The Return of the Indigenous Struggle in Bolivia

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The resistance to the right-wing coup in Bolivia has developed under the banners of the indigenous peoples. The working class needs to take up these demands as its own. We publish here the prologue to the third edition of Javo Ferreira’s book Comunidad, indigenismo y marxismo (Community, Indigenism, and Marxism).

Illustration: the cover of Javo-Ferreira's book

Since the Bolivian elections of October 20, the subsequent coup d’état has been consolidated, reopening deep wounds and contradictions in society that Bolivian and Latin American “progressivism” thought had been overcome. The civilian, police, and military coup, consummated with the resignation of President Evo Morales on November 10, attempted to consolidate itself through savage repression that claimed the lives of more than 30 people and left hundreds injured and almost a thousand detained by the police and military forces. It is in this context, while the ashes of the roadblocks still smolder, that I write this prologue for the third edition of this book. Great events in the history of peoples are those that, like a judge’s decision that cannot be appealed, determine whether texts, analyses, and documents drawn up previously can pass the test of facts or are simply to be tucked away in the trunk of historical curiosities. I believe not only that this text, written mainly in 2009 after 14 years of government by the MAS, has comfortably passed the test of events, but also that much of what happened after 2009 was anticipated in its pages. I hope that, with the revival of the struggle of the exploited and oppressed of Bolivia—a large part of the country’s nations and native peoples—this text will contribute to that struggle and to organizing against the state, against its ruling classes, and against the racial structure of society that makes it easy to gain advantage from the social capital that comes with being white and Spanish-speaking.

It remains to be seen how far the coup plotters can go in dismantling the “Plurinational State of Bolivia”—as former Vice President Álvaro García Linera called the outcome of his administration’s efforts to overcome the racial structuring of Bolivian society. Constitutional and institutional reforms were undertaken by the government in an attempt to break through the state’s “gelatinous” nature and advance toward a unitary construction of civil and political society.

On November 10, after the resignation of Morales and García Linera, a group of coup plotters undertook an enormously symbolic act—lowering the wiphala1 at the Palacio Quemado (Bolivia’s presidential palace) and setting it on fire. This revealed the racist character of the coup and the white elite’s absolute hatred of indigenous peoples. It also left for dead any attempt to use reforms to satisfy the indigenous peoples’ structural democratic demands in a new constitution, without modifying the bourgeois character of the Bolivian state. Ultimately, the “apparent state”2 was never displaced, thus permitting the Right—which never accepted the Constitution or the state’s plurinational character—to trample on it once the balance of power allowed. Doing so, however, does not appear to be a simple task, as was demonstrated by the massive mobilizations that arose in resistance to the coup and that in their early days used slogans that centered fighting racism and defending cultures. The passivity of the MAS, the Central Obrera Boliviana (COB, the trade union confederation), and several of the leaderships that have validated the coup is an enormous help in this effort to dismantle, at least partially, many of the demands that had been embodied as provisions in the Constitution—and which are now under attack and could even be eliminated as the racist elite reoccupies the state.

The MAS was elected as a government based on the great uprisings and insurrections that shook Bolivia in the 2000s. This government had to express—albeit in a distorted way—the relationship of forces established by those great independent actions of the mass movement. This was expressed in various constitutional and legal reforms presented as a “democratic and cultural revolution.” The approval of the new constitution was the result of a pact with the Right that in 2008 had its strongholds in Sucre and in the so-called Media Luna.3 That constitutional pact brought a certain social peace to the country, lubricated by a boom in the price of raw materials that helped cushion the deep social, economic, and political cracks of the last decade. It was translated into important reforms that sought to resolve, through institutional means, the historical social exclusion of the great national majorities of Aymara, Quechua, and Tupi Guaraní origin. But that pact lasted only until October 20, 2019, when the crisis was reopened and the trend from 2008 toward civil war reemerged.

The Right’s political representation was in deep crisis after the great uprisings of the last decade, which pushed the ruling class to strengthen ties with the Morales government. Some relief was provided by the favorable economic situation and the big business the ruling class was able to conduct because of the boom in raw material prices throughout Latin America, which allowed for a recuperation of the Right under the banner of the Comité Civico (citizens’ committee) or behind former President Carlos Mesa. Combined with the bureaucratization of the MAS after 14 years at the helm of the government and the erosion of its popular support, this facilitated the triumph of the coup d’état.

