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Bolivia: When fantasy trumps reality -- the `general strike' that wasn't

President Evo Morales (centre).

By Federico Fuentes, Caracas

May 22, 2010 -- Green Left Weekly -- Ironically, while the left is one of the fiercest critics of biased media coverage, it can also fall into the trap of corporate media distortions, particularly if its coverage dovetails with its own fantasies. A May 14 article by Daniel Lopez published on the website of Australian group Socialist Alternative is proof of this. The article echoes the view of a May 10 article on the BBC website, which has a clear dislike of Bolivia's President Evo Morales.

The BBC article argued a “general strike” by Bolivian unions marked “the end of the honeymoon period between the left-wing Mr Morales and his power base among the country's poor”. This position fits nicely with the outlook of Socialist Alternative, which also condemns Bolivia’s first Indigenous president.

Lopez wrote that Morales’ moves “against the working class” have led to “the first large scale action of workers in opposition to the Morales government”. According to Lopez, “demonstrations were held around the country [on May 4], accompanied by a 24-hour general strike which was then extended indefinitely”.

Despite the “sell out” of the Bolivian Workers’ Centre (COB) leadership, Lopez assured us “the strike is well into its second week”. A deal struck between Morales and the COB has been “resolutely rejected”, Lopez said, and “the strike continues”.

The ‘indefinite general strike’ that wasn’t

On May 1, as well as nationalising four electricity companies, Morales restated his government would not increase workers’ salaries by more than 5%. This was met with protests in various cities, the largest of which was the COB-organised rally in La Paz.

One indication of its size is La Prensa’s report that a 300-strong contingent of factory workers (whose union was a key organiser of the protest) tried to jump in front of the miners at the front of the rally, leading to clashes. COB general secretary Pedro Montes announced a follow-up 24-hour strike for May 4.

Reporting on the May 4 “general strike”, Bolpress said, “hundreds of teachers, factory workers and health workers .... alternated down the Prado in La Paz” in divided marches.

La Prensa said “at least 500” factory workers descended on the labour ministry, where they attempted to burn down the front door, leading to 15 arrests. Pedro Alberto Calderon, a leader of the La Paz factory workers, continuing the dispute with the miners by calling Montes’s his expulsion from the COB “because he has betrayed the whole working class” by not marching in La Paz, La Prensa said.

Montes instead chose to join a miners’ march in Oruro.

News sources also reported 500 health workers marched in Santa Cruz. In Cochabamba, factory workers blocked the local bus terminal. About 500 to 1000 marched in Sucre and smaller protests were held in the other capital cities.

“In the combative city of El Alto”, Bolpress said, “productive activity was normal”, as in most of Bolivia.

On May 7, a COB assembly called for an “indefinite general strike” to begin May 10, La Razon said.

Bolpress said that day, Bolivia’s largest peasant organisation, the United Confederation of Bolivian Peasant Workers (CSUTCB), the national women’s peasant federation, the coca growers’ union from the Chapare and the Departmental Workers Centre of Santa Cruz defended the government and against COB’s actions measures, because “they only hurt the brothers and sisters of the countryside and the country”.

The CSUTCB is the largest COB affiliate, representing 1.5 million peasants. It is a key part of Morales’ Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party.

By May 11, everyone agreed the “indefinite general strike” was a flop. La Razon’s website that day read: “Scarce support for general strike.” Union leaders representing teachers, health workers and factory workers did not strike, but were negotiating with the government, La Razon said.

In an article headlined “The government’s offers weaken COB protests”, Bolpress said union divisions “weakened to the point of converting to almost null the general strike”. Instead, La Prensa said, 300 workers, mainly miners, gathered in Caracollo to begin a 200-kilometre walk to La Paz.

The night before, the COB and the government reached a tentative agreement to lower the retirement age from 65 to 58 (51 for miners). Bosses would also be forced to contribute to workers’ pension funds. The COB, affiliated unions and government officials began to discuss the new proposals. Bolpress said that, although the COB agreed to the new proposals, some teachers, health workers and factory workers rejected it. La Razon said after futher discussions, the health workers’ union also agreed to the government proposals and called off future actions.

ABI reported on May 13 that Guido Midma, the executive secretary of the miners’ federation who was approvingly quoted in Lopez’s article, said: “The miners’ federation will not allow others to attack [the COB]. On the contrary, we call on these sectors to reflect because they are automatically marginalising themselves.”

