Mike Kyriazopoulos reviews Red October: Left-Indigenous Struggles in Modern Bolivia, by Jeffery R. Webber
This major study of the movement in Bolivia that delivered hammer-blows to the neoliberal project is rich in lessons for activists in Aoteroa.
In tracing the movement’s origins, Webber notes how its indigenous activists are inspired by the tradition of the anti-colonial hero of the 1781 insurrection against the Spaniards, Túpaj Katari. Before Katari was drawn and quartered for his role in the six month siege of La Paz, he warned the colonialists that he would “return as millions”, and the protagonists of recent rebellions see themselves as the embodiment of this return.
Another influential figure was the writer Tristán Marof, who advanced the slogan “Land to the Indians” alongside “Mines to the state”. Marof went on to become a founder of Trotskyism in Bolivia, which was influential amongst the vanguard of the working class, the miners. Events such as the Catavi Massacre of 1942, when striking miners and their families were machine-gunned by the army are indelibly burned into the collective consciousness of the working class.
After a prolonged period of dictatorship in the 1970s, the union movement, in alliance with indigenous activists launched a general strike. Electoral democracy was eventually restored in 1982. However, this was followed by a “neoliberal revolution” in 1985, which saw the privatisation of State Owned Enterprises (SOEs), and the proliferation of subcontracting, leading to informalisation and fragmentation of the working class.
In the 1990s, the government introduced legislation granting indigenous people “recognition of certain linguistic and traditional rights by the state, while simultaneously reinforcing the neoliberal mechanisms responsible for the dramatic increases in their exploitation and suffering over the previous decade.” (p.138) The state aimed to divide and domesticate indigenous movements through “selective co-optation”.
In 2003, the programme of neoliberalism extended to offering contracts for water and natural gas to transnational companies at the behest of the IMF and World Bank. The state was confronted with unprecedented opposition. Consumers in Cochabamba faced new water tariffs raised to approximately US$35 per family per month, in a city where the minimum wage was around $60. The Fabriles union was central to the fightback. The union made an explicit effort to join in various community struggles, and to organise unorganised, temporary, subcontracted, and precariously situated workers, especially women and young people.
The indigenous movement specialised in road blocks, an example of their communal discipline, with its dual components of obligation and rotation. Aymara peasants demanded that the new water-bill not be passed because it violated communal indigenous understandings of water: “…in the logic of the ayllus [independent indigenous communities], water cannot be bought or sold, or subjected to market logic because water is a vital part of life: it is the blood of the pachamama… Mother earth, pachamama, would die if it [water] became a commodity with market value”. (p.157)
The blockades triggered police repression and militarisation of indigenous areas. In April, low paid police mutinied. The street-kids took a leading part in the confrontations. Seventeen-year-old Victor Hugo Daza was martyred. Days later, the “Water-War” was won, with the government annulling the private contracts.
The greatest upheavals were still to come. Resistance to gas privatisation centred on the shantytown of El Alto, perched on the edge of the Andean Plateu overlooking the Bolivian seat of government, La Paz. El Alto has expanded massively, with the influx of peasants from the plateu, and displaced former mineworkers. Social movement unionism was vital to the resistance, with the unions reaching out to all of the oppressed. At the same time, indigenous identity was proudly on display. At every gathering there was a sea of brightly-coloured wiphala flags, women wore their pollera skirts, and the Aymara language frequently replaced Spanish. The numerous neighbourhood committees that sprung up mirrored the communitarian organisation of the ayllus. These forces united to form a “combined oppositional consciousness” against the state and its imperialist masters.
On 20 September, the army responded to roadblocks by massacring indigenous people in Warisata. The COB union federation declared an indefinite general strike in response. By October, further clashes led to militarisation of indigenous areas. The level of state repression was such that even middle class layers were staging hunger strikes in protest at the government onslaught. In all, 67 civilians died and 400 were injured during Red October. As well as defending public ownership of gas, a key demand became the resignation of President Sánchez de Lozada, the face of neoliberalism. By 17 October, Sánchez de Lozada had the support only of fraction of the political elite and the US embassy. He fled to Maimi, and was replaced by Carlos Mesa.
A further uprising erupted in May-June 2005. Up to 90% of highways were blockaded, and protesters occupied hydrocarbon facilities. Webber observes that Evo Morales’ MAS party limited itself to demanding 50% royalties on petroleum-profits, rather than full nationalisation demanded by the left-indigenous bloc. The mobilisations culminated in a demonstration up to half a million strong in La Paz. On the 6 June, Mesa resigned.
The election of Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president in December 2005 represented a democratic gain in race relations and a consolidation of what had been a growing sense of indigenous pride in the majority of the popular classes over the preceding decade. However, Webber notes that MAS’s first years in government have exhibited “major continuities with the neoliberal model of political economy it inherited from antecedent governments.” (p.329)
The left-indigenous bloc was motivated by “freedom-dreams” of: (i) equality, the end of poverty, and the abolition of social classes; (ii) a future free of racism; (iii) dignity, social justice, and basic necessities; and (iv) socialist and indigenous-liberationist democracy.
But it “lacked a revolutionary party through which the necessary leadership, strategy, and ideological coherence might have been provided to overthrow the existing capitalist state and rebuild a new sovereign power rooted in the self-governance of the overwhelmingly indigenous proletarian and peasant-majority.” (p.328)
It is easy to list the major differences between Bolivia and Aotearoa. Bolivia occupies a highly subordinate place in the imperialist hierarchy of nations, while New Zealand is a junior partner of the most powerful; 62% of Bolivians identify as indigenous, compared to 14.6% as Māori here; and so on. Yet the Mana movement can learn plenty from the “combined oppositional consciousness” of the Gas and Water-Wars. Mana is essentially an alliance of Tino Rangatiratanga activists and revolutionary socialists. We face a neoliberal government hellbent on privatisation of SOEs. Thus far, our unions have failed to seriously embrace the concept of social movement unionism, with the exception of Unite. The interweaving of the politics of class struggle and indigenous liberation is our urgent task.