Bolivia’s Mass Organizations—Trade Unions, Peasant Unions, Neighborhood Councils—Unite to Form Their Own Governing Body

El Alto Proclaimed ‘General Headquarters of the Bolivian Revolution of the 21st Century’

by George Saunders

The translated document below, containing the decisions made on June 8 at the first enlarged meeting of the National People’s Assembly Originaria, states that a United Leadership of the Assembly is being formed.

It states that the Assembly and its leadership will be an “INSTRUMENT OF POWER.”

Action committees were formed, including one for self-defense.

The leadership of the Assembly will apparently be made up of the leaders of the mass organizations, which are as follows:

First of all, this United Leadership includes FEJUVE (the Federation of Neighborhood Councils of El Alto), an alliance of more than six hundred neighborhoods in the working class city of El Alto (population, one million), whose best-known leader is Abel Mamani. These neighborhood councils (juntas vecinales) have existed since the mass uprising of October 2003, which drove out former President Gonzalo (“Goni”) Sanchez de Losada. These neighborhood councils of the working class and urban poor hold regular mass meetings to decide democratically on strategy and actions. It is through these juntas vecinales that the million-strong population of El Alto has mobilized persistently in recent weeks to march into nearby La Paz and occupy that capital city and to carry out an open-ended political general strike to shut the country down until the demand for nationalization of the gas and oil industry is carried out, along with “industrialization”—that is, harnessing the wealth of Bolivia’s gas and oil resources to provide jobs and a decent livelihood to the vast majority of Bolivians who live in poverty (with incomes of less than a dollar a day).

Thus, we can see that there is good reason for this solidly organized working class city of one million to be proclaimed “general headquarters of the Bolivian revolution for the twenty-first century.” (Whether consciously or not, this proclamation echoes the call of President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela for a “socialism of the twenty-first century.”)

Second, there is the Regional Workers Federation of El Alto (Central Obrero Regional de El Alto, or COR-El Alto). This federation of trade union organizations of El Alto is undoubtedly intertwined with and probably has overlapping membership with the mass base in FEJUVE.

The most prominent leader of COR-El Alto is Roberto de la Cruz. On May 17 at an Enlarged Plenum of the El Alto Regional Workers’ Union (COR) the decision was made to begin an indefinite general strike in El Alto to enforce the demand for the nationalization of hydrocarbons. It was reported that the sentiment at the COR Enlarged Plenum was that for the struggle to be victorious, “the bourgeois parliament had to be closed down.” The same sentiments prevailed among the neighborhood councils of FEJUVE.

Third is the Central Obrero Boliviano (COB), the nationwide trade union organization. Its leader Jaime Solares stated at the COB national enlarged meeting in El Alto (June 6 or 7): “There will be no peace in Bolivia as long as the hydrocarbons are not nationalized. We cannot give in on the struggle for nationalization. This is a life or death matter. We cannot retreat.”

Fourth is the United Trade Union Confederation of Peasant Workers of Bolivia (CSUTCB). This is the peasant union federation mainly of the altiplano (or highlands region) adjacent to El Alto and surrounding La Paz. This region is populated mostly by the indigenous Aymara and Quechua peoples, and it is these indigenous peoples who constitute most of the population of El Alto and the membership of the trade unions as well as the peasant unions. They are also the majority of Bolivia’s population. And so there is a national tie (of the indigenous peoples) that also binds together the unions, the neighborhood councils, and the peasant organizations. This is reflected in the rainbow flag of the indigenous people that has appeared widely in the mass demonstrations that have shut Bolivia down in the past few weeks.

Fifth is the Trade Union Confederation of Artisan Workers and Small Traders of Bolivia. These are the urban peddlers and the poor who eke out a livelihood from the informal economy. It is a great advance that they are organized in their own federation and are associated as semi-proletarian allies of the Bolivian working class, for otherwise they could provide a social base for fascist movements. The demands of the workers movement (nationalization of gas and oil) provide hope for a better life for these sectors of the population as well. (There is also an organization of the unemployed workers.)

