Bolivia: Strikes and blockades greet postponement of elections

12 August 2020

By Dave Stockton

A wave of strikes and blockades, called by the trade union federation, COB, and an alliance of peasant and indigenous organisations has paralysed Bolivia for ten days after the Supreme Electoral Court, TSE, announced the cancellation of elections scheduled for September 6.

The movement is backed by the Movement towards Socialism, MAS, the party of former president Evo Morales, who was ousted in a bloody coup last year. Alarmed by opinion polls showing the MAS leading over all other parties, the ruling right-wing coalition headed by usurper president Jeanine Áñez, has filed a lawsuit attempting to disqualify the MAS presidential candidate, Luis Arce.

Áñez came to power last November in a US-backed coup after claiming, falsely, that Morales was ‘stealing the election’. Police and army units revolted against the government, attacking and killing MAS supporters and forcing Morales into exile in Argentina. Despite promising to hold new elections within 90 days, Áñez has exploited the COVID-19 pandemic to postpone the elections three times.

The government’s repeated failure to organise new elections proves that concern for democracy is a cynical fig leaf to justify a revolt by the country’s landowning oligarchy against the progressive reforms of the MAS government.

Bolivia has the world’s largest known reserves of lithium, a critical component of the batteries used in electric vehicles, computers, and a whole range of electronic products set to be part of a huge transformation of 21st century industry.

Confronted with the accusation that the US government conspired to back the coup against Morales, Elon Musk, billionaire owner of the Tesla electric car manufacturer, summed up the oligarchs’ attitude on Twitter: “We will coup whoever we want! Deal with it.”

Lithium is the latest “blessing” with which nature has endowed the country. First, the Spanish conquistadores looted the country’s silver. Then, foreign based capitalists, the “Rosca” (the chain) plundered its tin, leaving the country poisoned, backward and its people the most impoverished on the continent.

Now, the exploiters of oil, gas and lithium are partnering with the country’s European-descended elites to batter down any resistance to their attempts to monopolise these vital resources. For the US, it is out of the question that Chinese or European competitors, with whom Morales and Linera negotiated, should gain access to such a huge slice of Latin America’s resources.

To this miserable record of colonial and imperialist exploitation, we now have to add a public health catastrophe which threatens to wipe out the social advances of the past two decades.


The country’s health and public services have been overwhelmed to the extent that burial services have completely broken down. Hospitals are turning away patients, the dead and dying are abandoned in the streets, and mobile cremation vans are touring the streets of La Paz.

The official death toll stands at 3,000, and the number of cases has exceeded 85,000 in a country of 11.5 million people. These figures are certainly a gross underestimate since Bolivia has one of the lowest rates of testing.

Áñez’s government has proven itself both unable and unwilling to contain the spread of the virus. Nor can it mitigate the attendant economic chaos. Unemployment has doubled to 8 per cent and, by the end of the year, half a million Bolivians will have been driven into poverty.

It is undeniable that Bolivia is one of the countries worst hit by the virus. Responsibility for the catastrophe lies with the government of landowners and oligarchs and their contempt for Bolivia’s poor, rural and indigenous population. The popular movements are right not to allow the government to use the health emergency to blackmail them into accepting the continuation of the coup regime.

Despite the campaign of intimidation and terror waged by the government and its fascistic supporters against the MAS and peasant organisations, Bolivia’s workers and indigenous communities have refused to cease their struggle against the oligarchs and their US sponsors. Tens of thousands have mobilised in more than 100 marches and blockades, paralysing the country’s infrastructure.

The government may be spared a bloody confrontation if Evo Morales succeeds in mediating negotiations between the COB and the TSE, with the aim of setting a compromise election date. Despite deserting his followers during the fighting last year, Morales retains a tight grip over the MAS and continues to direct its policy from Buenos Aires.

This attempt to compromise with the very people who overthrew the MAS less than a year ago shows that the crucial lessons have not been learnt from the utter bankruptcy of the MAS’s strategy. That was to govern with the support of sections of the Bolivian bourgeoisie and the wealthier sections of the peasantry and to try to manoeuvre between the rival imperialists.

The record of the MAS

The MAS is a petty-bourgeois populist movement, which carried out a thoroughly capitalist economic regeneration programme under Morales and his vice president, Álvaro García Linera, based on selling the country’s national resources to fund wealth redistribution schemes. Although these did have a massive impact in reducing poverty and increasing literacy, they left the power of the landowners and oligarchs largely intact.

Linera, a former leader of the Túpac Katari guerrilla army in the 1990s, concocted a stages theory in the early 2000s, based on Mao and Gramsci, to justify decades of capitalist development that would lay the basis for socialism sometime in the distant future.

