Six years after Bolivians elected their
first Indigenous-led government,
their ongoing struggle for national and social liberation remains a subject of
debate and disagreement among socialists around the world.
- Have the Bolivian masses been able to score significant
gains under the government of President Evo Morales, first elected in December 2005?
- Or has the Morales presidency served to limit popular
movements and block the possibility of significant change?
The second view is argued by
Canadian socialist Jeffrey Webber in a new book and a variety of recent
articles, including an interview published March 15 in The Bullet. While
Webber says that activists in the North should defend Bolivia against
“imperialist meddling,” his primary concern is to disabuse First World
socialists of illusions in the country's government. Despite Morales's “nominal
inclusion of revolutionary slogans,” his actions involve only “relatively
superficial policy initiatives,” Webber says. (Except as indicated, all
quotations are from the March 15 interview in The Bullet.)
President Evo Morales and army chief
Gen. Antonio Cueto inspect Bolivia's army after it was declared “socialist,
anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist.”
Far from moving toward socialism,
Webber says, the Morales government has
served to close off a “possibility of a fundamental, transformative overhaul of
social, economic, and political structures” and to consolidate a “reconstituted
Jeffrey Webber has won international
recognition for his writings on the social struggles in Bolivia, so his
analysis deserves respectful consideration. His argument rests on his view – in
my opinion correct – that Bolivia remains capitalist, and that a socialist
transformation is not under way.
But surely that is only part of the
story. The reforms that Webber derides as “superficial” have been violently
opposed by the Bolivian oligarchy, who don't seem to agree that Morales is
strengthening capitalism. The U.S. embassy in La Paz has participated actively
in attempts to overthrow the government. Internationally, the Bolivian
government has joined ALBA, the progressive alliance founded by Cuba and Venezuela,
and has taken other positive steps, including breaking diplomatic relations
In my view, Webber and others who
agree with him are measuring the Bolivian government against an impossible
standard, against the ideal program of a hypothetical mass socialist movement.
If we instead consider its real achievements, the gains it has made against
formidable odds, we must conclude that our priority lies in support of
Bolivia's positive moves toward national sovereignty, social progress, and
effective action on global warming.
Cochabamba Initiative for Climate Justice
Webber himself praises one recent
Bolivian initiative of world import: the Morales government's hosting of “a
major anti-capitalist gathering in Cochabamba last year.” This was “a genuine
step forward for the construction of international, eco-socialist networks,” he
Let us add that the conference, with
more than 30,000 participants, provided a model of how social movements can
establish an agenda for action by sympathetic governments. The conference also
creatively applied an Indigenous perspective to the most urgent crisis facing
humankind through its call for a “universal declaration of the rights of Mother
Earth,” which has won significant international support.
Bolivia led an alliance of Global
South countries in taking the Cochabamba resolutions to the world climate
change conference in Cancun, Mexico, last December. There, Bolivia ended up
standing alone in flatly rejecting an imperialist-imposed deal that again
failed to act on climate change. The outcome in Cancun was a serious setback
for ecological forces, but Bolivia, undeterred, is helping to spearhead
organizing toward the next world climate change conference in Durban, South
Africa, next December.
Imperialist powers are not
accustomed to be defied in this way by a small Third-World country. Why did
this historic challenge, the world's first expression of a mass anti-capitalist
ecological movement, come from Bolivia, a small and desperately poor country,
remote from the world's power centres, and weighed down with a historically
fragile, dependent, and crisis-prone economy?
To explain the Cochabamba
initiative, we examine its context: a reversal in U.S.-Bolivian relations since
Morales was elected. Bolivia has long been subjected to aggressive U.S.
intervention, supported by the country's capitalist elite. Previously, the U.S.
utilized three extended campaigns – the so-called wars against communism,
drugs, and terrorism – to keep Bolivian society off balance and to pave the way
for various forms of intervention. After Morales's election in 2005, Washington
turned to backing separatist forces in Bolivia's internal conflicts.
But Bolivia shook off these
aggressive intrusions and has now has taken the initiative, rallying
international forces against U.S. sabotage of climate justice.