Sixth is the Trade Union Federation of Mine Workers of Bolivia. The mine workers were formerly the most powerful force in the Bolivian workers movement. Although the miners’ organization is less powerful today, with the decline of the mining industry and its privatization, the miners are still a force to be reckoned with. It is the dynamite sticks of the miners that are most feared by the police and troops who have confronted the demonstrations of the Bolivian working class majority in recent weeks.

Brother Zubieta, head of the mine workers, declared at the mass public meeting (cabildo abierto) in La Paz on June 6: “All the social organizations of the people—we are going to proclaim a massive people’s assembly and forge a new government to solve the power vacuum. The oil companies want another clown in government to defend their interests, but we will make a new government of the people arising today from a Popular Assembly, with the aim of nationalizing the hydrocarbons.”

Also in the leadership of the People’s Assembly is the Interprovincial Transport Federation of La Paz, the organization of workers employed in the transportation industry.

The document adopted by the People’s Assembly also mentions “the other mobilized social organizations of the interior of the country.”

It is not clear whether the formulation “mobilized social organizations of the interior of the country” includes the coca-growers’ organizations, which are the base of the MAS, the Movimiento al Socialismo. Among the prominent leaders of the MAS political party are of course Evo Morales and Roberto Loayza, elected members of the Bolivian bicameral legislative body, whose dissolution the mass movements are demanding. Under pressure from the mass radicalization, which also affects the members of the coca-growers’ organizations, Loayza especially, but also Morales, have recently taken more radical positions. At first Morales refused to support the demand of most mass organizations for nationalization of the gas and oil industry.

In the last two days, the forces represented by Morales and Loayza played a key role in direct mass action that successfully blocked an attempt by right-wing Senate leader Vaca Diez to take over the presidency. Vaca Diez moved the June 9 session of the Bolivian parliament to the historic capital of Sucre, hundreds of miles away from La Paz. The mobilized mass movements, however, followed the bourgeois parliamentarians and stalemated them in Sucre. Agence France Presse reported the following on June 8: “According to the leader of the powerful One Union Confederation of Bolivia Farm Workers, Roman Loayza, who is close to Morales, some 2,000 Quechua campesinos have left from the neighboring state of Cochabamba [heading] toward Sucre.”

The next day Vaca Diez was blamed for the death of a mine workers’ leader, shot by police special forces as a miners’ contingent was approaching Sucre on June 9. The special police detachment was reportedly ordered by Vaca Diez to prevent protesters from entering Sucre. This police murder rebounded against Vaca Diez, and he withdrew himself from the presidential succession, to be replaced by the head of Bolivia’s Supreme Court, who under the constitution must call elections within three months.

The document below calls for Popular Assemblies to be formed in all departments of Bolivia. This is most significant. The rise of such bodies throughout the country could form the basis for a workers and peasants government exercising power through popular mass organizations that would be similar to the workers, peasants, and soldiers councils (Soviets) of the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917.

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Following is the link to the translated text of the document, which is also copied below: http://www.marxist.com/Latinam/bolivia-peoples-assembly090605.htm

Bolivian People’s Assembly launched

A step towards workers’ power

We publish here a translation of the resolution launching the People’s Assembly passed yesterday in El Alto (Bolivia) at a meeting of about 150 people representing 60 different organizations. The meaning of this cannot be underestimated. It is a first step towards the creation of an organization of workers’ power.

According to one report, workers from the Senkhata gas and fuel plant which supplies La Paz and who are on strike were also present. It was agreed that supplies to working class neighborhoods in La Paz and El Alto would be permitted, but the lorries would be guarded by representatives of the workers and of the Neighborhood Juntas to make sure they are not sent to the wealthy neighborhoods or used for speculative purposes.

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The First Enlarged Meeting of the National Originaria* People’s Assembly of Bolivia

The transnational oil corporations, North American imperialism, and the treacherous rulers of the Bolivian state have plunged the whole nation into a deep political, economic, and social crisis, with the country currently on the verge of total collapse. The aroused masses in the city of El Alto and throughout the country have a decisive role to play; to save the country through a people’s government elected from below and with real accountability.

For this reason, the first enlarged meeting of the Originaria National People’s Assembly takes the following decisions:

1) That the city of El Alto be the General Headquarters of the Bolivian Revolution in the XXI century.

