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he elections in Bolivia on Sunday, December 18th, are taking place against the background of the intense class struggle that has shaken this Andean country in the last 5 years, including at least three massive uprisings in February and October 2003 and May-June of this year.

The victory of the mass mobilisations against the privatisation of water in Cochabamba in April 2000 opened the floodgates for the movement of Bolivian workers and peasants, a movement that has increasingly questioned not only the policies of this or that government, but the whole of bourgeois democracy and the capitalist system itself.

However, the fact that when the question of power was posed sharply in October 2003 and more recently in May-June of this year this was not solved decisively in favour of the workers and peasants, has allowed the ruling class to divert this huge revolutionary energy into the safer channels of parliamentary and presidential elections.

The leadership of the workers’ and peasants’ organisations played a key role in this. On the one hand Evo Morales’ Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) has always insisted on a parliamentary road. Evo Morales, who was absent from the movement in October 2003, helped prop up president Mesa. When the latter was faced with a mass revolutionary movement, Morales helped the ruling class find a constitutional way out in the form of president Rodriguez.

On the other hand, the leaders of the more radical workers’ and peasants’ organisations, because of their lack of a clear perspective at the crucial moment, were also responsible for wasting two crucial opportunities. The leadership of the Bolivian Workers’ Union (COB) even made a very sharp analysis of their shortcomings during the October 2003 movement. “If the workers did not take power it was because of the lack of a revolutionary party”, they said, and they were completely right. At that time there was a nationwide general strike with road blockades across the country, while a mass of angry workers and peasants, with the armed miners at the forefront, gathered outside the Presidential Palace in La Paz demanding the resignation of the then president Sanchez de Lozada.

When “Goni” Sanchez de Lozada was finally forced to resign, power was transferred for a few hours to the streets. Unfortunately, the leaders of the workers’ organisations, even the most radicalised of them, had no clear idea of what to do next. By their inaction they allowed the ruling class to replace Goni with Mesa and re-establish bourgeois legality. The trade union leaders declared a truce towards the new government, thereby sowing illusions that somehow Mesa would rule in favour of the workers and peasants and would stand up to the multinationals. Although the masses had not been defeated, once the opportunity had been wasted, it would take some time for a new mass movement to develop.

In spite of all this manoeuvring it was clear that the contradictions in Bolivian society had reached boiling point and could not be solved within the narrow confines of bourgeois democracy. Mesa tried in vain to meet the demands of the gas and oil multinationals while at the same time appeasing the mass movement that he feared so much. This, of course was an impossible task. Despite all the efforts of the MAS leaders in parliament to hold back the masses, a new upsurge on the streets was inevitable. In April 2005 Mesa made a dramatic TV appearance in which he revealed the real situation: the multinationals are really ruling the country and they will not accept any limitations to their power. What Mesa was proposing regarding the central conflict over the ownership and extraction of the country’s vast gas resources was too much for the multinationals to stomach and too little for the mass of the people to be satisfied with. A compromise could not be reached and this once again opened the road to a mass revolutionary movement.

In May-June a nationwide strike movement developed, with its epicentre in the working class city of El Alto. Once again, workers and peasants, organised in their trade union organisations, were on the streets of Bolivia with just one demand: nationalisation of gas. This time the revolutionary spirit of the movement infected the ranks of the MAS, who went beyond their own leaders. Instead of raising the demand for 50% royalties to be imposed on the gas companies – the demand of the leaders of the MAS the MAS peasants who had marched to the capital firmly demanded nationalisation.

This time the struggle acquired a much more advanced political character. The main organisations made it clear that the struggle was not to replace one government with another, but to close down the bourgeois parliament altogether if it could not guarantee the nationalisation of gas. As we wrote at the time, “The leader of the MAS, Ramon Loayza, had to admit that they had been “surpassed by the ranks” and gave Parliament four days to nationalise natural gas reserves and convene a Constituent Assembly. If this was not done he threatened that, “we will close down Parliament”.” (Bolivia: revolutionary crisis reaches its peak, June 1st, 2005, http://www.marxist.com/bolivia-revolutionary-crisis010605.htm). This was from Loayza, a peasant leader, and also part of the MAS leadership and a Member of Parliament.