A small contingent of mainly teachers continued the march to La Paz. Factory workers and teachers pledged to once again “radicalise” their protests on May 18. They also continued to call for Montes’ removal and the sacking of several government ministers.

By May 17, La Prensa said the La Paz factory workers’ union had decided to postpone their actions. Union leader Wilson Mamani said the decision was taken at the request of other factory workers around the country.

On May 18, media reports said between 3000 and 15,000 teachers arrived in La Paz, culminating the march from Caracollo. The National Confederation of Urban Teachers, however, was no longer supporting the march, although it continued to oppose the government’s position. Teachers’ union leader Federico Pinaya told La Razon some sectors of the union were trying to use the protests in the lead up to internal union elections. Rural teachers unions pulled out of the protests and returned to the negotiating table.

By May 21, the only sector still protesting was a militantly anti-Morales section of the urban teachers' union, who were demanding their wages be brought to the level of rural teachers. But even the leaders of the teachers’ union have since come to an agreement with the government, subject to approval from the membership.

Bolivian reality

The small scale of the strikes and protests does not mean the government’s proposed pay rise should not be debated or challenged.

There are tensions between the Morales government and its base. In the April 4 national elections, MAS faced more competition from dissident MAS sectors than right-wing forces. The Morales government has also had to confront a range of small, but significant, conflicts with sectors traditionally aligned with MAS.

It is clear the movement for change in Bolivia needs to reflect on some of these warning signs. However, confusing an “indefinite general strike” with a lot of huffing and puffing by a few union leaders, and symbolic protests, mixed with a good dose of internal union politicking, only leads us away from the real issues.

Today, the Bolivian workers’ movement is far from the powerful force some Bolivian union leaders and foreign leftist like to fantasise that it still is. Bolivia’s organised workers’ movement is still suffering from the defeats inflicted by the implementation of neoliberal policies from before Morales' rule.

About 62% of the working class is in the informal sector, 83% in small companies with less than 10 workers, and the unionisation rate is only 23%. This rate has steady increased under the Morales government.

Nor is this the same Bolivia as in the past.

The 1970 COB thesis Lopez quoted approvingly does not mention the word “Indigenous” once, despite the long-oppressed Indigenous peoples making up about two thirds of the population. If this policy of refusing to acknowledge Indigenous peoples’ existence was mistaken then, it is criminal today.

Today, a revolutionary movement has developed, whose future is still to be determined — even if it didn’t occur according to COB theses or manuals from afar. With the COB in steady decline, it was Indigenous and peasant sectors that led the resistance to the military dictatorship in 1978, and constructed the CSUTCB as its own independent organisation in 1979. These sectors led the process of recapturing the historically marginalised Indigenous peoples’ self-identity and pride.

The resistance to neoliberalism over 1990-2005 did not emerge from the factories. It began in the countryside and spread to Indigenous workers and the urban poor. The main Indigenous and peasant organisations decided it was necessary to move from resistance to taking power. In the 1990s, they decided at a congress of Bolivia’s most powerful unions to build their own political instrument to this end — creating what is now the MAS.

Indigenous struggles

As a result of this historic decision and the mass struggles that followed, they put one of their own in the presidency in 2005, electing Morales with a record high of 54% of the vote. A new constitution incorporating the rights of Indigenous peoples, the start of land reform, the nationalisation of important natural resources and increased state social spending to the poor are some of the gains won since.

Lopez’s article mentions none of this.

Morales also plays a leading role internationally in attacking the capitalist system for its responsibility for the climate crisis. Morales hosted a “people’s summit” in Cochabamba in April that brought together 35,000 people from around the world to organise to fight back.

This does not mean the government cannot be criticised or that workers should not fight for their demands.

But to paint the Morales government as the main enemy because of a dispute over wages, while failing to mention even once the suffering and resistance of the most marginalised who have benefited most from the Morales government, is blind sectarianism.

To raise the wage demands of sector of workers as the central issue in Bolivian politics, while ignoring the changes under way and the challenge any revolutionary government would face in lifting South America’s poorest nation out of poverty and dependency, is pure and simple economism — that is, counterposing demands about wages to the broader struggles of the oppressed.

Such positions are rejected by Bolivia’s Indigenous majority because they understand that, for the first time, they are charting their own path towards liberation.

