Volume 6, No. 2, 7 February 2007
Bolivia and Latin America: New Spaces for the Communist Parties?
Blade Nzimande, General Secretary
I have just returned from Bolivia, as part of an ANC-led alliance delegation. The delegation was ably led by the Secretary General of the ANC, Cde Kgalema Motlanthe, and included Cde Zwelinzima Vavi, the General Secretary of COSATU, Cde Ebrahim Ebrahim, a member of the NEC of the ANC, Cde Phumuzo Mqingwana, National Treasurer of the ANC Youth League, and Cde Thoko Mabena, a member of the National Executive Committee of the ANC Women’s League.
The origins of the trip partly arose out of discussions that the ANC and SACP had had with President Evo Morales when he visited South Africa in January 2006 shortly before he was inaugurated as the first indigenous president of Bolivia. The main purpose of the visit was to familiarize ourselves with contemporary political developments in Bolivia, deepen fraternal relations between the ANC (and its allies) with President Morales’ Movement for Socialism (MAS), and exchange views and experiences on many other areas of common interest. Foremost amongst the latter were to exchange views on our own (South African) experiences on constitution making. During the second half of last year, Bolivians voted for a constituent assembly whose task is to draft a new constitution for the country by the end of August 2007.
The delegation reached some bilateral agreements with the MAS, especially around deepening solidarity between our two respective movements, sharing and acting together on key challenges facing progressive movements in the world today and also to facilitate the deepening of relations between our two countries. Incidentally this visit was also significant given the fact that, at least since 1994, it was for the first time that the Alliance Secretariat undertook a joint international visit, an important step towards harmonizing our perspectives and programme of action in the international arena.
A visit of five days is too short a time for anyone to claim any deep understanding of the totality of the struggles and challenges facing any country. However, we held a wide range of meetings and discussions that at least gave us some useful insights in this regard. Amongst those we met included President Evo Morales, Vice President Alvaro Garcia and Minister in the Presidency, as well as national leadership structures of MAS, women members of the Bolivian Congress (Parliament), and youth organizations. In addition we also met with the Acting President of the Constitutional Assembly, as well as some of the members of the Bolivian Constituent Assembly drawn from different political parties and formations, and a visit to three rural communities around the famous Lake Titicaca, some 65 kilometres outside the capital La Paz.
‘We govern, we do not steal’: A brief overview of the current political situation in Bolivia
Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in South America with a population of 8 million, 72% percent of whom are indigenous (Indian) Bolivians. It is a country characterized by deep class, gender and racial inequalities, with the indigenous rural women at the bottom of the pile in society.
After some 3 centuries of colonization (including genocidal type violence against the indigenous population), Bolivians waged heroic struggles to secure freedom from Spanish colonization and the establishment of a republic in 1825. Since then, like in many other Latin American countries, independence from Spain was soon followed by a new wave of (neo) colonization by the United States of America, which has consistently supported the domestic bourgeoisie and actively undermining all attempts to translate the gains of independence into addressing underdevelopment and poverty to the benefit of the overwhelming majority of the peoples of this region.
Much as racial discrimination against indigenous people in Bolivia was officially proclaimed unlawful in 1952, the oppression and super-exploitation and extreme forms of discrimination against the indigenous people continue. It is because of this that the indigenous population of Bolivia, through its own struggles as peasants, coca planters and growers, as urban workers, as the poor came together to form the MAS in 1995 as a ‘political instrument’, not only to end all forms of discrimination against the indigenous people but also as a foundation upon which to build a new Bolivia.
One has been struck, though not surprised, at the level of bitterness amongst the indigenous people against the ruling classes of Bolivia, especially against all those political parties and organizations that have over decades represented the rich of Bolivia. This anger and bitterness has however found an ‘oultet’ as it were, the historic election of Evo Morales as the first indigenous president of Bolivia. There is now a very strong of identification of Morales with the aspirations of the indigenous people to free themselves from all forms of exploitation and oppression. Throughout our visit and engagement with especially the indigenous leaders and communities, Morales is to them what Nelson Mandela is to South Africa. There is an unusually strong sense of ownership by the indigenous people of the Morales government. The crux of their expectations is the radical transformation of society, particularly the socio-economic conditions of the indigenous people.
Bolivia is currently characterized by acute class struggles, with obviously strong racial, ethnic and gender dimensions. In essence the main class protagonists in this struggle are on the one hand the overwhelming majority of the indigenous people, many of whom are peasants and workers and located in the very poor western parts of the country, and the landed agrarian bourgeoisie (mainly white and located in the rich east of Bolivia). The coincidence between race and class in Bolivia is particularly sharp in a manner that has many similarities with our own South African situation.
