National Sections of the L5I:

Bolivian workers resist new austerity

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Within six weeks of his inauguration as President, Victor Paz Estenssoro has given notice to the Bolivian working class of what it can expect from his new government. Declaring a ’state of siege’ on 19 September, Paz arrested thousands of trade unionists involved in a general strike against government austerity measures.

Juan Lechin, long time leader of the COB (the Bolivian Trade Union Federation), together with its current general secretary Walter Delgadillo and leaders of the Oil, Bank and Telecommunications Workers were sent into ’internal exile’ – banished to remote towns in the Amazonian jungle near Brazil. Soldiers opened fire on striking workers in the capital La Paz, while others raided the trade union headquarters and university looking for strike leaders and ’political agitators’.
1952 revolution
Paz is the 77-year-old leader of the MNR-H and has been elected president three times before. In 1952, a general strike and insurrection, led by the Bolivian miners overthrew the existing military regime, and brought to power Paz and the ’National Revolutionary Movement’ (MNR). This party had enormous support amongst the workers and peasants at that time on the basis of its anti-imperialist pronouncements.
Its leaders promised to free the country from the grip of imperialism, especially the USA, and from the exploitation of the multi-national corporations which made enormous profits out of Bolivia’s natural resources, while its workers lived in abject poverty.

Under the pressure of the mobilised and armed masses the MNR government introduced a major and reform which broke up many f the larger estates and distributed land to the peasants. The major mining companies were nationalised and the state mining corporation COMIBOL was set up.
Despite its revolutionary and anti-imperialist rhetoric, the MNR remained a government that defended bourgeois property. Its strategy of developing Bolivian industry behind protective trade carriers and through state-capitalist enterprises like COMIBOL, was combined with a determination o demobilise the masses and reach compromise with imperialism.
Within a few years the Paz Estenssoro regime had managed to divide the peasant organisations from the workers, re-build the shattered Bolivian army through US supplied aid and impose a US backed IMF ’stabilisation plan’ on the workers which attacked jobs and living standards.
But this was not sufficient for the Bolivian ruling class or their imperialist masters. As in many other Latin American countries the strength of the working class and its combativity in the face of attacks on its living standards demanded more extraordinary measures. Having weakened the workers organisations and defences, Paz himself was overthrown by a military coup. This regime of General Barrientos guaranteed the Bolivian and US bosses stable and profitable exploitation through the massive repression of the labour movement. This vicious circle of mass revolt headed off and contained by ’revolutionary nationalist’ governments, who only pave the way for renewed military dictatorships, has become the tragic pattern of modern Bolivian politics.

The Paz government
Paz replaces his old ally the outgoing President Hernan Sues Zuazo, leader of the MNR-I. The MNR-l, having split from Paz in 1970, took over the ’revolutionary’ mantle of the MNR and form-ed the UDP government in 1980. Siles, like Paz before him, was swept into office after a general strike which forced the corrupt military junta to hand over power to a civilian government.
The UDP government that included the Bolivian Communist Party and ’socialist’ MIR, proceeded, after a short time, to try and impose IMF demanded ’austerity’ measures, only to be met by massive working class resistance. Between September 1982 and the elections in July there were six general strikes in Bolivia. Despite their enormous heroism and self-sacrifice, especially from the miners, the Bolivian working class was once again crippled by its leadership.
The entry into the government of the major ’left’ parties, and the support initially given to it by the COB leadership, provided Sues with a left cover. Even when the UDP was openly attacking the working class its leaders were unwilling to fight for an alternative kind of government, one which would have defended the interests of the masses and taken real measures to expropriate the bosses, arm the workers and disband the army - a Workers and Peasants Government. (see; Bolivia failed general strike paves way for right. WP73)

