From the Bolivian revolution in 1952 through the uprisings of 2003 and 2005, the actions of a small but heroic working class in Bolivia[*] have inspired the revolutionary working-class movement internationally – and demanded that all political activists take sides. The latest struggle is no exception. Led by miners and teachers, a militant fifteen-day nation-wide strike against the government’s Pension Law was viciously and violently opposed by the supposedly progressive regime led by President Evo Morales and Vice-President Alvaro Garcia Linera.
We hope that this article can contribute to provoking the kind of deep discussion and debate among people who take the cause of international working class solidarity as their own. The May 2013 strike has exposed even further the anti-working class nature of the Bolivian government.
Not by accident, the regime has been targeting many of the same people who had been in the front lines of the 2003 and 2005 rebellions. In those years mass movements overturned a succession of neo-liberal governments which openly advocated deep austerity policies, subordination to imperialism and anti-indigenous racism. The overturn of these establishment parties by the masses provided the opening which allowed Morales, Garcia and the populist Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) party to come to power in 2006.
The LRP was among those few on the left who warned that the masses could not put their hopes in a cross-class party like MAS. The anti-neoliberal uprisings in Bolivia had centered around two core demands which would prove impossible for even a left-talking populist regime to fulfill in a world dominated by capitalist imperialism. One was for the 100% nationalization of the hydrocarbon industry and for its income to be used to advance the industrialization of the society. The second was to end white racist minority rule over this majority indigenous country.
Struggles for such far-reaching demands are a challenge to the capitalist system. They call for leadership by an internationalist revolutionary working-class party dedicated to the overthrow of capitalism and the creation of a worker-peasant-indigenous government in a workers’ state. In the absence of such a leadership, the advancing movement stalled. And the key promises Morales and Garcia Linera made to the masses to win office were – predictably – betrayed after they came to power.
Indeed, Morales’ 2006 declaration proclaiming the nationalization of the private foreign corporations operating in the oil and gas sector was a fraud. The state company has functioned only as the overseer of the private firms operating in the highly profitable natural gas sector; the most notable corporations are from the U.S., Brazil, Spain, France and Britain. Revenues to the state have grown significantly under the MAS regime. But there was no actual expropriation of the imperialist firms, no cancellation of the debt, and altogether no ability to move away from dependence on extraction and toward an industrialized society as the people had yearned for. On the plane of social liberation, the righteous cause of indigenous liberation was betrayed by a series of terrible concessions made by Morales to the ruling class in the East.
On May 6 an official strike was called by the largest union federation (Central Obrero Boliviano; COB), in which the miners’ union FSTMB played a leading role. State-employed tin miners from the town of Huanuni in the department of Oruro were a leading force in launching an indefinite strike to demand that pensions be based on 100 percent of wages. Miners’ pensions are now about one-third of wages – for those who survive the dangerous mines long enough to collect.
The issue has also been crucial for other lower-paid sectors participating in the strike, notably factory workers, teachers and health care workers. The unity of the miners with these other sectors of workers, as well as the support received from students, peasants, indigenous peoples, urban street vendors and small businesses, had a powerful impact. The strikers and supporters massively blocked roads and mobilized people at key places all across the country. There were spirited and disciplined mass marches and occupations of important government spaces.
The Morales government was facing a social explosion across the country; it had not faced anything quite like this since they came to power. The pension issue brought to the forefront a perfect example of how the current capitalist regime operates.
The pension law was enacted in 2011 by the MAS government after prolonged negotiation with the COB. It was touted by both government and union heads as a sign of progress and was even called revolutionary. It is anything but.
The law has two main characteristics that demonstrate its capitalist nature. First, the private companies, including major transnational outfits reaping huge profits from the hydrocarbon sector and mining are only asked to pitch in a measly 3 percent – the rest of the pension fund comes out of workers’ paychecks! Second, the law divides the population by giving the worst benefits to very poor people who are either unstably employed or are non-wage workers. It gives much better although still inadequate pensions to eligible wage workers. For poor people ineligible for a contributory pension, the law offers them the equivalent of $28 U.S. per month in retirement, which the government has the nerve to call “una renta digna,” a dignified income! This comes from a government that poses as a defender of the poor as opposed to the “greedy” trade unionists and their left allies.
The government also takes out an extra tax from workers’ paychecks for a so-called “Solidarity Fund,” which is supposed to be used for helping out lower income people who would not otherwise meet the eligibility requirements for a pension. This is another vehicle for pushing the government propaganda that it is the responsibility of better-off workers to provide for the poor, not the state or the corporations. Thus it inevitably encourages the exploited and oppressed masses to fight among themselves – exactly what the government encouraged during the strike.
The pension law also allows non-salaried people to join the contributory system. But in reality most poor people cannot afford the contributions needed to get into the system. Further, workers in that “privileged” category receive pensions based on their individual work histories and salaries, thus encouraging a further division in the working class. According to a NACLA report, the “average pension benefit” that union members can expect after 30 years, at $230 per month, is “less than half the amount required to cover the basic needs of a typical Bolivian family (estimated by Bolivian economists at $511 per month).”
