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Morales' presidential victory - a new phase in the class struggle
With Bolivia's Evo Morales and Venezuela's Hugo Chávez declaring an "anti-imperialist front" does this signify a genuine movement toward socialism or will both presidents seek to compromise with capitalism? Tony Saunois examines the prospects for real change in the continent.
EVO MORALES of the Movement towards Socialism (MAS) was swept to power in Bolivia's Presidential elections held in December 2005. With more than 53% of the vote he won a higher share of the vote than any President in the last 30 years. His election represents a new phase of the struggle of the masses in Bolivia and has already had significant international repercussions.
To the irritation of Bush and US imperialism the first international visits made by Morales were to Havana and Caracas. While on this leg of his tour he announced that Bolivia was now joining a struggle against neo-liberalism and forming an "anti-imperialist front" together with Venezuela and Cuba.
Morales' overwhelming election victory is a consequence of the massive revolutionary uprising of the miners, peasants, public-sector workers and others against the former President Carlos Mesa.
This tremendous mass movement drove Mesa from office in May-June 2005. During this movement, which included insurrectionary features, tens of thousands took to the streets demanding nationalisation of the rich gas reserves of Bolivia.
Mesa was the second President in two years to be overthrown by a mass movement. His predecessor, Sanchez Lozada was forced from office in October 2003.
These mass movements in Bolivia formed part of a continental revolt against neo-liberalism and privatisation which has swept Latin America during the last five years resulting in the election of Lula, the candidate of the PT (Workers' Party) in Brazil and Tabaré Vázquez in Uruguay.
However, these governments have continued to introduce neo-liberal, pro-imperialist policies. The same has been true in Chile under the coalition government of Ricardo Lagos and will be continued under the recently elected President, Michelle Bachelet of the Socialist Party [no relation to the Socialist Party in England and Wales - ed]. See Chile: First woman president elected
The coming to power of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia has been different and opened a new chapter in these countries with important international repercussions and lessons.
In Bolivia, the mass struggles against the privatisations and neo-liberalism began in 2001 in Cochabamba. A popular uprising in the city prevented the privatisation of the water industry in what became known as the "water war".
The landslide victory of Evo Morales is a consequence of these mass protests by the workers, peasants and urban poor.
A central aspect of these movements is the struggle of the indigenous people who constitute 60% of the population. Morales comes from this majority. Throughout Latin America the emergence of the struggles of the indigenous peoples in Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, Mexico and Chile has been an important feature of the movement against neo-liberalism in recent years.
In Bolivia, a form of 'apartheid' has existed. The majority indigenous population has been left in virtual destitution in the cities - ruled over by an elite ruling class of European descent. In El Alto, which has been at the forefront of recent struggles 75% of the population barely survive on less than US$2 per day. Boasting the most unequal distribution in wealth in Latin America, the richest 20% of Bolivia's population have an income 41 times greater than the poorest 20%.
Those who voted for Morales did so supporting the nationalisation of the rich gas and oil reserves and their use for the benefit of the mass of the population.
The Bolivian people are sickened by these resources being creamed off by the multinational giants - Exxon (USA), Repsol (Spain), British Gas (UK) and Petrobas (Brazil) - who have systematically economically raped the country. These companies' tax rates were slashed from 50% to a mere 18% during the 1990s. This 'looting' went side by side with the privatisation of the former state oil company.
Reform or revolution?
However, significant sections of the Bolivian workers' movement are wary of what Morales will actually do now he is in office. The main trade union confederation, COB, issued a statement after his election giving the new government three months to nationalise gas and energy or they would again take to the streets. The teachers' confederation has given the new government two months to introduce better wages for the teachers or it has warned strikes will start.
These doubts about Morales' determination to challenge capitalism and his willingness to compromise with it exist because of his role in the mass movements which erupted in 2003, 2004 and 2005. During the 2003 movement Morales was in Europe and played no role until he returned. After Lozada was overthrown he helped prop up Mesa's government.
When a referendum was called with rigged questions on the issue of ownership of the oil industry, the mass organisations called for a boycott. Morales and the MAS leadership urged participation. As a consequence of this policy he was expelled from the COB at the time.
In the 2005 mass movement he vacillated over support for nationalisation counter-posing to it support for a 50% tax on the profits of the private companies.
Will Morales take decisive measures to break with capitalism or try and reach an accommodation with the capitalist class and imperialism?
One of his first announcements was to reduce the Presidential and ministerial salaries by 50% which has been very popular. He has also announced he will not wear a tie at the official swearing-in ceremony because it is a symbol of the ruling elite but will wear traditional clothes of the indigenous peoples.
Yet, since winning the election, he has sought to reassure sections of the ruling class. Apart from Venezuela and Cuba he also visited Spain and other European countries. The Spanish oil company Repsol has US$800 million invested in Bolivia - the second largest foreign investor.
Morales went out of his way to reassure these Spanish companies that his government would collaborate with them. The new Bolivian government is "going to nationalise but it will not confiscate or expropriate". A "symbolic nationalisation" was what he promised in Madrid. What Morales seems to be suggesting is that the gas and oil itself would be "nationalised" but the assets of the companies would be left in private hands and contracts renegotiated with the links of Repsol and Exxon.
