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World solidarity needed for Bolivian people, government

May 30, 2006

This article is co-authored by Barry Weisleder. It is reprinted with permission from the June 2006 issue of Socialist Action. That issue also contained a reply which is posted at Socialist Voice.

TORONTO — “General jubilation” greeted the Bolivian government’s move to take control of the country’s hydrocarbon resources on May 1, according to the Cuban daily newspaper Granma. “An impressive multitude (that) gathered to celebrate May Day” in La Paz, Bolivia’s capital, “exploded with joy and cheers” when these measures were announced. This joy was shared by opponents of imperialism everywhere.

The corporate media reacted with dismay and anger. “Bolivia’s Folly,” proclaimed the Globe and Mail, the most authoritative voice of Canada’s capitalist rulers. Bolivian president Evo Morales is “acting on his shopworn socialist notion,” the Globe warned. “It’s the first step down a dangerous road that will further alienate Bolivia’s business community … scare off foreign investment … and make it harder for the country to solve its deep-rooted structural problems.”

Why such alarm? Bolivia’s measures were not in themselves socialist. The government’s bid to exert popular control over petroleum reserves merely parallels the jurisdiction Canada’s government has defended since its creation in 1867. Bolivia’s demand that oil companies renegotiate extraction contracts on terms more favourable to the country’s people follows the example of Venezuela and other Third World oil producers.

But for the imperialists, the context is alarming. The Bolivian government’s measures carry out the will of a powerful mass movement that has in recent years repeatedly challenged the country’s capitalist rulers. Evo Morales is himself a product of this movement. His overwhelming election victory in December 2005 represented that movement’s success in striving to establish a popular government. And the petroleum takeover was not negotiated with the oil giants but presented as a fait accompli to a mass rally in La Paz.

The Wall Street Journal angrily branded this an example of “another Latin craze: the abrogation of contracts.”

Other moves have followed. On May 15, the Bolivian government ordered private pension funds to hand over $700 million in oil company shares they had administered since the privatizations of the 1990s. The finance minister of Spain, where many of these funds are based, denounced this seizure “without compensation” as “unacceptable.”

Bolivia’s example is compelling. On May 16, Ecuador — also repeatedly shaken in recent years by indigenous-based mass movements — took over operations of U.S.-based oil giant Occidental Petroleum, a move that will bring the Andean country $100 million a year in extra revenue.

Washington immediately retaliated by breaking off “free trade” talks with Quito. In Chicago on May 21, U.S. President Bush warned against the “erosion of democracy” in Bolivia and Venezuela. He darkly linked “prosperity and peace” to “respect for property rights.”

The ‘ALBA’ alternative

Bolivia does not stand alone. On April 29, its president signed a far-reaching Peoples’ Trade Agreement together with Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Fidel Castro of Cuba, at a meeting of the three presidents in Havana.

Bolivia also joined the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), the Venezuelan government’s plan to unite the peoples of Latin America around “the egalitarian principles of justice and equality,” to which Cuba subscribed in 2004.

The terms of the three-country agreement were sweeping, providing for massive Cuban assistance to upgrade health standards and launch a literacy program, $130 million in direct Venezuelan financing, Venezuelan support for Bolivia’s petroleum industry, 10,000 scholarships in Venezuela and Cuba for Bolivian students, and many other measures.

There is more. In February, the United States succeeded in imposing on Colombia a “free trade” agreement that robbed Bolivia of the market for 60% of its vital soybean exports. Cuba and Venezuela responded by undertaking to purchase the entire available crop at favorable prices.

The Wall Street Journal now angrily terms Bolivia “a virtual Venezuelan colony flush with Cuban agents.”

Washington has so far focused its retaliation on Venezuela, carrying out threatening military exercises close to the Venezuelan coastline. On May 16 the U.S. State Department announced the politically significant gesture of an arms embargo against Venezuela in reprisal for that country’s relations with Cuba and Iran and its failure to “cooperate with the United States in fighting terrorism.”

Need for solidarity

Bolivia now faces the likelihood of a U.S.-sponsored campaign to destabilize and overthrow its government, similar to the military coup and other dirty tricks attempted against Venezuela in the last half-decade.

Progressive forces of every hue in Bolivia now have strong reason to rally behind their government in a united front against threats from imperialism and the Bolivian oligarchy, while continuing to press for radical measures to benefit the poor majority. And in the United States and Canada, the key task is to build a strong solidarity movement in defense of Bolivia and its two embattled allies.

During the first months of the Morales presidency, the Bolivian government acted slowly and cautiously, measuring its moves in an objective situation that is in many ways unfavorable. Bolivia is the poorest country in South America. It is landlocked, far from its allies. The army and police, which have a long tradition of acting to defend imperialist interests, are still intact. The state apparatus is largely hostile. And the government is only now forging unity with the mass movements that brought it to power.

