Reform or revolution

By Published On: June 1, 2006Categories: Politics0 Comments on Reform or revolution

"There are two ways to take power: firstly elections which are controlled by the bourgeoisie or secondly armed insurrection. And it’s the second option that we are working towards now," explained Jaime Solares as if was announcing a simple union recruiting drive. Behind the head of the leader of the Central Workers Union (Central Oberera Boliviana or COB) a giant technicolour banner image of Che Guevara appeared to smile approvingly.

The Central Workers Union is the equivalent of the British TUC, but I found it hard to imagine Brendan Barber advocating armed revolution. However Solares is not a man to mince his words, calling Evo Morales "mediocre, incapable, anti-worker and reformist" and proclaiming "scientific socialism and the dictatorship of the proletariat" as the only solution to Bolivia’s problems.

It is easy to dismiss Jaime Solares: even my lefty friends laughed when I recounted his comment saying that he is always mouthing off and had little real backing. This seemed to be confirmed when a few days after the interview, his call for a general strike and a march failed miserably with only 200 taking to the streets of La Paz to face wolf-whistles and cries of "let the Government work." His boast of representing two million workers sounded rather hollow.

But as Evo Morales marks 4 months in power, Solares’ comments have received some echoes from key social movement organisations such as the Coordinadora (who led protests against water privatisation in Cochabamba in 2000) and CONAMAQ which represents a significant sector of "originarios" (indigenous peoples). The argument these groups make is that Evo has done little to indicate that he will fundamentally restructure or refound Bolivia. An NGO thinktank on labour issues, CEDLA, harshly named their recent analysis of the first few months of Evo’s government: "Legitimising the neoliberal order: 100 days of Evo Morales’ Government."

From an analysis of the first 120 days does it look like Evo will only tinker with the system? Will this lead to resistance from social movements? Does Bolivia need reform or revolution? What should the response of solidarity movements be?

MAS always a reforming vision

I think the first thing to stress is, that despite hysterical and misinformed foreign media saying otherwise, it was always obvious that a MAS Government was not going to be a revolutionary government, but a pragmatic and reforming one. Whilst MAS was painted as being behind the social movement protests that have wracked the country since 2000, in reality they were not centrally involved in protests in 2003 and 2005 and tended to articulate social movement demands at the last stage. MAS was still talking about a 50% law in May and June last year,
when hundreds of thousands of people were taking to the streets to
demand full nationalisation. Their election programme promised at best a neo-keynesian reform of the economy.

The relationship between social movements and MAS has therefore always been a conflictual one. MAS is made up social movements, in particular the cocaleros yet popular groups such as the Coordinadora which led water revolts in Cochabamba and the El Alto residents’ association, FEJUVE have frequently criticised MAS for failing to back radical change. Yet in the run-up to the election, it was clear that MAS was the only electoral option so as a result most social movements temporarily agreed to back MAS if they promised to deliver what was called the October agenda: reverse of neo-liberal policies, nationalisation of gas, the creation of a Constituent Assembly, and bringing former President Goni and various ministers responsible for deaths in October 2003 to trial.

Radical currents

The first 120 days of MAS Government suggested a  new relationship of co-operation between governments and social movements with the appointment of leaders from social movements to significant positions.

Abel Mamani, a leader from the radical El Alto’s residents’ association which led protests against water and gas privatisation was appointed Minister of Water in a clear acknowledgement of social movements’ struggles for publicly accountable water. Casimira Rodriguez, a former domestic household worker who was not paid wages for more than a year, was appointed Minister of Justice. She has had to confront significant elitist backlash from lawyers who say she is not qualified. Speaking to her the other day, she told me that her experiences of injustice meant she felt a passion to deliver justice for those who have been excluded.

This new make-up of Government and the long-term work of MAS with groups such as the Bartolina Sisa Campesina Federation and the CSUTCB campesino federation have ensured that there are new channels of dialogue and discussion on policies that did not exist before.  The shock instead has been for the rich business elite that in many (although not all) areas has found itself excluded from the corridors of power: summed up in a quote to a colleague of mine when she was told in horrified tones by a friend that "this is the first time in decades we don’t have anyone in our family in government!"

