The following article was published in Proletarian Revolution No. 69 (Winter 2004).
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Bolivia’s Unfinished Revolution

A working-class-led uprising ousted President Gonzalo (“Goni”) Sánchez de Lozada of Bolivia on October 17 and halted the plan of the Bolivian government and their imperialist masters to sell off Bolivia’s natural gas reserves. The struggle was sparked by peasant road blockades in September, and the decisive action came with an indefinite general strike in October which grew to historic proportions. The worker and peasant unity that developed in action constituted no less than a political earthquake in Bolivia.

Over the course of a few weeks the Bolivian masses showed the capacity for heroic and audacious action which has marked their history. In Bolivia, the population as a whole is majority indigenous, mainly Aymara and Quechua Indians, workers as well as peasants. The tendency of the indigenous population to seek unity against the entrenched racist oppression of the system was a factor of enormous weight. Another powerful unifying factor was the growing opposition to economic devastation under neo-liberalism, among both the working class and the peasantry. Both classes have been thoroughly immiserated by wave after wave of attacks. The actions and demands of the masses went well beyond what their official leaders wanted. Yet the worker and peasant leaders manipulated the scene to save the day for the capitalist ruling class. The powerful upsurge of the masses, in contrast to the pathetic betrayal of the reformist leaders, points to the fact that only revolutionary working-class leadership of a workers’ and peasants’ alliance can resolve the plight of the Bolivian people.

From El Alto to La Paz

A key turning point took place in El Alto, an industrial city near the capital of La Paz, where the working class forged a solid general strike that paralyzed the city by October 8. The people of El Alto in turn played a pivotal role in the successful spreading of this general strike to La Paz – as well as to Cochabamba and other important urban centers.

In El Alto the masses raised the question of taking on the police. The Army launched a deadly attack on the movement when a miners’ contingent arrived from Huanuni in the mining district of Oruro on October 9. That was a turning point, whose spirit was captured in this description:

Throughout the afternoon of October 10, at the wake of the 22 year-old Aymara bricklayer, Ramiro Vargas, ... the mourners chanted, Now for sure! Civil war! Now for sure! Civil war! Police shot Vargas on October 9 for no committees in El Alto gave the police 24 hours to leave their houses and called reason other than that 500 miners had arrived from Huanuni to join the civic strike in El Alto. ... Following the killing of Ramiro Vargas, neighborhood on them to join the uprising. Otherwise they would become victims of popular justice. ... None dares to patrol the streets of El Alto! ... In spite of the tanks, planes and soldiers and helicopters strafing randomly, more than 90 percent of El Alto, entering its fifth day of a civic strike, remains under control of neighborhood associations, market vendors, public university students, and the Regional Workers Central (COR). (Forrest Hylton, “Bolivia: Aymara Rebellion and Democratic Dictatorship,” Bolivia Watch, Oct. 13)

For days, workers had already taken the initiative to march through the neighborhoods of El Alto with helmets marked “Workers Police.” The miners, brandishing sticks of dynamite, also played a pivotal role in defending the movement in El Alto. They were decisive in confronting the police on the final day of the mass marches to La Paz before Goni resigned.

The struggle united the Aymara working class and peasantry of the Western highlands, the Quechua peasantry of the south and the coca growers of the Eastern lowlands. Decisive roles were played by the miners and by the striking transport and other workers in La Paz. By October 13 there was a magnificent spectacle: the capital was surrounded and shut down. There were calls for “Workers to Power” reported in different cities. An insurrection was in the making. The resignation of President Sánchez de Lozada was clearly inevitable.

With hundreds of thousands of people in the streets in La Paz and throughout the country by October 17, Sánchez de Lozada fled to Miami, in the great tradition of fallen Latin American imperialist lackeys. The danger to the stability of capitalist rule at that moment was enormous. There was no domestic military solution possible to suppress the upsurge. The conscript army was unstable: soldiers were increasingly failing to follow orders against the ever-growing mass rebellion. Even the police, the ruling class’s mercenaries, were frightened and could not be fully relied upon to do the job, as El Alto demonstrated.

