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Ferment in Latin America

Upheaval in Bolivia: An Eyewitness Report

Livio Maitan

First Published: International Socialist Review, Volume 26 Number 1 (Whole No.170), Winter 1965
Transcription/HTML Markup: 2005 by Andrew Pollack

Livio Maitan is a correspondent for World Outlook, a news service in Paris and of Quatrieme Internationale, official organ of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International. He has recently concluded an extensive tour of Latin America.

LA PAZ, Nov. 20—The commentaries in the world press on the events of recent weeks in Bolivia have played up a number of contradictory themes, talking about a victory of the gorillas [reactionary officer caste], of “Nasserite” tendencies in the army, of conflicts between the miners, the students and the peasant militia, of defeats suffered by the miners, etc. As for the Bolivian press, it speaks of a revolution restauradora [restorative revolution] and there has been a flowering of publications, resolutions, communiques, declarations of positions. Bolivia is undoubtedly enjoying a period of “democratic liberties” which has few precedents in the history of the country and one quickly becomes aware of the relief everybody feels at being able to go home without finding the police there, without feeling that they are being followed, or that they must think twice before voicing their opinions in public.

However, it would be a serious mistake to go by surface appearances and pass things off by drawing an analogy with other situations in Latin-American countries in the past (despite the actual existence of certain analogies). In reality the process under way is specific and new for Bolivia itself.

It is necessary first of all to cite the essential facts (all the more so since the major press services gave very partial and tendentious reports).

Opposition to the MNR

The erosion of the MNR [Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario], headed by Victor Paz Estenssoro, had been going on for some years. Last year it reached an extreme degree with the December events, the split with Juan Lechin, and the foundation of the PRIN [Partido Revolucionario de Izquierda Nacionalista]. (The MNR had already suffered a split to the right under the leadership of Walter Guevara Arze.) The elections of last May 31 were completely fraudulent and Paz was elected for the third time in face of open opposition from the miners and the urban petty-bourgeoisie and the indifference of the peasants.

His days were numbered. Paz had no popular support whatsoever, having become in reality the symbol of open acquiescence to American imperialist domination of the country. Even the peasants, to whom the MNR regime had—partially—given the land could not forget the very limited character of the agrarian reform and the inescapable fact that their standard of living had undergone no actual improvement.

In the final analysis, Paz based himself exclusively on the support of the American embassy and a repressive apparatus whose unbelievable extent, organization, and cruel and barbarous character were disclosed by the recent events. Given the country’s constantly worsening economic conditions and the impossibility for the regime to grant any concessions, even if only to certain sectors of the population, a profound ground swell became inevitable.

Beginning with September, in fact, this surge took on concrete expression, marking, it can be said, the beginning of a new rise in the mass movement in Bolivia. It is significant that the urban petty-bourgeoisie were the first to mobilize.

The first struggle of some scope was the teachers strike which lasted almost a month. (The teachers demanded an increase in their miserable salary which amounts to approximately $40 [U.S.] a month.) The government took drastic measures, proclaiming a “stage of siege.” (The strike was accompanied by frequent demonstrations in the streets of La Paz and serious conflicts with the police.) A part of the national leadership of the unions, directed by the MNR, then decided to capitulate, signing a contract that was a sellout. Nevertheless, the strike continued in some cities.

Almost immediately after, the students in the secondary schools opened a struggle in protest against an increase in the price of notebooks. Again the streets of the country’s main city became the scene of demonstrations and struggles against the repressive forces.

At the same time, the government—which had already taken notorious measures against leaders of the political opposition, compelling them to go into exile or underground—took another grave step by establishing censorship of the press.

This provoked another wave of protest, including protests from conservative newspapers who decided to temporarily suspend publication. At the University of La Paz, demonstrations began that were to spread to all the principal towns of the country and culminate in the setting up of barricades on the La Paz campus by students and vanguard workers; and in the brutal occupation of the university by forces made up of the police, the special militia of the MNR (including women), and contingents of the army.

