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Bolivia: Drastic action needed

by By Darrall Cozens in La Paz, Bolivia Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2007 at 8:43 AM

In Bolivia, poverty and inequality are on the increase because the government has not been able to implement its National Development Plan. A report drawn up by the Planning Ministry in Bolivia and an arm of the United Nations, the UNFPA, came to the following conclusion: "There is social and economic inequality in the country due to a lack of government policies to bridge the gaps and these inequalities will increase as time passes." The figures say it all. Poverty affects 6 out of 10 Bolivians, while 4 out of 10 live in extreme poverty. The situation is getting worse each year because the annual growth rate of the population is 200,000, but 174,000 of these will live in poverty. While the bourgeoisie plays with hunger strikes to gain so-called Autonomy, some 15,000 children die each year from hunger or hunger related diseases. On the same day that the UN report appeared, it was announced that annual economic growth had fallen from 4.5% in 2006 to 3.8% in 2007. At the same time inflation has risen to 12% mainly due to the rising cost of foodstuffs. Here are two examples. In 6 months a kilo of rice in Santa Cruz had doubled in price from 4 Bolivianos to 8. Gas bottles used for cooking had risen from 25Bs to 50Bs, but it was still hard to find any because most are being exported to Peru where they will sell for up to 125Bs. So business does not worry if Bolivians have no gas to cook with as long as they make a profit.

Other shortages include diesel. In a country that will earn ,900 million this year from oil exports, different parts of the country at different times are experiencing diesel shortages that have meant cuts in public transport of up to 60%.

In order to counter the effects of inflation for the poorest sections of society, the government has decreed a rise in the minimum wage from 520 Bolivianos per month in 2007 to 577.50 per month in 2008, a rise of 10%.

In the public sectors of health and education, the annual wage rise will be between 7 and 8%, 4 to 5% below the rate of inflation. In the private sector the actual rise will be left to negotiations. In 2007 only 60% of private firms agreed to implement the national award. Private firms are now claiming that the actual rise should depend on the particular circumstances in each company!

The private sector has come under increasing attack from Evo Morales. On Wednesday he accused them of hiding goods which then creates false shortages and therefore leads to inflation. But it is time to pass from words into deeds. When firms withhold products from the market as an act of economic sabotage to discredit the government, the government should take over the firms in conjunction with the workers in the companies affected and run them under workers' control.

It is against this background of rising economic chaos, that social and political disintegration is taking place. The USA has advised its citizens who may be thinking of travelling to Bolivia to do so with extreme caution as social unrest could break out at any minute. They certainly should know since US imperialism is playing a key role in encouraging and backing the country's reactionary oligarchy, which is locked into a life or death struggle with the Evo Morales government. Employers are claiming that "half the country" is on strike and the government isn't doing anything. Representatives of the Vatican in the country have said that any changes that do take place must be within the confines of the law, that is, within capitalism.

Some examples of this increasing tension are as follows. On Monday in Santa Cruz a retired miner, René Vargas, 57, was attacked in the streets by between 8 and 10 young thugs in favour of autonomy. He was punched about the head and when he fell to the ground, he was kicked in the head and stamped upon. The whole episode was filmed and then broadcast in a 3-minute clip.

His crime? Being indigenous and a MAS supporter. On Wednesday, it was reported that also in Santa Cruz lists of names of 47 MAS supporters had been glued to posts with the clear intention of inviting people to attack them and for the MAS people to get out of town. In Santa Cruz, the fascist gangs of the Unión Juvenil Cruceña (UJC) are acting openly and with the protection of the authorities.

Yesterday, a government vehicle that had gone to Sucre to pick up government documents to transfer them to the National Archives and Library was attacked. These important documents were housed in the Gran Mariscal Theatre where the Constituent Assembly (CA) had sat and deliberated the new Constitution. As the vehicle arrived, it was surrounded by violent opposition students, civilians and public servants. An employee of the CA was beaten up and is being held as a hostage, the word "Killers" was painted on the side of the vehicle and then it was set alight. After this had happened, a student leader from the opposition successfully negotiated with the local police chief that eleven people would stay in the theatre to ensure that no more documents were removed. This was a clear act of defiance of the government to prevent it carrying out its business and with the collusion of local forces of the State.

The right wing leaders in 6 of the 9 regions of the country have said that they will ignore the constitutional reform project of the government. Leaders in the "Half Moon" area of the country will try and declare Autonomy tomorrow, Saturday. In other words, the landlords and capitalists through their political representatives have declared war on an elected government and are threatening to dismember the country to get their way.

