Getting to know the real Bolivia

14 November, 2020 · News> South America> Bolivia

Evo and Linera come back surrounded by crowds. One year after they both went into exile, MAS is in government again after obtaining 52% of the votes. But both are outside of the government. In between both events, a whole world happened: an attempt at election tampering, the defection of a part of the Masista petty bourgeoisie, the debut of Brazil as a hegemonic imperialist power, and the administration of a failed attempt at an alliance between the peripheral oligarchies, old nationalism, and the new bourgeois sectors that were the big beneficiaries of the Masista governments.

It is impossible to understand the failure of the Áñez government, the return of Masism and the differences of the period that begins with Arce without studying how the Bolivian class structure has evolved during the last ninety years, what the historical aspirations of the main factions of power have been and how they have expressed themselves politically.

Brief history of the Bolivian bourgeoisie

Iconic image of Paz Estenssoro during the 1952 National Revolution. Paceños raise him up and his assistants escort him armed and wearing miner helmets.

1 Bolivia is a textbook case among semicolonial countries. The country that reaches the Chaco War in 1931 is governed by a small and solid block known as the Rosca: three kings of tin, half a thousand landowners and half a hundred owners of industries oriented to the internal market and foreign trade businesses. The war itself is an expression of the semicolonial nature of the national capital and bourgeoisie. Its two main driving engines are the need to reach the Uruguay River to be able to export to the Atlantic and the struggle of U.S. imperialism to displace the British that is shaking all of Ibero-America. Not a few people have called this conflict the war between Standard Oil and Shell.

2 The war, which will last three long years, will strengthen the state and produce for the first time a civilian bureaucracy with professional administrative cadres and a precarious state and corporate petty bourgeoisie formed by intellectuals and teachers, which is reflected in the young officers of the army. The war will serve to create the first contemporary Bolivian nationalist myth: the absurd imperialist massacre would in reality represent the true national origin of Bolivia because it united in the trenches, side by side and as equals, indigenous peasants, day laborers, miners, administrators, merchants and small industrialists under a common flag. From the failure of the nation, the people would have been born.

3 It will be the rise of this new class that will destabilize the previous order after the war. Oligarchic and nationalist governments succeed each other and hybridize. On the way it will consolidate a party, the National Revolutionary Movement (MNR in Spanish). The nationalists define themselves as anti-imperialists, they want to make the leap to a state capitalism and propose to the trade unions the corporate representation of workers and peasants. They are the expression of the forces tending towards a fascist solution for national capital. It is by no means a one-off phenomenon. At the same time, the bases of what will later become Peronism are coming together in Argentina -but also in other parts.

We can take a look at the MNR doctrine, summarizing the “Bases and Principles of the MNR”, published in June 1942. Bolivia’s ills are attributed to foreign enemies: the “tin barons” (the two of Bolivian origin would have become, in a way, expatriates) and the Jews.

Jean-Pierre Lavaud, “The Bolivian mess

The paradox, often misunderstood, is that semicolonial fascism, while still being a moment of world counter-revolution, will not present itself in the first instance as a shock weapon of big capital against a proletariat which has failed to complete its revolution, but as a movement of anti-imperialist national liberation. Since a class organizational structure with independent political leadership and its own revolutionary traditions was practically non-existent in most semicolonial countries, it will not be necessary -nor will it be its main historical function- to destroy the existing workers’ organizations during its emergence. On the contrary, it will overtake the existing trade union bureaucracy without any major resistance, being the bridge to its integration within the state and entrusting it with the massive framing of the proletariat in the export sector and industry. In Bolivia, one of the first governments with the participation of the MNR will be the one encouraging the formation of the Bolivian Federation of Mine Workers’ Unions (FSTMB) in June 1944.

4 Their relationship with the peasantry will also be very different. Unlike Italian or German fascism, the MNR is not afraid to confront the large landowners. In fact it illegalized them immediately after the National Revolution of 1952. The Agrarian Reform law of 1953 turns the great mass of peasants and daily laborers into smallholders. This fundamental change, often forgotten in all journalistic analyses of Bolivian reality, will continue to operate until today. Without it, the emergence of the cocalero movement and the rise of Evo Morales in the Chapare is as incomprehensible as the absolute indifference received by Che Guevara’s focoist attempt in 1967 Chiquitania from a mass of peasants who felt their program had essentially been realized by the Bolivian state.

