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Guillermo Lora

Class Struggles in Bolivia (II)

(February 1952)

From Fourth International, Vol. 13 No. 4, July–August 1952, pp. 125–128.
Transcribed & marked up 2005 by Andrew Pollack & Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Following is the concluding installment of Guillermo Lora’s study on Bolivia which began in the May–June issue under the caption The Great Decade of Class Struggles. The author is a leader of the Partido Revolucionaria Obrera, Bolivian section of the Fourth International. Intimately associated with the heroic struggles of the tin miners and workers of the country, he paid for his activities by long terms in prisons and concentration camps. Liberated by the recent revolution, he is once again in the thick of the fight.

* * *

The Miners’ Congress at Pulacayo (1946)

The fall of Villaroel did not arrest the revolutionary upsurge; on the contrary it greatly stimulated it and gave it new forms. However – and this is a fact of enormous importance which was to have its effects on subsequent developments – the process of differentiation between the aims of the masses and the governmental program came to an end as quickly as it had begun. The masses continued to view the Villaroel regime as a revolutionary government, identifying it with the program of the proletarian revolution. This confusion, further augmented by the repressive measures against the MNR, has not completely disappeared to the present day.

In one leap, the miners moved to the forefront of the revolutionary Bolivian masses, while in the cities the proletariat sought to break the yoke of the tripartite committees controlled by a petty bourgeois leadership. The bulk of the masses succeeded in establishing a liaison with the Miners’ Federation and indicated that they were ready to follow its leadership. These important events occurred in a situation which found the revolutionary vanguard still weak. It was thus that a trade union organization – the Miners’ Federation – had to assume tasks proper to a revolutionary party.

The revolutionary upsurge attained its climax at the Miners Congress held at Pulacayo in November 1946 as a special convention to decide the orientation of the Federation. The climate stirred with revolution: the miners hurled themselves at the employers and “their” government who beat a retreat before them; they made their demands prevail; they had absolute confidence in their strength and organization; they considered themselves stronger than reaction; they were confident of achieving everything, even the revolution.

The Pulacayo Theses, unanimously adopted, constituted a program of proletarian revolution around which the workers of all Bolivia began to rally. The echo of this program found among the masses and its power of attraction showed that it was in harmony with the needs of the struggle. However the Pulacayo Theses lacked precision in its characterization of the situation. Although containing the formulation of tasks whose realization would necessarily pose the struggle for the seizure of power, the Theses did not make that its essential task. In reality it took the point of departure that the revolutionary situation would continue for some time. The criticisms made by the POR of the Pulacayo Theses had already demonstrated that any lack of precision on the tasks to be accomplished would turn into an insurmountable obstacle for the masses and become-a factor curbing revolutionary developments.

Despite the general confusion, the isolation of the city workers and the miners was partly avoided. However, there were still two obstacles to be overcome: that represented by the PIR (a middle class party influenced by the Stalinists. – Ed.), acting under the inspiration of the mining magnates, and the absence of a trade union federation, which despite all efforts made in this direction had encountered many difficulties, particularly because the question had so long been delayed.

The Pulacayo Congress had decided that the conflicts growing out of the attempts of the employers to close the mines at San Jose and Oplaca should be met by the occupation of these mines by the miners. The Congress reckoned that such an occupation would provide the stimulant for action of the workers in the rest of the country and that this question would thus be transformed into a struggle for power. Unquestionably, the Pulacayo Theses was hailed by the working masses and even by broad sections of the petty bourgeoisie (teachers, university students) who showed themselves ready to follow the decisions and the slogans of the Congress.

However, events in Bolivia tragically proved that the leadership was lagging behind the rapid process of change which was taking place in the revolutionary consciousness of the masses. In fact, the workers were on a war footing and even went beyond the initiatives of their leaders, organized and armed their own cadres with an eye to coming battles for which they were already preparing.