2) To create a United Leadership of the Originaria National Peoples’ Assembly as an INSTRUMENT OF POWER, at the head of the Federation of Neighborhood Juntas of El Alto (FEJUVE), the Regional Workers’ Union of El Alto (COR), the Bolivian Workers’ Union (COB), the United Trade Union Confederation of Peasant Workers of Bolivia (CSUTCB), the Trade Union Confederation of Artisan Workers, Small Traders of Bolivia, the Trade Union Federation of Mine Workers of Bolivia, the Interprovincial Transport Federation of La Paz, and the other mobilized social organizations in the interior of the country.

3) To create SUPPLY, SELF-DEFENSE, PRESS, AND POLITICAL Committees whose aim is to guarantee the success of the organized peoples’ organizations.

4) We reiterate that our struggle for the NATIONALIZATION AND INDUSTRIALIZATION OF HYDROCARBONS is non-negotiable.

5) To organize the formation of Peoples’ Assemblies in every department under the leadership of the COB, the Departmental Workers’ Federations, and the delegates elected from the rank and file in mass meetings and cabildos.

6) To reject all maneuvers of the ruling class either through a constitutional succession or elections involving the same old “politicians.”

In the city of El Alto, this eighth day of June of two thousand and five.

[*NOTE:Originaria” refers to the “original” inhabitants of the country before Spanish colonisation, i.e. the indigenous people.]

[Further Note on “originaria” (from an e-mail message by Joaquin Bustelo on the “Marxmail” discussion group):]

In legal philosophy or theory, “originaria” has another meaning that is quite relevant here.

As best I understand it, and I’m not an expert, it refers to an assembly (like a constituent assembly) that does not derive its power from previous law, but rather that is by its nature the source of law, marking a complete and total break with the past, disestablishing all previous authority.

That is usually the result of a revolution, and the legal precept is that “the revolution is the source of law,” except that the Spanish word is not ley (which corresponds most closely to law) but rather derecho (“right”), and that term carries with it the connotation of not just specific rules, but of the legitimacy to constitute a political order.

The use of the word “originaria” in the name of a popular assembly is thus a very far-reaching assertion that this is the true and legitimate expression of the sovereign Bolivian people, and is tantamount to an open declaration of insurrection.

Of course, anyone can call themselves anything. But for this assertion of being “originaria” to be real, the institution would have to have the participation of virtually all sectors of the mass movement, and the loyal recognition of its character by a majority, including the most dynamic sectors of those waging the mass offensive.

There was some debate in Venezuela precisely over whether the Chavez Constituent Assembly [in 1999] was “originaria”; people active in politics in Latin America would have been well aware of this and familiar with this usage from that time. So I would be very surprised if the drafters of the assembly’s statement did not mean it to ALSO, or primarily, have it be taken in this way, especially considering its contents.

[reply by Jorge Martin:]

You are right in this, but I am not sure it applies in this particular case. One of the issues that has crossed the Bolivian mass movements in the last 15 years has been the question of the recognition of the indigenous peoples (Aymara, Quechua, Guarani, and others). There have been different solutions proposed to this, including the more strictly nationalist one of [Felipe] Quispe.

The thing is that they are widely known now as pueblos originarios, that is, the original inhabitants of the country. Among some of the tendencies that have dealt with this issue there is even a doubt about whether Bolivia itself should be accepted or not.

In this sense it is interesting the reaction of the Asamblea del Pueblo Guarani in the Santa Cruz de la Sierra region. They have said that if the Santa Cruz oligarchs declare their “autonomy” or independence, then they would in turn declare theirs, thus getting control of the gas resources which are mainly concentrated in their territory.

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Democracy Now on June 9 had the following accurate description of the general background to the present situation:

“The current crisis in Bolivia was sparked by massive popular resistance to foreign control of the country’s energy resources. Bolivia has estimated natural gas reserves of more than 50 trillion cubic feet, second only to Venezuela in South America, according to U.S. Energy Department figures. Twenty-six foreign oil and gas companies have 70 licenses to operate in Bolivia. While control of natural resources is a central issue for the masses protesting in the streets, it is by no means the only one. At the heart of the protests are the rights of the country’s indigenous communities, who say they want not just a nationalization of the country's resources but a nationalization of the government and an end to the exclusion of indigenous Bolivians from the governing of the country.”