By the culmination of the October struggle, over 150 fighters had been killed nation-wide, with countless more injured. Dragging behind the masses, the unions came under pressure to call for workers’ defense committees but never actually took responsibility for arming the movement.

Revolutionary Talk, Reformist Treachery

The usual solution for comprador governments in such a situation is to resort to an open or covert U.S. military operation. But that was ruled out with the U.S. pre-occupied in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, the reformist worker and peasant leaders saved the day for Bolivian capitalism. They maneuvered to install the vice-president, Carlos Mesa, as president on October 18. These leaders had been forced by the masses to call and spread the general strike and the road blockades that supported it. But at the decisive point they gave a three-month “breathing space” to Mesa’s “new” capitalist government.

The main perpetrators of this class betrayal were the leaders of the workers and peasants unions: Evo Morales, head of the coca grower’s union (and the MAS political party which came in a close second in the last presidential elections); his political rival Felipe Quispe, head of the umbrella national peasant’s union, CSUTCB (Unified Confederation of Campesino Workers of Bolivia); and Jaime Solares, head of the COB (Central Obrera Boliviana), the union central to which peasants’ as well as workers’ unions are affiliated. Also important was Roberto de la Cruz, the militant leader of the regional union center in El Alto. Each leader backed Mesa in practice while decorating their betrayal with measured doses of class-struggle rhetoric.

This radical flourish was obvious at the COB Expanded National Plenum in La Paz on October 18, surrounded by tens of thousands of demonstrators. The leaders had already pledged to support Mesa, but in front of the masses they only claimed they were making a “tactical retreat” in order to prepare for the next battle ahead.

In this spirit, the assembled called for repeal of the Oil and Gas Law that had allowed the privatization of the industries nationalized in the 1952 revolution. They also demanded repeal of the agrarian reform law allowing communally owned land to be privatized, and the punishment of the officials responsible for the massacres during the conflict. The Expanded COB further demanded the right to review all privatization contracts and leases of petroleum deposits, mines, and state-owned companies. It demanded that the government “publicly reject any request to allow foreign troops to enter Bolivian territory.” It determined not to support the new government until it committed itself “not to export gas, via either Chile or Peru, and to withdraw the Oil and Gas Law.”

All of this was negated by the fact that the COB shortly afterward called off the general strike – as part of the three months given to Mesa. With the workers demobilized, this known advocate of neo-liberalism quickly re-pledged to sell the gas.

The list of radical-sounding demands for show was not all the leaders had to offer that day. The expanded COB meeting paid homage to the greatness of the masses and to revolutionary goals. According to reports, it drew the conclusion that “the workers, peasants, oppressed nations and impoverished middle classes did not seize power from the ruling class because they still have no revolutionary party to rely on.” And COB leader Jaime Solares declared – to thunderous applause – that:

Those of us who consider ourselves revolutionaries can’t lie. No leader and no political party led this popular uprising. ... The Bolivian workers, from below, were the ones who kicked the murderer “Goni” out of power. The enraged masses were those who gave this blow to North American imperialism. Nobody, no individual or party, can claim the leadership of this conflict. Nobody!

Another union leader asserted that, despite the “breathing space,” they were not actually endorsing Mesa because, after all, he was not from and did not represent the working class. (, Oct. 19.)

Gushing tributes to the masses and to the need for a revolutionary party were necessary concessions to the high level of class-consciousness reached by the fighting workers. That achievement was rooted in the history of the Bolivian class struggle, above all the political heritage of the betrayed proletarian revolution of 1952. (See Lessons of the Bolivian Revolution)

Unfortunately, the reformist leaders have learned lessons from the past as well – on how to betray. And this was not the first time that these leaders have used such speeches to call off a general strike. Some of the radical blather was replayed almost word for word from a similar, if smaller scale, betrayal last February, when a general strike against an IMF-inspired austerity tax plan was called to a halt. The utter hypocrisy of the supposed “revolutionary” insights voiced by these misleaders in mid-October needed to be exposed through a direct challenge to them to fight for the kind of class power they claimed to believe in.

