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Fourth International, January-February 1953


The Coming Showdown in Latin America

One Year of the Bolivian Revolution


From Fourth International, Vol.14 No.1, January-February 1953, pp.13-16.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Exactly one year ago this month there occurred the revolutionary ascent to power of the government headed by Paz Estenssoro.

The action of the armed masses swept out the former military government and brought to power the party which was known for its national-democratic revolutionary tradition and program: the Movimiento National Revolucionario (MNR).

Since then there has unfolded a veritably revolutionary era in the country which has been characterized by ever more widespread and deep-going activity of the worker and peasant masses.

This situation can only be defined as the national-democratic phase of the Bolivian Revolution.

* * *

Bolivia is a semi-colonial country whose particular economic and social structure explains the unfolding revolution and determines its character.

Situated in the center of South America, with an area of 412,772 square miles, it is inhabited by a population of less than 3,500,000 persons. 65% of this population is concentrated on the upper plateau (Altiplano), 12,000 feet above sea level and whose area does not exceed 16% of that of the entire country. 20% of the population is concentrated in the Yunga some 4,000 feet above sea level and covering some 14% of the total area. The remaining 15% of the population is scattered in the Llanos and the Gran Chaco region, some 200 feet above sea level and encompassing some 70% of the total territory of the country.

The concentration of the largest part of the population in the Altiplano is explained by the proximity of the mines whose production still accounts for the most important wealth of the country. This concentration already existed at the time of the Incas who, by means of a colossal system of irrigation works and soil conservation, had succeeded in maintaining the principal sector of agriculture of the country on the Altiplano and thus of resolving the problem of food supply for the workers in the mines.

From this geographic distribution of the population, in flagrant contradiction with the natural distribution of the arable land of the country, there arises one of the causes of its economic disequilibrium, and especially of its very low standard of living.

Poverty and Land-Hunger

Agricultural production is among the lowest in all Latin America, and this despite the existence of some 65 million hectares [one hectare is over two acres] of arable and wooded land which can be put into production at relatively little expense.

The cultural and material level of the population is one of the lowest in the world. According to a UN commission, consumption of food per inhabitant comes to some 1,600 calories a day as against 2,730 in Argentina, 2,350 in Brazil, 2,280 in Colombia. The Commission’s report add that this consumption is naturally clearly inadequate for a normal adult weighing an average of 140 pounds, but, fortunately, it comments, the average weight of Bolivians is under this figure. It omits to add that this is the result of chronic malnutrition.

From 1937 to 1952 the retail price index rose from 100 to 1,040. Wages for the same period, however, only went up from 100 to 650.

In Argentina there is an average of two pairs of shoes annually per inhabitant, in Chile a pair and a half, in Peru one pair for four inhabitants, in Bolivia one pair for 17 inhabitants.

The large majority of the population, composed of Indios (autochtons) and metis, is illiterate, Which accounts for the electorate being a small minority of the people. In 1950 there were 142,000 children registered in primary schools out of a total of 445,000 children of school age; they attended schools in the rural districts 60 days of the year, and 90-100 days in urban districts. Higher education is exclusively reserved for a small minority coming from the middle and upper layers of the petty bourgeoisie.

The social geography of the country is typical of all semi-colonial countries. The peasants are in the majority; there is a quite numerous urban petty bourgeoisie; a proletarian minority strongly concentrated however in the mines and in some other industries (transport, textile, cement, glass, chemical products, beer and alcohol, tobacco, tanning).

The propertied groups of the country are mainly composed of layers of large landed proprietors and of a numerically weak compradore-type bourgeoisie deriving its main income from mine holdings and a few other industries, the most important of which were owned by the imperialists (principally Americans and English).

Distribution of National Income

The peasant population accounts for some 900,000 toilers, the great majority of whom are completely landless or own a bit of ground from ½ to 3 hectares. For the most part they work as agricultural workers or serfs in the fields of the big landowners, whose property varies in size from a few thousand to 20 thousand and more hectares. They live and work on these lands in the most miserable conditions of housing, sanitation and food. These conditions, taken together with the extremely primitive methods and means of cultivating the soil, explain the very poor output of agriculture. For all of these reasons the agrarian question is extremely acute in Bolivia as are its effects therefore on the political developments of the country and the future of the revolution.

