Chris Harman

Latin America

Continent of discontent

(November 2003)

From Socialist Review, No.279, November 2003.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

For the third time in three years a spontaneous uprising has forced a neoliberal president to flee from a presidential palace in South America

First Jamil Mahuad in Ecuador in January 2000, then De La Rua in Argentina in December 2001, and now Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozado in Bolivia.

When miners armed with sticks of dynamite, clubs and rocks joined the crowds thronging the centre of the capital, La Paz, on 17 October they showed the extent to which the movement against corporate globalisation finds its sharpest practical expression on the streets of Latin America.

Bolivia is a poor country – the poorest in the continent after Nicaragua. Its population is still mainly rural – a very different state of affairs to Brazil, Venezuela or Chile, where most people now live in cities, let alone long-industrialised Argentina. But its wealth historically came from the mines, and this led to the emergence of a tight-knit, highly combative working class. In 1952 it spearheaded one of the world’s most spectacular revolutions, occupying the capital, disarming the armed forces, and bringing to power a nationalist government that nationalised the mines and divided the semi-feudal latifundia (large estates) among the peasantry.

The miners’ union leaders agreed to power going to middle class nationalists intent on fostering the growth of an independent Bolivian bourgeoisie. But the weakness of Bolivian capitalism compared to its competitors led to dependence on a succession of military regimes prepared to use extreme repression to break the workers’ organisations. Yet at the end of the 1960s, and again at the beginning of the 1980s, renewed miners’ struggles shook up the whole political structure. In 1971 there was even a brief period of near dual power, while in the early 1980s the military were forced to give way to a formally democratic regime with a centre-left government. It was the neoliberal policy accepted by this government, with privatisation of industry and halving the mining workforce, that seemed to break working class power for good.

Then in 2000 began a new phase of rebellion – not among the miners, but in the Cochabamba region among peasants and workers, who blocked roads and brought the economy to a halt in protest against price rises caused by water privatisation.

The president, the former military dictator Banzer, was forced to rescind the water privatisation. In the elections that followed Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozado, the main bourgeois candidate, only got 1 percent more votes than one of the leaders of the protest, Evo Morales of the Movement Towards Socialism.

The new government nevertheless felt confident enough to try to repress the wave of protests that began in mid-September against the sell-off of natural gas to British and European multinationals. It seemed it was going ride out the storm until a massacre of demonstrators in the Al Alto suburb of La Paz caused the miners to re-emerge as a strategic force, against the background of strikes, and worker and peasant road blockages that paralysed the country’s economy. As in 1952, the organised working class, although small numerically, was able to give the lead to the frustrations of the rest of the exploited and oppressed population.

In a desperate attempt to save the situation, the parties that brought Sanchez de Lozado to power opted to replace him with his deputy, the TV presenter turned media millionaire Carlos Mesa. This seems to have bought some time for the country’s ruling class, with the protesters returning to their home districts and production restarting. The new president may try to keep control by sprinkling his speeches with nationalist phrases and ritual criticisms of neoliberalism while reassuring the US that its interests are not threatened. This has been the method used by Kirchner, the new president of Argentina, to try to bury the memory of the uprising there.

But it is unlikely that Bolivia’s workers and peasants will simply accept that. Meanwhile the reverberation of the Bolivian events will spread throughout the continent. Already the Economist is expressing fear of a similar revolt shaking Honduras, long seen by US imperialism as central to its control over Central America, while anti-privatisation struggles are worrying the government of neighbouring Peru. And the Kirchner government in Argentina cannot for long maintain the pretence of being friends with the social movement and the IMF at the same time.

Some of US imperialism’s strategists have been hoping that the Lula government in Brazil would help to contain the growing radicalism across the continent. Lula was still a hero to thousands of young left wingers at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre in January, and has since sought to head off his friendship with the IMF and his acceptance of the planned Free Trade Area of the Americas through an agreement to work with Chavez in Venezuela and Kirchner in Argentina to expand the Latin American trade bloc, Mercosur. Gutierrez, the new president of Ecuador, is following a similarly timid path, and the State Department must be hoping that expected left victories in forthcoming elections in El Salvador and Uruguay will have a similar outcome.

But Lula and Gutierrez are increasingly under fire from workers, peasants and indigenous peoples. The Bolivian example will deepen their problems – and those of their allies in Washington. The new wave of struggle will grow – and grow more radical.

Bolivia is a small country, with a population of just 6 million, but strategically important. That was why Che Guevara chose it 36 years ago as the launching pad for his desperate attempt to break the isolation of the Cuban Revolution. His tragic mistake was to underestimate the country’s miners and instead place his hopes on the most remote part of the countryside. Last month the miners showed the potential he ignored – the potential for workers right across the continent to spearhead the struggles of all the groups who suffer under capitalism and imperialism.

Last updated on 27 December 2009