Revolutionary Tasks

At the height of the struggle, the situation had elements of what Marxists call “dual power,” with strong parallels to the situation during the Russian revolution of February 1917. Then the workers and soldiers overthrew the regime of Tsarism and set up their own councils (“soviets”) that had the power to run society. But they handed the reins of state power to a bourgeois Provisional Government. The bourgeois regime existed and functioned only because the workers were not yet conscious of the need to create their own state.

Real strike committees were needed, which would have been the necessary embryo of workers’ and peasants’ councils (juntas or soviets). In El Alto, a network of neighborhood councils ran the strike and provided for day-to-day needs of the people in conjunction with the unions. In El Alto, La Paz and elsewhere, the union meetings were often run as open mass meetings. Much evidence shows that the masses were well aware of the need to pressure their own leaders to act – and that the leaders were quite aware at important junctures that the cost of not responding would mean losing their influence.

Nevertheless, while the masses exerted pressure on their leadership through their self-activity, which included the neighborhood councils and the open mass meetings, they could not break through all the barriers their leaders presented. For this, an alternative revolutionary leadership would have been necessary. And an alternative form of organization for mass debate and struggle, soviets, would have been vital so that the workers and peasants could control their own destiny.

Within such councils revolutionary workers, even an initially small revolutionary group, could have fought for its program and its leadership – and over time have won the most far-seeing elements to the task of building a vanguard party. Democratic and potentially revolutionary formations like soviets were an absolute necessity in the Bolivian upheaval and represent a deadly threat to the entrenched reformist union leaders. In Russia in 1917, at the outset of the revolution the Bolsheviks were a small but determined proletarian vanguard organization. Through steadfast adherence to the principles of working-class independence and leadership, and adroit tactics designed to expose the pseudo-revolutionary socialists, they were able to lead the working class to power in the October revolution. It is indeed a tragedy that there was no Bolshevik Party in Bolivia in 2003.

Revolutionary Tactics

A primary task of revolutionaries has to be the unmasking of all the misleaders of our class. It is the only way to build the revolutionary party composed of the most advanced class-conscious workers. It means always addressing the advanced workers frankly and clearly with propaganda for the class party, the proletarian revolution and the need to create a workers’ state, without any obfuscation. In a revolutionary situation like Bolivia in October, it also meant fighting for these goals by making use of every possible tactic and slogan to convince the masses of the working class and help advance their consciousness through the practical struggle.

In particular, we believe that in Bolivia agitation for a “workers’ and peasants’ government” was on the order of the day. As we explained in our landmark article Myth and Reality of the Transitional Program (see Socialist Voice No. 8), this slogan derives from Trotsky’s Transitional Program, which presents a system of action demands which enable revolutionaries to join with fellow workers in a united front struggle based on their mass organizations. In this case, revolutionaries state openly that one major reason that they propose a united struggle for a workers’ government is to prove that the working class must lead an alliance of the workers and the peasantry, that revolution is necessary and that the COB leaders will not even carry out their radical promises to build a working-class alternative to Mesa.

The workers’ government demand is the most far-reaching demand in the Transitional Program because it approaches the question of state power itself. Demanding that reformist leaders, who claim to represent the working class and talk about workers constituting a government some time in the future, actually fight for it now was exactly what the situation in Bolivia demanded. The workers wanted their class to control the government, not the bourgeois politicians. The overwhelming majority did not yet understand the need to destroy the existing state apparatus; they believed that a decisive change in the government could meet their needs. And that is what the COB leaders claimed to favor despite their “momentary” deal with Mesa. That lie had to be exposed in order to convince the masses that they needed an authentically Bolshevik party, the destruction of the present state and their own workers’ state as part of a Latin American confederation of workers’ states.