The indigenous peoples are an important component not only of the peasant movement but also of the precariously employed laborers and the “formalized” workers. Demands relating to “identity” and of a national nature are deeply felt, with a strong symbolic weight and a power to mobilize—as expressed in the spontaneous demonstrations against the coup in the slums of Senkata in El Alto and in the city of Sacaba near Cochabamba. Today, as in the previous decade, structural democratic demands are a central component of the mobilization against the coup—that is, indigenous national demands remain tremendously vital within the class struggle. We could see this in the movement that was triggered by the brutal manifestations of racism by the semi-fascist civilian gangs Juventud Cochala (Cochala Youth) and Unión Juvenil Cruceñista (Santa Cruz Youth Union). These gangs have devoted themselves to beating and vilifying indigenous peoples in the aftermath of the coup d’état. Since November 10, the coup plotters have unleashed massacres in Sacaba4 and Senkata,5 the victims of which have been defamed by many intellectuals, academics, and even left organizations such as the POR6 with terms such as “paid” demonstrators, “vandals,” “narcos,” and “terrorists”—all to the delight of the right, the ruling classes, and the white and mestizo caste.

The right-wing advance that culminated in the coup has once again demonstrated the failure of the strategy to resolve structural democratic questions without destroying the state that, through its repressive apparatuses, has been the guarantor of the class and racial structure of Bolivian society. Several constitutional and institutional reforms were implemented over the last decade—such as autonomy for indigenous territories; land deeds that prioritized women’s property rights; granting “official” status to 36 languages; the anti-racism law; the emergence of legal pluralism through the incorporation of indigenous, native, and peasant courts; and respect for the practices and customs of the original peoples in the nomination and election of their local authorities as well as for the Plurinational Legislative Assembly. Such measures, combined with a greater distribution of national income in the framework of sustained growth for nearly a decade, allowed incomes to rise and quality of life to improve for a large part of the population. This economic growth was made possible by the price boom in Latin America that resulted from the 2008 international economic crisis, which along with China’s economic growth made it easier for raw materials to become a safe-haven asset. Along with a fixed exchange rate, it encouraged consumption by broad layers of the population and, according to the National Institute of Statistics, resulted in 30% of the population becoming part of the new middle class. The reforms of public land deeds were implemented in vast areas of the east of the country. Native communal lands were reclaimed, alongside the constitutional establishment of agrarian insurance to protect growers against climatic change and crop failures. Provisions such as the Gender Identity Law and prioritization of women in the registration of agrarian land deeds7 explain the spontaneous mobilization of vast sectors of the population, who see these conquests threatened by the new government they are trying to resist.

These measures also made the mass movement passive over the years, which allowed the Right—making deals with the MAS regarding the agribusiness, forestry, mining, and oil industries—to rebuild its ranks and today take back leadership of the state. But it also explains why the upper strata and new bourgeoisie of indigenous or popular origin prefer to maintain order and social peace—that is, by collaborating with the coup plotters rather than contributing to the mobilization and resistance against the coup. Nothing else can explain the role of the MAS members of parliament in legitimizing the coup and negotiating their participation in the new regime of President Jeanine Añez, Interior Minister Arturo Murillo, and right-wing businessman Luis Fernando Camacho. As I wrote in this book’s first edition, these sweeping reforms of the state did not benefit all indigenous people equally, but favored first and foremost the upper strata and a new bourgeoisie of popular origin. The great indigenous majorities benefited far less, as their national, cultural, and democratic aspirations are combined with class demands for jobs, wages, education, health care, and so on—demands that are not necessarily linked to the land and the countryside but are urban and involve broad sectors of the working class.

The devaluation of structural democratic demands on the part of the POR and various left-wing organizations such as the Guevarists of Patria Insurgente did not just make them sterile during the uprisings of the last decade. Today, confronted with a sharpening of the class struggle, they have ended up closing ranks with the coup. In the upper layers of the indigenous intelligentsia, the devaluation of the class demands that are at the center of the mobilizations and the resistance in El Alto has produced the same effect: encouraging the coup with the argument that the mobilizations are financed by the MAS. This group includes Félix Patzi, governor of La Paz Department, as well as Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, Fernando Untoja, and other Aymara intellectuals who have contributed to defaming the mobilizations of resistance to the coup.8

Democratic Demands and the Worker-Peasant and Popular Alliance

The alliance between the diverse laborers of the city and the countryside has a strategic dimension for revolutionary socialists—those who seek to destroy the capitalist state and its armed institutions and replace them with a new type of workers’ and peasants’ state, one that seeks its own extinction by building a society of freely associated producers liberated from all forms of exploitation and oppression. Without an urban-rural alliance, it is impossible to build sufficient strength to overcome the resistance of the capitalists and their institutions. This alliance, however, is inconceivable unless wage earners take up the national and “identity” demands of the indigenous peoples. Moreover, it is impossible to transform the working class into an independent political force without these demands, which are part of the heritage of a large portion of Bolivia’s urban working class.

