Last fall, I invited Hugo Salvatierra, a founder of the MAS, to speak in Toronto at a relatively small meeting of committed left-wing activists. I in particular felt that it was really important to introduce Hugo Salvatierra to the left here in Toronto. because Hugo is, I think, one of the most articulate translators if you want, or spokespeople, of the Bolivian process. He was a founder of the MAS along with Evo Morales. He was in the founding government of the MAS as Minister of Rural Development, Agriculture and the Environment and then he persuaded Evo to let him resign so that he could go back to Santa Cruz which is the centre of the right and organize the social movements in Santa Cruz. He and others have done a spectacular job of that if you have been following the news at all. He is going to tell us in more detail what’s been happening in Bolivia over the last number of years and I who follow Bolivia pretty closely had really no idea of how serious the coup attempts were. In light of recent criticism of the MAS government by some on the left, we thought it was very important to transcribe that talk so more people can hear from the Bolivian movement directly.
The text that follows has been transcribed from Hugo’s talk at a November 8, 2010, forum in Toronto and is published here with his permission. Translation and editing is by Susan Harvie, Judy Rebick and John Riddell.
Bolivia’s Road to Revolution
‘A process sustained by the broad masses is indestructible’
By Dr. Hugo Salvatierra
Good evening compañeras y compañeros. First, I would like to thank the person who has given me the privilege of sharing ideas with you. I am not a lecturer. For this reason, I ask your forgiveness for any errors. We are simply activists. Where political ideas are concerned, our obligation is to speak, to share, to understand each other, to try to help others understand us and to help people know what we are doing.
Miguel just brought me some photos that made me very happy. The year is marked as 2003. In 2003, we had no idea that we were going to be the government. Neither did Evo think of being president. Even less that I was going to be a Minister. Things happen through an accumulation of circumstances. This afternoon, I was with some compañeros from York University and we did a kind of theoretical retrospective about what is this process of change in Bolivia and a good part of the South American continent.
The Che generation
I talked about us, a generation of more or less my age, and I am about 59 years old. In the 1970s, the revolution in Chile, socialism in democracy, was a novelty for the related revolutionary movements who lived in other neighbouring countries. In Argentina, we had guerrilla groups. In Bolivia, we had just finished a failed guerrilla experience in Teoponte. Sixty-four university students went into the forest to undertake a guerrilla action. About six or seven survived. Our first steps into Marxism were basically some small concepts about what the Russians said, what the Chinese said, what the Cubans said and, within that, what the Trotskyists were saying. As for Marxism, we knew only concepts.
We studied Marta Harnecker about Chile. There we learned that historical materialism exists, dialectical materialism. But it was a generation of young people, predominantly from the middle classes, who under the influence of the ideas of Che, in 1968/69/70, were proposing the armed struggle. On the part of the working class, we had a strong Bolivian Workers’ Central whose driving force was the miners. The discussion was about how to make the revolution – via insurrection, via prolonged people’s war, via revolutionary war. The thing was that all of us wanted to make the revolution. The working class, led by the miners, was powerful, strong.
Between 1970 and the middle of 1971, a People’s Assembly was created that was like a copy of the Russian Soviets. During this time, there was the People’s Assembly which considered itself as a dual power, young people trying to undertake guerrilla work in the jungle and some democratic or progressive military people who took power. I remember that in October 1970, we had the last coup before the beginning of a dictatorship that lasted seven years. On that day in October 1970, we had five presidents on the same day. The People’s Assembly decided to support the military government of Juan José Torres, but they claimed dual power and demanded revolutionary measures from the government like nationalization of the existing transnational companies, administration of the factories by the workers, administration of the Bolivian Mining Corporation by the workers, and collectivization of the land for the peasants.