Delivering concrete changes

Moreover, the MAS government has clearly been determined to deliver concrete changes in a very short time space. Within days of taking power, Evo Morales announced a 50% pay cut to his salary in a "State austerity" initiative which was followed up by similar paycuts made by Ministers, legislators and State officials. The message was clear that MAS was not in power for personal gain and the initiative gained major support from a public sick of "politicians taking power in order to rob." This attitude and commitment to deliver real change has been confirmed to me by the unsustainably long hours that various friends I know in Government work. Trying to meet any of them now means either pre-dawn or late-night meetings.

With the help of savings generated by cutting their own salaries, the Government announced a 7% pay increase for health and education workers (double the previous year) and also introduced a "tarifa dignidad"
which reduced electricity rates by 25% for many communities. Meanwhile Evo Morales’ nationalisation decree on gas and oil went further than
many expected in terms of increasing State control over hydrocarbons
reserves. In Santa Cruz the Government against considerable right-wing opposition stood up to expel a Brazilian company, Ibiex for polluting the
environment and disobeying laws.

At international level, the Government’s record has been even more radical. At the World Water Forum in Mexico, the Bolivian Government led an initiative to declare water a human right and broke from the consensus to say that water had to be in public hands. Moreover against huge internal business pressure to sign an Andean Free Trade Agreement with the US (which would have tied Bolivia’s hands in vast sectors of the economy), Evo Morales instead proposed a radically different Peoples’ Trade Treaty based on principles of solidarity, complementarity and co-existence – principles he immediately put into effect in a treaty signed with Venezuela and Cuba.

According to Raul Prada, a left-intellectual in the Government, Evo has been radicalised by his experiences in Government so it is possible that these radical elements of his programme may grow: "Evo came in a reformer, but in government has become a revolutionary". Prada says that Evo’s experience of being inaugurated in a traditional Aymaran ceremony at Tiwanaku and his travels abroad have made him realise his historical role and encouraged him to be more bold and radical in his policy proposals.  The domestic popularity that greeted his announcement that the Government was occupying gas fields and taking back control of hydrocarbons reserves has probably also emboldened his hand.

Lack of structural change

Yet despite these changes, it is still true that the MAS Government have done little to change, or even start to change, the neo-colonial structures of power and wealth that have created such stark inequality in Bolivia. The figures in Government may have changed, but those who control economic power have not. As even Morales admits "we have won the Presidency but not power".

There has been little sign that the Government is prepared to take on these powerful interests directly.  Financially, the Government has promised to maintain "macro-economic stability" refusing to compromise the independence of the Bolivian Central Bank which restricts the Government’s ability to take certain macro-economic decisions such as measures to stimulate employment or significantly increase salaries. In terms of land reform, the Government has only promised to redistribute "unproductive land" which will leave huge estates still in the hands of a few small landholders. They have been keen to assure both multinational companies and wealthy Bolivian businessmen that their investments were safe and would not be subject to redistribution.

Most disturbing however was the electoral law passed by MAS for the Constituent Assembly. The Assembly has been a banner demand by social movements for many years. The idea is that the State
structurally needs to be completely redesigned to work for an indigenous
majority that were excluded by previous Constitutions. Many social movements said such an assembly had to be openly formed by the people and communities based on their traditional customs of decision-making and not reduced to an assembly formed by politicians elected in a narrow western liberal model.

Yet when MAS passed the law to allow elections for the assembly in July 2006, it opted for a simple unimaginative electoral process where people voted for Constituency and Departamental candidates from the traditional parties and a few citizens’ groups who were able to get onto to the ballot paper. There weren’t special representatives based on indigenous communities or
other excluded groups such as Afro Bolivians, people with disabilities or
people with different sexual orientation. Moreover the lists ended up excluding
most radical groups that have been leading the fight for a Constituent Assembly including Oscar Olivera from the Coordinadora, CONAMAQ, Miners union and COB.

