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Mass protests in Bolivia demand right-wing Prefect’s resignation

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Two weeks of intense mobilisations, protests, and street blockades calling for the resignation of right-wing departmental Prefect (elected head of the regional administration), Manfred Reyes Villa, culminated in a popular assembly on January 16th in which representatives of Cochabamba’s social movements, workers and poor peasants (campesinos) elected a new “Revolutionary Departmental Government.”

The popular assembly was originally called by leaders of Cochabamba’s unions and peasant organizations in order to ratify a plan to oust Reyes Villa through “legal” channels. However, the vast majority of the thousands of people present were adamantly opposed to their proposal, calling instead for the immediate election of a new prefect and possession of the building of the prefecture. As a result, the original leaders of the popular assembly withdrew their proposal and relinquished control of the assembly to representatives of the social movements from each of Cochabamba’s 16 provinces. These representatives then met to elect Tiburcio Herrada, former guerrilla and longtime activist, as the new “popular prefect”. The popular assembly ended with the symbolic taking of power on the doorstep to the building of the prefecture followed by a euphoric circling of the plaza with Herrada in front, hoisted upon the shoulders of his supporters.

Within hours, however, severe opposition from Evo Morales’ left-center Movement towards Socialism (MAS) government as well as divisions and lack of organisation within the social movements themselves called the viability of the new “Revolutionary Departmental Government” into question. Representatives for the MAS government immediately rejected the popular assembly calling it illegal and saying that “…these radical organizations don’t represent the social movements of Cochabamba because they intend to remove an elected prefect by force.” In addition, Severo Huanca, leader of the Six Federations of Tropic of Cochabamba, the powerful peasant federation whose members constituted the largest and most energetic force in the mobilisations, also rejected the election saying, “We do not agree with this approach. We cannot risk taking the prefecture. We all know it’s illegal” (Los Tiempos, 1/17/2007). Herrada responded by saying these leaders “ran like rats” in the face of the revolutionary demands of the masses and asking the question, “If it’s unconstitutional, why call a popular assembly in the first place?” (Los Tiempos, 1/18/2007).

For the moment at least, it appears as though the Revolutionary Departmental Government will be unable to assert its authority and assume control of Cochabamba. All mobilisations ceased the day after the popular assembly and Herrada, himself, while insisting that the people are united in support of the decisions of popular assembly, seems uncertain about how to proceed in the face of such strong opposition from union and peasant leaders.

Although there is relative calm right now, tensions could easily reignite at any moment. Right now there is a power vacuum in Cochabamba. The Revolutionary Departmental Government has been unable to assume control, but Reyes Villa has also not returned, blaming Morales for the fact that his safety “cannot be guaranteed” and giving control to departmental secretary general, Johnny Ferrel, for at least two weeks.

Reyes Villa hopes that tensions will ease during this time but there are strong indications that this is just wishful thinking. Political tensions have been mounting for months now and Reyes Villa has firmly placed himself in support of the right-wing opposition in Bolivia.

Mobilisations against Reyes Villa began on January 4th because of his plans to call for a departmental referendum on autonomy (although Cochabamba had soundly rejected departmental autonomy in a referendum just six months earlier) to show support for right-wing popular assemblies which were held in the four eastern departments of Bolivia on December 15th. During these assemblies, the department prefects and ‘civic committee’ leaders (large landowners and business representatives)—with the support of Bolivia’s major neoliberal parties and the U.S. ambassador—declared de facto autonomy, stated they would not respect any new constitution unless it was approved by a two-thirds majority, and announced the first steps towards the drawing up of their own constitution. These assemblies were huge – government workers were given half a days holiday to attend and many others were paid to do so. Such a move was correctly viewed by the social movements as a direct attack on Bolivian democracy and a blatant attempt by the right to protect their interests and prevent change at all costs. The decision to declare autonomy is seen by sections of the working class and poor peasantry as a first step to splitting away these resource rich regions of the country and declaring independence. If further moves like this are made then there is a possibility of wider clashes leading to a civil war in Bolivia.

In the eyes of Cochabamba social movements and wider sections of workers, young people and campesinos, Reyes Villa’s unflinching support for the right-wing opposition meant that he was no longer fit to serve as Cochabamba’s prefect.