The urban petty bourgeoisie is divided between a very poor majority, highly radicalized because of its unstable conditions and always available as an ally of the revolutionary proletariat, and on the other side certain upper layers corrupted by their relatively privileged position in the state apparatus and in the staffs of the large mining, industrial and commercial establishments.

The proletariat is some 200,000 strong, 60,000 of whom are miners, 30,000 industrial workers, 20,000 building workers, 25,000 in transportation, 40,000 in commerce. The miners are by far the most centralized group of the Bolivian proletariat, employed in three big and some 60 other small and medium mineholdings. The mineral wealth of the country, mainly tin, lead, zinc, antimony, copper, make up the essential exports of the country whose value between 1940 and 1950 amounted to roughly $90 million on an annual average. But whereas in 1948 the 60,000 miners received in earnings some 1,100 million bolivars, the roughly 15,000 officeholders and retainers of the government received 1,300 million bolivars the same year.

The distribution of the national income illustrates the extreme exploitation of the large majority of the population by the imperialists, the native propertied groups and the upper strata of the petty bourgeoisie tied into this system. Even if the national income of the country is estimated at from $250-350 million [1], the share of 90% of the population is only $120 millions. The remainder, more than half of the total, is divided between the mineowners, the big landowners and the narrow strata of the native bourgeoisie and upper petty bourgeoisie.

The domination of the country by imperialism and the successive governments in the pay of native reaction (the famous rosca) has brought the country to extreme distress, to extreme impoverishment, despite its exceptional natural wealth. In truth, although the agricultural output and even the mine production of Bolivia [2] is among the lowest in all Latin America and the world, it nevertheless possesses very extensive, very productive arable and wooded lands as well as mineral wealth which has barely been touched up to now.

In addition to varied and very precious metal deposits in the Altiplano, the very rich oil deposits of the country have hardly been exploited or even explored. Waterways and waterfalls are plentiful, and were they rationally utilized they would not only raise the productivity of agriculture, but in themselves would be able to solve the power question for the entire country as well as for neighboring countries.

* * *

The highly explosive character which the mass movement has assumed particularly in the last fifteen years is explained by this extraordinary combination of contrasts and contradictions which is Bolivia. The contradiction that dominates all others is the one between the living conditions and aspirations of the great majority of the population consisting of landless peasants, workers (particularly the miners, the hungry slaves of a few big mining concerns, working under indescribable conditions in the highest and most terrible mines on the face of the earth), the pauperized sections of the petty bourgeoisie of the cities, and, on the other hand, a tiny minority of compradore feudal capitalists governing by force and corruption for the benefit of the imperialists.

The Nature and Future of MNR

The latest revolutionary outbreak of the Bolivian masses began, as we pointed out, last April. The party which has governed the country since then, the MNR, is representative of the political development of the masses in semi-colonial countries like Bolivia. It reflects the attempt of the petty bourgeoisie to assume a leading role in the mass movement after the utter discreditment of the compradore bourgeoisie, and before the proletariat has been able to assert itself as the national, revolutionary leadership of all the oppressed masses of the country.

The MNR is a mass party, the majority of its leadership petty-bourgeois but fringed with a few conscious representatives of the nascent national industrial bourgeoisie, one of whom, for example, is very probably Paz Estenssoro himself. Its ideology, its confused program, a mixture of revolutionary aspirations and phrases with opportunist and. in the last analysis, capitulatory practices toward imperialism and the rosca, is the expression of this class character of its leadership.

It is inevitable in all colonial and semi-colonial countries, in the absence of a revolutionary proletarian party strongly rooted in the masses, that the first phase of the revolution is marked by the rise of the radical political formations of the petty bourgeoisie (or of the liberal national bourgeoisie in more socially developed countries like India, China, Argentina, Brazil, Chile).