Bolivia’s revolutionary process needs a strong independent working class to help push it forward. But those who denounce anyone who tries to relate to this reality as “sell outs” don’t help such a cause.

[Federico Fuentes is the editor of Bolivia Rising and co-author, with Marta Harnecker, of MAS-IPSP de Bolivia: Instrumento político que surge de los movimientos sociales . He is a member of Australia’s Socialist Alliance and is based in Venezuela. This article first appeared in Green Left Weekly.]

Comments

Daniel Lopez's response to criticism of Soc Alt on Bolivia

Daniel Lopez has responded to Federico's article. It was posted at http://enpassant.com.au/?p=7305

+++

There are some points to draw out about their article.

Firstly, they disagree with my article by claiming that the strike was small. This is wrong. The strike included urban teachers, health workers, miners and manufacturing workers. The health workers returned to work after a few days, but the rest stayed out. The adherence to the strike was clearly strong amongst teachers, thousands of whom marched. This shut down schools in Bolivia. The teachers’ strike continued the longest, and was the most radical in its demands. On the 18th of May, a mass teacher’s rally shut down the center of La Paz. The teachers were the last to go back to work, on the 24th of May.

As regards the miners and manufacturing workers, thousands marched across the country, and many more struck. While it is difficult to say how many struck precisely, or what proportion of miners struck, one indication was the government’s reaction. After a few days of claiming that the strike was a flop, the government changed tack and started accusing the strikers of sabotaging Bolivia’s progress. After a week, Morales started accusing the strikers of being stooges of the Americans. He then accused the strikers of attempting to overthrow his government. He also claimed that teachers were undemocratic for striking and shutting down classrooms. All the while, the government was in ongoing negotiations with the COB (the striking union federation).

While the government did not acquiesce to the main demand of a 12% (as opposed to 5%) pay rise, these negotiations granted significant concessions around the age of retirement. Hardly the responses of a government to an irrelevant strike. Moreover, it is clear there was anger amongst at least some workers that the COB accepted this deal: the urban teacher’s union called the leaders of the COB traitors.

So, the GL is clearly wrong to say the strike was: “a lot of huffing and puffing by a few union leaders, and symbolic protests, mixed with a good dose of internal union politicking”.

But this all misses the point: the size of a strike is irrelevant to whether or not socialists should support it. It is a clear cut class issue; socialists need to stand with workers against governments and bosses at all times, not just when strikes are big.

This relates to the second main problem with the GL article – it systematically downplays the Bolivian working class in favor of indigenous people. This is doubly wrong because it substitutes a nationalist/ethnic analysis for a class one.

Many indigenous Bolivians are working class, while others are small farmers or peasants. The former are capable of leading social revolution; the latter, are not. Of course, this distinction is hardly likely to bother the DSP – they love peasants to bits because they fit right into a Stalinist or 3rd world nationalist political project.

The GL article quite clearly supports the indigenous peasants movement that constitutes the mass base of Morales’ Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) party over the workers’ movement. It was this part of the population that supported Morales in 2006 against the militant miners and teachers who wanted to continue the revolution.

Really, it’s all a bit familiar - it’s basically about 3rd world nationalists who couldn’t care less about basic Marxist politics, and love to apologize for governments who act against workers.

response

Federico Fuentes response on that blog, which now has a large number of comments, was:

Federico Fuentes
Time May 29, 2010 at 4:52 pm

Writing about my analysis of the events in Bolivia, John says that “the GL is clearly wrong to say the strike was: “a lot of huffing and puffing by a few union leaders, and symbolic protests, mixed with a good dose of internal union politicking”.”

For course as is always the case with those who refuses to grapple with reality, John presents no facts whats so ever as to the size and impact of the “strikes”. He just tells us that they happened (because he says so!), and yet cannot find a single article, comment piece, photo or anything to actually sustain this assertions. At least if John lived in Bolivia, i would be happy to give him the benefit of the doubt, but he is writing from Australia!!

So once again I challenge John to provide any facts that substantiate claims like “The strike included urban teachers, health workers, miners and manufacturing workers. The health workers returned to work after a few days, but the rest stayed out.” Or any of the stuff in the Daniel Lopez article. Who stayed out? How many? For how many days?

At least I can say that my article was a factual and sourced account based on a serious study of various pro and anti-Morales, left and right wing press sources, in order to try and get a sense of what was occurring. John on the other hand thinks that just saying something makes it true.