Webber tips his hat to this reality,
noting that “the Morales government has also developed a relatively more
independent foreign policy.” This aspect of its record is worth closer
attention, however, especially given Canada's oppressive involvement in the
In December 2005, Morales concluded
his first speech as elected president by repeating a slogan of the
coca-farmers' union, “Causachun coca, wa˝uchun yanquis” (‘Long live
coca, death to the Yankees’). Defense of the coca leaf, significant in
Indigenous culture, against the depredations of U.S. drug-war contingents was
symbolic of a new course to affirm Indigenous and national dignity. In the
- Bolivia broke with the previous practice of allowing
U.S. ambassadors to influence appointments to senior government posts.
- Bolivia refused to grant legal immunity to U.S.
soldiers operating in the country; in response, the U.S. cancelled 96% of
its support to the Bolivian army.
- Bolivia broke with U.S. drug war policies and protected
coca cultivation in family farms.
- When Washington caused visa problems for Bolivian
government leaders seeking to visit the U.S., Bolivia slapped a compulsory
visa requirement on all U.S. visitors.
- Bolivia cancelled the practice by which the
International Monetary Fund and the World Bank had a say in the country's
financial policies, and ended its dependency on loans from these agencies.
The last of these steps was part of
a package of measures designed to free Bolivia's finances from vulnerability to
great-power economic pressure.
But Bolivia's most effective
challenge of North American tutelage lay in promoting steps toward regional
integration, free of U.S. and Canadian intervention. Webber mentions Bolivia's
“closer ties to Venezuela, Ecuador, and Cuba”: in fact, these ties took shape
in ALBA (the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America), a plan for
alternative economic relationships on the basis of solidarity, not the
capitalist market, and simultaneously a political bloc coordinating member
countries’ resistance to U.S.-led imperialism.
The campaign against U.S.
intervention led, in 2008, to the expulsion of the U.S. ambassador. In the
Obama administration's third year, it has yet to negotiate terms for its
ambassador's return to La Paz.
The main barrier to resuming normal
diplomatic relations is Bolivia's strong objections to subversive activities of
U.S. agencies within the country. Indeed, the Morales government has just
expelled the Environmental and Economic Development program of USAID, a U.S.
government agency that has engaged in protracted efforts to undermine the
Bolivia's campaign to free itself
from U.S. tutelage and assert national sovereignty is an outstanding
achievement, which was spearheaded by the Morales government.
a Rightist Insurgency
When elected, the Morales government
had “substantial room for manoeuvre,” Webber tells us. “The U.S. was
overextended in Iraq and Afghanistan” and the “domestic right had been
politically destroyed.” Instead of taking advantage of this opening, he says,
the Morales government's policies, despite “superficial policy initiatives ...
that run against orthodox neoliberalism,” remain “pre-eminently concerned with
the restoration of profitability and the subordination of the working class.”
This picture is hard to square with
the reality of social polarization during the regime's first years. Far from
showing gratitude for Morales's supposed efforts to restore capitalist
profitability, major sectors of Bolivia's capitalist class launched a violent
rebellion, purportedly for regional autonomy but primarily designed to shatter
the government's authority in the country's richest areas.
The rightist revolt was triggered by
the government's initiative for a new constitution that would refound Bolivia
as a “plurinational” republic, and by fear that Indigenous peasants would use
their enhanced status and authority insist on return of lands stolen by white,
mestizo and foreign elites.
It is true, as Webber says, that the
reform of the hydrocarbon industry, which vastly increased government
royalties, fell short of full nationalization. Also, agrarian reform measures
have been less radical, so far, than those that followed Bolivia's 1952
revolution. Nonetheless, surely it is clear that, the present Bolivian
government's reform measures – the assertion of national sovereignty vis-Ó-vis
the U.S. empire; the new constitution; the agrarian reform, with all its
limitations; rights and dignity for Indigenous peoples; increased royalties
from resource extraction; etc. – were regarded as crucially important by both
the rightist oligarchy and popular movements.
The manner in which this
confrontation was overcome is instructive. The right-wing insurgency took the
form of a political movement mobilizing in the streets and seeking to impose
its will through violence – the characteristic method of fascism. For a time,
much of the eastern region where the rightists were strong was close to a no-go
area for government leaders and their supporters. Washington threw its support
strongly behind the anti-government forces.