In La Paz and other main cities, daily mass meetings, cabildos abiertos, involving tens and hundreds of thousands took place with the participation of workers, peasants, miners armed with sticks of dynamite, etc. The masses were on the streets exercising direct revolutionary democracy. It was increasingly clear to them that the nationalisation of gas and the solution of their most pressing problems could only be solved by a workers’ and peasants’ government, that is, with the masses taking power into their own hands, and sweeping away the whole machinery of capitalist democracy. This could be seen in dozens of resolutions, in the banners and slogans advanced by the marchers and strikers who in practice were moving in the direction of taking power.

The ruling class was frightened and a section of the reactionary oligarchy based in Santa Cruz even toyed with the idea of breaking up the country. The Army was also divided and even a section of junior officers sympathised with the mass movement.

The main tragedy of the revolutionary movement earlier this year was, once again, that when the crucial movement was reached, the leaders of the workers’ and peasants’ movement did not know what to do. They talked a lot about taking power but they did nothing concrete to actual organise the taking of power. Jaime Solares, the executive secretary of the COB did not understand how the workers could take power. He was playing with the idea of a military officer emerging from within the Army who would take power with the support of the workers’ organisations.

The decision taken in El Alto on June 8th by the main workers’ and peasants’ organisations to set up a Peoples’ Assembly, which was seen as an embryo of an alternative power, was an extremely significant step forward. But it came too late. The ruling class, with the support of the leadership of the MAS, managed to find a way out of the crisis with the resignation of Mesa and the election of Rodriguez as the new interim president. Even this decision was only be taken by a parliament that had been surrounded by the revolutionary masses in Sucre (instead of its normal seat in La Paz), and after the ruling class had failed to get their first choice, Vaca Diez, elected. As always, the reformist leaders are brought in as a last resort to save the day for the ruling class, and so the Bolivian oligarchy was saved by the MAS leaders who put all their weight behind Rodriguez.

The trade union leaders like Solares, De la Cruz and others, who had not learnt the lessons of the October uprising, were unable to offer any alternative to this new constitutional derailment of the movement. And as the saying goes “fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me”. The lack of a clear way forward, the tiredness of the movement after three weeks of red-hot revolutionary mobilisation, and the authority of certain MAS leaders, finally carried the day and the general strike died down.

However, this time round the position of Rodriguez was weaker than that of Mesa after October 2003, and he could only survive by promising early elections. Even the process of calling these elections was fraught with all sorts of tricks and manoeuvres by which the ruling class tried to ensure their victory. For instance, they changed the relative weight of the different regions in the national parliament, giving three more seats to the stronghold of the oligarchy in Santa Cruz, and taking these away from the more radical working class La Paz, Potosi and Oruro. Some sections of the ruling class were even playing with the idea of postponing the elections altogether, using some constitutional excuses, but this would have been too much and could have actually provoked a new upsurge in the revolutionary movement and sealed the fate of the already discredited parliament.

Revolution is not a game. When the question of power is posed, the leadership of the working class must be prepared to take it. If they do not do so, if they confine themselves to revolutionary speeches without taking decisive action, the opportunity will be lost. The masses, not seeing a way out through direct revolutionary action, will get tired of the endless speeches and talk, of meetings and resolutions. The movement will ebb and the initiative will pass to the ruling class.

Unfortunately, the leaders of the COB and the other revolutionary leaders in Bolivia on two separate occasions let the opportunity escape them. They had the power in their hands and they allowed it to slip through their fingers. This is a very sad fact, but it is a fact that cannot be denied. On two occasions they refused to take power. That has tremendous consequences!

Once the masses saw that, despite all their tremendous exertions, the road to power through revolutionary direct action was blocked, they inevitably looked for another way out of the impasse. After all, for the masses there can be no question of waiting with folded arms for a perfect solution. Their problems are too serious and too urgent to wait for the revolutionary vanguard to get its house in order. If the revolutionaries are not serious about solving their problems, the masses must look for another alternative.

For their part, the Bolivian landlords and capitalists breathed a sigh of relief. They could not believe their luck! Power had already slipped out of their hands. It was lying in the street. But there was nobody to pick it up. In other circumstances, the ruling class would have passed onto the offensive and organised the forces of reaction. The result would have been a bloody coup as in Chile and Argentina. But the balance of class forces in Bolivia does not permit such a scenario – for the present at least. The bourgeoisie is obliged to resort to subterfuge. The only possible outcome is: counterrevolution in a democratic disguise.

The ruling class is obliged to call early elections. It will be forced to hand power to Evo Morales. The masses will grasp the opportunity to express their demands on the electoral plane. This is not an ideal situation from the standpoint of capitalism and imperialism. But at least it is better than the seizure of power by the workers and peasants.