The mobilizations led to intense conflicts which served to radicalize the rank and file in social movements, apart from Reyes Villa´s right-wing politics. For nearly two weeks, Cochabamba’s social movements occupied the central plaza and for much of that time, the streets surrounding the plaza and all major highways into and out of the city were rendered impassible due to street blockades. Conflicts with the police and frequent gassings only served to harden the position of the protesters. The most intense battles with the police took place on January 8th when protesters lit the building of the prefecture on fire, burnt two cars across from the prefecture, and endured hundreds of canisters of gas fired into the crowd by police. According to the local press, 31 people were injured, including 10 protesters, 11 police, and 10 members of the press. They also reported 20 arrests and, notably, the local police chief’s was relieved of his command pending an investigation into his handling of the situation.

But the worst confrontations were between protesters and the right-wing opposition. In the worst of the conflicts, on January 11th, the opposition organized demonstrations in locations near central plaza. When word got out that the opposition was planning to break the blockades by force, workers and peasants brandishing sticks and carrying rocks moved to defend their positions against the opposition, themselves armed with baseball bats, chains, knives, and at least three guns. By day’s end, two people had been killed, more than 240 wounded, and the army was called in to restore order. Most of the wounded were peasants and one of the fatalities was a coca farmer named Nicómedes Gutierrez (34) who was shot to death. Far from scaring the protesters away, the confrontation brought thousand more peasants into the city joining in the call for Reyes Villa’s resignation, who they blamed for the death of the coca farmer and their numerous injuries. Having shed blood in their struggle against Reyes Villa, it is entirely possible that the mobilisations will reignite when he tries to reassume his position as prefect.

The mass mobilizations culminating in the election of the Revolutionary Departmental Government in Cochabamba are extremely important. They show that as Morales’ MAS government retreats further and further from its base in the social movements, instead of demobilizing and submitting to MAS’ demands for step by step, ‘legal’ reforms, the social movements are growing increasingly independent.

The MAS government organized no demonstrations to confront the right-wing popular assemblies in December and was against the movement to oust Reyes Villa from the beginning. Yet some of its oldest and strongest supporters played key roles in maintaining and escalating the blockades. An estimated 2,000 coca farmers, whose principle leader is still Morales, were participating in the blockades early on and that figure multiplied later on, especially with Gutierrez’ death. Thousands more worker, peasant, and indigenous supporters of Morales and MAS also actively took part in the formation of the Revolutionary Departmental Government in spite of the government’s opposition.

At the same time, the fact that initially the Revolutionary Departmental Government appeared unable to fill the power vacuum in the face of opposition from MAS, union, and peasant leaders indicates that weaknesses still exist. The way events unfolded in Cochabamba demonstrates the importance of preparation amongst wider sections of the working class and peasants in Cochabamba and nationally. Serious preparations need to be made if the social movements, peasants organisations and workers organisations are going to develop into a force which is capable of presenting a real viable revolutionary alternative to the right-wing opposition’s neoliberalism and MAS’ reformism.

For this to occur the social movements, local and regional unions and peasants organisations should be transformed into peasant and worker action committees in the rural areas and in workplaces. These committees must have democratic structures and must be linked on a local, regional, and national level. Worker and peasant committees with strong democratic organisation would help guarantee that the leaders of the social movements truly reflect the will of its bases and avoid the gap which existed in the moments leading up to the formation of the Revolutionary Departmental Government, between conservative leaders and the revolutionary rank and file. It would have also allowed Cochabamba’s social movements to democratically plan an alternative government in advance, instead of relying on a spontaneous movement of the masses to form a revolutionary government on the spot. Given the danger posed by sections of the elite and the paramilitary gangs they organise, these committees need to be armed under the democratic control of the masses for the self-defence of working class and poor peasant communities.

During the so-called “water wars” against water privatisation in 2000, the mass movement attempted to persuade the rank and file of the police and army not to attack workers demonstrations, as well as ensuring that they had the means to defend themselves against such attacks.