The Ebb Tide Sets In

The mining magnates were also conscious of the times, in which they were living. Retreating in panic before the workers’ upsurge, they were ready to yield to the workers’ demands while carefully watching the attitude of the Miners’ Federation as well as that of the POR (Revolutionary Workers Party, Bolivian section of the Fourth International). In the meantime the workers were wasting their energies in isolated skirmishes. When the conflict was reaching its climax, the trade union leaders, overwhelmed by the enormous tasks facing them, retreated instead of carrying out the mandate they had been given. They gave orders to return to work and granted a new postponement to the employers while engaging in negotiations with the government.

The consequences of this policy were disastrous, for what was involved was not simply a local conflict but the future of the proletariat and of the revolutionary movement. Imperialism and the feudal bourgeoisie then came to the conclusion that they had overestimated the revolutionary caliber of the workers’ leadership. Seizing on the truce they had been granted, they went over to the attack forcing the workers to retreat. The ebb tide which had set in at San Jose and Oplaca was consummated by the massacre at Catavi in 1949.

The Miners’ Congress at Colquiri in 1947 took note of the depth of this retreat and decided to adopt a whole series of defensive measures in anticipation of an appropriate moment to begin offensive strikes. It was under these conditions that the Bolivian proletariat suffered the greatest of its defeats, namely the wholesale discharge of the workers of the Patino mines (at Catavi and Llallagua in December 1947) ordered by the PIR minister, A. Mendizabal ...

President Hertzog, whose candidacy was financially supported by Patino (one of the Big Three mining magnates), was instructed to annihilate the workers’ movement. The repression at Catavi, where the most vigorous sector of the Miners Federation was destroyed, even though temporarily, was one side of this plan. The government calculated on putting over its plan through a campaign to discredit the trade union leadership with the aim of dividing the workers’ forces. Hertzog had declared in the press that he would not soil his hands with workers’ blood.

Onslaught of Reaction

But the efforts of the proletanat began the upward climb again, which was indicated by the reorganization of the union at Catavi-Llallagua, made the mine bosses understand that their decisive methods were inadequate. The tin magnates demanded that the executive power carry through a program of violent repression. The dismissal of Hertzog and his replacement by Urriolagoitia was a simple episode of conflict between the mining bosses and the government on the question of the violent destruction of the trade unions.

With the first signs of a new revolutionary upsurge, reaction believed the time opportune to drown it in blood and found the pretext in the struggle between the miners and the employers at Catavi over the question of a wage increase. In reality, the conflict involved the government which wanted to enforce its decisions at the time and was confronted with the opposition of the employers. The trade union leadership tried its best to prevent the workers from being lead into the trap of employers or the government’s repression. However the arrival of troops and police proved, confirming the warning made by the POR, that a massacre was in preparation.

The provocation went to the point of the arrest of leaders of the Miners’ Federation and known members of the POR who were exiled. In this way they removed the leading cadres who would have been able to avoid the clash between the armed forces and the exasperated workers. On this fatal day, May 28, 1949, the workers replied by taking several supervisory employees of the mining firms as hostages, and the slaughter of about 2,000 workers began.

It is possible that the unionists, watching the assassination of their class brothers and the destruction of their meeting halls had killed the hostages. It is also possible that the government, poorly informed about the smouldering unrest, had not expected a violent reaction from the workers. Patino had done his work well in preparing and executing the massacre.

That the masses had been prepared for a revolutionary offensive was demonstrated by the fact that the May 28th massacre led the proletariat to react on a national scale by a general strike of a political nature which had been previously unknown. The decapitation of the workers’ leadership with their aims still unattained caused the defeat of the proletariat. The most brutal repression was unleashed. Thousands of workers were arrested throughout the country, sent to concentration camps or exiled while others were imprisoned. The whole gamut of repression, so characteristic of Latin American countries, was put into effect.