5 It is this relationship with the peasantry in general that explains the emergence of indigenism as a real movement in the Andean world. It is not by chance that the MNR fundamentally coincides with the pro-indigenist positions of the popular-frontist fantasy of a Mariátegui. In Bolivia, the same government that promoted the unionization of the miners will be the promoter of the First Indigenist Peasant Congress. At the end of this congress the government took the main resolutions and published them as decrees. The most famous of these abolished the pongo, that is, the adaptation to spanish feudalism – for the benefit of the large landowners – of the compulsory week of work that the subjects of the Inca empire had to surrender to the state. A kind of feudal corvée. The abolition of pongaje and the congress, were part of the MNRist strategy that intended to lead the remaining pre-Hispanic communities towards national identity by inventing an indigenous community nonexistent until now.

So nonexistent was a Bolivian indigenous identity common to the separate Aymara, Quechua, and Guaraní agrarian communities in 1945 that an academic researcher proposed creating a flag for the occasion so that they would share at least one symbol. A printmaker from La Paz was put in charge of the project and suggested recycling the color offset he had made a few weeks earlier for an advertising campaign for Champancola, a popular soft drink of the time. The result became the Indigenous flag or even the Flag of Tahuantinsuyo under the name of of Wiphala.

6 After a rough overview of the peculiarities of semicolonial fascism as pro-state-capitalism confronted in a real, not only declarative way, against the old post-colonial oligarchy, we can understand both the National Revolution and its collapse and, from this, the inevitable emergence of a nationalist left persisting in the original goals, trying to find support in the Russian bloc first and in the Bolivarian axis later.

Let’s start with the 1952 National Revolution. In principle, one more coup attempt by the MNR and apparently condemned to failure. Everything changes with the mass appearance of the workers from La Paz and the miners of Oruro into the streets following the Central Obrera Boliviana (COB).

Basically, this is a union uprising dragging thousands of workers in support of a nationalist and anti-oligarchic faction that has been expelled from the government and is not hiding its fascist roots. In other words, Bolivia lives in 1952 what Argentina had experienced with Perón in 1945.

Perón found his support in the bureaucracy of socialist syndicalism and revolutionary syndicalism, the MNR found it in the COB and, through it, in the POR, a party which called itself Trotskyist but which, like the others with the same acronym on the continent, had become stalinized precisely through its defense of national liberation in opposition to the internationalism of the original South American Trotskyism.

7 In the same year, 1952, Perón introduced universal suffrage. Until then, only men had been able to vote in Argentina. The MNR does the same in Bolivia, opening an unprecedented cycle of successive presidencies and institutional transitions between governments. This is another element common to both movements and to many other semicolonial fascisms. In these countries the workers’ revolution had not called representative democracy into question. On the contrary, it remained a widespread aspiration among the workers, and just as these movements aimed to bring the unions into the state, they naturally see in propaganda and the extension of suffrage a basis for socially establishing the political positions they have conquered. Moreover, these fascisms came to power when their original European models had already fallen or were about to fall, had switched language, and had concealed or diluted the openly anti-Semitic elements of their original discourse.

8 At the end of the 1950s, the fall in international tin prices put all Bolivian capital in crisis. Inflation grew, salaries fell and conflicts with the civil service -the largest and most faithful to the state part of the petty bourgeoisie- were manifested in various attempts to sanitize the public accounts.

The failure of the MNR, the return of economic crises in the most typical form of a semi-colonial country, clearly expresses the impossibility of independent development of national capital in the imperialist era. It makes evident that state capitalism does not offer any way out of the semicolonial status.

Finally, the protests of the mining union and the students will end the nationalist period in 1964. Paz Estenssoro will resign only one month after his second swearing-in as president. With power vacant and the nationalist option exhausted, the military will occupy the vacuum until 1982 with as much brutality as US support.

9 When, after quite a few tug-of-war and frustrated elections, the military leaves power, what is left of the MNR becomes the pro-US and neoliberal party. In 1985, Victor Paz Estenssoro, elected for the fourth time, began to dismantle the last remnants of the MNR system that he himself had helped to establish: he began the privatization of all strategic industries.