The acuteness of these contradictions seems to be placing the government of Evo Morales in a difficult dilemma. Whilst Evo is the President of Bolivia as a whole, the indigenous people see his government as ‘theirs’, sometimes to the point of being ‘theirs alone’. It seems that the challenge for President Morales and the MAS is that of ensuring that the current government becomes a government for the indigenous people as a necessary condition for being a government for the Bolivian people as a whole.
Our delegation was particularly inspired by the role of the indigenous women in the struggle for the transformation of Bolivia. The mass activism in Bolivia seems to have unleashed the energies of women in a manner unseen before, and many indigenous women are active participants at various levels of government and the Constituent Assembly and within MAS itself. This is laying a very important foundation for deepening the struggle for gender equality in Bolivia, and to this end we agreed that part of our solidarity activities and exchanges must centrally include sharing experiences on women’s struggles and the struggle for gender equality.
Indeed the general assessment by MAS is that the first year of Morales government has done well. In particular the measures taken by this government to reclaim the country’s natural resources (including hydrocarbon, the mines and water) and to be placed under the control of the people as a whole through the state. In addition Morales is planning a radical programme of land reform in order for land to be redistributed to the majority of the people of Bolivia. Morales told us that when asked why his government has been successful thus far he replied that unlike most of the previous governments, ‘MAS governs and does not steal’ people’s moneys and resources!
The Constituent Assembly
It is on the above issues that the question of the drafting of a new constitution by the Constituent Assembly revolves. The single and most immediate challenge facing MAS and the Morales government is the drafting and adoption of a constitution that will lay a foundation for the most thorough and radical transformation of Bolivian society. At least this is the expectation from the majority of the people. The deadline for the adoption of the Constitution is August 2007.
However the Bolivian bourgeoisie and other reactionary forces are hell-bent on frustrating the process of producing a new constitution, unless such a constitution advances its own class interests. However, the MAS and the majority of the people are adamant that failure to adopt a constitution through filibustering or other means by the bourgeoisie, their answer will be to directly proceed to a national referendum which will only require 51% as opposed to two-thirds to approve the constitution by the Constituent Assembly. In any case the constitution adopted by the Constituent Assembly will have to be ratified by a national referendum.
The bourgeoisie is using its electoral strength and domination in all the eastern regions is also fighting for autonomy of these regions. This they also do because the MAS only has 54% of the members of the Constituent Assembly and not the two-thirds required in order to pass the constitution in the Assembly. Just like was the case during our own constitution making process, the Bolivian bourgeoisie is in essence calling for a federal state, where the rich provinces will keep the Bolivian wealth to themselves, as most of the wealth is concentrated in the Bolivian eastern lowlands.
The Bolivian and virtually the whole of the Latin American bourgeoisie have for decades been very arrogant and resistant to any changes that threaten their interests, principally also because of the backing (including by violent means) it has consistently received from the US government.
Currently the US government, which is very hostile and opposed to the Morales government, is actively seeking to deepen divisions within the indigenous population as part of weakening the Morales government. The other part of the US strategy is to indirectly strengthen the hand of the more radical and ultra-left sections within the indigenous population as part of further alienating sections of the middle classes in the East, a significant section of whom voted for Morales in the presidential elections. This also becomes a useful scare tactic for the Bolivian bourgeoisie not to seek any rapprochement whatsoever with the Morales government to build a united, democratic, multi-ethnic and multi-lingual Bolivian nation. Indeed the US is going out of its way in assisting the Bolivian bourgeoisie to either secure complete autonomy for the eastern provinces or sabotage the constitution making process.
The Constituent Assembly has practically become the most immediate site for the range of class struggles underway in Bolivia. Given the stance taken by the parties of the bourgeoisie and reactionary forces, the Constituent Assembly is unlikely to meet its deadline of August 2007.
The Party and the masses: Strategy and tactics of the communist parties in Latin America
The Bolivian and broader Latin American situation and all these dynamics pose questions around the strategy and tactics of communist parties in the current period. Due to a combination of factors the communist parties in Latin America have been generally weak, with the exception of Cuba. This has generally been due to the vicious anti-communist strategy of the United States over decades. The current mass-led shifts to the left are inevitably taking place not under the leadership of communist parties but under the leadership of mass movements, with Bolivia being a classic example in this regard.
In engagements with the Communist Party of Bolivia (PCB), we agreed that the current leftward shifts and deepening mass activism in the region definitely opens up new possibilities to rebuild a strong communist movement in the region. The PCB itself also openly admits that it is very weak, and its decline was also as a result of the rapid decline of the mining industry in the 1980s, which was its strongest social and class base. It has not managed to make any significant inroads in organizing the peasantry and the coca workers in the countryside. Like in the Bolivian situation, this is one of the biggest challenges for many communist parties in the region, where there is a large peasantry, urban and rural poor but relatively tiny working classes. This calls for sustained communist party attention to mass organization.
