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Bolivia: What Next?

What Next? Evo Morales of the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) won the December 18 presidential election in Bolivia by a huge margin. Will he now go on to fulfil the demands of the social movements that backed him? These movements had demanded the convocation of a constituent assembly that would redefine the nation to ensure the autonomy and dignity of the indigenous peoples (60 per cent of the population according to the 2001 Census), the nationalisation of strategic resources and the redistribution of land, among other progressive reforms.

BOLIVIA

What Next?

E
vo Morales of the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) won the December 18 presidential election in Bolivia by a huge margin. Will he now go on to fulfil the demands of the social movements that backed him? These movements had demanded the convocation of a constituent assembly that would redefine the nation to ensure the autonomy and dignity of the indigenous peoples (60 per cent of the population according to the 2001 Census), the nationalisation of strategic resources and the redistribution of land, among other progressive reforms.

Bolivia has come a long way. After enduring a series of coups and mostly right wing military dictatorships from 1964 onwards, procedural democracy was restored in 1982 by a loose coalition of leftist parties. But the latter failed to deal with the huge accumulated foreign debt and with hyperinflation, leaving a depressing legacy. Coalitions of the right took over the reins of government in elections in 1985 and thereafter, firmly installing the neoliberal model. The year 1985 witnessed the collapse of the international price of tin, leaving the tin mine workers and the Bolivian Workers’ Central, the base of the Bolivian left, shattered. The main base of the left now moved to the cocaleros, the coca growers. They are the main supporters of the MAS, the largest constituent of a restructured left in the 1990s and beyond.

The period 2000-05 witnessed a resurgence of protest movements, beginning with the Cochabamba water war that politicised the failures of the privatisation programme and

Economic and Political Weekly January 7, 2006

forced the government to cancel a contract awarded to the US transnational corporation, Bechtel. The privatised hydrocarbons sector, mainly natural gas, was also an important bone of contention. The social movements now called for the nationalisation of the production and distribution of natural gas, for part of the surplus generated by the industry could potentially then be channelled to implement a redistributive social policy. The expropriation of some 20 transnational companies in the Bolivian natural gas sector however will not be easy. The first “gas war” for national democratic control over the production and distribution of natural gas took place in September-October 2003, leading to the massacre of 73 demonstrators, with 470 persons injured. The Aymara peasants, the miners of Huanuni, and the urban poor of El Alto and La Paz, however, pressed on to force president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada out of power. His successor, Carlos Mesa Gisbert was obliged to abjure the resort to state violence against the social movements, but failed to deal with the real issues. Meanwhile, January 2005 witnessed the launch of Bolivia’s “second water war”. The altenos (residents of El Alto) strikers forced Mesa to terminate the water supply contract with Aguas del Illimani (controlled by the French transnational Suez). Bolivia’s “second gas war” – the key demand being the nationalisation of gas – then erupted on May 16, 2005, the mobilisations continuing into June.

With Evo now in power, is a Bolivarian version of socialism, a la Venezuela under Hugo Chavez, on the agenda in Simon Bolivar’s homeland? When confirmed by Congress later this month, Evo will be Bolivia’s first president to come from the indigenous peoples’ community. He has won a huge mandate. But will Evo and the MAS now bring about the nationalisation of gas and direct part of the surplus generated to redistribution policies in favour of those at the bottom of the steep social hierarchy? Will the water supply system come under social control? Will Bolivia witness the convocation of a constituent assembly to redefine the nation in a manner that ensures an end to racist internal colonialism?

MAS is a socialist party only in its name. Its main support base is among the coca growers in the semi-tropical region of Cochabamba where it has consistently opposed US plans for eradicating the cultivation of coca. But this policy merely helps sustain the livelihood of the coca growers. Such a policy cannot be a part of any serious long-term development agenda. What then of the larger political, economic and social agenda? A decisive move by Evo towards fulfilling the demands of the social movements can possibly provoke a US-sponsored coup. Close observers, however, say that Evo has been moulding himself into a traditional politician. Will he then take advantage of the privileges of power to co-opt the social movements and launch a collaborative programme with big business, the landowners and the transnational corporations, merely adding a social welfare component to the neoliberal model?

EPW

Economic and Political Weekly January 7, 2006

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