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Mass protests demand right-wing Prefect's resignation
...but opposition forces are a growing threat
TWO WEEKS of intense mobilisations, protests, and street blockades calling for the resignation of right-wing departmental prefect (elected head of the regional administration), Manfred Reyes Villa, culminated in a popular assembly on 16 January in which representatives of Cochabamba's social movements, workers and poor peasants (campesinos), elected a new "Revolutionary Departmental Government". ADAM ZIEMKOWSKI, writing from Cochabamba in Bolivia, explains this significant development.
THE POPULAR assembly was originally called by leaders of Cochabamba's unions and peasant organisations in order to ratify a plan to oust Reyes Villa through "legal" channels. However, the vast majority of the thousands of people present were adamantly opposed to their proposal, calling instead for the immediate election of a new prefect and possession of the building of the prefecture.
As a result, the original leaders of the popular assembly withdrew their proposal and relinquished control of the assembly to representatives of the social movements from each of Cochabamba's 16 provinces.
These representatives then met to elect Tiburcio Herrada, former guerrilla and longtime activist, as the new "popular prefect". The popular assembly ended with the symbolic taking of power on the doorstep to the building of the prefecture followed by a euphoric circling of the plaza with Herrada in front, hoisted upon the shoulders of his supporters.
Within hours, however, severe opposition from President Evo Morales' left-centre Movement towards Socialism (MAS) government as well as divisions and lack of organisation within the social movements themselves called the viability of the new "Revolutionary Departmental Government" into question.
Representatives of the MAS government immediately rejected the popular assembly calling it illegal and saying that: "these radical organisations don't represent the social movements of Cochabamba because they intend to remove an elected prefect by force."
In addition, Severo Huanca, leader of the Six Federations of the Tropic of Cochabamba - the powerful peasant federation whose members constituted the largest and most energetic force in the mobilisations - also rejected the election saying: "We do not agree with this approach. We cannot risk taking the prefecture. We all know it's illegal."
Herrada responded by saying these leaders "ran like rats" in the face of the revolutionary demands of the masses and asking the question: "If it's unconstitutional, why call a popular assembly in the first place?"
For the moment at least, it appears as though the Revolutionary Departmental Government will be unable to assert its authority and assume control of Cochabamba. All mobilisations ceased the day after the popular assembly and Herrada, himself, while insisting that the people are united in support of the decisions of popular assembly, seems uncertain about how to proceed in the face of such strong opposition from union and peasant leaders.
Although there is relative calm right now, tensions could easily reignite at any moment. Right now there is a power vacuum in Cochabamba. The Revolutionary Departmental Government has been unable to assume control, but Reyes Villa has also not returned, blaming Morales for the fact that his safety "cannot be guaranteed" and giving control to departmental secretary general, Johnny Ferrel, for at least two weeks.
Reyes Villa hopes that tensions will ease during this time but there are strong indications that this is just wishful thinking. Political tensions have been mounting for months now and Reyes Villa has firmly placed himself in support of the right-wing opposition in Bolivia.
Mobilisations against Reyes Villa began on 4 January because of his plans to call for a departmental referendum on autonomy (although Cochabamba had soundly rejected departmental autonomy in a referendum just six months earlier) to show support for right-wing popular assemblies which were held in the four eastern departments of Bolivia on 15 December.
During these assemblies, the department prefects and 'civic committee' leaders (large landowners and business representatives) -with the support of Bolivia's major neo-liberal parties and the US ambassador - declared de facto autonomy, stating they would not respect any new constitution unless it was approved by a two-thirds majority, and announced the first steps towards the drawing up of their own constitution.
These assemblies were huge -government workers were given half a days holiday to attend and many others were paid to do so. Such a move was correctly viewed by the social movements as a direct attack on Bolivian democracy and a blatant attempt by the right to protect their interests and prevent change at all costs.
The decision to declare autonomy is seen by sections of the working class and poor peasantry as a first step to splitting away these resource rich regions of the country and declaring independence. If further moves like this are made then there is a possibility of wider clashes leading to a civil war in Bolivia.
In the eyes of the Cochabamba social movements and wider sections of workers, young people and campesinos, Reyes Villa's unflinching support for the right-wing opposition meant that he was no longer fit to serve as Cochabamba's prefect.
The mass mobilisations culminating in the election of the Revolutionary Departmental Government in Cochabamba are extremely important. They show that as Morales' MAS government retreats further from its base in the social movements, instead of demobilising and submitting to MAS's demands for step by step, 'legal' reforms, the social movements are growing increasingly independent.
The MAS government organised no demonstrations to confront the right-wing popular assemblies in December and was against the movement to oust Reyes Villa from the beginning.
Yet thousands of workers, peasants, and indigenous supporters of Morales and MAS also actively took part in the formation of the Revolutionary Departmental Government in spite of the government's opposition.
At the same time, the fact that initially the Revolutionary Departmental Government appeared unable to fill the power vacuum in the face of opposition from MAS, union and peasant leaders, indicates that weaknesses still exist.
The way events unfolded in Cochabamba demonstrates the importance of preparation amongst wider sections of the working class and peasants in Cochabamba and nationally.
Serious preparations need to be made if the social movements, peasants' organisations and workers' organisations are going to develop into a force which is capable of presenting a real viable revolutionary alternative to the right-wing opposition's neo-liberalism and MAS's reformism.
The social movements in Bolivia are in the midst of a struggle against a right-wing opposition that still controls the economy, most of the means of communication, sections of the military hierarchy, and that is closely aligned with the transnationals and US imperialism.
They will use this power to fight against every small reform Morales and the MAS government tries to pass. If they succeed in weakening the social movements, they will use their power to take back the gains that workers have won through struggle.
In order to win the struggle, the Bolivian working class, campesinos, and indigenous population need to be armed with the correct strategy. The same measures which will allow Bolivia's social movements to prevail against the right-wing opposition will also provide the solution to the problems of poverty, hunger, unemployment, homelessness, and lack of access to health care and education which plague millions of Bolivians on a daily basis.
But neither a winning strategy nor a resolution to Bolivia's suffering can be found within the confines of capitalism. For this reason, the Committee for a Workers' International puts forward the following demands:
For the immediate resignation of Cochabamba prefect Manfred Reyes Villa and for control of the department of Cochabamba to be placed under the democratic control of elected worker, peasant, and indigenous representatives of the social movements, unions and peasant committees.
For the democratic organisation of Bolivia's social movements, trade unions and peasant organisations into committees in workplaces, farms, and communities on a local, regional, and national level.
For the development of armed self-defence committees under democratic control so they can defend themselves against the attacks of the right and so these organisations can later provide the basis for a democratic worker, peasant, and indigenous government. For the building of committees amongst the rank and file of the army and police.
lFor the nationalisation of all major Bolivian industries and the seizure of all large landed estates, to be placed under democratic control by workers, peasants, and communities so that the use of Bolivia's resources can be democratically decided upon by the majority instead of by a handful of wealthy Bolivian and foreign elites, and so the opposition will be unable to use their wealth and control of the economy to sabotage a worker, peasant, and indigenous government.
For full cultural, linguistic and land rights for the indigenous peoples of Bolivia.
For the creation of a socialist Bolivia as a first step and guide towards the creation of a socialist confederation of Latin American states.
A socialist Latin America, with an economy based on cooperation and sharing of its immense and diverse natural and human resources, is the only possible path towards economic development and the only way to ensure that the basic needs of all Bolivians and Latin Americans are met. In this way, the poverty which has plagued Latin America for more than 500 years ago can finally be alleviated.
In The Socialist 1 February 2007:
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