Moreover, neighboring South American countries, especially Brazil and Argentina, play a crucial role in Bolivia’s economy, trade, and international communications. Brazil’s Petrobras is the largest investor in Bolivian petroleum and the biggest loser in its assertion of state control over the industry. At the same time, the governments of Brazil and Argentina are in conflict with imperialism; they helped bring down the U.S.-sponsored Free Trade Agreement of the Americas. One of the Morales government’s major achievements has been to avoid a breach with these two countries — a process in which Venezuela’s support has been vital.

As Grenada’s Maurice Bishop once observed, “The revolution is not like making instant coffee.” For further radical measures to succeed, the Morales government must maneuver to secure the most favourable relationship of forces inside and outside Bolivia.

National liberation

Moreover, the Bolivian upsurge is not in the first instance a movement for socialism. It is a struggle for democracy and sovereignty on the part of a nation brutally oppressed by imperialism. The dominant characteristic of this struggle has been the efforts of Bolivia’s long-marginalized indigenous majority to achieve full citizenship and to refound the nation on the basis of respect for indigenous people’s culture and economy.

Marxism has long recognized the progressive character of such anti-imperialist and anti-colonial movements, even if — like Cuba’s July 26 Movement — they do not inscribe socialism on their banners.

Most of Bolivia’s toilers are not waged employees but are independent producers — farmers, cooperative miners, artisans, traders, and peddlers. The government of Evo Morales aims to increase the viability of these family-based economic units. Such measures may include the provision of credits, infrastructure, social services, and marketing assistance. Such a program responds to the historic struggle of indigenous peoples in Bolivia to maintain and strengthen their particular ayllu, the aboriginal socio-economic structures in which land is not a commodity.

Workers’ and farmers’ government

The policy of state aid to independent producers forms part of the Marxist program. It has been long practiced by the workers’ and farmers’ government of Cuba. In Bolivia, this goal is sometimes called “Andean capitalism,” a term that can be misunderstood outside its specific context. In fact, effective support for small-scale family and community enterprise is only possible when workers, farmers, and other independent producers take full control of the government apparatus and use it to rein in the power of the giant capitalist corporations.

Bolivia today may be taking initial steps toward constituting such a workers’ and farmers’ government. Bolivian President Evo Morales said April 5, “You can’t transform things from the [presidential] palace. I feel like a prisoner of neoliberal laws.” To escape this prison, his government is organizing an assembly to write a new constitution. “We captured the government,” Morales said. “With the Constituent Assembly we want to capture political power.” (Elections to the assembly, which is to redraft the country’s constitution, are to be held in July.)

Morales is on the right track here. Winning the presidency gives Bolivia’s popular movements at best only a small fragment of political power — a toehold. Bolivian working people need full control of the governmental apparatus and the armed forces. Only a government of working people, reflecting the will of the indigenous majority of the nation, can carry through the “profound democratic and anti-colonial revolution” recommended by Bolivia’s vice-president Alvaro Garcia Linares.

Solidarity from within the imperialist countries will help win for the Bolivian people the time and freedom of action needed to press this process forward.

Chavez’s Challenge

There is another vital aspect to the challenge of Bolivia, Venezuela, and Cuba. The leaders of these three countries are challenging us to join in a worldwide movement for social justice. They are awakening new interest in the idea of socialism — including among working people in Canada and the United States.

Hugo Chavez made such an appeal following the May 10-12 European Union-Latin American summit. At the Vienna summit Chavez and Morales squared off against the presidential figureheads of imperialist Europe, acting as a tightly coordinated team – sporting two flags, but fighting for a common cause.

Addressing a solidarity rally of 5,000 in Vienna, =Chavez quoted the words of Rosa Luxemburg, “The choice before humanity is socialism or barbarism.” Chavez continued, “When Rosa Luxemburg made this statement, she was speaking of a relatively distant future. But now the situation of the world is so bad that the threat to the human race is not in the future, but now.”

Chavez recalled his youth — the time of the May 1968 upsurge in France, the Beatles, and the movement against the war in Vietnam. “We looked to the future and we thought that by the year 2000, the world would be a different place, a better place. But the years have passed and instead of improving, things have gotten worse.

“What has happened? …. Imperialism and capitalism have stolen my future. And now that I am in my fifties, I am convinced that people of my generation must spend every day, every hour, every minute of our lives fighting for a better world — a world free from poverty, inequality and injustice.

“That world is called socialism! I believe that only the youth have the necessary enthusiasm, the passion, the fire, to make the revolution. Let us unite to save the world. Together we can succeed!”

To socialists around the world, Chavez’s now oft-repeated appeal is the realization of a long-deferred dream. The bold nations of ALBA are placing the struggle for socialism back on the agenda for the world’s peoples. Our response should be wholehearted and vigorous solidarity.
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Note: The quotation from Hugo Chavez at the Vienna rally, which was organized by Hands Off Venezuela, is from the HOV report that appeared at Venezuelanalysis (www.venezuelanalysis.com3). –BW and JR

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