But we all know that John doesnt have any facts to present. Thats the problem with reality, its pretty concrete. Its hard to publish an article in Bolivia claiming a general strike has shutdown parts of the country when people can see and feel if this is true or not. But write similar nonsense in the magazine for a fanatically anti-Morales outfit is not a problem, because very few people that read it will have to confront this reality.

Instead they just accept the “truth” presented in a biblical form.

John tells us his “reality” must be true because the government was forced to grant significant concessions. But again this is just his opinion, his guess from the other side of the world.

But it could also be equally true to say that the government, while remaining firm on its position that it could not raise wages more than 5% (although modify who benefits more but increasing lower wages more and higher wages less) also wanted to show that it does support workers rights and offered an additional measures, one which the government has been discussing with the COB for a while and was granted not due to pressure but becuase the government choose to present it once again. The pensions law has been under discussion for months, it was not something demanded by the workers, and was something the government was already discussing.

It is also possible true that, even though this was not a demand of the workers, and the “strikers” did not get a pay rise, they agreed and went home becuase they had a correct analysis of the weakness of their actions and that they were unlike to achieve more. Far from an type of “revolutionary upsurge” that John claims was happening.

But then John says it doesnt matter if the strike was big or small (or never happened!). Of course, this is simply an admission that he no longer wants to get bogged down in reality and facts.

But it does allow us to move onto more substantive issues.

Lets deal with this one at a time.

John writes: “It is a clear cut class issue; socialists need to stand with workers against governments and bosses at all times, not just when strikes are big.”

It is true that socialists dont premise support for workers rights on the size of the demonstration. My argument was never “size matters”, rather that for sectarians it is reality that doesnt matter. Anything that serves the purpose of proving they have the “correct line” and everyone else is wrong or “stalinist”, even if it means outrights lies, is acceptable for ultraleft outfits.

But John is deadwrong when he claims that socialists must stand with workers against governments and bosses AT ALL TIMES. This is just workerist horseshit.

Or did John support the rallies called by the Confederation of Venezuelan Trade Unions (CTV) when they joined with the bosses to carry out a coup against the Hugo Chavez government in 2002? Or the CTV supported oil strike to try and bring him down again later that year?

Does he no longer agree with Socialist Alternative’s position of support for the Soviet GOVERNMENT’S violent repression of the WORKERS in Kronstad?
Surely John you have read a little of Marx and Lenin, were they talk about the difference between a class in itself and a class for itself. Not everytime workers protests they are defending their own interests. Racist workers protesting “illegals taking our jobs” or protectionist rubbish deserve no support from socialist, without this mean one must support the government or not try to politically educate those workers that they are acting against their class interests.

In the context of Bolivia today, i have no problem with supporting workers fighting for higher wages. In fact, a much more serious issue is some of the anti-union elements currently contained in a draft labour law under discussion. I hope workers protest against that.

But im sure that these protest will not be to overthrow the government or anti-government in nature, rather they will be over a specific demand. Just like the recent protests, where unions leaders stressed that their protests were not against the government, just against the specific issue of the pay increase. This is the case with numerous other protests that are occurring at the moment which reflects a generalised sentiment that the Morales government is “our government” and therefore should starting attending more quickly to a vaeiety of small, sectorial problems that are the result of years and years of right wing pro-imperialist governments.

Where i do have a problem is with sectarians who try to conflating this with revolutionary insurrection against an “anti-worker government” in order to keep feeding shit to their members and proving they are the only “revolutionaries”. Training up young socialists with simplistic politics like “socialists need to stand with workers against governments and bosses at all times” or “workers make revolution, peasants dont” is just wasting the minds of potentially very good comrades.

John then says my problems is that i “systematically downplays the Bolivian working class in favor of indigenous people. This is doubly wrong because it substitutes a nationalist/ethnic analysis for a class one. Many indigenous Bolivians are working class, while others are small farmers or peasants. The former are capable of leading social revolution; the latter, are not.”

Again workerist nonsense from someone who has not bothered to study Marxism or Bolivian reality. The problem is not that i downplay the Bolivian working class, its that reality shows the “Bolivian working class” as it exists today is irrelevant in Bolivian politics. (Here we could also get into a discussion of what is the working class in Bolivia, happy to do so as long as we try and base it on facts).

