Thursday, August 7, 2008

Workers' rebellion in Bolivia grows

A multi-faceted workers' mobilisation is pressuring Evo Morales to get rid of the neo-liberal pensions law and set up a welfare system financed by the state, multi-nationals and the bosses.

Translated from

La Paz, July 31st 2008 - the united, combative Central Obrera Boliviana (COB) has begun a sharp offensive against the peasant-indigenous government of Evo Morales and against the oligarchy, fighting for its own demands.

For two and a half years the leadership of the workers' movement, aligned to the Morales government, has hoped that he would carry out at least in part the so-called "October agenda", including the nationalisation of gas, oil and the mines, the expropriation of the wealthy landowners and the opportunity for all to have a decent retirement and better working and living conditions.

But very little of this has taken place, and now criticism of Morales for not having got rid of the neo-liberal pensions law has unleashed a true working-class rebellion from below, going beyond the control of union officialdom.

This Thursday, for the second day in a row, thousands of workers, led by the miners, marched through the streets of La Paz demanding the abrogation of the neo-liberal pensions law and the establishment of a new pensions system as elaborated by the workers: one based on solidarity, not on the individual.

Thousands of angry workers have joined this mobilisation and increased the ranks of the protestors. They have abandoned their workplaces and disregarded their government-supporting leaders.

Other cities like Cochabamba, Potosí and Sucre are surrounded by road blockades, while in Huanuni, the largest nationalised mine in Bolivia, the 4,500 miners, the revolutionary vanguard of the people, today declared an indefinite general strike to force the satisfaction of their demands. In their assembly they are still deciding whether to send more contingents to strengthen the protest in La Paz or to build blockades to stop all access to the capital.

Working-class rebellion

Working-class rebellion against the peasant-indigenous government and the oligarchy will in ten days give way to the recall referendum which will decide if Evo, his vice-president Alvaro García Linera and eight of the governors, six of them in virtual rebellion against the central government, will retain their mandates for the next two and a half years or if they will immediately lose their positions.

"We are not fighting to bring down Evo Morales but on a social question, that of pensions for all workers at the national level. Therefore this COB movement should not be treated as if we were in accord with, or complicit with, the right. We would never do that, since the right is neo-liberal and we cannot be confused with the all-out neo-liberal assault which spent over twenty years attacking the people of Bolivia", said the COB leader Próspero Quispe, coming out against the government-aligned unions.

President Morales himself had a few days before accused the most radical sections of COB of being an "instrument of imperialism" and "allied to the right". Like him, Morales called on the workers to abandon their demands and their struggle.
"The oligarchy's main ally is Evo Morales, since he defends the landowners and the rich who exploite the workers and pay poverty wages (...) Evo should say if he is going to follow the rich or the poor", claimed Jaime Solares - the main leader of the Central Obrera de Oruro - on Wednesday. On Thursday he led the massive mobilisation in La Paz.

"Neither Evo nor the oligarchy"

In the evening in the centre of La Paz, activists from the ruling Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) tried to put the brakes on the workers' mobilisation, but this met with little success given the size of the protests, and the Government was forced to send thousands of police into the streets to protect buildings and state offices. It thus hoped to avoid what happened the day before when the miners occupied the Communications Office for several hours, blocking access to five ministries.

"Evo's a wanker, we want an answer!" chanted the demonstrators who this Thursday made clear that the Bolivian working class is tired of President Morales' demagogy, who uses anti-imperialist slogans at the same time as the government defends the interests of the rich and the neo-liberals.

The most radical sectors of COB like the miners and teachers have questioned Morales' refusal to raise salaries in line with increases in the cost of living, protecting the interests of the bosses and a state which has repeatedly increased its income. They have also attacked him for kowtowing to the oligarchy and the hundred richest families who own the land, the economy in the east and the valleys, and for allowing these people, supported by the US Embassy, to set up parallel governments in open rebellion with the centre.

"Our struggle must fight the seat of economic power of the oligarchic-landowning minority. This means fighting to carry out the Agendas of 2003 and 2005, nationalising the multinational firms and taking back the privatised businesses. This will strike a fatal blow against the wealthy, stop them stealing [natural resources], generate jobs and help us overcome the poverty which capitalism and neo-liberalism have long subjected us to", declared the April assembly of almost 5,000 tin miners in Huanuni, where the revolutionary path that the workers follow today has been laid down.

There, in the biggest nationalised mine in the country, trade unionists are pressuring the Morales government to abandon his policy of conciliation with the bourgeoisie, whose only likely outcome is the coming to power of the right and of fascism, winning over the middle classes and taking control of almost half of Bolivia, establishing parallel governments in rebellion against Morales.

"The Government", the miners' assembly said, "cannot be so irresponsible as to dodge this. There have been enough deals with the conspirators and saboteurs of the reform process. Reform must not be an empty slogan but structural change to take back our natural resources, which should be extracted by the state under social control. Nationalising and industrialising our wealth must be our immediate objective. Experience has shown that only the people, with the state, can do this".


This reform promised by Evo is expressed in the struggle for a new pensions law, as Felipe Machaca, general secretary of the COB, explained in an interview with Radio Fides.

