Bolivia: The Insurrection of the Oligarchy Step by Step

José Galindo

This is the third week of the conflict over the Census, which reveals that the Government is no longer facing a partisan political opposition, but an insurrectionary counterrevolutionary movement seeking to seize State power beyond what can be allowed in a democratic context, having as its main instrument the use of force, including armed force. The oligarchy knows that it will never be able to win an election and that the only thing left for them is a coup d’état.

What began as an apparently technical problem is now on the verge of becoming an open dispute for power. It is no longer a question of whether the Census takes place in 2023 or 2024, but of who has effective control over the lives of the citizens. One conclusion can be drawn at a glance: beyond the legitimacy granted by the October 2020 elections, in which the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) managed to win with more than half of the votes, the Santa Cruz oligarchy is committed to a project based on the undisguised deployment of force, both through paramilitary shock groups and the coercion that allows them to own one of the most profitable businesses in national history: land. However, while the leaderships of the disputing sides strive to steer the crisis towards their own objectives, the popular masses seem to have gone further, demanding not only the removal of the main leader of the civic opposition, but the expropriation of his companies, making clear the intensity of the class struggle that is being waged in the heart of Latin America.

The extreme positions adopted by the Santa Cruz elites demonstrated from the beginning that their interests went beyond the distribution of spaces for political representation and income from the exploitation of hydrocarbons based on the data produced by a National Population and Housing Census, being in reality an attempt to take by force what could not be achieved by democratic methods: the control of the State. The resources deployed in this campaign of the eastern oligarchy against the Government are designed not to demonstrate empirically the importance of the department of Santa Cruz in the national economic scenario, but to reactivate the political cleavages in order to strengthen a class project that cannot coexist with the presence of a Government that represents the popular sectors, and which is based on the ownership of a fundamental means of production in non-industrialized countries: land.

A new stage

In this political struggle, the agribusiness elites no longer resort to the interpellation of subnational actors, much less to the Plurinational Legislative Assembly (ALP) or any institutional space to settle conflicts between sectors of society, but to the mechanisms at their disposal based on their control over the main businesses in the East, which is based on the current agrarian regime in Bolivia. This non-formal but effective prerogative is taken advantage of by these actors organized in the Santa Cruz government and the civic committee of this department and wielded to paralyze the economic movement in Bolivia, as well as to create the conditions for food price speculation at the national level, while mobilizing their repressive paramilitary forces, constituting a real challenge to the legitimacy of the legally established Government. The message is impossible to misinterpret: “It does not matter that they have won elections, we are the owners of the means of production”.

Their open challenge to the Government initially achieved the manifestation of discontent and sectorial opportunism, which was opportunely deactivated by the Executive through negotiations with one of the best organized sectors for the conflict: the mining cooperatives. The civic strike demanding the abrogation of DS 4.760, which postponed the National Census from 2022 to 2024, began on Saturday, October 22 and by Monday, October 24, the gold cooperatives took advantage of the situation to extract concessions from a Government that was evidently in trouble, initiating mobilizations in downtown La Paz demanding a lower tax rate than the one established according to fiscal requirements. Minority sectors radically opposed to the government, joined their mobilization, paralyzing the streets and causing anxiety in the authorities, who had to deal simultaneously with a violently forced civic strike in the East. The Executive was forced to give in, although less than the opposition would have liked, going from a tax of 5% per ounce of gold to 4.8%.

The weakness of the middle classes

But the miners’ retreat did not prevent the mayor’s office of the city of La Paz, controlled by Iván Arias, from initiating its own mobilizations on Wednesday 26, although with very little notice, which was easily counteracted by the militancy of the ruling party, but not without provoking clearly racist expressions by the mayor, who described his opponents as “orcs”, a term used in the coup d’état to designate the supporters of the “masismo”, stigmatized by their indigenous composition, denigrated by the national elites. In any case, without the presence of the miners in the streets, and without the accompaniment of other popular sectors circumstantially confronted with the Government, such as the Association of Coca Leaf Producers of the Department of La Paz (Adepcoca), the urban middle classes of the West could do little to destabilize Arce. The middle and upper classes are clearly weak without the support of the majority popular sectors, whom, on the other hand, they despise every day.

Simultaneously, the victory of the ruling party allowed the implementation of more decisive pressure measures against the Santa Cruz agro-industrial elites, decreeing a ban on exports as long as a strike that threatened to generate shortages of essential products for the family basket, such as meat and grains, was maintained. The oligarchy, in turn, mobilized the international transportation sectors through which they market their products, which began a strike that lasted barely a day, when the Government lifted its measure while trying to deactivate the Santa Cruz civic strike. And although the transportation sectors also withdrew, the insistence of the civic sectors in maintaining the strike led the social organizations that form the base of the MAS to execute a siege around the city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, raising the stakes in this dispute for power masked as a conflict over technical issues.