A group of revolutionary university students were in the forest doing guerrilla work. The guerrillas were massacred. They were virtually exterminated. I remember that the guerrillas were led by the surviving brother from Che’s guerrilla group, Chato Peredo. The president of the Confederation of University Students of Bolivia was there. Most of them were young people between 19 and 24 years of age. None of these young people was forgiven even though they surrendered. And probably despite their Marxism, all of them were also Christians. You can see the ideological mix between what Mao said, what Lenin said, what Stalin said and “for Christ I am going to die for the people.” Nestor Paz Zamorra was a religious seminarian and he was the political chief of the guerrilla group. He died of starvation and he died saying, “Jesus, today I surrender to you my soul. Today is my Thursday and tomorrow is my Friday.”
I am telling you all of this so that you can see that a generation of young people was full of many humanist ideas, capable of giving their lives for a revolution for the people. They wanted to make a revolution for the people and it was drastic in terms of life or death. The expectation generally was that the individual militant was prepared to die for the people.
The working class represented something else in the scenario of the class struggle. And the left political parties taught that the principal element, the principal contradiction, was between the working class and the capitalists. Therefore, the working class had to be the leader of the revolution, and the peasants were only their allies. We were not yet talking about nation, Indigenous peoples, original nations. They were theoretical concepts fitted around a single conception of the working class versus the bourgeoisie.
Those who did not read or write taught us how to make a revolution.
After more or less 20 years, we undertook a reconsideration based on both victories and defeats. We wanted to make the revolution for the people. But suddenly it was the people who wanted to make their own revolution. We never imagined that in 40% of the Bolivian territory, even today, Indigenous peoples exist with collective ownership of the land. And we wanted to collectivize the land. Why did we die, so many generations of Bolivian fighters? Perhaps we had a mistaken reading of the national reality because our understanding was that the social struggle expressed itself in the struggle between workers and capitalists. It is a classic formula of Marxism. But the social struggle has various expressions. The class struggle has various expressions. The military dictatorship, the defeats in Chile were necessary in order for us to all learn a lesson – or many lessons. We understood that the science of Marxism is not a dead letter. It is not dogma. And it was necessary that those who did not know how to read or write ended up teaching us how to make a revolution.
The neo-liberal model imposed
The process changed, and from 1983 on, the neo-liberal model was hammered into place. Supreme Decree #21060 was promulgated. This was the model that changed the whole Bolivian economic and social structure. About 11,000 miners were relocated, not laid off but relocated. Tragically, the backbone of the working class was destroyed.. A right-wing civil government began which said that Bolivia was killing us. The process of privatization began without a leadership class. Another government began, following on the government of Victor Paz Estenssoro, and it consolidated two things. On one hand, Bolivia had 304 companies which were owned by the state, the departments [provinces] or the municipalities. All that passed into the hands of the local bourgeoisies. And we had five strategic state companies. All that passed into the hands of the transnationals. The state virtually disappeared.
The transnationals took over the economic structure, the most important companies – the petroleum, the aviation, the railways. The local bourgeoisies were rewarded with 304 companies. Layoffs took place on any pretext, hiring was carried out under any conditions, social security cut backs began. Close to 26 million hectares of forest were placed in the hands of nine companies that exported lumber. Up until then we had had 35 to 40 years of agrarian reform in which they said they had redistributed 36 million hectares of land. Bolivia has 109 million hectares of land. How many hectares do you have? Nine million square kilometres. We have one million and a little bit. Thirty-six million hectares were handed over, so supposedly there was a good agrarian reform. But it happens that 32 million hectares were in the hands of 40,000 families and four million hectares were in the hands of more than half a million poor peasant families. There was no real agrarian reform.
The defeat of the working class, the installation of a military dictatorship for seven years, began a big struggle for democracy that finally concluded in 1982. The neo-liberal model began in early 1983. But the subjective response also arose. It was not the working class. It was not the university students or the individual revolutionaries, the heroes, etc., the Christians – prepared to die for the community, to die for the people, to die but always to die. It was the peasant movements who began to unite. There were elections, but three million people did not vote. And why did three million people not vote? Because they did not legally exist. You could not be a citizen if you did not have a birth certificate, and you could not be a citizen if you did not have an identity card. Three million people and basically, of those three million, at least 60% or 70% were Indigenous women. The traditional political parties were corrupt. They sold themselves in the parliament. They did business with the companies. They took turns in power, one after the other. The poverty and unemployment were enormous. But in the countryside, there was the resistance.