The original nationalist project was to develop a domestic market from the subsidized and tariff-protected industry. With nuances between the MNR and the left born during the seventies (MIR, the UDP…), it is abandoned altogether. The new model is to attempt to create at all costs a new export sector, if possible industrial, taking advantage of new opportunities offered first by the U.S. and then the opening of international trade during the 90s by the globalization.

The governments that will succeed the Victor Paz Estenssoro in the nineties, including Jaime Paz Zamora’s (MIR), will try to ride the liberalization of world trade to create the new version of the nationalist project, the semicolonial neoliberalism, in the hope that a new global market would provide what the internal market never could. Neither is it an isolated phenomenon. These are the years in which Peronism has turned into menemism in Argentina, those of Alan García’s aprism and fujimorism in Peru.

But Bolivia cannot be the China of the Andes, among other things because it cannot attract capital by promising access to a massive domestic market. Until the gas development of the late nineties the only thriving export industries will be the cattle industry in Santa Cruz and, a little further on, in the Chapare, the coke industry. These were the years when Bolivia, a country without a sea, became the world’s leading importer of outboard motors. The reason: they were used as a mixer to prepare coca base paste. After coke arrived the U.S. DEA and militarized intervention for years.

The century’s end will bring the opening of the gas pipeline with Brazil. The first serious success of diversification is… another raw material, another extractive industry. Each attempt to get out of the trap that means the semicolonial status for the national capital… ends up reinforcing it. When a new crisis came at the beginning of the new century, everything was blown up.

The MAS and the reinvention of the Bolivian nationalist project

El Alto, the biggest market in America

It is very significant that what destroyed the model of the 80s and 90s was the so-called gas war of 2003. Its main request was to avoid exporting gas as long as internal supply remained scarce. This is a return to the original MNRist framework: exports subordinated to and oriented towards developing the internal market.

2003 El Alto is far from the workers’ slums of La Paz in 1952. It is what a local leader called at the time the world capital of neoliberalism, a gigantic market of one million inhabitants with a commercial petty bourgeoisie as massive as it is poor and an industrial petty bourgeoisie recycling all sorts of things – from right-hand drive cars sold for scraps, to second-hand clothes – that they buy in wholesale containers from international markets. El Alto is the gateway to the world market for the continent’s poorest people, the supplier of Peruvian fairs and Argentinean informal markets. In those years it also timidly began to be the distributor of low-cost Chinese products. Internally, with its ties inside and outside America, it is a microcosm of globalization articulated on Aymara-based community institutions and the strong attachment to property characteristic of the petty bourgeoisie recently arrived from the countryside.

The army seizes the coca fields of the Chapare

And next to them, the coca growers. It is difficult to find a more symbolically dense movement. The cocaleros are, in the first place, the materialization of the failure of the agrarian reform: highland peasants who move down to the jungle zone in search of the only crop that seems to make smallholding profitable. Their original claim is an update of the Velasco Alvarado agrarian reform in Peru in the 1970s: recognition of the ownership of the plowed (and razed) lands in the jungle, creation of a new national cocalero company and guaranteed prices.

The new Quechua-Aymara bourgeoisie, already mestiza in its cultural patterns, is neither better nor worse than the one it succeeds or still shares spaces with. What is beyond doubt is that this emerging class has nothing to do with Andean complementarity and the rhetoric of the sacred and almost perfect pre-Hispanic original values. […] The “new bourgeoisie” is not that new, but rather very old in its foundations. Its vitality is based on an ancient deity, the same as the Phoenicians, which was systematized by a philosopher of the economy in the eighteenth century, its god is called the Market, its magic and its powers are based on two magical and “perfect” pillars: supply and demand, which move from a golden premise, freedom, expressed in free supply and demand and sacrosanct private property.

Carlos Mesa, former president of Bolivia (MNR)

But in addition, they are the first line of defense against the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, the DEA, which is militarizing and occupying a large part of the Chapare. Against the official discourse presenting them as the first link of drug trafficking, the coca growers exacerbate the ancestral meaning of the coca leaf, they defend – against any quantitative evidence – that they grow exclusively for traditional use, common to Quechuas and Aymaras, and for legal industrial uses (the bags of coca mate produced by the Lipton multinational, among others). That is, they are the first to develop a nationalist discourse based on the vindication of indigenous traditions… when they themselves are the materialization of the breakdown of traditional communities. In their language, indigenous means something originating from highland culture, not belonging to the forms of organization and communal peasant production typical of indigenous peoples. In fact their representatives were shocked by the fact that the then cocalero leader Evo Morales identified himself as an Aymara Indian, especially since no indigenous community acknowledges him as a member.

