From Rebellion to Reform in Bolivia is an important contribution to understanding Bolivian politics, critiquing the politics of Evo Morales in an effort to analyse the limitations of his rule and the potential of the social movements that brought him to power.

Jeffrey R. Webber, From Rebellion to Reform in Bolivia: Class Struggle, Indigenous Liberation, and the Politics of Evo Morales (Haymarket 2011), 281pp.

Jeffrey R. Webber’s From Rebellion to Reform in Bolivia analyses the current political state in Bolivia and the progress made by the Movement towards Socialism (MAS) from its beginnings in the fight against privatisation of water in 2000 to Evo Morales’s election as President in 2006 and beyond. Webber points out that Morales’s claims to socialism have been much acclaimed by such commentators as Naomi Klein, and that his popularity outside Bolivia has been due, amongst other things, to his vigorous speech at the Copenhagen Climate Conference in 2009 and his links with the fiery Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Webber suggests, however, that the dominant theory within MAS is that Bolivia is not yet ‘ready’ for socialism and that an ‘Andean-Amazonian’ capitalism should precede this: a ‘stages’ theory which sees socialism in Bolivia in 50-100 years. While he does not consider MAS as unambiguously neoliberal, like the governments of Brazil or Chile, there is ‘a significant degree of continuity with the neoliberal model’. Domestically, Morales has positioned himself close to the transnational mining and petrochemical firms and against the interests of peasant communities, as he did during the 2010 San Cristóbal mining strike.

Bolivia is the poorest country in South America with 67% living in poverty, although it has huge resources, among them natural gas, in great demand by neighbouring South American countries. Traditionally these have been exploited by overseas capitalists. There is a low adult literacy rate and in rural areas 76% are landless peasants with a few very rich landowners – the concentration of land is the worst in the world after Chile. A tiny light-skinned elite has traditionally ruled Bolivia while the indigenous races are in the majority.

Webber explains that when MAS, a party with a largely indigenous social base, won the elections in December 2005 and Morales, from an indigenous and extremely poor background, became President it was a clear step forward. One of the real gains of the MAS government has been an end to the control of the state by the white-mestizo minority with its apartheid culture. However, Morales missed the opportunity to deal with the rightwing in 2005 when its support had collapsed and allowed them to reorganise and grow until in 2008 they attempted a coup. Although this was prevented because of the support for Morales from other South American countries, rightwing demonstrations have attacked indigenous people and paramilitaries have gone so far as to machine gun and massacre a group on the way to a movement gathering, leaving 15 dead, 30 injured and 100 missing.

Nor, as Webber says, will there be any real gains for the indigenous and poor majority without expropriation of large landholdings, resources and businesses. The neoliberal project of the 1980s privatised many enterprises, including the tin mines which employed the most militant workers (27,000 miners were thrown out of work). Eighty thousand jobs altogether were lost and this greatly increased child and female labour. Now many work in very small production units with no union rights or social protection.

However, the Bolivian working class has been traditionally militant, ‘defined by […] revolutionary Marxism, anarcho-syndicalism and anti-imperialism’ (p.20) . Many tin miners became cocaine farmers (cocaleros) in the region of Cochabamba and in 2000 they joined forces with the indigenous radical peasants to begin the resistance to the privatisation of water (known as the ‘water war’).  From this emerged the Movement towards Socialism (MAS), the secretary general of which was Evo Morales. In five years, the Water War was followed by the 2003 and 2005 Gas Wars which removed two presidents but not without violent state repression, at one time leaving 67 dead.

In these early years of the present century, although the compliance of the neoliberal dictatorships with the US’s ‘war on drugs’ had already provoked resistance among the cocaleros, the US was too much engaged in the Middle East to successfully interfere in South American affairs. This contributed significantly to the success of the movement. The book includes some photographs taken during this period of confidence. Yet MAS played a moderating reformist role in the 2005 May/June uprising, focusing the demands for nationalisation away from street radicalism towards electoralism. Morales then selected a light-skinned middle-class intellectual running mate, Alvaro Garcio Linera, who was more acceptable to the middle classes, and MAS won the elections with 51% of the vote.

Since then the limited electoral promises have been broken. Despite aggressive language advocating state control of petroleum and gas, Morales has merely re-negotiated contracts to increase state revenues. In the early 2000s ‘a plethora of popular organisations and movements’ expressed a vision and demand for a transformed constituent assembly composed of ‘workers, peasants, carpenters, shoe-shiners, women and men’ (pp.48/84). Yet MAS entered into negotiations with the far right who invoked a minority protection rule allowing small rightwing parties to veto changes and also to gain departmental autonomy. The parts of the country with the most resources, Tarija, Santa Cruz, Beni and Panda, have the highest rightwing majorities, so this is a real threat.

Webber has not given up hope that the mass movements of the early 2000s will return, pointing to the revival of workers’ confidence since the strikes of 2009 and 2010. He points out, however, that one of the crucial weaknesses in the struggles of 2000-2005 was the lack of a revolutionary party with roots in the key movements, and that this allowed MAS to become the main force expressing the demands of the workers. This weakness will at some stage have to be addressed by the movement, if it is to make fundamental breakthroughs.

From Rebellion to Reform in Bolivia is written in the academic style of the social sciences, which makes it challenging at times, and a map and a list of abbreviations of the main players and organisations would have been helpful additions for anyone not familiar with Bolivian history. However, it is based on extensive field research, and is one of the few attempts to honestly analyse the impasse that appears to have been reached by the Latin American left, for all its great achievements. This is a question of global importance, and for this we should be very grateful to the author.

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