Indigenous resistance begins to appear
In 1983, the first Indigenous organizations began to appear. And they began to propose about three or four things – land, territory and dignity, the right to political participation. Later they advanced and said a new political constitution and they continued, a nationalization of the hydrocarbons. I remember in the mobilizations of 2000, in the confrontations on the highways in the rural areas. I will never forget this image which will stay with me forever. There was a very small Indigenous woman from the Altiplano throwing stones at a tank. Everybody was saying, “They’re going to kill her. They’re going to kill her.” When the journalist said, “They are going to kill you. Get out. Get out.” And the journalist asked her, “Why are you here? Why Señora?” And she said, “Nationalization of the hydrocarbons.” She cooked with wood. Probably even today she does not have gas or oil in her house. But they were collectively building a national consciousness to recover everything that we had lost.
Neo-liberalism left Bolivia with nothing. It made us ashamed when we travelled. People asked us “What are the companies of your country?” There are none. The idea began to arise that, confronted by these parties, their political structure, their power, their corruption, we will build our own political instrument. What does classical Marxist theory say? The party goes to the working class. Here the process was the reverse. The political instrument was created by the peasant and Indigenous masses. And the working class did not participate in the process, because they were always educated in the theory that the trade union was independent of the party. The universities did not participate in the process. The middle classes did not participate in the process. The professionals did not participate in the process.
In Santa Cruz, the place where I come from, the second congress of peasants and Indigenous people took place with the goal of building a political instrument. What was that? It was a simple idea to have a tool of our own that was not a political party but that was for political leadership.
On March 24 and 25, 1995, just around the corner from our office, we created the political instrument in a little stadium. That’s where we chose the slogans. And perhaps we didn’t tell you the whole truth, Miguel. When many compañeros, compañeras from Europe, Canada visited us, we showed them the struggle, the social problems, but I don’t know, we didn’t talk about the political instrument or explain that we are doing this politically. We had to tell you, we are fighting, fighting, fighting but not commit ourselves very much politically. But I think that, nevertheless, we always shared feelings and ideas about humanism above all. Because in the end, what is it to be a revolutionary but to be nothing more than profoundly humanistic. That is where the political instrument was created. Evo was not yet president of the political instrument. The electoral court denied us legal status. We presented lists with more than 20,000 people registered in our books but the majority of our people did not have an identity card and we had only their thumb prints. The electoral court rejected them. And yet we had to participate in elections.
The amazing story of the formation of the MAS
I will confess to you that many revolutionaries, among them myself, didn’t like very much the idea of a democracy with elections, because a political system like the Bolivian democracy was a stunted democracy which always reproduced the power of the parties that represented the rich. But in the end we all said, “That’s life. Look how it is in Chile, how it is in Argentina – they have made change through elections.”
And something happened, an anecdote – a bad thing, a good thing, I don’t know – which changed our history. My generation were educated, and more or less Red. And the municipal elections of 1996, I think, arrived and we didn’t have a legal political party. The elections had arrived and we were all meeting, we were all in agreement but what were we going to do? So, someone says, “I’m going with the United Left Party.” I am going with the Axis. I am going over there. And the peasant masses did not know where to go. There was no instrument to participate in the elections.
And something happened – a miracle or accident, I don’t know – a Señor named David Añas Pedrasa. He died about two or three weeks ago. And he said “I have a legal political party and it is called MAS, MAS-U” and its colour was blue. The colour blue is the colour of fascism. And MAS-U meant Movimiento al Socialismo Unsagista. Movimiento al Socialismo, good. Unsagista was the problem. What was Unsagista? It comes from the name – Unsaga – of the founder of fascism in Bolivia. Look at the games of history, absurd, I don’t know, disappointing. We had to explain to the peasant congress, “Here is the legal political party, compañeros.” Everybody hissed. People were more or less comfortable with Movimiento al Socialismo, good. This MAS-U was a split off from the Falange Socialista Boliviana, a copy of the Spanish Falange. Fascist in every way.