By diminishing the importance of indigenous peoples’ structural democratic demands, the POR and other organizations ended up reducing the working class to a subject of sectoral and trade union demands—an economic subject. That puts the working class on the same level as any other of the diverse social movements, stripping the workers of the potential power they have against the bourgeoisie by virtue of their strategic position at the center of the production and distribution of goods, the backbone of the entire capitalist system. The resistance to the coup by the heroic residents of El Alto’s District 8, particularly in Senkata, is the clearest proof of the vitality and enormous mobilizing power of the national demands of the indigenous peoples—something still misunderstood by the vast majority of the Old Left. District 8 is a neighborhood of precarious and outsourced workers without union rights and lacking social security, as well as impoverished small merchants working to survive day by day, who all have countless connections to the peasant world. It is also important to note that the indigenous and peasant movement needs the urban centers, the workers who hold in their hands the levers of the economy, in order to win. On the negative side, we saw how the leadership of the COB, from its initial role as political police at the service of the MAS inside the factories and workplaces, quickly became part of the coup, preventing wage earners from joining the struggle—which would have repeated the experience of 2003—and leaving them isolated and at the mercy of the repression unleashed against the resistance by the armed forces and the illegitimate Añez government.

How to Think About Revolution in Today’s Bolivia

Thinking about revolution in Bolivia today requires reflecting on the country’s current social and economic characteristics, especially after the reforms implemented as part of the neoliberal cycle and the reconfiguration of social classes in the country as well as the changes introduced by the MAS government in recent years.

The defeat of the working class that made Bolivia’s revolution of 19529 etched its characteristics into all the struggles of the second half of the 20th century, including during the so-called Days of March in 1985 and after the 1986 demobilization of Calamarca.10 Supreme Decree 21060 inaugurated and facilitated the implementation of the neoliberal model in Bolivia, substantially modifying the country’s entire economic and social structure. These changes were also expressed in the emergence of new political foci, such as indianism, autonomism, and many other currents whose objective was no longer to abolish the capitalist system and all forms of exploitation and oppression, but instead to achieve inclusion in the existing state. That is what Morales attempted in his nearly 14 years in government.

During the neoliberal period, the bourgeoisie changed its model of accumulation, which for decades had been centered on mining and particularly tin production, in favor of new resources such as fossil fuels. This change, encouraged by the low price of minerals until the 2008 crisis, allowed for relative economic diversification, the development of agribusiness in the east of the country, the expansion of health care, education, urban infrastructure, manufacturing for export, transportation, telecommunications, and finance. Despite all the academics who rushed to declare the end of the working class, this actually meant an unprecedented expansion and extension of the proletariat in the country—but this expansion was carried out at the cost of eliminating labor rights, extending precarious employment and outsourcing in companies and factories, and, in short, deploying policies aimed at fragmenting and dividing the ranks of the working class. Urbanization and rural migration to the cities also altered the ethnic and cultural composition of the working class, which in El Alto is mostly made up of members of the Aymara nation. Today, less than 25% of the wage-earning labor force is organized in unions and enjoys labor rights and representation in the central workers’ confederation. Today’s COB isn’t even a shadow of its former self.11 The union bureaucracy, which until 1985 had to use radical rhetoric and even take dramatic actions in order to negotiate in high-pressure situations, today acts as a component of the coup d’état, after having served the MAS as officials in the Ministry of Labor and as a political police inside factories and workplaces to impede the development of independent democratic tendencies among the workers. This “nationalization” and co-optation of the union, worker, and peasant leaderships escalated under the MAS government and is one of the causes of the paralysis of the great majority of the working class in the face of the coup.

Today, understanding the working class and its revolutionary potential requires fighting for an organization that goes beyond the legacy and tradition of merely sectoral or trade union practice and instead seeks to unite the ranks of the workers with an explicitly anti-capitalist strategic perspective, taking as their own the democratic demands of the various social movements and, in particular, the national demands of the indigenous people. Historically, the Bolivian working class constituted itself as a historical subject beginning with the struggle for minimum or elementary demands, which were quickly transformed into political demands when they converged with those of other sectors. Today, however, this syndicalist culture is powerless to confront the challenges that workers face, beginning with uniting their ranks, reclaiming their organizations, and transforming them into instruments of struggle.

The defeat of the revolutionary processes of the 1980s, and fundamentally the capitalist restoration in Eastern Europe undertaken by the ruling Stalinist bureaucracy, opened a moment of bourgeois ideological triumphalism that has had a decisive impact on the development of all sorts of social movements that lacked a strategic framework and whose actions were centered on partial and sectoral demands.