But once in power, the petty bourgeoisie proves itself utterly incapable of solving any of the specifically democratic-national tasks of the revolution (independence, agrarian question). Its upper strata quickly capitulate to the pressure of imperialism and reaction; its lower reaches are more and more attracted by the dynamism of the ideas and especially of the action of the revolutionary party of the proletariat. By the very logic of things, in order to maintain itself in power such a government is obliged to transform itself into a Bonapartist government, like Kerensky, like Mossadegh, like Paz Estenssoro. In a more advanced stage of the revolution it will fall under the drive of the right seeking to impose a military dictatorship, or of the left to establish the genuine workers’ and peasants’ government, the dictatorship of the proletariat allied to the peasant poor and the urban petty bourgeoisie.

Divided Power, Peasant Revolt

The direction of the Bolivian Revolution up to now confirms step by step the general line of this type of classic development of the proletarian revolution in our epoch. It bears more resemblance to the course of the Russian Revolution, although in miniature, than it does to the Chinese Revolution, for example. It began by lifting the radical party of the petty bourgeoisie to power (as was the case with the Russian Revolution in a particular stage before October) with the support of the revolutionary masses, in opposition to the defeated formations of native compradore circles, and of the still weak revolutionary party of the proletariat, the POR (Partido Obrero Revolucionario, Bolivian Section of the Fourth International).

But the masses did not completely confound their actions with those of the government. They set up from the beginning their own organisms, parallel and independent of the government, the embryo of dual power: the Bolivian Workers’ Center (COB) on the one side, and their armed militias on the other. Far from their revolutionary activity ceasing with the installation of the new government they took it as a pretext to go even further. It was the unceasing pressure of still armed and still active masses which decided the government to nationalize the three principal mining establishments and to make imperialism accept this concession.

But it was from the time that the revolutionary fever spread to the peasant masses that the revolution received a new spurt and began to move toward its decisive climax.

Important as it was, the nationalization of the mines was circumscribed by two facts: first, that the state apparatus which carried out the nationalization is not in the hands of the masses; second, that even without genuine workers’ control, nationalization carried with it a considerable compensation further loading a budget which is already unbearable for the country’s decrepit economy. The bourgeois, pro-capitalist and pro-imperialist elements of the government reckoned on making nationalization of the mines a weapon of subsequent corruption and dislocation of the workers’ movement of the country by absorbing a number of the leading workers’ representatives into the administrative apparatus of the mines.

Quite different are the prospects now being opened by the revolutionary movement of the peasant masses. A half million peasant-serfs in the Cochabamba region have gone into action to occupy the lands at once and to cultivate them for the sole benefit of those who till them. The example is becoming contagious and will soon embrace all of the land-hungry masses. Conscious of the acuteness of the agrarian question, the government tried to bypass it by first “studying” the problem, but finally adopted an innocuous agrarian reform law. The peasants are demanding that it be supplanted by a genuine agrarian revolution which expropriates the landed proprietors without compensation, grants the usufruct of the land to those who till it, and that this be done at once.

Conflict Moves to Decision

There is an absolute incompatibility between the interests and aspirations of the great masses of the population and the petty-bourgeois character of the gbvernment which is fringed with conscious agents of the native feudal-capitalists and of imperialism. Only revolutionary struggle can now decide the fate of the agrarian revolution as well as that of the Bolivian Revolution as a whole.

Workers and peasants are now in the process of joining forces in common revolutionary struggle. This most characteristic and promising development is not only the result of the spontaneous movement of the masses. The conscious role of the revolutionary leadership of the proletariat and of its party is becoming an ever more determining factor in it.

As in the Russian Revolution, we are witnessing in the Bolivian Revolution a rapid decline in the influence of the petty-bourgeois leadership over the masses to the growing benefit of the proletarian leadership which is trying to consciously express the interests and aspirations of all the poor of the country, to advance the revolutionary struggle equally in all decisive sections by coordinating it on a national scale and moving toward the final aim of the struggle: the formation of a genuine workers’ and peasants’ government. This government will not arise mechanically but dialectically, basing itself on the organisms of dual power created by the mass movement itself, and corresponding to the level of consciousness of these masses resulting from their own struggles and experiences.

Among these embryos of dual power is the COB and the Workers Militias which need to be maintained and strengthened to the maximum. There are also the peasant unions and committees which have been constituted to effect the immediate occupation of the land. The workers’ and peasants’ government will appear tomorrow as the natural emanation of all these organisms on which it will base itself.

