Saturday, July 05, 2008

From the archive: Morales marks a year in office.

Written in January 2007 for Socialist Resistance I took a look at the first year of Morales government. I found a government that was delivering limited reforms and marking a significant political shift - one that the elites would come to resent.

This time last year the inauguration of Evo Morales as President of Bolivia marked a dramatic shift in Bolivian politics. The victory came on the back of many years of militant and courageous struggle against neo-liberalism, racism and repression.

Those who led this struggle were part of one of the most class conscious, bottom up and successful movements in the world. One year later the aspirations and organisations of those movements have not gone away, but the challenges that they face have been transformed.

It’s important to understand the relationship of Evo Morales and his party, MAS, towards the social movements. Certainly these movements were born out of workers struggles and give expression to many of their demands.

But while the movements were busy overthrowing a succession of right wing presidents Evo Morales was busy trying to calm things down, calling off demonstrations and negotiating with the Catholic Church in preparation for what he hoped would be victory at the ballot box.

Morales’ humble background and demeanor certainly win him support among the poorest but the leaders of the trade unions, neighborhood associations and social movements are painfully aware of the gap between the aspirations he inspires and the policies his government promotes.

MAS is a mixed bag of career politicians, well intentioned reformers and rank and file class struggle fighters. There are constant pressures inside MAS that pull Evo Morales to and fro. When Morales vacillates it gives the impression to many in the country that his government is weak, an impression reinforced by the way government initiatives have been frustrated by the right In the Constituent Assembly a two thirds majority is required to make the changes to the constitution that the people demand.

But MAS only has 54% of the seats and with its allies can mobilise just over 60% of the vote. It may be a clear majority but the right have enough seats to block all significant changes. Since MAS delegates started passing reforms with a simple majority the right wing delegates have begun boycotting the assembly making it inquorate. And protests by some of these delegates against even reasonably mild reforms have gone as far as hunger strikes.

But it’s not just in Parliament that the right are attempting to block reform. For example ever since the appointment of former domestic worker and trade union organiser Casimira Rodriguez as the new Minister of Justice, the white men of the bar have spent their time blocking and frustrating her attempts to bring progressive reform to the Bolivian justice system.

The richest (and whitest) areas of Bolivia have begun a movement to break away from the more rural, indigenous areas. These areas have seen large mobilisations and even strikes supporting the demand for autonomy from the Morales government.

Says Bolivian Minister of Hydrocarbons Carlos Villegas: “Now that they can’t sell Bolivia, they want to divide Bolivia, that’s the basic issue. There will be no division.”

It is clear the right opposes Morales, in the courts, in Constituent Assembly and on the streets, so how radical are his much heralded reforms? Morales has won a great deal of support by redistributing publicly owned land to the very poorest. The National Agrarian Reform Service (INRA) Law, power, allows for the right of the state to seize lands that do not serve a just social-economic function and redistribute them to the landless and indigenous communities.

The policy looks good but is proving problematic to implement. Small strips of land are of limited benefit to the some of the poorest people who have no tools to work the soil, nor money to buy seeds or materials. Often the only thing they can do with this land is to sell it, inevitably to the rich.

The actual effect of the land distribution policy, therefore, has been to distribute public land into the hands of the 5% that own 70% of the land. The landless peasants organisation, the MST, is calling for a second agrarian revolution to seize the lands of the richest in the way the 1952 revolution did, dividing up the massive farms with the possibility of running them on a collective, community basis. It is a demand some MAS representatives support.

But without the two thirds majority in the Assembly it will meet robust resistance from the land owners. Central to the struggles of the past years has been resistance to the privatisation of water, oil, gas and the mines. Any government achieving power would have had to have made concessions on these points. Morales laid down a marker when he sent troops in to take over privatised utilities and the workers hung up banners proclaiming plants were under the control of the state.

Previous governments acted illegally by signing contracts with multinationals that were not properly, democratically ratified. Morales has acted perfectly legally by demanding a renegotiation of these contracts, a process that has just been completed.

However, renegotiation of contracts is not the same as re-nationalisation and although we can expect the terms to be improved this does not amount to public ownership, let alone workers. control. Five months ago the government announced with great fanfare that they had begun re-nationalisation and today not one refinery is in state hands.

Activists are well aware of the shortcomings of the Morales government, but the people want to give him a chance. The trade union federation (COB) tried to call a general strike early in 2006 and hundreds turned out a far cry from the hundreds of thousands just last year. Whilst specific struggles are still able to mobilise well locally (like the teachers in La Paz or the miners of Huanuni) many activists still fear that if they push too hard they may bring down a weak leftist government in favour of one that’s on the hard line right.

In fact, in this sense Morales can be seen in the classic social democratic mould. He is delivering limited reform (which should be supported). At the same time he could be seen as stabilising what was an ungovernable, unruly country. The economy last year has seen much increased investment by multinational corporations in Bolivia. While some companies are squealing, others are very happy that Morales is in power.

Progressive reforms bring their own contradictions. For example pharmaceutical companies are benefiting from more profit-making opportunities as Morales introduces medical provision into new areas.

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