The case for using Bolivia’s gas and oil to improve the lives of the majority of impoverished Bolivians is eloquently made by trade union leader Oscar Olivera, who played a key role in the victorious struggle in Cochabamba in 2000 against Bechtel’s price-gouging takeover of the people’s water in that part of Bolivia.

Olivera’s book on Cochabamba was recently published by South End Press in Boston. The eloquent case Olivera makes for the use of “the national patrimony” of gas and oil for the good of the Bolivian masses is posted June 10 on the CounterPunch web site (www.counterpunch.org). We reprint Olivera’s article below for the interest of our readers.

Reconquering the Collective Patrimony of the Nation

Recovering Bolivia's Oil and Gas

by OSCAR OLIVERA

Petroleum and natural gas are riches found in our territory; they represent national wealth. The presence of oil and gas provides an objective condition that can permit the expansion of the national economy and the raising of the quality of life and work using our own Bolivian resources. Bolivia possesses a great wealth of petroleum and natural gas, but these resources do not currently benefit the Bolivian people. Despite the current situation, these deposits are important for the future economic viability of Bolivia.

The sheer value of the oil and gas is important to the future of the Bolivian economy. The 52.3 trillion cubic feet of gas reserves in Bolivia—reserves presently in the hands of foreign capitalists—are minimally worth $120 billion.1 This means that financial resources exist in Bolivia for improving the living conditions of the whole population. The resources exist for job creation, better salaries, and expanding free services.

One hundred twenty billion dollars is an extraordinary amount of money. Such funds can enable the creation of a new productive base that could halt the country's decline and rescue it from industrial and commercial insignificance. The resources exist to modify the structure of national production by broadening its industrial base, improving the transportation system, and diversifying the economy. Better yet, it could build the economy without the foreign loans or favors that always end up submerging us in greater dependency.

But as long as this wealth belongs to foreign businessmen who have appropriated resources that belong to others, these dreams remain unfulfilled. Foreign capitalists are getting rich, and intend to go on getting rich, from these resources. They restrict the possibilities that this wealth, which should belong to us, might be used to benefit the lives of all Bolivians. The capitalist, whether local or foreign, puts profits and her or his own personal benefit above the collective and national interest. The transfer of wealth to private and foreign hands is the fate that has befallen the collective national patrimony.

What could be a source of rebirth for the productive capacity of the nation is, for now, only a source of profits and private fortunes for a handful of capitalists. The private ownership of petroleum and natural gas by these businessmen constitutes, without any doubt, the strangulation of one of the greatest opportunities the nation has ever had to finance and to sustain the type of productive growth that can benefit the population, satisfy our needs, and fulfill our right to a dignified communal life.

We have economic wealth, but this wealth is not under our control. We have the potential to make a great technological and productive leap that could benefit working people—the real owners of the gas and oil. Yet those who stand ready to benefit are foreign businessmen and their local commercial and political associates who have handed over to foreign capital what belongs not to them but to all Bolivians.

Bolivia's possession of natural gas and petroleum, because of their worldwide use, is what most strongly ties the national economy to world trade and foreign investment. The principal consumers of Bolivia's hydrocarbons are businesses, governments, and citizens of other nations, particularly those in neighboring countries. Moreover, it is estimated that by the end of 2000 direct gas-related foreign investment in Bolivia originating from extremely powerful multinational companies will total $1.4 billion, equivalent to 20 percent of our GDP.2

The management and control of these resources, whatever option is adopted, needs to take into account how petroleum and natural gas link us to world trade. We need to realize that these commodities speak within the international economy as objects of trade embody the commercial value of natural wealth. The presence of private foreign interests is also observed in their production and management.