But the congress approved that we accept this legal political party, although several people did not accept it. For example, peasants who had moved from the Altiplano to Santa Cruz and who had more political education quit the congress. Our congresses are not like the congresses of the left. They are huge, in stadiums, and the theoretical discussions are very difficult. There isn’t much of that. In this congress, Evo Morales was elected President of the MAS – Unsagista. These are the tricks of history. Look at what was the structure of this political instrument, at this point, called MAS-U. We elected a Board of Directors with 23 compañeros and compañeras. All of them were peasants, all of them were Indigenous people. There was one position for an intellectual. And the intellectual would be either Hugo Salvatierra or another person. But that was because we had participated for nearly all our lives in the whole process. Still, our presence there was absurd. It had no significance. It was more or less to show that we were not only Indigenous people or peasants – we were a decoration. Afterwards the electoral court rejected the election of Evo Morales. They rejected that we erase the U and they demanded that all the departmental chiefs of the MAS-U also sign. Fascism has a vertical structure. There is one national chief and local chiefs. They gave me the responsibility to go and convince the fascists of Santa Cruz to sign. They signed after much discussion because fascism by then was very small and they never thought, never imagined what history would later do with the MAS.
A plurinational country
Evo Morales was elected and we began a process of political construction. The MAS, compañeros, is not organized in cells, in groups, in sectors. The MAS has a virtue. It is based on the large agrarian movements of peasants and Indigenous peoples, on the most uneducated, the illiterate, and they were the ones who did not abandon the struggle. If you look at the big reforms they proposed in 1994 for reform of the constitution, one article, only one, the first one deals with the nature of the Bolivian state. There they introduced two words – Bolivia, in addition to being a democratic state, and so on, was pluricultural and multilingual. This was the first element that was introduced in the constitution to show that Bolivia was a plurinational country.
There are, in Bolivia, 36 original [First] peoples and nations. The left and the right have recently found out that there are 36 original peoples and nations. And from there began the large mobilizations, now thanks to this political instrument that began to unite all of the social sectors. They began to fight for the nationalization of the hydrocarbons, legal title to the land and the Indigenous territories, rupture of the political-party monopoly and a new political constitution with a constituent assembly, but plurinational. They always told us that a constituent assembly was unconstitutional; political participation outside of the political parties was unconstitutional; nationalization of the hydrocarbons was unconstitutional. Everything was unconstitutional. Then came the social movements with their large mobilizations.
The big weakness that we had, I want to repeat to you, was the cities. The cities did not see a leadership in the people with traditional clothes, in the downtrodden people, in the poor people, in the Indigenous peoples, because the education of urban residents excluded the Indigenous peoples. Culturally, this society did not accept, could not accept that these Indigenous people could lead a political process of change. Even the left political parties did not understand the process, but those who were fighting understood it. In Bolivia, first, there is a regional division. Those from the east are “cambas” – now the region with the most important natural resources – land, gas, petroleum, forests, water – and the west is where there are the Indigenous concentrations of the Aymara, Quechua. In the east, when we look at the west, we say “kollas.”
And to the rich classes in the west, the Indigenous peoples in the Altiplano and the valleys were beasts of burden. In the cities, they were employed in domestic service and, in the countryside, to work and survive as they could. Even mixed race people, if they wanted to progress, could not look back at their Indigenous past. It was a disgrace to be an Indian. In the Bolivian military, you are never going to find an Indigenous last name, never. The dominant classes were educated with a colonial education. They looked toward Europe, toward the United States, rather than internally.
It was these 36 nations that began to internalize this consciousness of nation, and they were the ones who began to lead this process for these four fundamental demands – land, territory, constituent assembly, citizen participation. And here is where ideas were developed about gender equality and a democratic system more open to the whole population.