The mass movement clearly demanded that pensions for waged workers be funded by the highly profitable private corporations in conjunction with the state. However, by failing to explicitly fight for a livable pension for all, the union leaders provided the government with an opportunity to divide-and-conquer the masses by dishonestly claiming to be protectors of the poor against the demands of selfish unions.
It was all the more remarkable that people who did not stand to benefit directly adhered to the strike movement, participated in road blockades and the like, and at times put their bodies on the line to defend the unions. This undoubtedly reflected a general growing opposition to the government. Had the struggle been allowed to develop to its full potential, it could have sparked a wider upheaval – spreading to demands not only for a universal pension system but also addressing the super-exploitative wages and other oppressive conditions of everyday life in Bolivia.
A lot of human suffering is necessarily imposed by any Bolivian capitalist government under imperialism’s thumb. Large foreign owned mines are a major factor in the private sector. And the vast majority of miners work as self-employed individuals without unions or government protection against injury or death on the job – and this is the sector applauded by the state while the unionized sector is denigrated at every opportunity! Even though commodity prices for both hydrocarbons and minerals have been high for a number of years and the economy is in better shape than before, the capitalist drive is for more profits at the masses’ expense. The fact that everyone knows that these prices could plummet again at any time also conditions the government’s extremely conservative, in fact reactionary, mode of operation.
The response of the government from the start was a total rejection of the demand for 100% pensions, even just for the miners. The president and vice-president cried that it was totally unaffordable and that improving pensions for miners would only end up draining the Solidarity Fund for others. The government worked overtime to obfuscate the real issue. So it was no surprise that the unions, especially the miners, came under mounting governmental attack with the obvious aim of dividing and conquering by any means possible.
President Morales and Vice-President Garcia Linera set the stage by doing a super-conscientious job of slandering the struggle from the start, which they then escalated as momentum grew. According to the government narrative, behind the whole strike and mass movement was the miners’ union, led by a small cabal of overpaid greedy workers aiming to take food off the table of poorer people. Morales even claimed that many miners make a bigger salary than he, one lie among many that the union has not had difficulty in refuting.
One charge against the struggle had some accuracy: the unions were making demands which were “political.” Indeed, as is characteristic of a general strike movement, the movement called not just for particular union demands sector by sector but for overturning the pension law and shaping a nationwide pension policy on a whole different basis. The national strike, workers’ mass action, was the vehicle for such big changes, not begging the legislature for crumbs or just depending on the union heads to bargain with the government.
In fact, the union tops have most of the time used such electoralist methods, to very ill effect. This time the government declared that it was an outrage for the workers to take politics into their own hands, and furthermore declared both the social movement around the strike and the strike itself illegal at different times. It was not the “political” nature of the struggle that was objectionable in the abstract; it was the fact that the working class, including in a limited fashion even the union tops under pressure from their base, was carrying out actions that posed the question of independence from MAS and the capitalist state. It was not just “politics” but politics based on class independence.
The biggest slander was that the workers and the leftists supporting them were undertaking a right-wing coup, not a genuine strike. On May 18 Morales spoke about the strike in Cochabamba, escalating previous comments. “In seven years as president we have defeated four attempted coup d’états; above all this COB mobilization is showing itself to be a rightist conspiracy. However, we are convinced that we are defeating another coup d’état.”
Morales’s amalgamation of this struggle of exploited workers, who were defending in many cases their very survival, with previous coup attempts by the openly pro-imperialist, racist and anti-worker right-wing opposition in the country was an abomination. It was a cynical and calculated justification for galvanizing the ranks of “officialist” organizations against the strike. These include the cocoa growers and peasants along with individually self-employed non-union miners (so-called cooperativistas).
Morales denounced an alleged rightist conspiracy of labor “aristocrats” in order to call on people to actively defend the government and what it calls the “process of change.” Such a ruse is hardly new in Bolivian politics; the use of the peasantry as a battering ram against the working class has a particularly sordid history. It is being re-invoked to perpetuate the myth that the government is based on “popular power” and is following “the will of the people.” Calling out the pro-MAS outfits has in the past resulted in violent attacks by loyalists against workers and indigenous peoples when their struggles clashed with government dictums. This time there were pro-government rallies but, as far as we know, the blood shed by supporters of the strike was a result of beatings and shootings by the army and police.
That is because the government responded to the justifiably angry protests much like any other repressive government in Bolivian history: it sent in the police and army, shooting, beating and arresting miners and other protestors across the country. As one example, a major event on the third day of the strike saw 5000 miners from Huanuni blockade a major road in Caihuasi. They were intercepted by cops who entered the scene with guns blazing, wounding a number of miners and arresting many. Over 400 protestors were arrested across the country during the course of two weeks; some may remain under house arrest facing a variety charges and many still suffer from wounds endured in confrontations.