Clearly something more was at the bottom of all these demonstrations than the incidental reasons cited above. In truth, the whole movement had a very clear oppositional political significance of increasingly violent nature against the Paz regime, which now came under attack not only from the left but also from the center-right and the right.

Intervention of the Miners

The student demonstrations at Oruro inevitably brought in the miners. Casualties in these demonstrations included dead and wounded and the repression was brutal even during the funerals that were held for the victims.

The army decided to move against “San Jose,” the mine center in the outskirts of Oruro where the miners have a radio station. Thanks to a relation of forces in its favor, the army came out on top. But meanwhile the decisive miners’ centers of Siglo Veinte, Catavi and Huanuni were drawn into the struggle. The miners’ forces from these centers met a contingent of the army close to the small village of Sora-Sora. The encounter ended in the complete rout of the army and the capture of arms and even some prisoners [see interview below]. The miners then decided to draw back to their bases before the army could open a counteroffensive.

The Military Junta

The significant and symptomatic occurrence at Sora-Sora, together with the progressive deterioration of the situation in La Paz, were without doubt the decisive factors that determined the attitude of the military, above all Alfredo Ovando Candia, the chief of staff, and Rene Barrientos Ortuno, chief of the air force and vice president of the republic. According to sources here in La Paz who are in position to know, a meeting had already been held a few days before in which representatives of the army and a representative of the American embassy met with Paz Estenssoro himself. They came to the conclusion that Paz had to go and that Guevara Arze would be the candidate to succeed him. However, events did not permit such a well-calculated operation and it was under pressure of the situation which was precipitated that Barrientos turned to open rebellion at Cochabamba. A little later, despite the fact that Barrientos’ rebellion was limited to this city, the army decided to bring down Paz (probably with his agreement) and to name a military junta.

At La Paz, crowds poured into the streets and then marched toward the government palace with Juan Lechin, who came out of the underground. Shots were fired at the crowd in fear that Lechin would be installed in the palace as the new president. Upon the arrival of Barrientos from Cochabamba, it was announced that two presidents had been named, Ovando and Barrientos. But the crowd displayed its hostility to Ovando, considering him to be a military chief of the MNR, and after two hours Barrientos announced the resignation of his colleague.

Thus began the rule of the junta headed by Barrientos. To a large extent they depended for the time being on the old personnel of the MNR and Barrientos named as ambassadors to Washington and Paris figures of the days of the rosca [the tin barons].

However, the situation remained fluid and the junta resorted to a policy of balancing between the contending forces. Barrientos began touring the country, making interminable speeches. He listened to everybody, offering guarantees in all directions (promising above all to hold an “honest” election in the relatively near future), including overtures in the direction of the miners. He offered verbal assurances that he was inclined to examine the possibility of re-establishing workers’ control with the right of veto—which Paz had cancelled—and one of his ministers went so far as to come out flatly for restoring workers’ control. In reality the junta has not followed a settled line up to now. The situation, as we said, remains fluid. The new government has no important base—at least at this stage—outside of the army, which also is not altogether sure (it must not be forgotten that with the exception of a contingent the Bolivian army is not composed of mercenaries and that the soldiers are in the great majority the sons of peasants and workers). Barrientos and those with him are compelled to operate in a context characterized by the fact that all the anti-MNR currents developed a convergent action, symbolized by the establishment of the Revolutionary Committee of the People which includes all political formations from the extreme right to Lechin’s PRIN (only the Trotskyist POR [Partido Obrero Revolucionario] and the Communist party being excluded).

“Democratic” Period

At present, all the classes and all the social layers—all sectors—are utilizing the “democracy” to state their respective demands, to press their claims; and it goes without saying that the ghosts of the old regime, the rosca, don’t want the same things as the miners or the radicalized petty-bourgeoisie and the political currents that are taking shape and announcing themselves. Even old reactionary parties, the rosqueros, are reappearing such as the Liberal party and the PURS [Partido Unido Republicano Socialista]. Some parties are speaking up which claim to be new, calling themselves “movements” which did not exist in the past. Barrientos can only tack according to the wind and insist above all on his guarantee of a “democratic” election.