- Why are you confronting the Morales government?
- We have had long negotiations with them on many occasions, particularly in regard to the measures advocated by the Central Obrera Boliviana, but we did not come to any agreement. We regret that ministers in the political, economic, agricultural and social arenas have been unable to satisfy the workers' demands. Nor have they responded to the Pensions Bill advocated by the workers, which has proven critical.
I want to be very clear here. There have been dictatorial governments and neo-liberal governments before, and as a result of the popular movement we now have a coca-growers' trade unionist as President, who said he wanted to carry out the agenda of the 2003 struggle. But he has not done so: the 2003 agenda included the nationalisation of hydro-carbons without compensation, the recovery of natural resources, a popular-indigenous Constituent Assembly and other demands which are always part of working-class struggle.
Comrades of ours were killed in the genocidal massacre perpetrated in 2003 by Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, who today evades justice. After this came the elections and the coming to power of Evo Morales, who has the face of an indigenous man but who in fact carries out neo-liberal policies. The Central Obrera Boliviana has already denounced the fact that many of his ministers are neo-liberals who were in the Sánchez de Lozada government, for example the Minister of the Treasury and the Deputy Minister of Pensions, as well as the fact that many other ministers protect the neo-liberal system and have shown how empty Morales' politics are.

- Is President Evo Morales "empty"?
- Yes, we can say this, since he has not ordered that they pay attention to the demands of the workers and the Central Obrera Boliviana. He forgets that in many situations the COB protected him, and that the COB has always supported the struggles of the coca-grower comrades. Indeed on one occasion we held a hunger strike to demand the end of martial law in Chapare. But now he has forgotten the Central Obrera Boliviana. We regret this situation and the fact that he operates like the neo-liberal governments did. It is a shame that we have to do these protest marches, indefinite strikes, road blockades and hunger strikes like in the time of the neo-liberals.
This government is acting like the neo-liberal governments did: arresting us, killing us, making us eat dirt and trampling over us. In Caracollo [during the repression of the blockade the COB set up between Oruro and La Paz on Monday 28th July] the police trampled on us, jumping up and down on our backs and forcing us to give up our documents and our phones. After this they dragged us kicking and screaming onto a bus, hitting us with truncheons and tear-gassing us. Many comrades almost suffocated: as we banged on the doors we remembered the way the neo-liberal governments treated us. These are neo-liberal actions, ordered by the Minister of Government: the Police is following the orders of the Ministry and the Executive.

- Why did you stage a blockade in Caracollo?
- We staged a road blockade to seek resolution to the nation-wide struggle of the Central Obrera Boliviana demanding the immediate abrogation of Pensions Law 1732 and demanding the passing of the workers' pensions bill. Law 1732 is a neoliberal law, and many workers have to work until 65 or 70 with no right to retire. For this reason we are exercising our right to protest: but we were suppressed with tear gas and shooting.

- But aren't you aware that these protests are weakening Evo Morales on the eve of the recall referendum?
- We have been telling the government for a long time to satisfy the demands of the Central Obrera Boliviana and pass our pensions bill - as agreed by all workers at the second social security conference in which the government participated. Unfortunately the government has forgotten about the situation the workers are in. In negotiations we said that our plan had to be given five years and we would do it for twenty. We presented it again and all they do is delay and delay.
The comrade Evo Morales mounted road blockades and used this measure to fight the eradication of the coca crop, but now he has forgotten and he fights us with gunfire, tear-gas, arrests, beatings and imprisonment in special gas-rooms.

- What are you going to do?
- At the moment we are carrying out a nationwide indefinite general strike along with with road blockades. The government has to resolve this situation in one way or another. We demand negotiations between the COB and the government. We are determined and are going to continue - even if they attack us with tear-gas and gunfire - until the government satisfies our demands. If there are arrests and casualties, the responsibility will lie with Evo Morales and García Linera alone, the people who are acting like the neo-liberal governments did. When we demand something, their only response is to suppress us. We want a pensions system which genuinely meets the needs of the workers. The workers have demanded such a law for many years without getting one; after achieving this we will move on to the rest of our agenda.

- What would you do if you were in Evo Morales' shoes?
- I would do what we have told Evo Morales must be the sensible attitude to take towards his comrades (...) In any case if I was in charge and was presented with this state of affairs, where the multinationals have taken the natural resources extracted at the expense of the workers' lungs and taken the workers' wages, we would want the wealth generated by the workers to be administered by Bolivians themselves, not by multi-nationals.
The neo-liberals have stolen from the country and from the workers. In this country there are large numbers of poor people and unemployed and yet there is no policy for the countryside: our comrades in the countryside have no pensions rights. The COB is fighting for all of them and wants the President to come to an agreement with the workers.

A system in crisis

The union demand to get rid of the neo-liberal pensions law and replace it with a welfare system where active workers, the state and the bosses finance pension payments, is a vital part of the people's struggle and was even used by President Morales himself, who promised in his election campaign to make it a reality.

The current private pensions system, administered by the multinationals Zurich Financial Services and the Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria, only really offers pensions to 10 percent of the Bolivian work force, leaving the other 90 percent without pension payments and therefore forced to work until they die.

This private system is base on individual payments whereby each worker makes a monthly contribution equivalent to 12.5 percent of his salary, which goes to a personal account which will pay out as pensions when he retires. In this system, which allows multinationals to control $3.2 billion of contributions from workers, the state and the bosses pay nothing.

The oligarchy, the parties of the right, bosses' associations and the big communications firms want to keep the system like this.

The second proposal, currently being passed through Congress, is that of President Morales' government, which in essence keeps the individual payment system, with the sole benefit that the $3.2 billion will now not be administered by multinationals but by the state.

The COB wants reform, which fundamentally means: (i) reducing the retirement age from 65 to 55 for male workers and from 60 to 50 for women; (ii) returning to a welfare system where active workers pay into a common fund for old people's pensions; (iii) getting rid of private administration of pension funds, today in the hands of the multinationals Zurich Financial Services and the Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria, in order that these resources might be administered under the direct control of workers' organisations; and (iv) that the state, the multi-nationals and private business should have to pay enough money into pension funds as to guarantee that the system is sustainable.

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