Morales has gone out of his way to reassure the ruling class and imperialism, even having meetings in Europe with Repsol and other multinationals with interests in Bolivia, meeting the ambassadors of EU countries and even having a secret meeting with the US embassy. His vice-presidential candidate, former guerrilla ideologist Garcia Linera, made it clear from the beginning that he thinks socialism is off the agenda in Bolivia and that he favours the development of some sort of “Andean capitalism”. Nevertheless, the imperialists and their Bolivian agents feel extremely uneasy about the likely victory of Evo Morales in Sunday’s elections. They are not so concerned about Morales himself, but they are terrified of the forces that stand behind Morales.

Therefore, the ruling class in Bolivia has launched an unprecedented scare-mongering campaign against Morales, accusing him of all sorts of things from being an “agent” of “Venezuelan imperialism”, to being a communist (something he is certainly not). In a very significant move the US took some 30 surface-to-air HN-5A missiles from the Bolivian army. These are highly portable and easy to use missiles of the same kind used by the Iraqi resistance.

This amazing move shows clearly two things. One is that the relationship of the Bolivian bourgeoisie towards the US is one of colonial servitude. The other is that the US do not trust the Bolivian armed forces, are very worried about the revolutionary situation in the country and fear that these weapons might end up in the hands of the revolutionary people. A detailed report in Econonoticias.com (http://www.econoticiasbolivia.com/documentos/notadeldia/elec15.html ) describes how a purge is being organised within the Bolivian armed forces by removing from command of troops and retiring officers that are deemed to be close or influenced by the demands of the workers and peasants.

Their main fear is that Morales as a president will not be able to contain the revolutionary aspirations of the masses. Leon Trotsky explained that under certain circumstances the reformist leaders can be pushed to go further than what they intend. Regardless of the assurances of the MAS leaders, the rank and file of the mass and its electoral base of support see things in a very different way. For them, voting for Morales is voting for the nationalisation of gas, against the oligarchy and against imperialism and the multinationals. That is what the imperialists fear most.

The electoral campaign of the mass has gathered tens of thousands of workers and peasants around the country. The politically uneducated masses do not see things in the same way as the more advanced proletarian vanguard. They believe that they are electing to the presidency a man who comes from the peasant movement, who became a leader starting from the rank and file, who is considered by ordinary working people as “one of ours”. This element cannot be underestimated.

This is a country that for 125 years has been ruled by members of the white elite. Evo Morales is of indigenous background, and thus is also seen as representing that 80% of the population, indigenous workers and peasant, who have always been oppressed and discriminated against. For the masses of workers and peasants these things count more than any meetings Morales has had with the multinationals. Their class instinct tells them that if the oligarchy attacks Evo so much, then they should support him.

At the same time, the support of the masses for Evo Morales does not signify blind faith. The latter have been through the school of revolution and have drawn certain conclusions. This was clearly seen during the May-June movement, when the rank and file of the MAS, the peasants who had marched to La Paz, rejected his demand for 50% royalties and under the influence of the powerful strike movement adopted firmly the demand for nationalisation.

The last few years of struggle have made the masses in Bolivia very weary of their leaders. There is a strong feeling that leaders should be accountable to the rank and file, and even known leaders have been thrown out of their organisations or expelled from demonstrations when they were seen as not respecting the mandate from the rank and file.

The most likely perspective seems that Evo Morales will win the elections. All opinion polls show him having approximately 34% of the votes as against 28% for Tuto Quiroga, the main candidate of the oligarchy. Since it is unlikely that he will get more than 50% of the vote which is needed to automatically become president, the decision will be left to parliament, which has the power to choose either of the two candidates with the highest number of votes. Theoretically this could be used to impose Quiroga as a president, but in practice this could provoke a new social explosion with the masses of workers and peasants coming out on the streets to defend their election victory.

What should be the attitude of revolutionary Marxists faced with these elections? Last weekend there was a meeting in El Alto of the First National Workers’ and Peasants’ Summit. A statement was agreed which was signed by the El Alto Region of the COB, the national COB and the miners’ federation FSTMB. These represent the most advanced organisations of the Bolivian workers and played a key role in the revolutionary mobilisations of the last few years.