A capitalist government's standard
response, faced with such a challenge, is to call in the police and army and
impose its authority by force. If successful, such action in Bolivia would have
left the army as arbiter of the situation; more likely, it would have led to
civil war and foreign intervention.
It is thus striking that the Morales
government relied not on the army but on the strength of social movements that
had elected it to office. And far from resisting the government's supposed
measures to subjugate them, the country's working people mobilized again and
again to defend government initiatives against forcible right-wing obstruction.
Fascist-type violence and provocation was thwarted through
counter-mobilization, followed up by democratic consultations in which Morales
obtained the backing of almost two-thirds of the voters. The neo-fascist thugs
were isolated and marginalized. This historic achievement by Bolivian working
people stands as a model of how to respond to Fascist-type movements.
Defend the Morales Regime?
Speaking of Bolivia today, Webber
states that “the popular sectors are rightly concerned with defending the
Morales regime against any imperialist meddling and right-wing efforts at
destabilization when they emerge.” This is a welcome statement. Still, if
Morales truly represents “reconstituted neoliberalism,” why should he be
Certainly it is true that the
Bolivian state remains capitalist, and the government functions within the
framework of deeply entrenched capitalist culture and social relations. It
rules through a capitalist state apparatus that is ill-adapted to implement
progressive reforms. It is often at odds with popular struggles – particularly
now that gains against the rightists and Washington have opened more scope for
such movements. Capitalist state bureaucrats have attempted to infiltrate the MAS, and turn it to their own ends.
But it is equally true that, through
the victories of the MAS, popular movements have taken positions of authority
within the government and successfully used this leverage to drive forward a
popular agenda on many issues that the Bolivian people feel are deeply
In Bolivia today, Webber notes, “a
situation persists in which there is no organized, alternative socio-political
force to the left of the ruling party.” Surely this fact suggests that, despite
all strains, the tie between social movements in Bolivia and the Morales
government has not been broken.
Webber regrets the “failure of the
2003 and 2005 mass mobilizations to translate into an overthrow of the existing
capitalist state and the construction of a popular, sovereign, self-governing
power of the Indigenous proletarian peasant majority from below.” He attributes
this negative outcome to “the impact of the absence of a revolutionary party.”
Certainly, the presence of a broad,
effective revolutionary organization would have strengthened the people's
movement and influenced the outcome. Yet it is striking that not only was a
revolutionary party absent (a not uncommon situation in our world) but that no
significant group on the left posed a viable alternative to MAS's electoral
project. How can this be? Was there something wrong with the Bolivian popular
movements – with the human material, perhaps, or with their traditions? Or were
there factors that made an all-out drive to overthrow the capitalist state less
attractive than Webber implies?
The type of overturn that Webber
describes – which I would call a socialist revolution – has not occurred since
Cuba's revolution of 1959-62. Indeed, some Marxists argue that there has been
no successful socialist revolution anywhere since 1917. This decades-long delay
cannot be put down to inadequacies of revolutionary will or organization. It
points to the existence of deep-rooted cultural, social, and economic barriers
to implementing a socialist agenda, which cannot be overcome quickly or in a
small, isolated sector of the world.
Moreover, we must recall the
overriding lesson of the great Russian anti-capitalist uprising of 1917-18: to
survive and flourish, the revolutionary alternative had to be extended
internationally. That was true not just “ultimately,” as Webber states, but
immediately. The failure of revolution outside Russia had a swift, devastating
impact on the new workers’ state that was keenly felt by 1919. Fortunately,
Soviet Russia, which covered a sixth of the world's surface, possessed a range
of raw materials and diversified industries sufficient to enable it to
withstand several years of capitalist blockade and armed assault. Bolivia, by
contrast, has an economy that is totally dependent on imports and exports, and
does not have even an ocean port, let alone the backing of a powerful sponsor
such as that enjoyed by Cuba during and for many years after its
The greatest barrier to a socialist overturn in Bolivia is
not the Morales leadership but the absence of workers’ governments in
economically advanced countries that could provide effective support.