A fourth intermission seemed possible with the realization of a Summit for the Census in Cochabamba on Friday 28, with the participation of the sub-national governments, with the exception of the Governor’s Office of Santa Cruz, but also with the participation of social sectors that proposed themselves as a counterweight to the civic sectors. The summit, in spite of this, ended up being a failure in relation to the strike, although it was a success in demonstrating the Government’s predisposition to understanding. The strike continued, however, and with increasing virulence.

The popular response to the coup challenge

It is here where history takes an unexpected turn. The encirclement of the popular classes against the oligarchy was answered with the usual violence of the wealthy classes against the indigenous population, including racist acts in the municipality of La Concepción, where the deputy governor of the province physically attacked indigenous women while shouting racist slogans and his paramilitary forces set fire to their homes. The event was reminiscent of the racist overtones of the 2019 coup d’état. Such acts of hatred remain to be judicially judged. But the response did not take long to come from the peasant sectors that maintained the siege against the oligarchy, which broke the final straw by demanding that, despite their strike against the Government, the latter should guarantee the supply of gas and energy to the companies controlled by the insurgent businessmen, evidencing the class character of the alleged civic strike, which forced the popular sectors to make sacrifices when the upper classes continued to generate profits.

The peasant and popular sectors thus went from encircling the city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra to demanding the resignation of Governor Luis Fernando Camacho, known for his gangster-style threats and arrogance, but also, and this is central, to considering the seizure of the oligarchy’s companies related to the strike, which in fact was a proposal for the socialization of the oligarchy’s means of production. Such a possibility goes beyond the traditional nationalizations of progressive governments and is certainly not even in the calculations of the leftist government of Luis Arce. The popular masses are radicalized beyond the expectations of their leaders, and remain ahead of them, although without a leadership that would make their aspirations possible. Thus, although the idea of expropriating the oligarchy of its main enterprises is not far-fetched, it remains a slogan as long as its realization is not contemplated by the Government, which is increasingly pushed to assume its role of vanguard of the popular classes with greater firmness.

The desperation of the elites manifested itself in the form of ruptures and resignations within their ranks, with part of the civic committee and the Interinstitutional Committee led by the rector of the conservative Universidad Mayor Gabriel René Moreno, Vicente Cuéllar, opening up to dialogue, while the until recently radical sector led by Rómulo Calvo also opened up to negotiation, leaving Governor Camacho in solitude, unable to do anything but cling even tighter to his extreme position of not reaching a consensus with the Government. Nevertheless, the paramilitary arm of the civic committee, the Unión Juvenil Cruceñista, continued in the streets beyond the position of its leader Calvo, going to the extreme of assaulting a police station in the municipality of La Guardia, going from protest to sedition and terrorism. Extremes that may seem unlikely if one takes into account that the general elections are only three years away, but which make sense when one considers that the strategy of the opposition, led by the agro-industrial elites through the civic committees, is no longer that of political struggle, but that of the deployment of force and coercion, both with their paramilitary bands and their control over the economic opportunities that their ownership of the means of production affords them, land being the principal means of production.

The 17 days of the civic strike confronted not only the Government and the social organizations related to the ruling party, but also their own excessive actions, which play a more harmful role for them than for their opponents. In the absence of support from other sectors opposed to the Government in the rest of the country, and with increasingly indefensible positions, a part of the civic committee agreed to participate in a second attempt at negotiation with the Government, this time in the eastern city of Trinidad, while the governor of Santa Cruz refuses to yield, risking further isolation, to the point of losing the social support that sustains him as an elected authority. In Trinidad, the Technical Table has been installed, which should lead to the lifting of the indefinite civic strike. If this does not happen, it will be proven that Camacho’s plan is a new coup d’état by means of a counterrevolutionary insurrection.

Thus we reach the third week of the conflict over the Census, which reveals that the Government is no longer facing a partisan political opposition, but an insurrectional movement seeking to seize the power of the State beyond what is possible in a democratic context, having as its main instrument the use of force, including armed force.

This poses a challenge to the popular sectors and the Government, to organize themselves to face higher and higher levels in the class struggle, which will not be overcome solely through the measurement of strength and power of mobilization, essential in the following days, but in the generation of a program adequate to the circumstances, which must be, it seems, revolutionary.