In the statement they point out that “the workers and social movements of Bolivia, now more than ever, are convinced that the elections… were called in order to derail the tenacious struggle of the oppressed of this country, and will not solve the problems that are asphyxiating the Bolivians nor will they defend the sovereignty and the dignity of the Nation”. Then they add that the main characteristic of their recent struggle has been the inability to take power and that therefore they have “the elementary duty to consolidate the National Originary [Originaria] Peoples’ Assembly as an organ of power”.

The statement reaffirms the main demands of the struggle and adds that they can only rely “on mass direct action and our own tools of struggle” and it finally calls for the formation of Regional Peoples’ Assemblies in March 2006 and the convening of a National Peoples’ Assembly on April 10th next year.

This statement contains a number of correct points and observations, but the main problem is that it does not take any position regarding the elections, which are taking place now. In order to carry out a revolution it is not sufficient that the vanguard should want a revolution. The vanguard must win over the masses, educate them in a revolutionary spirit and maintain close links with them. In order to do this, it is essential that the vanguard should understand the instincts of the masses and ensure that its slogans are not too far ahead of the masses, such that the link between the vanguard and the class is broken. A simple repetition of the need to take power is not sufficient.

The vanguard must provide concrete answers to concrete questions. The declarations at the above mentioned meeting may be correct in a general revolutionary sense, but they provide no answers to the burning question of the moment. A Bolivian worker and peasant will say: yes, all that is very good, but how do I cast my vote next Sunday?

It was the inability of these same leaders to offer a clear way forward in June that allowed the ruling class, with the help of the reformists, to derail the movement in the direction of elections. That is a very unfortunate fact, but it is a fact nonetheless. The objective conditions have changed and we must not act as though this were not the case. Can the vanguard remain indifferent in these elections? That would really cut us off completely from the masses. The latter have to pass through the school of Evo Morales, the school of reformism, which in Bolivian conditions is likely to be a very hard school. But our duty is to advance shoulder to shoulder with the masses, explaining at each stage what must be done and helping them to draw the conclusions.

In June, the question that was posed starkly was the question of power, of who rules the country. Now the question that is posed in front of the masses is what do we do in these elections? The majority of workers and peasants will no doubt be voting for the MAS, particularly since there is no other alternative on offer. In July, August and September the COB discussed the possibility of standing in the elections through the setting up of a Political Tool of the Workers. But these discussions ended up in nothing. There were also discussions with Felipe Quispe’s MIP so that some trade union leaders would stand in his lists, but finally there was no agreement.

It is quite clear that these organisations, which were in a position to take power in October 2003 and June 2005, are not in a position to take power now. They are clearly unable to organise a serious boycott of the elections. This is why they are not calling for such a thing, but at the same time they are leaving the most advanced worker activists without any clear lead on what to do. For the mass of workers and peasants these elections are important and one cannot just step aside and pass them off as if they were not. Without winning these workers and peasants who will vote for the MAS in these elections to the side of the revolution, there will be no successful revolution in Bolivia. The experience of a Morales government is a necessary step in the development of the consciousness of the masses in Bolivia. And the elementary duty of revolutionaries in Bolivia is to accompany them in this experience.

They have no alternative but to call for a critical vote for the MAS, and at the same time conduct agitation over the main demands of the movement, starting with nationalisation of gas with no compensation, demanding that this be the first step taken by Evo Morales when becoming president, and warning that this and the other demands of the movement can only be achieved by revolutionary mass action of the workers and peasants themselves. In fact, the statement of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Summit is broadly correct but makes one fundamental mistake: it does not give any concrete orientation in relation to what is now seen as the most important field of struggle by the masses: the elections.

Amongst some of the advanced activists and even a section the masses, there is a very critical mood towards Morales. Naturally! They have seen his past record, and his present statements and regard him with suspicion. Nevertheless they will vote for him as against the open candidate of the ruling class. On the other hand the majority of the workers and peasants will vote for him, not because of his talks with the multinationals and his assurances to the US embassy. On the contrary, they will vote for the MAS as a vote for nationalisation of gas, against foreign imperialist meddling in the country, for a solution to the problems of national oppression, land, jobs, etc.

Revolutionary Marxists must find a way to relate to all these moods and not cut off the most advanced activists from the masses. The workers and peasants who will vote for the MAS are the same ones who participated in the uprisings in the last two years, and are the same that will participate in the uprisings that are being inevitably prepared for the future.

In the meantime they must create an organisation that brings together the most advanced activists that played a role in these movements. Gather them on the basis of the revolutionary ideas of Marxism so that next time round when the question of power is posed, this can pass to the hands of the workers and peasants once and for all.