Under this leadership, the MAS diverted the mass revolutionary upheavals of the Cochabamba Water War, 1999-2000, and the Gas War of 2003, into the election of Morales and a MAS government in 2006. While it remained in office until the coup last year, this was at the cost of restoring the power of the shaken state apparatus. In fact, the MAS rearmed the Bolivian repressive forces with huge amounts of US purchased weaponry.

Morales and Linera did, however, engage in a “cultural revolution” symbolised by defining the state as a “plurinational republic” and associating the seven-coloured chequered Wiphala flag with the Bolivian tricolour, infuriating the racist, evangelical, landowning elites. During the coup the Wiphala was ripped down and trodden underfoot.

In leaving the power of the oligarchs and landowners substantially intact and neutering the radical constituent assembly movement, the MAS government also preserved the structures and institutions of the capitalist state, paving the way for its own eventual overthrow.

The coalition of social forces that had brought Morales to power, the workers’ and peasants’ unions, the rural communes of the country’s Aymara and Quechua speaking majority, broke up after he tried unsuccessfully to change the constitution to allow him to stand for the presidency for a fourth consecutive term.

The pro-foreign capitalist policies based on the extraction of hydrocarbons and lithium alienated the communities that would have been devastated by such “development”. As a result, the COB and the indigenous communities’ organisation, FEJUVE, failed to rally to Morales’ defence during the November coup. This turned out to be a grave error.

The continued popular support for the MAS expressed in opinion polls is more a condemnation of the ruling coalition and the absence of any viable electoral alternative than a positive endorsement of its leaders who abandoned the fight against the coup. But the lessons of 14 years of Morales and the MAS need to be drawn and a political party led by the workers and supported by poor peasants, often voted for at COB conferences but never realised, finally needs to be created.

Despite the machinations of Morales, whose continued leadership will lead to disaster if it is not overcome, the COB, along with the important federations of coca farmers, peasants, and indigenous peoples, has so far refused to lift the blockades until the original election date is restored.

The way forward is to totally paralyse the country with the general strike and blockades, to establish militias for the defence of the movement and to agitate amongst the soldiers and police not to fire upon the people. To coordinate the nationwide movement, councils of workers’ and peasants’ delegates should be elected in every urban district and rural community.

A critical step for the movement is to assume control over the allocation and distribution of healthcare to combat the pandemic, starting with the $1.8m of supplies donated by the World Health Organisation. Beyond that, it should take control of transport, food and medical supplies, in order to sustain the revolt and remove the danger of the capitalists using lockouts and hoarding to starve the movement into submission.

Permanent revolution

Currently, the movement in Bolivia is a struggle for the restoration of democracy. But the revolt by the bourgeoisie, backed by elements within the state machine, shows that in order to win real democracy, the movement needs to fight for a workers’ and peasants’ government, which smashes the repressive apparatus of the state, and expropriates the latifundistas and foreign monopoly capitalists.

The basis for that government can emerge from the current mobilisation by taking up the demand for, and organising elections to, a sovereign constituent assembly, composed of delegates from workers’ and peasants’ councils.

Such a revolutionary outcome is not alien to Bolivia’s history. From the 1940s to the 1980s, the tin miners’ union, FSTMB, the backbone of the Bolivian working class, had a heroic record of openly revolutionary struggle in alliance with the indigenous peasant communities.

In 1946, it adopted a manifesto, the Pulacayo Theses, that took up the Trotskyist strategy of permanent revolution; pursuing agrarian revolution, democratic and anti-imperialist goals up to and including the expropriation of the imperialist shareholders and Bolivian landowning elite.

Unfortunately, at critical moments, during the “national revolution” of 1953, in the enormous miners’ strike and march on La Paz in 1986, and during the gas and water wars of the early 2000s, its leaderships turned aside from the creation of a revolutionary workers’ party, allied to the poor peasant and indigenous communities and pledged to the struggle for workers’ power and socialism.

Instead, they subordinated themselves to bourgeois and petty bourgeois nationalist parties like the Revolutionary Nationalist Movement in the 1940s and 1950s and then the MAS in the early decades of this century.

The creation of a genuine revolutionary workers’ party, which renews the path to permanent revolution charted in the Pulacayo Theses; that “the bourgeois democratic revolution, if it is not to be strangled, must convert itself into merely a phase of the proletarian revolution”, is the precondition for the victory of democracy in Bolivia, on the basis of a democratically planned, socialist economy, with autonomy for the indigenous communities.

Only on this basis can a revolutionary government begin to utilise Bolivia’s enormous wealth to ensure for its people full employment, universal health and education provision and the protection of Bolivia’s natural environment as the basis for a green revolution for the planet.


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