It is clear that various maneuvers are being prepared and projected of which it is difficult to foresee whether they will actually be carried out or not. However, their present meaning can be deciphered.

One of these maneuvers is the business of rightist or center-right parties talking about mobilizing under the Christian Democratic banner (particularly the Social Christian party and the Falange [Falange Socialista Boliviano] ). They are trying to present the Christian Democracy as a new, revolutionary experiment, in the Chilean style, calmly forgetting the specific Bolivian context.

For his part, the former president Siles Suazo—who was exiled by Paz Estenssoro last September—is seeking to reorganize the MNR by cleaning out Paz and his group. He is advocating the reunification of the forces that left the MNR because of the policies of the former leadership, particularly the PRA [Partido Revolucionario Autentico] of Guevara Arze and the PRIN of Juan Lechin.

As for the military, their political inexperience is glaring. In addition it is probable that there are two different tendencies. If the reactionaries are, without the least doubt, predominant, certain “Nasserite” aspirations unquestionably also exist. Barrientos, in the final analysis, may seek to play the bonapartist role and, along this road, stake out his political future. At bottom, his speeches and his tours imply that he has a perspective of this kind.

In general, everybody is trying to gain time and, in the final analysis, the junta is maintaining itself because none of the major currents are actually struggling against it, not even those holding the biggest reservations concerning it. The PRIN has a very equivocal position of waiting in relation to the junta and of collaborating to a certain degree with even rightist currents in the Revolutionary Committee of the People. Up to now Lechin has far from repulsed the advances made by Siles about a new edition of the MNR. The Communist party is divided at present into two branches. The right wing, led by Kolle, flatly pro-Soviet, is waiting for the junta to provide “democratic” elections. In the left wing, certain leaders, including Escobar of the Siglo Veinte mine, have invited Barrientos to visit the mine centers.

Basic Social Forces

Behind all these groups and parties, behind all these operations, what are the real social forces involved and what are their present postures?

The miners came out of the recent battles with the conviction that they made an essential contribution to the downfall of the MNR. They are more resolute, more politically conscious, better armed than ever. They have withdrawn to their strongholds where the central government power does not exist and where the only authority—even it is sometimes challenged—is that of the unions. Siglo Veinte and Catavi justifiably consider themselves to be “free territory.” The left organizations—PRIN, the CP and the POR—are by far the most dominant. Guevara now has a small base, particularly at Huanuni; the Falange and the Social Christians are very weak. In some of the less politically sophisticated sectors there is some expectancy that the junta might actually organize elections and some are asking if Barrientos won’t take the road followed by Colonel German Bush and Major Gualberto Villaroel.

Deep unrest is apparent among the urban petty-bourgeoisie and they are struggling with great energy. There is no doubt, however, that a considerable sector—the majority of students—are following the Falange. This clearly implies a very grave danger in view of the character of leadership of this party and its completely reactionary components. But among the petty-bourgeoisie the support to the Falange is, by and large, of a “Peronist” nature. The students particularly seek democratic liberties and emancipation from the imperialist tutelage.

The bourgeoisie as such is extremely limited, not representing an appreciable social and political force. It is nourishing hopes in the junta and would support any possible shift offering a guarantee of success. The “landholders”—a good part of them dispossessed of their land—are more dynamic and aggressive. They support the Falange above all and they hope that the hour of their rescue has sounded. They can wield influence in bourgeois and petty-bourgeois sectors, particularly in certain towns.

The big unknown is the peasants. Much has been made of their allegedly siding with Paz Estenssoro in the October struggle. In reality, this occurred only in exceptional instances. At Sucre where it assumed some proportions, the evident explanation is that in this rampart of the reaction, the students are under the influence of the Falange. Elsewhere it was not the peasant militias that were involved in the battles but the mercenary militia and the MNR shock forces. The truth is that the peasants stood largely aside (minority forces helped the miners) and they are now waiting expectantly. It is true that they are aware that the landlords raised their heads and they are distrustful of the new regime. In any case they cannot be considered to be partisans of the junta. They may follow either a new MNR or become allied with the left, if it is able to develop a clear, concrete and audacious policy.