The tactic of the POR toward the MNR and the present government is determined by a series of factors and changes in the development of the situation in the country: by the character of the MNR as the radical party of the petty bourgeoisie of a semi-colonial country, by the initial attitude of the masses toward this party, by the relative initial weakness of the revolutionary party, by the concrete actions of this party and of the government, both subject to the pressure of opposing social forces.

The POR began by justifiably granting critical support to the MNR government. That is, it desisted from issuing the slogan “down with the government”; it gave the government critical support against attacks of imperialism and reaction, and it supported all progressive measures. But at the same time it avoided any expression whatever of confidence in this government. On the contrary, it propelled the revolutionary activity and independent organization of the masses as much as it could.

The POR limits its support and sharpens its criticism insofar as the government proves itself incapable of fulfilling the national-democratic program of the revolution, insofar as it hesitates, capitulates, indirectly plays the game of imperialism and reaction, prepares to betray and for this reason tries to harry and deride the revolutionists.

The POR has been applying this flexible attitude which requires a carefully considered emphasis at each moment, one that is not confused but neither is it sectarian, and in applying this attitude the POR is demonstrating a remarkable political maturity. The POR has adopted an attitude of constructive criticism toward the proletarian and plebeian base of the MNR with the aim of facilitating a progressive differentiation within it.

The collaboration of a revolutionary wing emerging from the MNR in a future workers’ and peasants’ government, basing itself on the revolutionary organisms of the masses, cannot be excluded. On the contrary, it is necessary to constantly keep before these most advanced elements the concrete prospects of what the program and the achievements of such a government could be in contrast with the practices and prospects of the present government. The outlook for the formation of a genuine workers’ and peasants’ government in Bolivia and of its remaining in power is quite favorable. The joining of the revolutionary movement of the workers with that of the peasants, for which the POR is consciously working, will raise the revolution to a higher level and will then broadly unfold this prospect within a relatively brief time.

Can a Revolutionary Government Hold Out?

Such a government would not have to fear either the catastrophic effects of an economic blockade laid down by imperialism and the reactionary governments of certain neighboring countries, or military intervention. The level of imports needed for the life of the country is actually so low (scarcely $2 million a month, and less than half of that for foodstuffs) that the situation could be coped with by the export of a minimum part of the present mineral wealth of the country, or by slightly raising the present very low level of agricultural production, or by both these factors together.

On the other hand, the least rational organization of the resources of the country, freed of the enormous unproductive tribute now extended by the imperialists, the landowners and the state bureaucracy, will raise the livang standards of the masses perceptibly. Their support to the regime will grow constantly with each action of such a government. Besides, this regime would attempt to exploit the relatively favorable situation which now prevails in South America, proposing realistic and reciprocally advantageous trade agreements to all neighboring countries, and even a pool of all Latin American raw materials.

Bolivia’s geographical position provides it with relative protection from any military adventure which neighboring reactionary governments might eventually decide to undertake. The Bolivian Revolution has already aroused a lively interest and a deep sympathy among the worker and peasant masses of surrounding countries and it can count upon them to oppose such adventures. The longer-range prospects for a workers’ and peasants’ government will naturally depend on the evolution of Latin America as a whole and of the international situation in general.

The Bolivian revolutionists are conscious of all these factors, of all these advantages, chances, and also of the responsibilities they bear. They are conscious that they now constitute the vanguard of the revolutionary Marxist movement of the Fourth International which has to provide practical proof of working for a proletarian revolution in a country where the taking of power will not come by some kind of accident. It will not result from exceptionally favorable conditions following a war, for example, as in Yugoslavia or China, but from normal, classical conditions. The conscious, responsible role of the vanguard guided by a genuinely revolutionary Marxist and not an opportunist line will prove to be the determinant in the final analysis.


1. Without revealing their means of measurement, the Bolivian government and the UN estimate the national income at $450 million, while holding that the daily income per family at La Paz is not in excess of 60 cents.

2. It is estimated that even with the present very primitive, very defective mine equipment, production could rise from $90 million a year as an average to some $150 million in export value.

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