In one horrific case of police brutality, police fired shots against factory workers carrying out a road blockade in Parotani. Five were seriously injured, and their condition is not yet known. They are Benedicto Aguilar , Edgar Choque Tupa, Raúl Ergueta, Rubén Salazar and Limbert Saijama. (The worst wounded were Salazar, shot in the neck, and Sarijama, shot in the stomach.)
The government’s campaign to put its loyal sectors on the streets met with some success, providing both photo opportunities for public consumption, including internationally. It also most likely served as an unspoken threat, putting pressures on the unions to negotiate a settlement. But considering the “persuasion” that a party with state power can often bring to bear, there was notable dissent from various quarters. One leading figure of CONAMAQ, a significant organization representing highland indigenous populations, responded to the call from Morales and Garcia for indigenous peoples and peasants to take to the street to oppose the strike:
“The process of change must be constructed for all and not only for those sectors tied to MAS such as: peasants, colonizers [indigenous peoples who have settled in the East but came from the West], cocoa growers and the women’s organization ‘Bartolina Sisa.’ The government calls for a confrontation among the Bolivian people, but what is really necessary to do is to make an analysis of the true process of change ... The process of change is only words, its construction is not happening.”
Equally stalwart against the government’s divisive attempts was the leader of CIDOB, which represents the lowland indigeneous populations. He noted that no “process of change” is in danger because none exists. And CIDOB, like CONAMAQ, refused to bow to the government’s call to oppose the strike:
“What the President himself is doing is calling for a confrontation between Bolivian brothers, and what the government should do is make an analysis of its own ministers who are on the right. ... We can’t be part of a confrontation, among those that are asking for a right that should correspond to them; it would be to betray those brothers who in a moment have helped us when we suffered aggressions.”
Such examples of dissent are very meaningful and point to the possibility of an alliance between workers and indigenous peoples, as well as between highland and lowland peoples, on the basis of a common fight against the range of economic and social assaults. The government is clearly disturbed by the COB’s call for a “political instrument of the workers” (IPT in Spanish) which it fears will be a vehicle for breaking from MAS. Yet the union tops, who made radical proclamations at an IPT conference in Huanuni on this matter a few months back, didn’t carry out any meaningful action to support the barricades during the class struggle that just rocked the country; not even a proclamation was issued. It remains to be seen if a second IPT Congress, in Oruro toward the end of June, will be a step forward. Whatever happens, it is already clear that the mere idea of a union break from MAS has unnerved the government.
The FSTMB and the COB recently ended the strike, announcing a complex of tentative deals. Our description of the class-wide demands favored by the movement is in no way intended to be an endorsement of the union tops; on the contrary, they seem to be following their past record of agreeing to deals based on settling for crumbs on a narrow sectoral basis. We hope to report on the final outcome of this battle in a future update. As far as we know, separate deals for other sectors are possible, and a negotiation between the government and the COB for modifications to the government’s overall Pensions Law is also on the table, where it could sit for a long time. There is a lot of dissent, particularly but not only from the teachers, with many strikers and local leaders expressing just anger that a struggle with so much potential was called off in a highly bureaucratic manner after two weeks.
While the particular battle may be over, the ramifications of the government’s targeting of the unions and their supporters has not ended. Those who understand that we must be on the side of the workers against a repressive capitalist government have to be ready to step up solidarity efforts if the government should attempt to carry out persecution of working-class fighters and their allies. The struggle has shown that the left populist government is just as capitalist as any other capitalist government. It and the working class are as much on opposite sides of the barricades as they would be in any other profit-centered capitalist country. One thing is sure: we have seen just one battle in an escalating class war in Bolivia that will not be on pause for long.
1. The hoped-for constituent assembly was transformed into a vehicle tightly controlled by the new regime which culminated in a pact between Western and Eastern sectors of the ruling class much more than anything else. Promises for radical land redistribution for the peasantry, and for territorial rights and meaningful consultations for indigenous communities, were carried out in the most tokenistic and divisive way. For background on these matters in English see our articles “Bolivia: Revolutionary Prospects and Reactionary Threats”, and “Defend the Workers, Peasants and Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia!”. Also very useful is the discussion of both hydrocarbons policy and the constituent assembly in Jeffrey Webber’s book, From Reform to Rebellion in Bolivia (Haymarket, 2011), and articles on Bolivia by Sarah Hines like “Bolivia’s Compromised Constitution”.
2. “Bolivia: New Pension Law Lowers Retirement Age, Raises Expectations,” NACLA, January 11, 2011.
3. A special target seems to be a leader of the Bolivian section of the Trotskyist Fraction, the LOR-CI, along with others. For more information, read their useful reportage of the struggle. See “Evo carries out repression, but the miners and COB continue the strike and the blockades” for an article in English, and their Bolivian website for all their articles in Spanish.
4. See “Evo dice que vencen un golpe de Estado.”
5. “Indígenas: Evo Llama a Confrontar a La Población”.