Workers’ programme of action
Under such leadership the series of general strikes became purely defensive, exhausting the resources of the masses, at best giving temporary respite from UDP attacks. Yet they provided no permanent solution to Bolivia’s economic crisis. Only a programme of action, which rejected placing the burden of the crisis on the shoulders of the workers and peasants and which counterposed to it making the bosses and the imperialists pay the costs of their own crisis, would have been able to rally the rural masses and middle strata behind the proletariat.
The immediate and complete cancellation of the debts to the international banks, the expropriation of the capitalists and all imperialist holdings, the taking over of the major retail distribution companies and placing them under workers control, stamping out the black market, the extension of credit to the peasants; these were the type of demands which needed to be fought for and mobilised around.
Of course, a government that implemented such revolutionary measures would have faced not only the ferocious hostility of its own bourgeoisie and its armed forces, (thus the Importance of revolutionary work amongst rank and file soldiers) but also a virtual blockade by the imperialists.
The Paz government of 1985 is very different to that of 1952. The government knows that it will only be tolerated if it shows it can do what Siles could not do, break the resistance of the working class and drive down living standards in the interests of profit. If Paz falls there is always the ADN waiting in the wings or a return to a direct military dictatorship.
So aware is Paz of this that he has included in his ’democratic’ government two well-known “Golpista’s", figures who have been involved in previous military coups and their dictator- ships. Luis Fernando Valle, who served in the military government of General Pereda in 1978 as well as under the ’Cocaine Junta’ of General Luis Garcia Meza of 1980-1, was given the Ministry of Defence.
Clearly Paz hopes this will give the reactionary generals enough influence in government to make them desist from launching a coup. Such concessions were tried without much success by Salvador Allende near the end of his 1970-73 government in Chile. That is why, by its very nature, such a struggle had to aim beyond the borders of Bolivia. The struggle would have opened the possibilities of the Bolivian workers giving a lead to the masses of Peru and Argentina faced with similar attacks from their governments to pay their crippling debts to the imperialists. Such a strategy was the only one that offered a way out of the disastrous cycle of military dictatorships imposed on the Bolivian people.
Instead, the beneficiaries of the apparent stalemate between the UDP government and the organised workers was the right. Hugo Banzer’s ADN (Banzer headed the military dictatorship between 1971 and 1978) won the largest percentage of the votes in the July elections - 28% com-pared to Paz’s 26%. He took over 50% of the votes in the capital La Paz. The MNRH scored heavily amongst the peasants, while Sue’s MNR-I - was decimated.
Despite this Paz with the support of the MIR and other left parties won the presidency in the congress. Within days of his inauguration Paz was declaring to a meeting of Bolivian businessmen his plans for solving the economic crisis; “The only alternative is work, sacrifice and to place ourselves in a completely realistic situation. This means going against the political approach we created and adopted (since 1952). We are breaking with this policy to adopt an entirely different one".

Attacks to come
The sacrifice was not to be asked of the audience but their poverty stricken employees. The MNR’s traditional anti-imperialist rhetoric and aversion to foreign investment has quickly been dumped in favour of policies, which will attract US support and investment. Paz quickly announced Bolivia’s ’willingness to pay’ its $4.8 billion foreign debt. Nearly $1 billion is owed immediately in overdue payments to the international banks as the UDP had declared a unilateral moratorium in June 1984. Such payments can only be made at the expense of the workers and peasants. On 29 August a swingeing austerity package was introduced aimed at doing just that. Petrol went up 700%, domestic gas (widely used for cooking) went up 20 times, bread quadrupled in price, electricity and telephone costs are to rise ten fold. Most restrictions on imports and exports were lifted in the interests of this ’free market’, while the currency was massively devalued.
Other measures announced included the breaking up of COMIBOL into decentralised enterprises obviously aimed at weakening the miners’ control over management and paving the way for future privatisation of profitable mines. He also announced the opening up of the Uyuni region, said to contain the largest deposits of Lithium and Potassium in the world, to foreign capital.
It was also these measures that led to the September general strike. Originally called for 48 hours by the COB leadership, such was the support that it was extended Indefinitely. Paz Immediately declared the strike illegal, a fact that did not stop the miners, factory workers, workers In telecommunications, teachers, bank workers, the oil workers, railwaymen and many other sections making the strike solid.
The declaration of the state of siege and the use of the army against the strikers was deliberately aimed at weakening the union movement and demonstrating to the bourgeoisie and US imperialists Paz’s determination to take on and defeat the working class.
The Bolivian workers must quickly learn the lessons of the past period and set about forging a new leadership in the struggle against the MNR government. Only by doing so can they finally settle accounts with the Bolivian capitalists and their Generals, as well as with their imperialist paymasters