Is this a revolution?
These are democratic tasks of the bourgeoisie. Isn’t that true? The capitalist development in the countryside should have been done by the Bolivian bourgeoisie. But it is the Indigenous people who have to take control of the land to force a new agrarian reform. Equality, justice, participation are tasks of the bourgeois democracy. But in Bolivia, the interesting thing is that all of that was revolutionary, and that is why it is called a revolution.
Since then, we have recovered almost all the state companies. Many people wanted us to confiscate. They said that was nationalization. The petroleum companies said, “We did not take anything from the Bolivian state. The gas and the petroleum continue to be Bolivian.” And in the law, that is how it appeared. It said that the gas and petroleum were Bolivian. But it was Bolivian as long as it was in the ground because when it came out of the well head, it belonged to the petroleum companies.
They stole everything from us. Not a single state agency could go and see the production books which the companies maintained. Not a single state official could verify how much gas was being exported or not exported. But they told us they were paying 18% in taxes. That was the situation. And the national government proposed the nationalization of the hydrocarbons. I don’t know if it was nationalization or recovery. It was not the classical formula, let’s say, which is to take control of the company and confiscate all of its property. The state promulgated a decree which recovered the private property of the companies for the Bolivian state. Evo personally, with a team of Ministers and the army, went to physically take control of a petroleum operation.
The important thing is that a process was initiated which put the petroleum companies under Bolivian state control. They threatened us with international legal charges. The communications media of the opposition and the associations of the powerful conducted a big campaign, saying that we were going to be economically asphyxiated, that we were going to suffer sanctions, that we had a mistaken reading of the international situation, that we were defying the big powers, and that poverty would come to us all. The petroleum companies were forced to sign new contracts. The taxes were reversed. The state claimed 82% and they have 18%. Not one single company left the country. That tells us how much they were stealing – 82%. Nobody left.
In terms of the land, we established that private property would be respected as long as it meets two conditions – that it was acquired legally and that it is carrying out an economic or social function. In other conditions, it is unproductive land. And so far, we have recovered nearly 14 million hectares of land. The Indigenous peoples have a demand for approximately 20 to 22 million hectares of land. We are hoping to finish the whole process of redistribution of the land in three years.
Now, we have a new constitution. It was adopted against the opposition of the right wing and the church, unfortunately, which did a big campaign saying that we were going to take away private property, that we were prohibiting religion, that we were destroying the family because we wanted gay marriage to be possible, that we did not respect life because we accepted abortion. This hit many people very hard. We held the referendum and the constitution was approved by a large majority. Confronted by a very strong opposition which came from the east, from Santa Cruz, Evo accepted a recall referendum and he won it overwhelmingly. We have a new constitution. We now have seven laws approved – the law of judicial bodies, which is plurinational. The participation of Indigenous peoples is obligatory, and there is a mixed justice system – the ordinary common justice system and the communitarian justice system. We have a new electoral system which has what is called intercultural democracy based on three systems – participative or direct democracy, representative democracy which is the old system and communitarian democracy based on the norms and procedures of the Indigenous peoples for electing their representatives.
I would like to stop here by saying that this is not a revolution yet. It is a permanent and constant process of change, and possibly it is going to construct a dual power with the people in a kind of political revolution which will develop into a social revolution. When? I don’t know. But what I do know is that it is permanent. In current conditions, which are different for Latin America and the world and, in particular, for Bolivia, we have large internal conflicts. For this reason, it is neither a straight road nor a pure revolution. We have the luck to be surrounded by democratic and insurgent governments. But we also have something which is fundamental; it is a process of change sustained by an almost indestructible cement – the peasant and Indigenous movements.
I will conclude. Before it was possible to kill a revolutionary process by killing its leaders. But when a revolutionary process is sustained in the huge masses, it becomes indestructible. I say now that not one single military person in Bolivia could dare to make a coup because it would not last five minutes. But there are ways to destroy the revolution – external conspiracy and also our own weaknesses if we do not have a correct reading of where we are going.