On Wednesday, the government warned that it would prefer to have talks with the opposition to resolve the situation but if the talks failed, it would use force to protect national unity. Morales was holding out yet another olive branch and 5 of the 9 prefects (governors) of the regions rejected talks. Morales then went even further and called for a truce over the Christmas period. His calls fell on deaf ears as the opposition said that they do not trust him.

Faced with such a situation the leaders of MAS, along with the workers' and peasants' organisations, and with the popular movements from the barrios, should be mobilising massively against the threat from the right. But that is not yet happening.

Today it was reported that 12 organisations, led by the CEFB (Confederation of Private Employers in Bolivia), the Methodist Church and the National Press Association, supported by the Catholic Church and the main trade union federation, the COB, have called for a "Social Pact" to try and avoid violence. The main workers' organisation is joining with the bosses' organisation to try and resolve the crisis. How can you have unity between capital and labour in a country that is blighted by social inequality? The employment secretary of the COB, Nicanor Baltasar, called on "powerful groups to set aside their warlike attitudes because the only people to be hurt will be the poor and the dispossessed." But the landlords and capitalists in Santa Cruz are defending their interests and will not listen to appeals.

MAS should take seriously the warnings from all of these incidents. It should now set about mobilising its supporters with a show of strength of the streets to demonstrate what the real balance of forces is. For the past few weeks the streets have belonged to the opposition. The workers' organisations should not be calling for a "social pact" but should, to start with, be calling for a one-day general strike as a show of force to the bosses and reaction. If the bosses complain that half the country is on strike, let all of the country be on strike and then we will see where the real power lies.

But perhaps most importantly is the absence of any programme by MAS and Morales to solve the crisis at any level. Today I spoke to Carlos Ovando from the Social Committee of the National Federation of Mine Workers, an organisations that unites 51 mining unions with 20,000 members. He explained that when Morales won, it was unexpected and therefore MAS did not have a programme for government. Since that time it has been reacting to events.

The miners have given critical support to Morales because of reforms in specific areas. At the moment the miners are concentrating on preparing for their national conference in 10 days time, but they have published a press release. It gives details of the bankers, capitalists and landlords who are behind the moves towards secession, states that they are the same people who are responsible for the poverty of most Bolivians and finally states that all methods of struggle will be used to prevent these people getting their way. The press release ends with the slogans "Death to All the Fascists in the Half Moon" and "Death to Neo-Liberalism and Secessionist Policies dictated by Bush." This is correct. But it needs to be translated into action.

On Saturday December 15th in Plaza Murillo a large gathering had come to listen to government speeches, and Evo Morales in particular, about the new constitution. The delegations came from every conceivable indigenous, original inhabitant and peasant grouping, as well as the miners, the trade union and popular organisations. During the day between 50,000 and 100,000 passed through the square. All of the government speakers blamed the opposition for having been the same people who in the past had kept Bolivians in poverty and sold all of the state enterprises to private firms and overseas multinationals. These same people were now trying to appear as the defenders of democracy. While the new Constitution promises some important reforms about the right to a living wage, a home, free education and free health as well as forbidding basic state services from being privatised, it is all about the right to these things, not the things themselves.

The dilemma about how to convert a right into a living reality, a real house instead of the right to a house, came over in the closing remarks of Evo Morales. He stated: "El capitalismo es el peor enemigo de la humanidad" (Capitalism is the worst enemy of humanity). This is correct, and in the case of Bolivia, the masses of workers and peasants have a first hand painful experience of it. But then Morales went on to make an appeal for democracy and a "cultural democratic revolution". The problem is that the oligarchy and imperialism are not prepared to accept democracy if the democratic will of the majority is to take away their power and privileges. This has been amply demonstrated in Venezuela in the last few years and in Bolivia itself now. The only way forward is to carry out a genuine social and economic revolution that fundamentally transforms the country and guarantees decent jobs, land, housing, education, health care and human dignity to the majority of the people. And that means taking away economic power from a minority of landlords, the capitalists and the multinationals and putting all these resources under the democratic control and planning of the majority of the people. There is nothing more democratic than that.

All of the speakers were from MAS (the Movement Towards Socialism) and not one of them mentioned the word Socialism. The masses in the square were clear about what they wanted. They were asking for "Mano Dura", the Hard Hand, against the opposition. But all of the speakers spent time trying to prove how democratic and responsible they all are compared to the anti-democratic and thuggish behaviour of the opposition. There is no doubt that the Evo Morales government has a democratic mandate, in fact the largest one in Bolivian history. That will not stop the ruling class using the undemocratic, coup-plotting, murderous methods they are already using in Santa Cruz.

What is lacking here is a programme to challenge the interests of the landlords and capitalists and a leadership that will fight for this programme. The present government attitudes are a sign of weakness and will only encourage the opposition to challenge even further the power of the Constituent Assembly.
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