A related question posed by the Bolivian and Latin American situation in general is whether current developments and socialist orientation of the mass movements are not actually inaugurating a new era of building socialism without communist parties? But another important question is whether mass movements, notwithstanding their socialist vision and commitments, have the necessary subjective capacity of waging a sustainable struggle for socialism or even build a sustainable socialist order?
The very character of MAS in Bolivia is instructive in this regard. MAS is a broad movement, principally made up of the peasantry and coca workers, with a variety of ideological tendencies inside the organization - Marxists, anarchists, social democrats, including virulently anti-communist strands within it. This is certainly a strength for MAS; its ability to bring together a wide range of ideological tendencies and social formations around a minimum platform of transforming Bolivian society for the benefit of the overwhelming majority of its people, fighting neo-liberalism and deepening the struggle for the restoration of the dignity of the indigenous people.
However this very strength of MAS is potentially its own weakness which can seriously undermine its capacity to sustain a socialist oriented struggle. Because of the variety of tendencies within mass movements, there is no clear, single ideological centre, thus making it susceptible to ideological and political vacillations, like any broad mass movement of this nature. The PCB is also broadly working with the MAS, with one minister and a few deputy ministers serving in the Morales cabinet, as well as having a few members in the Constituent Assembly, including the General Secretary of the PCB. A similar situation also prevails in Venezuela and Uruguay, where communists are serving in these governments.
In fact in Venezuela, President Chavez in December last year called upon all the political parties and formations that support his government to dissolve and form one political party, which Chavez has tentatively named the Socialist United Party of Venezuela. To this end the Communist Party of Venezuela is convening a special congress in March this year to consider its options with regard to this proposal. Clearly for Chavez this is an important step towards creating a political and ideological centre for the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela, whose absence at the moment is correctly seen as a threat to this revolution.
A key continuing challenge for Bolivian and generally all communists in Latin America as well as in many other developing countries is the centrality of the national question in the struggle for socialism. In a country like Bolivia, and the PCB strongly emphasized this point, the struggle for socialism cannot be waged separate from and outside of addressing the national question, whose main content is the continuing discrimination, exploitation and marginalization of the indigenous communities.
All these issues raise very fundamental questions not only for Latin American communist parties, but for the entire communist movement. It is a call to go back to the basics: intensified party work amongst the masses, as we still believe that much as mass movements are absolutely essential in the struggle for socialism, but communist parties are absolutely indispensable in this struggle. However leadership of the communist parties cannot be imposed or decreed, but has to be won on the ground.
In the light of the above the SACP commits itself to continuing solidarity activities and exchange of experiences with both the MAS and the Communist Party of Bolivia.
A senior African National Congress (ANC) delegation led by ANC Secretary General Kgalema Motlanthe visited Bolivia from 31 January to 6 February 2007.
The delegation included:
- Blade Nzimande, South African Communist Party (SACP) General Secretary,
- Zwelinzima Vavi, Congress of SA Trade Unions (COSATU) General Secretary,
- Ebrahim Ebrahim, ANC National Executive Committee (NEC) member and coordinator in the ANC International Affairs Unit,
- Thoko Mabena, ANC Women's League NEC member,
- Phumezo Mqingwana, ANC Youth League National Treasurer.
The trip was follows the visit to South Africa in December 2005 of then President-elect of Bolivia, Evo Morales, who went on to become the first indigenous person to occupy the position of president of Bolivia.
During the course of the visit the delegation met President Morales, Vice President Alvaro Garcia, government ministers, and leaders of the Movement for Socialism (MAS). The delegation also met members of Congress from all Bolivian parties, including leaders of the opposition parties; leaders of the Constituent Assembly; leaders of civil society formations, including youth formations, indigenous groupings, and women's formations; academics; and other opinion makers, including political analysts and media.
The visit was highly successful and laid the basis for a more systematic and sustained relationship between the ANC and MAS, Bolivia's governing party, and for deepening relationships with all the Bolivian political parties and civil society formations.
During these intense exchanges, the ANC delegation shared its own experiences guided by the understanding that while Bolivia and South Africa share a similar history of colonisation, exclusion and marginalisation of the majority of their citizens, no two countries can be exactly the same. Therefore the mutually enriching exchanges recognised that the parties could not mechanically apply solutions of one country to the other.
Bolivia's 2005 elections were followed by the establishment of the Constituent Assembly whose task is to produce a new Constitution by August 2007. The country faces the challenge of uniting to address the deep sense of racial deprivation and the deep racial, class and gender oppression of the indigenous groups.
As part of the efforts to deepen the relationship between the two countries, Bolivian Vice President Alvaro Garcia is planning to visit South Africa during February 2007.
The delegation is compiling a detailed analysis of the Bolivian situation that will be shared with the ANC, the Alliance and civil society formations.
African National Congress
PO Box 61884
8 February 2007