A third economic implication is that gas and oil, along with water, are the sources of energy upon which the nation depends. With our technical knowledge, gas and oil will nourish the long-term development of the national economy. Any strategy for national economic and social development in the context of the global interdependence of nations-whether a business strategy, or a community-based strategy of self-management-requires, if the nation's relative autonomy and material viability are to be sustained, the ability to control the wealth embodied in hydrocarbons. Today, such strategic resources are controlled by business consortiums whose only goal is rapid private gain. These groups stand in the way of the possibilities we have, as a country, for productive development and autonomy in matters of economic policy.

On the basis of this economic and political analysis two things become clear. First, the country must recover the control and management of its hydrocarbon resources. This is perhaps the nation's last best chance to materially revolutionize the country's productive infrastructure and improve the working and living conditions of the Bolivian people.

Second, we should understand that no possibility exists for autarkic development of our resources in isolation from the rest of the world and the dominant economic interests. We do not need to lie down and roll over. However, for as long as the hegemony of the bosses and the transnational power of the great capitalist enterprises survive, our economic policy must conquer spaces of self-government and economic autonomy which connect to other spaces of autonomy, resistance, and economic self-management in other nations. In truth, only the mid-term and long-term quest for an interdependent globalization of workers' autonomy and economic self-management can eventually furnish the moment in which ordinary working people can enjoy the use of their wealth.

When we talk about recovering our national patrimony, the central questions remain: Who or what is the "nation"? What would it mean to recover the control and management of hydrocarbon resources "for the nation"? Who decides the meaning, and who authorizes the voice, of the "nation" that will take charge of the reappropriation of natural wealth?

Up until now, the entity that incarnated the nation, its authority, and its sovereignty has been the state. From the 1940s to the 1990s, the state has attributed to itself the power to represent the nation, its destiny, and its political sovereignty. In particular, a bureaucratic political elite has spoken in the name of the state and claimed to embody the state. On this basis it also claimed to speak in the name of the nation. Hence, for almost fifty years the destiny of the nation has been confused with that of the state; the property of the nation has been confused with the property of the state; the welfare of the nation has been confused with the welfare of state functionaries and government administrators; and the sovereignty of society over its own resources has been confused with the state's monopoly of the economy, culture, and collective wealth.

That which claimed to possess the voice of the nation was, at bottom, nothing more than a form of state capitalism. It sacrificed the collective resources of society to enrich a caste of politicians and military officers. They, in turn, fattened up and paved the way for the current elite. This elite, in turn, spearheaded the transnational privatization of petroleum and natural gas.

That is why, after sixty years of social struggles to reconquer our natural resources, it is impossible to return to the old state bureaucracy's strategy for recovering the nation's wealth. We have seen that nationalization, in the end, prepared the conditions for the denationalization of our collective wealth. The opposite of the cataclysmic privatizations and de-nationalization of transnational capitalism is neither state capitalism nor state property. Both options concentrate control of collective wealth in the hands of a few: in the first case, the corporate bosses; in the second, the state ministers, government functionaries, and lawyers. In both cases, tiny castes and elites-in the name of the free market or the patria (homeland)-appropriate the collective patrimony of Bolivian society for their private use. Both, in their own ways, monopolize social wealth without the decisions and will of ordinary working people.

It becomes a question of countering both forms of privatization—the private property of the transnationals and the private property of the state—with forms of social, economic, and political organization. It is a question of organizing working people, ordinary people, and people who do not live off the labor of others and having them take into their own hands the control, use, and ownership of collective and communal wealth. The true opposite of privatization is the social reappropriation of wealth by working-class society itself-self-organized in communal structures of management, in assemblies, in neighborhood associations, in unions, and in the rank and file.

For the true nation not to be supplanted by the market or the state, the working class, both urban and rural, and the marginalized and economically insecure of the nation—in other words, the overwhelming majority of society—must assume control over the wealth embodied in hydrocarbons. And they must do so through assembly-style forms of self-organization at the neighborhood, regional, and national levels. The sovereignty of the nation should not be alienated by the state or its administrative bureaucracy. The nation must enact a self-representation; it must self-govern through autonomous structures of participation that socialize responsibility for public life. The recovery of patrimony for the nation, the international articulation of the nation, and the form in which economic and political sovereignty is exercised is something that must be decided, implemented, and administered by all of us who do not live off the labor of others.