The elections for Constituents (three candidates per constituency) which guarantees first two candidates to the winner and the third candidate to the party or group in second place means no party will be able to dominate the Assembly. Whilst this sounds very democratic, it means that any  radical changes to the Constitution are unlikely to get through. The Vice-President, Alvaro Garcia Linera’s comments that the assembly would only change 10-20% of the Constitution confirmed fears for many social movements that that
this was a stitch-up.

There are many theories about why MAS passed such a compromised law given the central importance of this assembly to all the social movements. It is true that to get it through Senate they had to do a deal with right parties, but my concern is that MAS also was more concerned to assert its own party dominance rather than deliver an assembly that truly offered radical democratic change and could be a symbol of inspiration to the world.

But MAS is the only option

"But we don’t have the luxury of not supporting MAS," says my American friend Tom, an experienced activist based in La Paz as I chatted with him and a US journalist Christian Parenti on a trip to Lake Titicaca. "We can’t wait for a perfect government. It just won’t happen."

Tom had been in Nicaragua shortly after the Sandinista revolution involved in a series of solidarity initiatives and has lived in Bolivia for a number of years. "I am actually much more excited about the prospect of revolutionary change here than I ever was in Nicaragua," he said. "The thing is here it is taking place peacefully without a war which sadly distorts most revolutions."

Tom said that the Bolivian Government had to play a careful tactical game in the face of potentially crushing US government opposition as well as very powerful right-wing business interests in regions such as Tarifa and Santa Cruz who were determined to see Morales fail. On issues like gas, Bolivia could not afford to nationalise without compensation without alienating its neighbours and potential allies in Argentina and Brazil. Even Morales’ moderate nationalisation proposals had created great difficulties in the relationships with Brazil, as President Lula came under attack from right-wing media of failing to defend Brazilian interests against "populist measures."

Christian Parenti added in a cynical tone: "The trouble with the left is that they like to stay pure because they don’t like power. They prefer to stay on the outside and change nothing rather than deal with the practicalities and compromises of delivering change."

Yet Tom believed that MAS had more potential to deliver real change than any previous governments due to the context. Not only have they come to power with a hugely significant mandate, but their environment is much more favourable than it has been for years. Throughout Latin America, governments have swung to the left, the International Monetary Fund has lost a great deal of its power including in Bolivia where debts have been cancelled, social movements are better organised internationally than ever before, and support for the Washington Consensus is cracking.

Where should solidarity movements stand?

Tom’s comments highlighted some of the emerging tensions within the solidarity movement with Bolivia. Under previous administrations, it was easy to position ourselves: together with the social movements demanding change to the neo-liberal idea. However under a MAS Government, it is much harder to position ourselves with some Bolivian social movements saying that MAS is delivering the change they wanted whilst others say he is not going far enough.

These divisions were brought out recently, when a recent meeting of the Bolivia Solidarity Network decided to draft an open letter carefully supporting the process of nationalisation rather than the MAS Government decree. The hydrocarbons sector union were in full agreement as they felt the MAS decree was full "nationalisation" yet other groups expressed concern that our letter appeared to support MAS who they felt were not going far enough. Meanwhile Brazilian groups were circulating an open letter which openly supported Morales’ decree, which in the context of a right-wing press openly slamming the decree was no doubt the right thing to do.

My feeling is that the solidarity movement has to navigate a delicate route of supporting the process of change here in Bolivia without directly becoming a MAS promotional vehicle abroad. At root my decision to come here was based on admiration and respect for Bolivia’s social movements and their struggles for justice. Evo Morales’ victory is a result of their efforts and needs to be seen in that context.

At times, our solidarity should take the form of directly supporting government initiatives such as their proposal for a Peoples Trade Treaty, and at times we will need to defend even inadequate proposals against right-wing backlash because at least they take us closer to a just society. However we will need to remain critical, and amplify the voices of those social movements who challenge Morales and put pressure on him to deliver his promises of structural change.

For at heart the issue for me is not necessarily how radical MAS is but what measures it takes to deliver a more accountable democratic State that allows the active participation of community groups, and particularly those who have traditionally been excluded, in decision-making. For without a radical shake-up of the State and the long-term involvement of social movements in the structures of power, the durability of any changes proposed by MAS will be illusory. Critical voices are essential to a reinvigorated democracy.


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