The new indigenist identity discourse takes root. With the help of American evangelical NGOs, the Aymara language is starting to be taught in El Alto to those who are no longer Aymara but rather a new urban bourgeoisie. The masista leaders take off their eternal jeans and begin to wear chola dresses. The wiphala spreads from the coca growers’ demonstrations to El Alto and Cochabamba, the big cities with Aymara and Quechua roots respectively. In the official censuses, in which ethnic affiliation is subjective, the population has gone from more than 80% of people identifying themselves as mestizos to more than 60% identifying themselves as indigenous.

MAS represents the new petty bourgeoisie born from the liberalization of the 80s and the globalization of the 90s. It is the product and beneficiary of semicolonial neoliberalism and at the same time its victim. Far from political representation, it already has, in the middle of the 2000’s, a generation of its children studying in the universities that were the temple of the small state bureaucracy. Globalized, it compares itself to its class equivalents in Chile or Argentina and regrets not enjoying even basic power and health infrastructures while they take our gas abroad.

We will understand the fundamentals of masism as an organizing movement in Bolivia during the last two decades once we add up all these previously mentioned aspects.

Its ideology and model is an updated reinterpretation of the old themes of the National Revolution and the original MNR: the use of export earnings to develop the internal market and nationalism, now with a stronger indigenist touch to dress the change in the composition of the state apparatus.

The Bolivarian years

“Cholets” by architect Freddy Mamani, symbol of the success of the new Aymara “cholobourgeoisie”.

The years of MAS in Bolivia will coincide with those of Kirchnerist peronism in Argentina, Correa in Ecuador and Chávez in Venezuela. It is not a coincidence that the synchrony, as we have seen, comes from far away among the heirs of the semicolonial fascism in the South American countries. In the end, in the semicolonial countries, the political cycle is given by the usually violent economic cycle which in turn depends on the waves of crisis and the changes in the demand of the international markets of the commodities that they export.

The MAS policies during the first two mandates of Morales and Linera are a return to the developmentalist and nationalist model. Hydrocarbon production is nominally nationalized with the consent of the oil companies. Infrastructures are expanded and improved, especially those oriented to exports. And the territorial administration is transformed and decentralized under the banner of plurinationality which serves to give a new form to the establishmentarianism inherited from the historical MNR.

Our model is a corporate state like the one Perón wanted for Argentina, but updated.

Álvaro García de Linera in his first official visit abroad as Vice President of Bolivia

In fact, the old mining union bureaucracy will soon discover that by identifying itself as a native people it is echoing its claim to ownership of the mines. They will form false cooperatives that are in reality associations of small businessmen hiring workers collectively, and that after the MAS’ victory will obtain from the masista governments a privileged treatment, free from competition and from responsibility towards the workers, whom they will confront with armed violence on more than one occasion.

It is the golden age of the new cholobourgeoisie, which globalizes even more, becoming a vector of Chinese penetration in the continent. China, always attentive, will turn Morales into a strategic partner. The new cholobourgeoisie’s successful capital accumulation and new cultural hegemony are embodied in the great symbols of the time: the cholets of El Alto and the new ropeway with which the government wants to convey the virtuous social effect of the new model of growth.

But the big transformation projects are orphaned. Bolivian capital does not have the capacity to undertake the inter-oceanic corridor by itself, and European capital is still undecided; the always expected universal health insurance never comes; and above all, lithium, the great promise of a raw material that would generate direct industrialization -manufacturing and exporting batteries and not just minerals- although it attracts German capital never manages to flourish and set in motion the promised industrialization. When Morales reaches the last elections, the largest national industrial company is still the Cervecera Boliviana Nacional beer company.

The Morales government became one of the best models of good practice exhibited until recently by the World Bank, and the annual growth rates were among the best in the semicolonial world. But the financial crisis of 2008 first and the global trade war afterwards would set in motion again all the contradictions typical of semicolonies.

