Analysis: Taking on the multinationals in Bolivia

Issue: 111

The nationalisation of Bolivia’s oil and gas reserves on 1 May was another step forward in the radicalisation of Latin America. Talk of socialism in the 21st century in Venezuela, it seemed, was translated into action against the multinationals 2,000 miles away. And it was not only the European giants British Gas, BP and Total who were upset. Brazil’s Petrobras was the owner of the biggest stake, and President Lula’s ‘centre left’ government was visibly annoyed—Lula said he recognised Bolivian sovereignty but would be ‘firm’ in pressing to ‘preserve Brazilian interests’. Zapatero’s Socialist Party government in Spain was even more outspoken in expressing its ‘concern’ over any damage to the Spanish-Argentinian multinational Repsol-YPF.

The tendency, as usual, of the mainstream media ever more obsessed with ‘good’ or ‘evil’ celebrities is to see the action as the result of one person, in this case Evo Morales—and there is still a tendency in part of the far left internationally to fall into the same trap, compensating for its own weaknesses with vicarious identification with this or that hero elsewhere in the world. But Morales’s move has been his response to the upsurge of a mass movement from below, over which he has only limited control. As articles in previous issues of this journal have pointed out, he was a reluctant participant in the great uprising in June last year which overthrew a second president in 20 months—and laid the basis for his own electoral triumph in December (see Mike Gonzalez in issue 108). Some of the most prominent leaders of the June uprising viewed his behaviour with undisguised suspicion, and this suspicion was not allayed by the way he brought into his new government ministers favourable to Bolivian capitalist interests and, via them, to deals with the multinationals (see the Analysis piece in issue 110).

Driving the process further forward has been the rise in expectations and confidence as a result of people experiencing their ability to overthrow the two previous governments. For them the country’s gas and oil reserves represent the one chance they have of overcoming the worst poverty in South America. Morales could not afford to ignore this pressure from below even if his aim is to try developing a merely nationalist project along with sections of Bolivian capitalism. It is such pressures, rather than just advice he may have received from Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, that lies behind the nationalisation. Indeed, Chavez’s scheme for a trans-South American pipeline going right down into Argentina implies conciliation with the Brazilian and Argentinian oil interests, rather than antagonising them.

The great majority of those involved in the movements saw Morales’s accession to office as a great victory for themselves, and they enthusiastically support his government. Those leaders who continue to distrust him do not, at the time of writing, seem to be pulling the mass of their own members with them. The COB union federation, for instance, has been divided, with important unions lining up with Morales against the critical voice of COB leader Solares. Carlos Rojas, the leader of the important Fejuve federation of neighbourhood associations in El Alto—the centre of Bolivia’s two uprisings—has been highly critical of Morales. He listed to an interviewer for the Argentinian paper El Socialista at the end of February: delay in raising the minimum wage (which, at $60 a month, is one twentieth of a parliamentary deputy’s salary); allowing the French multinational Suez to continue to run water systems; concessions to the big landowners of the east of the country; holding elections for the Constituent Assembly (due on 2 July) along old parliamentary lines, which means it will be dominated by the parties instead of delegates from the mass movements. But, as the interviewer commented, ‘not everyone is as critical as Carlos Rojas. Evo Morales still has massive popular support’.1

As in any mass popular upsurge, however, support sometimes verging on adulation for a particular leader goes along with a willingness of people to take actions on their own behalf against poverty, exploitation and oppression in the expectation that the leader will support them. So April, for instance, saw calls for two-day and three-day strikes over pay by urban and rural schoolteachers and La Paz health workers, and a call by the COB for a 24-hour strike. And a special cabinet meeting was needed to discuss bitter confrontation in the airports, where workers who had not been paid for months by the privatised airline LAB were met with tear gas from the police when they tried to block the runways in order to force the government to renationalise it. Among those who complained bitterly about the police action was the nationally known leader of the Cochabamba water movement, Oscar Olivera. Morales’s attempt to draw together all the social movements under the control of his own MAS party through an EstadoMayor del Pueblo (General Staff of the People) met with some resistance and there was an attempt by the COB to organise its own May Day rally in La Paz in competition with the government one. It was at that point that Morales used the May Day platform to make his dramatic declaration about the oil and gas nationalisation.

In fact, as critics both inside Bolivia and outside, like the well known radical activist and commentator James Petras, have pointed out, the nationalization decree was not nearly as radical as it was usually presented. The state took control of the oil and gas deposits, but not the installations and equipment. ‘It is more along the lines of Keynes than Marx,’ writes Petras. ‘It is along the lines of social democratic mixed economy and it is this which explains the hysteria of the multinationals’.2 Far from banishing the multinationals from the country, it gave them 180 days to agree to new operating terms and it seems that the outcome will be the establishment of joint enterprises in which the Bolivian state will own about half the shares.3 The rhetoric about full nationalisation amounts in practice to raising the Bolivian state’s share of oil revenues with 50 percent control. This has not, of course, prevented the multinationals and the states in which they are based from getting angry and, in some cases, looking for legal action to keep their hands on Bolivian wealth.

The same mixture of reform and compromise with established capitalist interests is shown in the government’s land reform proposals. These look to take over, and distribute to the landless, uncultivated and illegally held lands in the hands of the big latifundias—but to leave the vast bulk of their land holdings untouched. The government has gone out of its way to assure the latifundists that this is not an attack on their private ownership as such. The aim, it says, is to develop three parallel agricultural sectors—one based on communal indigenous holdings, one on private peasant owners and one on large commercial farms, particularly in the east of the country where soya beans and other crops can be produced for export via Brazil. All this fits into vice-president Alvaro Garcia Linares’s view that Bolivia needs decades of ‘Andean capitalism’.

It is a mixture that should easily maintain the momentum of Morales’s government enough to solidify the influence of his MAS party in the constituent assembly. But it cannot both satisfy the desperate aspirations of some of the poorest people in Latin America and deter the multinationals and the local ruling class from conspiring to re-establish their own unfettered domination.

Capital has grown accustomed over the last two decades to having everything its own way right across the continent and no amount of government talk of partnership is going to stop it conspiring to reassert its total dominance. So the latifundists and the oil interests clustered in the eastern city of Santa Cruz may have been negotiating with Morales but they have also been preparing for actions of their own if they do not get what they want from the negotiations. A year ago they threatened civil war and they may well do so again, knowing that the army that occupied the oil and gas installations is an army built to repress the poor, not the rich. Part of their price for compromise with Morales is a promise of regional autonomy, to be voted on in a referendum on the same day as the constituent assembly elections. But there is a growing feeling among activists in Morales’s MAS party that giving autonomy to a region dominated by such types is a step backwards that should not be taken. The left critics of Morales need to relate to such feelings and not fall into the trap of simply standing on the sidelines carping about the government’s failings. Bolivia is going to see more radicalisation and more violent confrontations, even if no one can predict when they will occur. The left can only lead these to success if it learns to relate to masses of people who are enthusiasts for Morales at the moment.

1: The interview is available on the Venezuelan website aporrea, 25 February 2006.
2: Article in Spanish on the website econoticiasbolivia, 13 May 2006.
3: Cf, for instance, the website of the La Paz newspaper La Razon, 19 May 2006.