Mercilessly hounded by the forces of “order,” desperate and without leadership, the masses took advantage of the slightest opportunity to hurl themselves into suicide attacks. For instance, during the 1949 civil war, having heard that “the revolution had triumphed” the workers of Siglo XX went to their death in an onslaught against the police forces.

Role of MNR

The MNR (National Revolutionary Party, now in power – Ed.) at no time attempted to seize power by mobilizing the masses because it knew that such a mobilization would jeopardize its rule. Its habitual tactic consisted of preparing coup d’etats with the assistance of the military groups of the Rapeda (an officers’ club). The Bolivian experience demonstrated that the extension of the struggle between the government and the insurgent masses allowed the masses to embark on political activity. When that happened, the exploited entered the fight under their own anti-imperialist banner which at the time had nothing in common with that of the MNR. That was demonstrated in a general way when the 1949 civil war was instigated by the MNR.

A series of military pronunciamentos occurred simultaneously in several places except at La Paz. The defeat of the coup d’etat at La Paz, the capital, resulted in the prolongation of the struggle everywhere else and won over broad sections of the population. At Potosi and Santa Cruz, the most advanced elements of the proletariat and the POR played a great role by republishing and disseminating the substance of the Pulacayo Theses to point the revolutionary road to the masses.

The foreign press hastened to announce the outbreak of a general strike, at least of the miners, which was possible in the logic of events but which did not mature because of the MNR’s policy which had never envisaged such action for the purpose of the revolutionary seizure of power. Like other worker groupings, the miners did not go on strike. The textile workers and the POR. who had desired this form of struggle, were riot considered a focal point for action.

The civil war of 1949 had been prepared and unleashed by the MNR but it was not the less surprised by the effects even of a limited mobilization of the masses. The MNR leaders did not count on an extended struggle but rather based their tactic on taking the enemy by surprise. But seeing that the march of events did not conform to their prearranged plans they made ready to flee sacking the banks to pocket needed funds. Nowhere, in none of the provinces where the administration was in the hands of the MNR, was the least program of social transformation elaborated. If, as a government, it had confiscated big property, nationalized the bank, the railroads, etc., it, would have had the great masses of the country behind it.

For despite the way the events had unfolded, the struggle of itself had stirred the consciousness of the masses who were instinctively moving to a revolutionary program. The seeds sown by the Pulacayo Theses had found a favorable soil in the combative spirit of the masses.

When defeat seemed inevitable, some departmental commandos invited the POR to join them as was the case at Cochabamba. The MNR demonstrated by its last minute attitude how desperate it had become and how concerned it was in seeking allies on whom it could attempt to thrust; the responsibility for the defeat. The POR on its side decided to struggle shoulder to shoulder with the proletariat and the petty bourgeois masses engaged or liable to be engaged in combat. But it was the proletariat as a whole which had to pay the price for the defeat of the movement started by the MNR.

The Movement Revives

It was the miners, above all, attempting to resume the struggle during this period of repression, who ended by exhausting themselves, their organizations disappearing. However, it was the miners who were the first to reorganize themselves and to take stock of their strength. The textile workers regrouped themselves again to go over to the attack but they continued to remain isolated from the proletariat and the masses in general.

The formation of the Coordination Committee, a kind of federation, non-existent during the preceding struggle, marked a step forward but the committee was weak because most of the trade union organizations were only formally affiliated to it without involving their rank and file. The most serious error committed by the leadership of this committee was to view a preliminary struggle as though it were the final battle for the destruction of the feudal-bourgeois regime.

There was a gap in tempo and in the degree of mobilization between the textile workers of La Paz and the large majority of the proletariat and peasantry. That is why the movement at La Paz remained isolated and went down to defeat. The resumption of the struggle was initiated by the teachers who capitulated because of lack of strength to continue the fight.

The defeat of the strike of May 1950 brought on the bourgeois reaction against the proletariat. However, one year later, a part of the proletariat and the petty bourgeoisie reacted against governmental repression and brought victory to the MNR in the presidential elections. This exploit of the masses later turned into a defeat because the leadership of the MNR as a “democratic and legalistic” party had refused to seize the power which was then wrested from it by a military pronunciamento. This capitulation of the MNR without a struggle began to sow doubts in the minds of the masses as to the ability of the MNR to take the power.