For Morales it is a question of building a more progressive, social capitalist economy - capitalism with a more human face. This was the same idea that Chavez initially defended when he first came to power in 1998.
In an interview with Journal of Bolivian Business Morales's running mate for the vice-Presidency, Álvaro Garc’a Linera clearly spelt out the programme of the MAS and the new government. When asked if the MAS wanted a socialist government he replied: "No, no way, because - it's not viable. It's not viable because socialism can only be built on the base of a strong proletarian presence... you don't build socialism on the base of a family economy; you build it on the bases of industry, which there is none in Bolivia"
These ideas are not new. They amount to a modern application of the "two stages theory" supported in the past by the Stalinists and Communist Parties and in Russia by the Mensheviks before the 1917 October Revolution.
The development of industry, introduction of land reform, establishment of a stable parliamentary democracy and the unifying of a nation and national independence have been the historic 'democratic' tasks of the capitalist class.
However, in the modern historical epoch in the colonial and ex-colonial countries the domination of imperialism, the weakness of the capitalist class tied to the coat tails of imperialism - has meant that the national capitalist class has been incapable of resolving the capitalist democratic revolution.
The Bolshevik revolutionaries Trotsky and then Lenin, explained that the weakness of semi-feudal Russian capitalism before 1917 meant that the carrying through of the 'democratic revolution' fell onto the shoulders of the working class, despite being a minority in society.
Only the working class, together with the poor peasants, by taking over the running of society and through the introduction of a democratic state planned economy, and by spreading such a revolution to other more developed countries can complete these tasks.
In other words, the democratic revolution could only be completed through the socialist revolution. This is what Trotsky meant by 'permanent revolution'.
In the context of Latin America today, it means the establishment of a workers' and peasants' government in Bolivia and the introduction of a democratic socialist plan of production and a perspective of spreading such a revolution to the rest of the continent and establishing a voluntary democratic socialist federation of Latin America
Yet a 'democratic revolution' disconnected to the socialist revolution seems to be what Morales is now advocating in Bolivia, along with Chávez in Venezuela.
Morales in Bolivia, Chávez in Venezuela and to a degree Kirchner in Argentina, represent a break with the dominant neo-liberalism of the 1990s. All have been swept to power by the masses as part of a mass rejection of neo-liberalism and privatisation. All to varying degrees have adopted radical nationalist policies which have included greater state intervention in the economy, including some nationalisations, price controls and other similar measures.
Under pressure from the mass of workers and the economic and social crisis which exists in these countries they may also be compelled to introduce even more such radical measures.
In the front line of these developments are events in Venezuela headed by the radical populist Hugo Chávez. The government he heads has come into conflict with and been a constant source of irritation to US imperialism since it came to power in 1998.
His radical government has introduced significant reforms in health, education and food distribution. These and other reforms won enthusiastic support from the masses in Venezuela which the CWI and all socialists support.
Internationally, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Fidel Castro in Cuba and now Evo Morales in Bolivia are seen by many youth as the only radical left regimes that are challenging US imperialism and representing an alternative to neo-liberalism.
However, the failure to overthrow capitalism and establish a genuine regime of workers' democracy in Venezuela means that the threat of counter-revolution still remains along with a threat to those reforms that have been introduced.
The continuation of capitalism in Venezuela and the failure to resolve the pressing social problems, together with frustration and anger at growing bureaucracy and waste, now threatens to undermine the revolutionary process.
The recent parliamentary elections, (December 2005) in which 75% of electors abstained, were a warning of the danger facing the Venezuelan revolution. The dangers now facing the Venezuelan revolution are also a warning to the Bolivian masses if capitalism is not overthrown.
The level of abstention, the highest in any Venezuelan parliamentary election, (despite an appeal by Chávez for the masses to vote to demonstrate support for the revolution) is not simply the result of the right-wing boycotting the elections. It also reflected the frustration and anger felt by workers, the urban poor and those sections of the middle class who have supported Chávez, because of the failure of the government to resolve the mass unemployment, poverty and housing shortages which exist.
As a result the government is left in worst of all possible worlds. On the one side it has aroused the furious opposition of the Venezuelan ruling class and US imperialism. On the other hand it has not taken decisive measures to take over control and planning of the economy.
It is now subjected to economic sabotage by sections of the capitalist class. There are food shortages in Caracas and supermarkets lack coffee, chicken, rice and other basic supplies. Poverty remains endemic. Over 80% of the population lives below the poverty line.
When Chávez came to power in 1998 there were 3.2 million working in the informal sector. By 2005 this had increased to 5.7 million - out of a workforce of 12 million. Added to these are one million children who survive as street sellers in Caracas and other large cities.
There is also a massive crisis in housing in which there is a deficit of 1.6 million dwellings. Chávez promised to build 200,000 dwellings by 2006. Yet the budget for 2006 only includes sufficient funds for 18,490 dwellings.