This, in sum, is the alignment of forces. It can be added that everybody is trying to exploit to the maximum the present “democratic” pause in order to organize or reorganize their respective forces. What exists at present in Bolivia is a pause, an interval, a highly transitional phase, even if it cannot be said whether it will last for weeks or months.

Symptoms of Conflict

The first signs of the coming conflicts are already apparent. Barrientos has raised the question, evidently a major one for him, of turning over all arms to the army. When he visited the mine districts, the union representatives replied by presenting the demands of the workers and explicitly stating that the arms will not be given up. Miners at the Siglo Veinte mine told me that they would sooner give up their wives and children than their arms.

In the countryside, reactionary Falangist elements have begun to vigorously demand that the land should be returned to its former owners (in the Potosi region) and they have even gone into action in the Sud Yungas region. The heads of the department of agrarian reform have found it necessary to issue a press release declaring that the titles granted under the reform still remain in effect.

It is clear that the present situation cannot extend for a long period. Instead there will soon be new developments, new dramatic battles.

In general, the relationship of forces is quite favorable to the revolutionary sector. But an element of considerable weakness persists. If one probes the causes which made it possible, despite the rise in the mass movement, for the preventive coup d’etat to succeed (it has unquestionably dammed and interrupted the process for the time being), and for the army to remain intact as a whole, to which should be added the passivity of the peasants, it is necessary without the slightest doubt to single out the absence of a centralizing leadership capable of setting a clear unifying aim.

If, for example, the struggle at the university of La Paz is considered, it is to be noted that it had no precise aim whatever except to voice vehement protest against the regime of the MNR. Even the combat at Sora-Sora, which was of such importance, had no other aim but to express solidarity with the demonstrators at Oruro.

This lack of leadership persists. Lechin is proving to be more centrist than ever. The CP has no line, and even the program advanced by the COB [Central Obrera Boliviano] which reveals Trotskyist influence, has remained theoretical up to now. The POR, despite its important ties and its degree of influence in the decisive sectors, has not yet had the opportunity of proceeding as the actual direct leadership on a national scale.

It is probable that a relative prolonging of the present situation would favor the attempt to set up a new MNR—whatever its name; that is, the rightist course of Lechin, the PRIN and the COB itself. Conservative or reactionary pressure—for example the success of the junta’s campaign for arms to be given up or a generalized attack by the landlords against the peasants—could precipitate sharp outbursts by pushing into struggle not only the miners but the broad masses who are at present hesitant.

Bolivia can again become the central revolutionary hotbed of Latin America in the coming months. It is objectively possible that a new breach will be opened in the system of imperialist capitalism in this continent which keeps on boiling despite the gains of reaction, particularly in Brazil. More than ever the outcome will depend, in the final analysis, on the role which a revolutionary leadership of the Bolivian masses can play.

Interview With Bolivian Miner

Vivid Account of the Battle of Sora-Sora

[During a trip to the mine centers of Catavi and Siglo Veinte, a special correspondent from World Outlook interviewed V. E., a member of the Partido Obrero Revolucionario, Bolivian section of the Fourth International, and other miners who were with him at the battle of Sora-Sora. On the table of the small room where the interview took place, a machine gun, captured from the government troops at Sora-Sora, lay rather symbolically in full sight. The following is a translation of the interview.]

Question: When did the miners begin to mobilize?

Answer: They began mobilizing as soon as the news reached Siglo Veinte-Catavl about the demonstrations in Oruro and the repressions by the police and the army. We heard that people had been killed and wounded and that fights had broken out even during the funerals for the victims. Actually the news we heard was that there were a lot of dead and wounded which explains why the miners reacted so quickly and so violently.

Q: What was their reaction concretely?

A: The evening of the twenty-eighth [of October] they began to mobilize. During the night, 150 to 200 miners left Siglo Veinte in three trucks in the direction of Huanuni-Oruro armed with dynamite and old guns. A truck left at the same time from Catavi. During the same night they reached Huanuni where there was a concentration of forces. A discussion developed between the cadres of the CP [Communist party]—who are in the majority at Siglo Veinte—and the Trotskyist militants (adherents of the Partido Revolucionario Obrero, Bolivian section of the Fourth International, and of the newspaper Masas, the tendency led by Guillermo Lora].

Q: What was the discussion about?

A: The partisans of the CP didn’t want to proceed into combat. Their fundamental argument was: the Trotskyists are armed the best so let them go first. So a truckload of Trotskyists moved to the head of the convoy. Two other trucks followed. At Sora-Sora they separated to go by different routes.

Q: Where was the army?

A: The army was on the other side of Sora-Sora and actually the first truck made contact with them right after leaving the village. Someone shouted at the first truck to stop. But at the same time the soldiers started shooting at the truck. It was still dark. The miners jumped out immediately and tried to hide along the side of the road. But seven—all of them Trotskyists—were wounded.

Q: And the other trucks?

A: One went as far as Machacamarca. But later the militants of the CP returned to Huanuni.

Meanwhile the men in the first truck got a truckdriver to take the wounded. In the morning everybody returned to Huanuni and started accusing the militants of the CP for not helping the first truck when it was attacked by the army.

Q: What happened then at Catavi and Siglo Veinte?

A: The radio station at Huanuni, controlled by the miners, broadcast the news about the first encounter. The situation was confused. They talked about sixty dead. This was when other trucks left Catavi and Siglo Veinte. I was in one of these trucks. We reached Huanuni around eleven o’clock while other people were arriving. After a quick lunch, we left the town and got to Sora-Sora around noon.

Q: And then?

A: We decided to advance on foot across the pampa [open flats], armed with dynamite and guns. We moved toward Machacamarca.

After feeding those who hadn’t eaten at Huanuni, a meeting was held in which almost 200 miners participated. We had reached a crossroad.

Q: How did the meeting turn out?

A: Ordonez, who is the leader of the CP at Siglo Veinte and at the same time the main trade-union leader, proposed we shouldn’t go any further and about a hundred men, more or less, answered by getting into their trucks. The others, the Trotskyists and the miners who liked their attitude decided to go ahead. Later the partisans of the CP followed in turn.

Meanwhile a lot of other miners showed up. [The total number of miners involved was around 3,000. Some contingents of peasants joined them, according to reports. They went across the pampa, occupying the surrounding hills.] The CP people switched back and forth a little, going back and then moving ahead again.

Q: And the army?

A: The encounter took place quite rapidly. The miners started attacking with dynamite, moving against a hill where a military contingent was entrenched and they defeated them. One soldier dropped, killed. The other soldiers began to run in a disorganized way, dropping their arms. They didn’t want to fight. Some of them fired, but in the air, without hurting the miners. The miners captured some prisoners and a lot of arms.

Q: Did the miners try to advance towards Oruro?

A: No. There the army had really moved in a much bigger force, and brought up artillery. At the same time, it began to blow very hard and there were such clouds of dust that you couldn’t see anything. The miners decided by a majority vote to return to their bases despite an opposing opinion held by some.

On its side, the army decided to stay in its positions and not to come to Huanuni, not to speak of Siglo Veinte and Catavi.

Q: Did the miners return to Catavi-Siglo Veinte?

A: Yes, they returned and the population was waiting for them, worried because there had been talk of a massacre.

Later a meeting was held to draw up a balance sheet. Ordonez, the secretary of the union and a member of the CP, wasn’t able to speak. They shouted at him: “Nurse. Servant girl.” [He drove an ambulance during the struggle.] The report was made by a Trotskyist.

Well, those are the main facts. The miners now feel stronger and more confident than ever.

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