Although the GDP did not show much of a crisis after 2008, one only has to look at the school enrolment graph to see a preview of the fragility of the MAS’ neo-developmentalist model, which would become increasingly fragile as the 2019 elections approach. And especially the difference between the countryside and the city.

And in that came the elections…

Fighting between masistas and anti-masistas after last November’s elections.

14 years of growth under the masista model have strengthened the regional petty bourgeoisies as never before. The Aymara bourgeoisie, the emblem of Evo -who, to the annoyance of Aymara leaders, used to define himself as such- no longer needed him. Together with this bourgeoisie, the mestizo and Quechua petty bourgeoisies of the highland cities, who had always supported the model from a certain distance and always in exchange for local privileges, were moving on.

The Morales-Linera tandem knew it well and the results -only forceful and favorable to MAS in the areas of the peasant petty bourgeoisie- confirmed it. They simply did not expect a response. And when it began, very symptomatically in Cochabamba, they mocked it by offering to give a seminar on how to organize roadblocks and strikes. The protagonism from the very beginning of university students, the essence of the Masista “new rich” did not help them to take it seriously.

When the protests spread, the division between the rural and urban petty bourgeoisie was evident. But Morales, instead of playing politics, took up the old tactics and arranged the encirclement of the cities, staging the conditions of a civil war.

The internal dynamic in Bolivia is that of the reorganization of the ruling class bloc. Throughout the Andean region (Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru), the bourgeois factions that rose up with the Bolivarian regimes and Fujimori’s populism to the heat of an internationalization guided by the state of national capitals, are getting rid of the political shell they used to gain access to political power for the first time.

The petty bourgeoisies associated with this process are splitting up between the urban strata, who fear that the crisis and the commercial war will lead to a situation where they will be left behind before they have consolidated their position, and the indigenous agrarian petty bourgeoisie. The latter clings to Bolivarianism because it does not want to lose state protection, as was crystal clear in Ecuador and is occurring in Bolivia.

The result is a double petty-bourgeois revolt that is intersecting, with contradictory city-countryside interests, the regional political reordering. Peasant and student revolt against Lenin Moreno’s adjustment measures in Ecuador, revolt of the urban petty bourgeoisie dragged by the students (their children) in Bolivia against Morales’ “election tampering”.

On the internal class conflict, the dividing line between the competing regional imperialisms is superimposed. Once again, the petty bourgeois revolt, incompetent and without historical destiny, is instrumentalized by a neighboring imperialism. In the case of Bolivia, Brazil, which encouraged the Santa Cruz petty bourgeoisie, gave international coverage and financed without restraint. On the other side, the structure that is beginning to emerge around the “Group of Puebla,” no less imperialist but even weaker, gauging forces with Brazil in a territory that borders Argentina and Peru on the one hand and Chile and Brazil on the other.

What happened in Bolivia? (in Spanish) Nov 12, 2019

…and the second elections

Arce swears in the Presidency by inaugurating a presidential band that, for the first time, includes the wiphala.

What has brought the urban Quechua and Aymara petty bourgeoisie back to Masismo so that the new elections would be settled, without manipulation this time, in the first round? Basically, the unavoidable incompetence of Añez’s government, the revanchism of its partners in the “half moon”, the impact of the Covid on the GDP (-7.8%)… and above all, the exile of Evo and Linera.

With the balance sheets plummeting, a global crisis in progress and the government in a daily spectacle of incompetence, Carlos Mesa, image of the moderate wing of the neoliberal stage of the MNR, distant both from the brute reaction of Santa Cruz power and from Masismo, had a chance against Morales and Linera… but not against Arce.

Arce is the candidate which would have won in the first round last November. He is solid, business minded and will renegotiate gas prices with Brazil to moderate an austerity that he is already announcing and that will weigh on the precarious workers but not so much on property owners, who do not depend on the scarce and fragile public services.

Arce, as it became clear, closes a stage of MAS, that of Evo, Bolivarianism and the social movements… in order to preserve a slightly more bureaucratic version of the MNRista program, the only program capable of identifying and recomposing the power block of the Bolivian petty bourgeoisie.

The question is whether accumulation will also recover in the short term and whether the bloc will remain united when the global crisis makes it clear that Bolivia, like all semicolonial countries, will be shaken down by the current crisis far more than it was after 2008. To put it in political terms, whether or not Arce will see the bicentennial as president.

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