This is a problem, but it is a fact one has to deal with, and no amount of revolutionary phasemongering will change that.

One can only understand Bolivian reality if it understands that the key dynamic of the struggle today is an anti-imperialist movement headed by indigenous people, who are workers and peasants but identify first and foremost as indigenous. I wish reality was different, that what we have is a powerful working class leading a socialist revolution, but reality dictates this is not what is occurring, nor will it anytime soon.

The main problem, historically and now, is that left has DOWNPLAYED the indigenous people. That is why i pointed out that the 1970 COB thesis is a mistaken one as it does not even mention the word indigenous once! Rather than grappling with Bolivian reality the thesis is just a rehashed version of dogmatic European marxist that in the end can become reactionary.

One example of the reactionary nature of such thought is the opposition by urban teachers (led by trotskyists) to the right to have education in spanish and indigenous languages. In defending “workers rights” ie the need to not have to retrain teachers to learn a second language, these workers end up taking a reactionary position (i hope you agree on this or is this another one of those cases of defending workers against the government – and indigenous people?)

John finishes by writing: “The article quite clearly supports the indigenous peasants movement that constitutes the mass base of Morales’ Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) party over the workers’ movement. It was this part of the population that supported Morales in 2006 against the militant miners and teachers who wanted to continue the revolution.”

Well my response is yes: i support the real existing struggle of the indigenous majority (workers and peasants) represent by the MAS against an imaginary illusion. I decide my politics on facts and realities not wishful thinking and romantic (or better said dogmatic?) fantasies. My politics are not dictated by the interests of a tiny sect in Australia but by the real gains won by these masses in struggles that have overthrown presidents and placed one of their own in power.

Does this mean i think the struggle is over? Or that Bolivia is socialist? or that the revolution doesnt need a working class? Not in the slightest, and my article(s) say so. But i will not change my support of this and replace it with a figment of my imagination.

On the supposed “militant miners and teachers who wanted to continue the revolution” in 2006, you will have to fill us all in. Unfortunately peoples individual dreams are very rarely documented, as was the case with this revolution you dreamed occurred in 2006. i look forward to an account of this imaginary revolution in 2006.

Apologies for my tone, but frankly i am fed up with infantile socialists who from the comfort of their armchairs attack real living struggles, in order to justify a type of sectarian politics that the only thing it achieves is rotting the brains of very good activists.

I note Daniel provides *not

I note Daniel provides *not one single* links or other evidence he assures us he has in support of his allegations.

What is actually quite ironic is at the same time as this fantasy in painted, *an actual indiefinite general strike* was in fact launched. It was political in its nature - aimed at bringing down a right-wing regime.

And it was big - it mobislised hundreds of thousands, if not millions of workers, urban and rural poor and peasants. It shut an entire nation down.

There is a large amount of evidence - links from right-wing and left-wing media, videos and pictures, that could be represented to prove how significant this general strike - which lasted from May 2-7, actually was. It is was pretty powerful mobilisation, even if, by itself, it failed to prove enough to resolve the dual power situation that exists across the country.

However, it did not occur in Bolivia but in Nepal.

And Socialist Alternative has said *not one word* about it — nothing. Because the strike was called by aformati0on, the Nepalese Maoists, that doesn't fit their schema.

Meanwhile they write about *pretend* indefinite general strikes elsewhere to try and prove their schema in Latin America.

We can go into the strengths and weaknesses of the Bolivian process - which has achieved some impressive gains but faces great difficulties and challenges.

But I think we can go to Lenin for why this movement should be supported. He wrote this in 1916 in defence of the Irish Rising in Easter against doctrinaire socialists who all raised reasons not to support it ("it was just petty bourgeosie", "it purely dealt with the agrarian question" - these were actual complaints raised that mimic SAlt today on Bolivia!)

http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/61/273.html
Lenin wrote:
To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without revolutionary outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all its prejudices, without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletarian and semiproletarian masses against oppression by the landowners, the church, and the monarchy, against national oppression, etc.—to imagine all this is to repudiate social revolution.

So one army lines up in one place and says, "We are for socialism," and another, somewhere else and says, "We are for imperialism," and that will be a social revolution! Only those who hold such a ridiculously pedantic view would vilify the Irish rebellion by calling it a "putsch."

Whoever expects a "pure" social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip service to revolution without understanding what revolution is....

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