has been an important step in Bolivia's indigenous-led struggle against the devastating affects of neoliberalism on the country.

Bolivia's struggle to rise up against decades of subservience to a rich local oligarchy and foreign (largely US and Spanish) interests led to Morales's presidential victory in December 2005. From the late 1990s onwards, Morales helped lead the cocaleros (coca growers) in a campaign against the US-pushed eradication of the coca leaf — which can be processed into cocaine, but in its natural form is nothing more than a mild stimulant used by indigenous people for centuries and a key source of livelihood to thousands of cocaleros.

In 2000, Morales helped lead the successful fight against the privitisation of water, the Bolivian poor taking on US corporation Bechtel and winning. Morales also helped lead the uprisings against the privatisation of gas, with nationalisation of Bolivia's gas reserves a key plank of his election program .

In 2003, 67% of Bolivians lived in poverty, with only 64% of households equipped with electricity, and only 31% having sewerage access. Just days after his election, Morales explained to an "In Defence of Humanity" conference the aims of the mass movement he headed: "This uprising of the Bolivian people has been not only about gas and hydrocarbons, but an intersection of many issues: discrimination, marginalisation, and most importantly, the failure of neoliberalism."

On May 1, 2006, Bolivia nationalised natural gas reserves, with the state to receive 82% of the revenue, which corporations previously took for themselves. Morales has increased Bolivia's annual natural gas revenues from US$300 million to $2 billion a year. The Morales government has nationalised a tin smelter, most of Bolivia's largest tin mine and the country's railroads. Government officials have suggested they intend to move to nationalise electricity utilities.

In 2006 the government completed the re-nationalisation of water companies, and is negotiating the re-nationalisation of the country's main telecommunications company. Morales has instituted a retirement pension to all eligible Bolivians equal to the minimum wage. He increased teachers' salaries by 10% and reduced parliamentary salaries by 50%.

With proceeds from gas nationalisation (and with significant help from Cuba and Venezuela) Bolivia now has 20 new hospitals, 2000 Cuban doctors providing free health care, and the beginnings of a land reform program that is redistributing land to landless campesinos as well as tractors to assist in working it. Bolivia has embarked on a literacy campaign which has seen 73,000 out of 300,000 participants already graduated.

However, the Morales government has faced its biggest challenge in the constituent assembly. The right-wing elite, backed by a savage and racist propaganda campaign in the private media, succeeded in stalling one of the key components of the process of change promoted by Morales and demanded by the poor. There have been often violent mobilisations for and against the assembly process, raising fears the country was slipping towards a civil war.

The decision to push ahead with the assembly in the face of the violent campaign on the streets, fuelled by racist propaganda in the media, is a sign that the Morales government is looking to break the stalemate that Bolivia has been in for much of the year, with neither the forces tied to the oligarchy nor the popular movement headed by Morales able to enforce its will on the nation. By turning to the people with the planned referendums, Morales is attempting to re-legitimise his government and its radical project. In a country where the private media remains powerful, and the forces opposed to change have a significant social base in the largely white middle class, it is a risky move, but perhaps unavoidable. The future of Bolivia hangs in the balance.

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