Simply writing propaganda explaining that the misleaders were not really in favor of a workers’ state would not expose them in the eyes of the masses, who were clearly caught up in the question of governmental changes, not yet socialist revolution. In the context of unified mass action it was necessary to prove that the leaders were not even for a workers’ government – even though the masses had already shown that they could topple the government. Bolsheviks would have addressed their fellow workers along the following lines:

“Since you still feel that these leaders can be pressured to represent our class, let us exert the maximum pressure now to put them to the test; we shall see in practice which of us is right. We revolutionaries believe these leaders are completely dedicated to propping up another capitalist government. We believe there is no better time than now to fight for power if they really want to do it. But we do not believe they have any intention of fighting for a government based on our own institutions. And we believe in fact that what is necessary is not even just a change in government but the overthrow of capitalism, a working-class government in a workers state.

“We will stand with our fellow workers in the fight for a government of our class, while we openly warn that the leaders will betray this fight. Should we succeed in pressuring them to take steps into forming a government, we will continue to point out its limitations as long as reformist leaders remain in charge and a capitalist system is still exploiting us. But let us fight together now, at least for these leaders to form a workers’ and peasants’ government based on our own institutions. We think the outcome will prove the need for a revolutionary party leadership and the socialist revolution.”

COB Leaders, Take Power!

Given that an expanded form of the COB had served as the central decision-making body of the revolutionary masses at the height of the struggle, the workers’ and peasants’ government tactic could have taken the concrete form of demanding “Expanded COB to Power!” This would have been a critical way to point to the leading role of the workers’ unions in alliance with the peasants’ unions, and to expose the leadership’s preparation to prop up yet another bourgeois regime.

Instead, all the leaders and the left supported the slogan “Down with Goni” – without raising any immediate working-class alternative! Given that the mass struggle was verging on insurrection, there was no room for abstention on such questions. Since Sánchez de Lozada’s resignation was looming, an alternative to an otherwise inevitable bourgeois substitute regime had to be posed then and there. Had the challenge been put to the workers and peasants union leaders to take power themselves, all their wailing about the lack of a revolutionary party would have been far better exposed to the masses for the class treason it was. Rather than trying to foster a sense of powerlessness and resignation, which was the real intent of the COB Plenum on October 18, this demand would have paved the way for a huge leap in consciousness, prevented the COB leaders from demobilizing the struggle, undermined Mesa and accelerated the building of the vanguard workers’ party.

To a large degree, the masses already knew that they had been the driving force of the struggle throughout. They needed to be shown the way to carry this awareness and fighting spirit forward in order to achieve their goals. Thus it was essential to challenge their leaders, Solares, Morales and Quispe, to take power on behalf of the workers’ and peasants’ unions, together with our clear warning that they would betray their bases.

In addition, it was crucial that revolutionaries conduct an all-out struggle to continue the general strike; that was the weapon that reflected the power of the workers and peasants. It was also necessary to call for the formation of the soviets, instruments of dual power. Not only would soviets have served as the institutions through which the masses could conduct their struggle as the combined legislative-executive arm of our class; under revolutionary leadership they would become the basis of the new state power that the revolution must achieve.

In fact, some calls for strike committees and self-defense committees were made by leftist groups along the way. But they used the workers’ government slogan not as a tactical transitional demand, a challenge designed to expose and defeat the misleaders. Rather, they skirted an immediate class fight for power when that was the unavoidable question at hand. As well, by not putting forward tactics to create a greater cleavage between Morales, Quispe and Solares and the masses, they avoided advancing the fight for leadership. The pseudo-Trotskyist left either used the workers’ government slogan as the ultimate goal of the future, avoiding a clear call for a revolutionary workers’ state, or else floated abstract calls for a workers’ government and workers’ state without any comment as to what concrete parties or institutions could wage such a fight.

