Bolivia: Right Wing Threatens Morales

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The fledgling left wing administration in Bolivia faces growing challenges to its programme of reforms.

Recent weeks have seen "strikes" coordinated by business organisations and renewed demands for regional autonomy in the east of the country. The growing tensions flow from the attempts by the new government to reconcile competing demands from different sections of Bolivian society.

President Evo Morales and his Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) won a sweeping victory in elections in December last year. His success was a reflection of waves of mass struggle from below - demanding an end to the rule of a white elite who have worked hand in glove with the multinationals to pillage the country. In 2003 and 2005 this struggle threatened to become a revolutionary challenge to the existing order.

Many of those central to the struggle were indigenous workers, in particular those concentrated in the capital, La Paz, and the neighbouring city of El Alto. Morales successfully channelled this movement into the electoral sphere. His support from many of those who took part in the uprisings is genuine. However, vice-president Alvaro Garcia Linares describes the government's project as the creation of "Andean capitalism".

This might be an improvement on the neo-liberal policies that have dominated Latin America for decades, but ultimately it will satisfy neither the movement from below nor the powerful capitalist elite in Bolivia and beyond. The new government has made two prominent moves - nationalisation of the gas industry and the creation of an assembly to rewrite the country's constitution. Arguments in the assembly formed the trigger for the bosses' "strike" on 8 September in the eastern lowland regions of Santa Cruz, Tarija, Beni and Pando.

These regions voted for greater autonomy in recent referendums. The growing importance of gas and soya exports from eastern Bolivia has seen the creation of a powerful regional elite in this area. City centres were deserted during the "strike". But poorer neighbourhoods and many rural areas ignored it, as did the oil rich indigenous region of Chaco.

Pepe Pinto Olivares, a MAS activist, spoke to SR in mid-September about the growing political tensions. He said, "The political spectrum can be divided in three ways. The left consists of MAS, which is still behind Morales and vice-president Linares, together with the social movements and some smaller organisations. There are centre right parties and there is the right wing coalition Podemos. Sometimes people and policies overlap between these different right wing forces.

Strength on the ground

"The right does not have many activists, so it relies on the media and the civic committees. These are like guilds set up to protect the interests of certain groups in cities such as Santa Cruz. In this city the committee was composed of the chamber of commerce, big traders and businessmen, but also the regional union federation and some neighbourhood organisations. The right wing has hegemony over these committees, which are strongest in the eastern regions."

The committees are also connected to shadowy far right groups, which whip up racist attacks on indigenous people. Olivares added that, along with the recent shutdown, there have been strikes by public sector and transport workers over economic grievances, and a political strike by teachers led by forces to the left of MAS. "The tension is increasing. It is like the stretching of a piece of elastic. It can't go on," he said. Further bosses' "strikes" are likely in the east of the country.

In late September vice-president Linares proposed a compromise in an attempt to defuse the crisis in the assembly. He also put pressure on indigenous and rural labourers' groups to end a blockade of Santa Cruz, held to support the left in the assembly and demand land reform.

The "nationalisation" of oil and gas - in fact a renegotiation of contracts with foreign companies - is also leading to growing tension. Energy minister Andres Soliz resigned on 15 September. He was the latest casualty of negotiations between the new government and two regional oil giants - the Spanish-Argentinian Repsol and the Brazilian state oil company Petrobras.

Olivares said, "Repsol signed a contract for five years with an increase in the price for each unit of gas from $3.5 to $5. The real problems started with Petrobras. It resisted during two rounds of talks, and the minister involved became frustrated and passed a decree that put the whole of the distribution of gas and oil in the hands of the Bolivian state oil and gas company. Brazil protested and broke off all negotiations. Following this, the government annulled the decree and the minister resigned - this is the cause of the crisis."

The tensions around oil and gas nationalisation, and the assembly, pose problems for those on the left. They need to both defend Morales's government from attacks by the right wing elite and continue to apply independent pressure from below.