Now, the mere description of this concept of the nation, as the direct exercise of social sovereignty by all workers, is not enough to make it happen in reality. It requires a lengthy process of reconstituting the social fabric of solidarity, trust, and mutual support among the poor, among urban and rural workers, among the ordinary working inhabitants who maintain this country. It requires an effort to rebuild, broaden, and improve the old network of solidarities that neoliberalism has destroyed over the last twenty years. Though a difficult and possibly long road, it remains the only road by which power and control over our natural and social patrimony can be administered by plebeian and working-class Bolivia itself. The other road, state re-nationalization, is certainly quicker and easier, but clearly would mean a swapping of one set of elite expropriators for another.

The events known as the Water War in Cochabamba demonstrates that the construction of ties of self-organization, rebellion, and dignity can advance rapidly if one knows how to connect different sources of discontent and overcome the fear and the separation that isolate us and render us powerless. The Water War in Cochabamba is an example of the recuperation of natural resources by working people. Everyone mobilized; everyone assumed responsibility for recovering our patrimony; everyone deliberated in town meetings and assemblies; everyone offered their lives and their food to resist the military repression; everyone made themselves responsible—through their local, regional, and state assemblies—for controlling, directing, and administering water as a collective resource.

The same thing should happen with petroleum and natural gas. If we do not want the bosses and politicians to steal our children’s future, we should help transform the suffering and weariness that has broken out all around us into a force for decision, for coming together, and for mobilization. Today there is great discontent because this gigantic wealth that lies beneath our feet passes right out from under our noses and leaves us stuck in economic misery and desperation. And the gas we buy is priced as if it were flown in from Iraq. Hence, there exists a predisposition to struggle. What we need to do is to create networks of groups that can build social unity, in which individual anger and disillusionment can be converted into collective mobilization, democratic discussion, decision-making, and collective action.

It is necessary to reinforce the consciousness and conviction that Bolivia's petroleum and natural gas belong to us-to you, to our parents and children, to the factory worker and the craftsman, to the peasant and the communal worker. The responsibility lies with all of us to take charge of the use and management of our oil and gas.

The formation of a new Coordinadora—the Coalition for the Defense and Recuperation of Gas and Hydrocarbon Resources—could be a step toward reconstituting the fabric of working-class society. The committees or coalitions comprising the Gas Coordinadora would have as members any citizen, neighborhood group, housewife, or wage worker, and their goal would be to unite and to channel social discontent and collective demands. A word of caution: these groups cannot be allowed to become the top-down operations of a few who want to shine in front of the TV cameras.

The Water Coordinadora in Cochabamba proved able to emerge on the scene of struggle with such force because, starting five years earlier, organizational structures were built from below—from every peasant union, factory union, and outlying neighborhood. These structures had clear objectives: to defend what belongs to the collective; to defend social rights; to defend traditional customs and practices grounded in assembly-based self-governance; and to promote effective collective mobilizations. Only this patient work—antlike, honest, clear, and committed—could have resulted, years later, in the only workers', peasants', and popular organization that has proven itself capable of throwing out a foreign corporation, defeating the state, and, for one week, replacing the state with forms of assembly-style self-government.

With petroleum and natural gas, one must go further and extend this kind of endeavor to the national level. But one must still start from below. Without that method, the recovery of our natural resources and national consciousness will remain impossible.

A version of this essay was originally delivered by Oscar at a seminar held in La Paz on June 30, 2000.

Endnotes

1. Kevin G. Hall. "Bolivians Vote to Boost Control of Gas Reserves," Washington Post, July 19, 2004. (September 2004). These figures are based on the exchange rate of the dollar in summer 2000 and prices of $2.30 per 1000 cubic feet of gas.

2. "Las Prioridades y Perspectivas del Desarrollo en Bolivia,"

Our participation should not be reduced to the few seconds it takes to deposit our votes in the ballot box. Marches, protests, road blockades, and building occupations are neither adventurous lunacy nor destabilizing conspiracies against democracy. They are simply actions available to ordinary people...”

Oscar Olivera is the author of
¡Cochabamba! Water War in Bolivia (South End Press, 2004), from which this essay is excerpted.