Propaganda to advanced workers must say what is: it must be crystal clear about the revolutionary goals of a dictatorship of the proletariat. Otherwise it is vacillating, centrist propaganda that reinforces reformist illusions among even the most advanced layers. From the information available to us, this was what was done by the two nominally Trotskyist groups in Bolivia, the Partido Obrero Revolucionario (POR) and the Liga Obrera Revolucionaria (LOR), a group which split from the POR in 1989 and is affiliated with the Trotskyist Fraction international headed by the Argentinean PTS (See our article on this group in PR 68.) Both groups, and various other pseudo-Trotskyists around the world, talked about a workers’ government as a distant goal rather than a way to challenge the leaders in the midst of the mass struggle.

Permanent Revolution

Nothing short of the fight for leadership, the building of the revolutionary party to smash capitalism in Bolivia, can truly respond to the needs of the masses and solve the deepening crisis in Bolivia. Nor, as authentic Trotskyists have always understood, can the problems of the national revolution be resolved with anything less than an openly internationalist strategy. That is the strategy of permanent revolution. Latin America is beset by the rule of the imperialists’ International Monetary Fund; not a single country is stable today. Yet throughout the Bolivian struggle, the reformist leaders stoked the fires of anti-Chilean nationalism, and the centrist left itself failed to focus its voice on the need for a concerted attack on imperialism by oppressed workers and peasants across the borders.

Bolivian workers could appeal for international working-class aid by repudiating the state debt to the imperialist bankers and calling on workers and their organizations in debt-ridden countries like Argentina and Brazil to do likewise. Neighboring Peru also has been shaken by mass unrest against the government’s “state of emergency” for much of this year. “Workers to Power” and “Civil War” were battle cries in the Bolivian struggle. It was also necessary to add the slogan “Repudiate the Imperialist Debt!” – an expression of a conscious internationalist strategy that could ignite the working class struggle in every Latin American country beleaguered by U.S. imperialism.

Like the original Bolsheviks and the original Fourth International, we say that what is needed in Bolivia and everywhere today is a party that makes no concessions to bourgeois and imperialist rule because it represents only the international interests of the workers and toilers of the world. The struggle in Bolivia is re-opening. Latin America is a powder keg, and what happens next in Bolivia could detonate the continent.

November 28, 2003

Arms to the Bolivian Masses! General Strike to Oust Mesa!
Workers to Power! Build the Revolutionary Party!

Latin America: Repudiate the Imperialist Debts!
U.S.: Hands Off Bolivia!
For Proletarian Socialist Revolution!
Re-Create the Fourth International!

Lessons of the Bolivian Revolution

The uprising in Bolivia was a long-brewing event, preceded by previous struggles in response to wave after wave of privatization attacks on industry, basic services and natural resources. The period opened with the denationalization of the mines, which led to the closure of three quarters of the mines in 1985. The most recent battles included the “water war” in 2000 in Cochabamba, where a collective rebellion defeated a privatization plan. And there had been widespread protests earlier this year.

On a longer historic scale, a revolutionary workers’ movement had culminated in a popular front government in 1952. The miners disarmed the pro-imperialist regime’s military but their misleaders allowed the bourgeois nationalist National Revolutionary Movement (MNR) to take state power. Union representatives joined the government, with the supposedly Trotskyist Partido Obrero Revolucionario (POR) supporting the bourgeois regime. This betrayal signaled a definitive class capitulation on the part of the Fourth International, which applauded the POR’s strategy. The revolution was crushed by a military coup backed by the U.S., and twenty years of military dictatorship followed.

Only a small minority in the U.S. Socialist Workers Party, the Vern-Ryan Tendency, stood out against the International’s disastrous strategy. Its historic documents have been reproduced by the LRP in the pamphlet Bolivia: the Revolution the “Fourth International” Betrayed. We urge all revolutionary-minded readers to obtain it. It is available for $1.00 from SV Publishing, P.O. Box 769, Washington Bridge Station, New York, NY 10033.

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