The peasant and indigenous struggles of the early 1990s, such as the March for Life led by lowland peoples, were part of a continental phenomenon of protests by indigenous peoples and peasants, such as the 1994 Zapatista uprising in Mexico and, beginning in 1997, the mobilizations by the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), an organization that led a new national uprising against the neoliberal government of President Lenín Moreno of Ecuador in 2019. This phenomenon converged with mass urban struggles in the 21st century, such as the Water War in Cochabamba or the Gas War in El Alto.12 The resistance to the coup is the most recent manifestation of this.

In the last few years, as part of an international phenomenon in the region involving Argentina, Brazil, and Chile, we have witnessed new struggles in which women play a prominent role. They have been met with rejection by an Old Left that has molded its political practice under the influence of nationalism, without understanding that as the economy and society were transforming, there was also a change in the composition of the working class, including a significant addition of women in production and service jobs. This feminization of the working class, a product of the emergence of jewelry and textile workshops, food preparation, health and education services, and other companies and services that hire high percentages of women, requires us to rethink the kind of gender relationships that should be established or proposed by an organization presumed to be revolutionary. In other words, this feminization of the labor force today makes it increasingly evident that gender demands are also demands of the working class inasmuch as women are a substantial part of it.13

To think about the problems of revolution today requires formulating questions that will have to be answered fundamentally through interventions in real events. How can the current struggles of the feminist and women’s movement be linked to the traditional forms of organization of working women, such as the Miners Housewives’ Committees (Comités de Amas de Casa Mineras) during and after the 1952 revolution? How does the significant presence of women in companies and factories change the culture of the workers’ movement, which is no longer essentially male as in the 20th century? What role can and should the working class play with respect to the struggle that has been taking place in the defense of the land, the environment, and ecology? How will the democratic demands of the indigenous peoples be articulated, and what characteristics will they have in the new situation, since the Right in power intends to eliminate the formal democratic concessions Morales granted? These and other questions are fundamental when it comes to thinking about how to coordinate the sheer volume of force that will be necessary to strike at Bolivian capitalism’s center of gravity, to open the path to a government of workers and poor people based on institutions developed in the heat of the struggle and on independent self-organization. If the women’s struggle in the coming years is transformed into a truly inspiring movement, includes working women, and is introduced into the very bosom of the working class, acting as the leavening agent that can raise it out of the lethargy of recent years (enforced by the union bureaucracy), the working class could recognize its own enormous potential power. And at the same time it can build a new hegemony by taking up progressive demands of the movements and making them its own, and by seeking to build socialist and revolutionary fractions in each of those movements—be it the women’s movement, the LGBTQ+ movement, or the movements in defense of lands, communities, and the environment. Only through the unity of the workers, together with the diverse movements that today permeate the entire working class, can we overcome the narrow syndicalist and sectoral limitations and lead workers to the terrain of open political struggle against the capitalist system and its ruling class, which are responsible for the extension of racism in social relations.

Finally, to think about the revolution in Bolivia today implies recapturing the lessons of the revolution of 1952, as well as other revolutionary episodes such as the People’s Assembly in 197114 or, more recently, the popular uprising in El Alto in October 2003 and the series of uprisings that have taken place over that decade. The enormous spontaneity and strength of the working class that had been revealed in the initiative and creativity of the masses throughout the 20th century was revealed that October 2003, when the mass movement made history. But at the same time we could see both the power and the limits of spontaneity. As in 1952 and in the Gas War, the workers and people resisting the coup lack existing revolutionary organizations that can prevent all the masses’ energy and creative power from dissipating. The absence of an organization capable of leveraging and organizing disparate initiatives, of deploying a strategy for victory—since no strategy is conceivable without a genuine political entity—allowed the MNR[Translator’s note: The Revolutionary Nationalist Movement (Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario) was established in 1941. A leftist-reformist party, it led the 1952 revolution and ruled Bolivia until 1964, when the government was overthrown in a military coup. It has since joined the ranks of neoliberalism.] and later the MAS to play the role of pacifying and containing mass action, diverting the revolution to winning reforms, including some important ones, but which ultimately sought to preserve the capitalist system.

My proposal is that we must draw these lessons, think them through, and advance in the construction of a revolutionary socialist organization with a strategy to win.

November 26, 2019

This is the prologue to the third edition of Javo Ferreira’s book Comunidad, indigenismo y marxismo (Community, Indigenism, and Marxism) which was recently published by Ediciones IPS (Argentina) and Ediciones Palabra Obrera (Bolivia). It was published in Spanish on December 1 in Ideas de Izquierda.