This tradition should be extended and the workers and peasant committees should begin to attempt to build committees amongst the rank and file of the soldiers and police. Such committees would demand the election of all officers (including the right to remove reactionary ones), the right to disobey orders, and decent pay and conditions.

Regional and national organisation would help ensure that departmental movements receive the support of the social movements on a national level. For example in the department of La Paz, Fejuve, the Association of neighbourhood committees of El Alto (the centre of the battle against water privatisation in 2000), called for demonstrations in the capital calling for the resignation of the right-wing departmental prefect, José Luis Paredes. This shows there is a basis for linking up the movements on a national basis and using them as a launching pad for a national movement to drive out capitalism in Bolivia.

For example, when social movements in Cochabamba mobilise into struggle, the social movements throughout the country must have the democratic structures so that they can come to their assistance and mobilize against the right-wing opposition in their own departments.

Such grass roots organization would also allow in depth discussion and debate to take place about the best way to bring about the fundamental changes demanded by Bolivia’s majority peasant and worker population. This would increase to an even greater extent the independence of Bolivia’s social movements and open up a serious debate about Morales and MAS refusal to mobilize their massive base in support of their mobilisations.

Morales’ unwillingness to mobilize his powerful social base is a serious political weakness which is characteristic of his step by step, top-down approach towards bringing about change. He believes that by making gradual reforms from above, without mobilizing the social movements—such as the partial nationalization of the hydrocarbon industry or expropriating only unproductive land from the large landowners—he can win the support of the middle class by proving his ‘rationality’ while not provoking the wrath of the domestic and foreign elite. In this manner, he hopes to gradually take wealth and power from the hands of the ruling elite and put it into the hands of the poor so that at some time in the future socialism will exist. But the aggressive attacks from the Bolivian right in the face of even modest threats to their interests show that this manner of bringing about socialism is hopeless (for more background information, see prior articles on Bolivia). This is just one of the indications that important sections of the elite are preparing for civil war.

The social movements in Bolivia are in the midst of a struggle against a right-wing opposition who still controls the economy, most of the means of communication, sections of the military hierarchy, and which is closely aligned with the transnationals and U.S. imperialism. They will use this power to fight against every small reform Morales and the MAS government tries to pass. If they succeed in weakening the social movements, they will use their power to take back the gains that have been won through struggle.

In order to win the struggle, the Bolivian working class, campesinos, and indigenous population need to be armed with the correct strategy. The same measures which will allow Bolivia’s social movements to prevail against the right-wing opposition will also provide the solution to the problems of poverty, hunger, unemployment, homelessness, and lack of access to health care and education which plague millions of Bolivians on a daily basis.

But neither a winning strategy nor a resolution to Bolivia’s suffering can be found within the confines of the logic of capitalism. For this reason, the Committee for a Workers’ International puts forward the following demands:

  • For the immediate resignation of Cochabamba prefect Manfred Reyes Villa and for control of the department of Cochabamba to be placed under the democratic control of elected worker, peasant, and indigenous representatives of the social movements, unions and peasant committees.
  • For the democratic organisation of Bolivia’s social movements, trade unions and peasant organisations into committees in workplaces, farms, and communities on a local, regional, and national level. For the building of committees amongst the rank and file of the army and police. For the development of armed self-defence committees under democratic control so they can defend themselves against the attacks of the right and so these organisations can later provide the basis for a democratic worker, peasant, and indigenous government.
  • For the nationalisation of all major Bolivian industry and the seizure of all large landed estates to be placed under democratic control by workers, peasants, and communities so that the use of Bolivia’s resources can be democratically decided upon by the majority instead of by a handful of wealthy Bolivian and foreign elites, and so the opposition will be unable to use their wealth and control of the economy to sabotage a worker, peasant, and indigenous government.
  • For full cultural, linguistic and land rights for the indigenous peoples of Bolivia
  • For the creation of a socialist Bolivia as a first step and guide towards the creation a Socialist Confederation of Latin American States
  • A socialist Latin America, with an economy based on cooperation and sharing of its immense and diverse natural and human resources, is the only possible path towards economic development and the only way to ensure that the basic needs of all Bolivians and Latin Americans are met. In this way, the poverty which has plagued Latin America for more than 500 years ago can finally be alleviated.

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