All these events unfolded in a period of general ebb which had begun with the conflict at San Jose-Oplaca. While the workers were in retreat, the MNR began to revive and to propagate ideas and prejudices which had been outmoded in the stage between the 3rd Miners’ Congress and the Pulacayo conference. Each time the masses went into action, they went beyond the limits set by the MNR and followed the orientation elaborated by the POR. But the fact that they did not take into account the perspective of an entire historic period caused an identification of the preliminary aspects of the struggle with an actual revolutionary upsurge. Consequently the striving for aims which did not correspond to the situation permitted reaction to gain the upper hand and to abort revolutionary possibilities which otherwise would have matured into a full-fledged upsurge of the masses.

The textile workers convention, which formed a unified organization, the convention of the journalists, the revival of struggle on the part of the teachers, etc., were so many demonstrative signs that a reorganization of forces was taking place. But to avoid being thrown back the workers’ movement must avoid being drawn into premature battles and so remove all opportunity from the “rosca” (the “chain of reaction” – Ed.) to nip the approaching mobilization in the bud.

Bolivia’s Workers – Their Social Weight

The Bolivian proletariat is a small minority of the population of the country, representing less than 10% of the total. Its great political mission, the role it will have to play as leader of the revolution flows not from its numbers but from the position it occupies in the economy of the country, from the backwardness of this economy and from the fact that the feudal-bourgeoisie has faltered as a class. One can say that the political weight of the Bolivian proletariat is in inverse ratio to its numbers and in direct ratio to the political impotence of the bourgeoisie and to the insignificance of national capital. It is foreign finance capital which takes the first place in the country and exercises an indisputable control over national life. But at the same time, imperialism has brought a proletariat into existence which will have the gigantic task of putting an end to the oppression suffered by the country, of destroying large landed property and of leading Bolivian society to socialism.

The Bolivian masses, including the proletariat are at a low cultural level, some 80% of the population being illiterate. But contrary to other classes, the Bolivian proletariat, because of its conditions of life and labor, easily grasps the revolutionary conclusions of Marxism which it attempts to realize in the struggle. This was to be noted in the case of the Pulacayo Theses: The Bolivian workers certainly did not read the Theses but they listened at trade union conferences, at meetings, during strikes to agitators using the slogans adopted at Pulacayo, and when events posed questions which the official leadership was incapable of resolving in time then it was the illiterates themselves who placed these questions in the center of their struggles.

The electoral law greatly restricts the rights of the Bolivian proletariat as suffrage is denied illiterates and those who have not had military service. The proletariat is still further handicapped in the electoral field by a law which ignores density of population as a basis for representation. With all these restrictions, the proletariat is quick to respond to the electoral appeals of revolutionary parties particularly where a call to direct action is involved.

In 1947, the POR joined the Miners’ federation to constitute a class bloc, the Miners’ Parliamentary Bloc, on the basis of the program adopted at Pulacayo which carried on its campaign for the purpose of utilizing the bourgeois parliament as a revolutionary tribune, which was specially necessary since the period of ebb tide had begun in the workers’ movement. The most important success of this Miners’ Parliamentary Bloc in the period preceding the Catavi massacres of 1949 was in preventing the trade union leaders from surrendering the workers’ movement to the government and imperialism.

Thanks to the POR’s propaganda, the workers abandoned the illusion of realizing their hopes through parliamentary and governmental channels. Substantial section’s were educated in the idea, that the emancipation of the workers is possible only on condition that they constitute their own organs of struggle. This “anti-parliamentarism” of the masses, joined to their experience and to the conviction that only the armament of the workers will avert new massacres, will assure the final victory, and will serve to greatly facilitate the future work of the POR.

February 1952

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