Translation: Scott Cooper. The text has been slightly adapted for an English-language readership.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Translator’s note: The wiphala is a square emblem used to represent Andean native peoples in Bolivia and other countries. The Bolivian constitution of 2009 established the wiphala as one of the country’s dual flags.
2. Translator’s note: The “apparent state” is a formulation by René Zavaleta Mercado (1937–1984), a noted Bolivian politician and Marxist philosopher, to describe a state that represents in name only those who inhabit the territory over which it claims sovereignty.
3. Translator’s note: While La Paz is the seat of the Bolivian government, Sucre is the constitutionally recognized capital of the country. The Media Luna (Half Moon) is the name given to a group of four departments of Eastern Bolivia (Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando, and Tarija) where much of the opposition to the Morales government was concentrated.
4. Translator’s note: Security forces fired on a demonstration against the coup on November 15, killing at least eight people.
5. Translator’s note: On November 19, hundreds of soldiers and police—with tanks, helicopters, and other military vehicles—brutally repressed a blockade at the Senkata fuel plant in El Alto, killing nine people.
6. Translator’s note: The Partido Obrero Revolucionario (Revolutionary Workers Party) is a group that identifies itself as Trotskyist and has its origins in the original Trotskyist group founded in 1935 in Bolivia.
7. The MAS government understood the importance of the key role women play and established all sorts of rules and regulations aimed at gaining hegemony. By way of example, I mentioned that Morales’ January 2019 presidential report indicated that about 139,000 peasant women had property titles in 2005. From 2006 to 2018, the number of women holding land deeds grew to more than 870,000. Today, more than 1 million women hold title to land in rural areas.
8. Translator’s note: Cusicanqui is a noted Bolivian sociologist, historian, and subaltern theorist who work with indigenous movements. Untoja is a Bolivian economist and political scientist perhaps best known for advocating a return to the ayllu, the traditional form of community among the Aymaras and Quechuas of the Andes region.
9. Translator’s note: In April 1952, the Movimiento Nationalista Revolucionario (MNR) ousted the military junta then ruling Bolivia. Armed workers fought a three-day battle with the military. Yet the Bolivian working class, which had played the decisive role in the revolution, was unable to take power itself. Over the next four years, the bourgeois government of Victor Paz Estenssoro undertook what has come to be called the “famous revolutionary restructuring of society.”
10. In March 1985, 10,000 miners occupied the city of La Paz in a revolutionary mobilization that had the support of the population and even conscripted soldiers in the barracks. The mobilization triggered President Siles to go on a hunger strike against the marchers, and pressure was finally relieved thanks to a wage negotiation. A few months later, the working class was finally defeated when the army halted the march of 5,000 miners in the town of Calamarca against Decree 21060.
11. For example, consider the railway workers. The COB’s statutes state that the workers of the ENFE (Empresa Nacional de Ferrocarriles del Estado, the National Railway Company) are to be represented, but since the ENFE was privatized, its representation in the COB organizations has been reduced to administrative staff—those belonging to ENFE RESIDUAL. The hundreds of workers on the rails have no organization, participation, or representation in the workers’ confederation.
12. Translator’s note: The so-called Water War began in December 1999 in Cochabamba, Bolivia’s fourth-largest city, when the city’s municipal water supply company was privatized. A massive increase in water rates prompted protests that erupted in January, February, and April 2000. Tens of thousands of community members marched through the city center and battled with police, and one resident was killed. Finally, the national government negotiated an agreement with the Coordinating Committee in Defense of Water and Life, a coalition of community groups, to reverse the privatization. In 2003, the so-called Gas War was part of ongoing protests over capitalist exploitation of Bolivia’s vast natural gas reserves. It culminated in October with strikes and barricades in the streets that brought the country to a standstill—and which were met by violent repression that included the murder of some 60 people by the army, mostly in El Alto.
13. It should be noted that the Stalinist and Maoist currents, among others that maintain class-collaborationist strategies, also reject gender demands as “petty bourgeois.”
14. Translator’s note: The Asamblea del Pueblo (People’s Assembly), called by President Juan José Torres in 1971, gathered representatives of a wide swath of the working-class and peasant sectors of Bolivian society into a parliament-like body that ended up sparking a failed military coup by a faction of the Bolivian military.

About author

Javo Ferreira

Javo Ferreira

Javo is a leading member of the Revolutionary Workers League — Fourth International (LOR-CI) and an editor of our sister site La Izquierda Diario Bolivia. He is author of the book Comunidad, indigenismo y marxismo (Community, Indigenism, and Marxism).