The Morales government's focus on
developing ties with other progressive or semi-progressive regimes – and even
(to Webber's dismay) with other governments in conflict with imperialism such
as Iran – represents intelligent revolutionary strategy. The ALBA alliance is
an attempt to widen the options for poor, dependent countries, a project that,
if it flourishes, will create more favourable conditions for anti-capitalist
As we know from experience in
Canada, working people do not normally attempt to overthrow the capitalist
state if the road to reform appears to be open. Revolution and the struggle for
reform are not counterposed, but are rather part of a single process. A
struggle for reforms can both strengthen workers’ combative power and
demonstrate the limits of what can be achieved in capitalism. Certainly, in
Bolivia, events have shown that the path to reform did indeed lie open. The
Morales government did not overthrow capitalism and does not appear likely to
do so, but its period in office has been marked by tangible advances for
working people and, also, has demonstrated limits of reform under the present
In terms of sheer drama and as a
demonstration of the power and creativity of working people, struggles in
Bolivia over the last decade call for close attention. Many writers on the left
have studied this experience and expressed their opinions on where Bolivian
workers acted wisely and where they took a wrong step. This process is natural
and positive, and Webber has contributed to it significantly.
However, we must bear in mind that
in the Bolivian drama we are not just analysts and critics, we are also actors.
Bolivia's struggle for democracy and sovereignty has been actively opposed by
the Canadian government and its allies. Imperialist intervention in Latin
America is under way right now – to restrict national sovereignty, shore up
reactionary regimes, overthrow defiant governments, and crush popular
movements. It is an urgent threat that has Bolivia in its gun sights.
In another article, Webber has
“From my perspective, the first
priority of activists in the Global North should indeed be to oppose
imperialist meddling anywhere. This means, concretely, opposition under any
circumstances to imperialist-backed destabilization campaigns against Morales.
But the political situation is too complicated to end our discussion at that
stage. Our first allegiance ought to be with the exploited and oppressed
themselves, rather than any leaders or governments who purport to speak in
Agreed, our “first allegiance”
should be to the masses, but Webber's counter position of the masses and the
MAS leadership fails to acknowledge their close relationship.
Moreover, Webber's use of the term
“imperialist meddling” radically understates the systemic nature of imperialist domination or the devastating
violence of its intervention in countries like Haiti, Honduras, or Colombia.
Imperialist domination is not expressed merely in “destabilization campaigns” –
it permeates and defines every aspect of Bolivia's social, economic, and
In this situation, the “first
priority of activists” is not criticism of the process in Bolivia, but
solidarity – which must be expressed above all in opposition to Canadian
government policies. In that spirit, all of us, including those who share
Webber's dim view of the Morales government, need to contribute to the broad
movement of solidarity with the people of Bolivia and with other peoples
victimized by imperialist domination. •
John Riddell is a member of Toronto
Bolivia Solidarity, t.grupoapoyo.org.
1. “From Red October to Morales: The Politics of Rebellion and Reform
in Bolivia,” The Bullet, March 15,
See also Jeffrey R. Webber, From Rebellion to Reform in Bolivia: Class
Struggle, Indigenous Liberation, and the Politics of Evo Morales, Haymarket Books: Chicago 2011; “From Rebellion to Reform: Bolivia's Reconstituted
Neoliberalism,” International Socialist Review,
no. 73 (Sept.-Oct. 2010); “Fantasies Aside, It's Reconstituted Neoliberalism
in Bolivia under Morales,” ISR,
#76 (Mar.-Apr. 2011); “Struggle, Continuity and Contradiction in Bolivia,” International Socialism, #25 (Winter 2010), “Evismo – Reform?
International Viewpoint, #382 (October 2006).
For a reply by Federico Fuentes, see
movements, and revolution in Bolivia today,”
ISR, #76 (Mar.-Apr. 2011).
2. See Martin Sivak, “The Bolivianisation of Washington-La Paz
Relations: Evo Morales’ Foreign Policy Agenda in Historical Context,” in Evo
Morales and the Movimiento al Socialismo in Bolivia, London: Institute for
Study of the Americas, 2011.
3. Sivak, “Bolivianisation,” pp. 161–71.
4. Webber, “Rebellion to Reform”; also quoted in “Fantasies