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From Rebellion to Reform in Bolivia
Jeffery R Webber
Toni Negri and Michael Hardt recently wrote that the Arab world has taken Latin America’s mantle as the world’s most vibrant arena of popular struggles. If so, one thing today’s movements would do well to learn from struggles in Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela is that the fight for liberation has to look further than just toppling overtly right-wing governments.
Webber’s study focuses on the mass movements ‘from below’ of 2000–2005 and how these have been canalised into parliamentary reform by Evo Morales’ MAS government. Where the general strikes and mass demonstrations of the first half of the decade displayed an epic degree of participation, radicalism and popular empowerment, the Morales government has been marked by cautious change initiated by the state apparatus alone.
For instance, the coalition of the indigenous majority with other working-class and subaltern groups long demanded the expropriation of the multinationals that harvested Bolivia’s hydrocarbons wealth. However, after riding the wave of rebellion to power in 2006, Morales recognised the gas contracts illegally signed under the former president and reformed how they were taxed. Webber refers to this as a ‘reconstituted neoliberalism’.
The democratic objectives of the social movements have also been disappointed, with MAS attempting to balance between the pressure from the indigenous left and that wielded by the oligarchs. However, Webber is not uncharitable towards Morales, and stresses that a socialist critique in no way implies alignment with imperialist critics of the process in Bolivia – if anything, it is Morales who is not challenging multinationals assertively enough.
Reform versus revolution is a time-honoured subject of discussion on the left. In Bolivia, though, these have not just been theoretical debates, but have led to bloody clashes between workers, the army and police, and pro-oligarchic forces.
Indeed, a major strength of the book is that the author punctures the myth that Morales’ critics are mere ‘armchair revolutionaries’. He portrays a vibrant and continuing movement from below, for instance the Huanuni miners’ struggles, and the mass resistance to the oligarchs’ September 2008 coup attempt at a time when the government merely preached ‘calm’.
If the last three years of the Morales government further consolidated a reformist dynamic, Webber also looks to the opportunities for the 2000–2005 revolt to resume with renewed vigour. This book is not yet history; the process is far from over.