Government propaganda about building "Socialism in the 21st century" on state TV channels and billboards is not being matched by deeds because of the failure to overthrow capitalism.
Although capitalist counter-revolution has been defeated on three occasions this threat remains. It seems that a section of the anti-Chávez ruling class has reverted to "extra parliamentary" attempts at sabotage.
Hoarding by producers, in action reminiscent of the campaigns by the counter-revolution in Chile in the early 1970s, has led to shortages in the super markets and provoked Chávez to threaten nationalisation of the coffee producers.
The emergence of the ideas of socialism in Venezuela is an important and positive development internationally. This, together with the demand for nationalisation in Bolivia and the general electoral swing to the 'left' in Latin America are an answer to those supporters of capitalism who thought they had buried even the idea of socialism under the rubble of the Berlin Wall.
However, the crucial question for the Venezuelan masses is; what programme and organisations are necessary to begin to build socialism? Unfortunately, although Chávez poses the question of "socialism in the 21st century" no clear programme is offered by him or his government of how to achieve this.
21st century socialism?
What Chávez is attempting is to use the state, with revenue from oil production, to try and force the ruling class to invest and develop the economy rather than overthrow capitalism. This has included the introduction of price controls on basic goods and some limited nationalisations - four factories. The government has increased state intervention in the economy but without overthrowing capitalism and portrayed this as "socialism in the 21st century".
During 2005 a series of infrastructure projects were announced by the government and then given out to private contracts.
Fedecamaras, the employers organisation, has agreed a policy of forming an "alliance with the government to reactivate investment". Fedecamaras also organised a conference for its members - "The role of private enterprise in socialism in the 21st century".
The recent crisis over coffee distribution has illustrated the impossibility of resolving the problems facing the masses under capitalism. The price controls on coffee reduced the profits of the employers who in turn then provoked shortages by hoarding supplies. Although the government threatened them with nationalisation it backed down and agreed a 60% increase in the price of coffee.
In Venezuela, amongst the working class and the masses, there is widespread bitterness and opposition to the growth of bureaucratic methods - some of which seem to have been borrowed from Castro's regime in Cuba. There, capitalism was overthrown and a centrally planned economy introduced but it exists together with a repressive bureaucratic state, without a genuine workers' democracy.
In Venezuela the reforms and increased state intervention, including some nationalisations, although initially very popular have been carried through from above without the conscious involvement, organisation and control of the working class.
Even in the "recuperated factories" - bankrupt workplaces which the government has re-opened - they are run by government appointed officials which sometimes include union representatives in the administration.
In some, trade unions are not allowed to organise. Even in the government Misiones (which have organised the education, health and literacy programmes) the workers in them are not allowed to belong to trade unions.
The new trade union federation, UNT, which now claims a membership of one million, was initiated by Chávez and other leaders from above. Despite its formation more than two years ago no national leadership elections have been held. A crucial task facing the Venezuelan working class is to democratise the trade unions and check and control the bureaucratised leadership.
In Caracas, the police have been used by the local Mayor against homeless people who have taken over empty buildings justified by opposition to taking over "private property".
There is not a genuine system of workers' control whereby elected committees in the workplaces have day-to-day control of the factories including the organisation of production, hiring and firing, etc. The government sponsored Misiones for food, education and health, although often administered by activists are not democratically elected committees.
The working class, with a collective social consciousness, with the support of other classes exploited by capitalism and imperialism, is the decisive force to overthrow capitalism and begin the task of building socialism.
To carry through a socialist revolution and begin to lay the basis to develop the economy and society the independent, conscious and active participation of the working class and the masses is needed. Unfortunately, this has been lacking in an organised way in Venezuela. The need for the working class and masses to be organised independently to take the leadership of the revolution is now urgent.
The threats facing the revolutionary process in Venezuela need to be confronted and overcome through the independent organisation of the working class, urban poor, peasants and middle classes.
Democratic committees need to be elected in the workplaces to introduce a system of democratic workers control. Popular assemblies in the neighbourhoods to elect committees to run and manage the Misiones need to be organised. A programme to democratise the UNT and for it to be independent of the government must be worked as a matter of urgency.
These bodies then need to be linked together on a district, city-wide, regional and national level, together with elected committees of rank and file soldiers.
Through the formation of such democratic committees the basis could be laid for the formation of a workers' and peasants' government with a revolutionary socialist programme. This would include the nationalisation of all the major companies and multinationals on the basis of democratic workers' control and management and the introduction of a democratically planned economy. This could then introduce an emergency national reconstruction programme.
Only such a programme to overthrow capitalism can defeat the threats now facing the Venezuelan revolution. If such a programme was also enacted in Bolivia it would allow the formation of a democratic socialist federation of the two countries.
And on the basis of the establishment of a genuine workers' democracy in Cuba, a socialist federation of all three countries would allow economic integration and planning to begin. Such a development would win the support of the working class through Latin and central America.
Such a federation could appeal for support from the working classes in USA and Canada and thereby undercut threats by imperialism to challenge such a revolutionary movement.
In The Socialist 26 January 2006: