[Marxism] Joaquin Bustelo responds to Democracy Center article on airport clash in Bolivia

Fred Feldman ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Mon Apr 3 16:23:25 MDT 2006

Joaquin Bustelo sent me a reply to my submission of the Democracy Center
piece.  He makes many useful factual points and his observatiions on the
constant political effort, which I knew was involved here, to position
Morales as the latest Sanchez Losada -- the basic strategy of the COB
leaders and related forces, it seems pretty clear, regardless of what
legitimacy there may be to the concerns of the union ranks here.  It was
clear to me that this was not an occupation and upsurge of the social
movements such as we have seen.seen.

My core concern is different.  Morales may be able to win over some or
even many rank and file soldiers and officers in the military, but I
guarantee everyone that all of history -- including Venezuela -- says
that the National Police of this bourgeois state is not and cannot be an
ally in the process.  Dependency on them in situations like this is
going to become a trap.  If the public opinion of progressive sectors is
basically on Morales' side, then in part what was needed was
countermobilization of forces opposed to the occupation and moral and
political pressure on the union and others to come to terms.  This has
happened quite a bit in Venezuela, I believe.  This could reveal if the
occupiers were isolated from the masses, and even if it showed there was
a real division in the public opinion of the mass movement, this would
at least lift the myth that the government is confronting "the" masses
on the issue.  

Reliance on the police as the primary force for keeping the peace and
enforcing legality and so on will lead to trouble -- as it did for a
long time in Venezuela.  Even when they seemed to take the side of the
government against the right, they did so with methods that were
counterproductive.  And, of course, they were really a mad-dog wing of
the counter-revolution.  If the government relies primarily on the
police to handle these situations,  it will encourage and strengthen the
right (and also encourage the ultraleft to think they can create more
embarrassing confrontations that will help sell their "another Goni"
approach to Lula to the anarchistically or ultraleft minded.

That, of course, requires directing explanations and responses to the
popular movement, using the television, developing a press, etc.

I tend to think that Morales is right on the concrete issue, but I saw
the involvement of the National Police against a union as a danger
signal -- something to avoid even if the movement people are dead wrong
and relatively isolated.  This was a lesson that Chavez and the
Venezuelan fighters in the government, factories, and elsewhere learned
from experience and I hope that Morales considers how reliance on the
national police can open the regime up to subversion and entrapment by
the National Police, and spread confusion about whom the government
relies on to establish and keep order.

Fred Feldman



Fred Feldman has posted an account of the struggle around Lloyd Aéro
Boliviano (LAB) which --I'm sure Fred was unaware of this-- leaves out a
whole key side to this story, because it is "inconvenient" for the
opponents of the indigenous movement that comrade Evo leads.

The "Democracy Center" report says: 

"In February the pilots and other workers staged a full-system shut
down, leaving thousands stranded. Among them was one of our young
Democracy Center staff, who spent three days camping (tent pitched) in
the Caracas airport. The shut-down provoked a timid promise of
intervention from the freshly-inaugurated Morales. The pilots went back
to work, LAB took anew to the air, but the government's promises
crashed, as Morales and his advisors threw up their hands and said that
LAB was really out of their hands."

According to news reports from Bolivia in the Spanish-laguage press,
this is

inaccurate: Morales didn't just make a "timid promise of intervention,"
but placed LAB directly under a government receiver and his ministry of
justice initiated charges against Asbún, the capitalist pirate who
looted it. [It should be noted that the Spanish cognate of
"intervention" means precisely to place under a government
administrator; whether the author of this article understood that or not
isn't clear, because a promise to carry out an "intervención" --in
Spanish-- would not normally be considered timid. The point however is
that Morales not only promised, he did in fact order and his people
carried out a takeover of the enterprise.]

A week and a half ago, however, the constitutional court suspended the
intervention, and a few days later, a judge allowed Asbún to remain free
on bail of 40,000 Bolivianos --less than US$5,000-- allowing the company
to remain in his hands. 

Evo reponded by accusing the Constitutional Court of taking a bribe from
Asbún; the Supreme Court, head of the judicial branch of the government
as a whole responded by threatening to take Evo before the Interamerican
Court of Human Rights, to which Evo has responded, in effect, "Go Ahead.
Make my Day." 

"If they want a judicial process, they can have it. They are entirely
within their rights. They can sue me and they can even expel me from the
[presidential] palace, as was done in the national parliament [when Evo
was expelled for leading a blockade in Chapare]. The vestiges, the
remains of the neoliberal model are in the Bolivian judicial system."

So there we have it: a showdown confrontation with the bourgeois forces
in the judiciary and just over the sort of issue one would want: whether
the capitalist pirate who looted LAB should be allowed to remain free
and not only that, continue running the airline.

Now one would think that the logical action for the unions to take under

*these* circumstances is to ally WITH the presidency, now in popular
hands, in a joint struggle against the judicial branch. 

The consitutional court's decision was met with an immediate response
from the workers who went on strike. But instead of figuring out how to
wage a joint struggle WITH Evo AGAINST the judicial stooges of the
capitalists, the union leadership has decided to wage its struggle
*against Evo.* This reflects the political approach of quasi-anarchist
elements in the social movements, and the sectarian stance of the COB
leadership whose general political approach is that everyone in the
country, and most of all these uppity Injun peasants from the MAS, need
to recognize the leading role of the proletariat and kow-tow to the COB
leadership as its sole legitimate representative.

Under Bolivian conditions, this is a strategic approach that if followed
consistently would have as its aim the overthrow of the Morales
government. And the question to be asked is, what will replace it? A
government of the COB? Already in 2003, the COB explained its refusal to
take the lead in trying to seize the power during the struggle against
Goni because there was no revolutionary party, and everyone knows you
can't seize the power without a revolutionary party; it's simply not
allowed. A government of the imaginary Popular Assembly the COB leaders
counterposed to voting for Morales, and which was supposed to have met
in March? If it exists, word has yet to reach my ears. EVEN IF Evo were
another Kerensky, an attempt to chart an insurrectionary course against
him now could only benefit reaction and imperialism. That is the
political reality of the country.

The union leadership said their demand was for "renationalization" of
LAB. That is --frankly-- disingenous. There is next to nothing left in
LAB to "renationalize," no net assets at all. The union itself has
denounced that Asbún even sold off the airline's stock of spare parts
for its planes. The company owes around $150 million dollars, which
works out to about $75,000 for each one of the 2,000 employees (some
reports say it has 1,500 employees, which would mean $100,000 per
employee). That implies a debt service obligation of somewhere in the
ballpark of $5,000-$10,000 per employee per year, in a country whose
Gross Domestic Product (on an exchange rate basis) is little more than
$1,100 per capita a year. And the Democracy Center's own report provides
strong evidence that, as a brand, LAB has been destroyed, it has become
a joke, a last resort if no other means of transport are available.

Under these conditions, what is being asked for isn't really
"nationalization" but a massive bail-out, for the government to take on
the airline's massive debts as its own. Evo and his cabinet have
rejected this, calling it "nationalizing corruption." Moreover, Evo
points out that until the standoff with the judicial branch is overcome,
the executive could only act by placing itself outside the law. 

I can well understand what motivates the rank and file workers. These
must be among the very best jobs available to working people in Bolivia.
But given the fact that in a country like Bolivia, air transport is
overwhelmingly a luxury of the rich and foreigners, is this a priority
worth loading up the nation with *another* $150 million dollars in

Consider this: Evo cut his own salary and that of all the other top
people in the government and all told they were able to scare up around
US$3 million to hire more teachers and give those already on the job a

The government has sought to reach an understanding with the unions
under which a new government airline would be chartered and it would
take over such slim remnants of the current LAB as are worth keeping.
The unions said no deal, and instead decided on an action that it never
dared to try against the governments that the imperialist stooges ran:
occupying and shutting down the airports, so that no air transport could

By all accounts, despite the participation of one or another prominent
social movement figure, these were not mass actions with the active
support of the population, but ones which involved a few hundred union
members. In no country in the world would such an action be tolerated,
and it was not in Bolivia, either. The government could not stand by and
allow for an indefinite paralization of the air transport system without
unleashing a political crisis, a crisis of governability. 

The Democracy center account contains a very revealing annecdote in this
regard about one of the leaders of the Cochabamba airport protest, Oscar

* * *

Shortly after being gassed, Olivera received a call on his cell phone
from Bolivia's Vice-President, Alvaro Garcia Linera, who told Olivera,
"We can't block the country, can't block airports." 

Said Olivera, "These are the same people, Evo and Alvaro, who before
[they became the government] supported the force of the people
expressing themselves."

* * *

That is precisely the point. This isn't just the people "expressing
themselves." The LAB union is attacking this government as if it were
the government of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, el gringo, or some other
imperialist stooge. But this is not such a government. It is a
government elected with the overwhelming support of Bolivia's working
people and especially its indigenous majority, and pledged to a
revolutionary transformation of the country. It is a government that,
according to a poll done in mid-March, has an approval rating of 80%,
and even higher among the indigenous working people, for example, 86%
approval in El Alto.

With the election of the Morales government, the tactical character of
the struggle in Bolivia has changed. It is now in a very real sense a
struggle WITHIN the government and state apparatus generally, and no
longer a struggle AGAINST the government and state as a whole, where the
basic tactic is to force the government to accept your demands with the
implicit threat of overthrowing it.

In my mind I have very little doubt that Evo's position on the
nationalization of LAB is correct. Why? Because socialist revolution, in
the sense of the generalized expropriation of the capitalists as a class
and the creation of an economy functioning according to a totally
different logic than that of the market, is simply not on the agenda in
Bolivia right now. 

This means that a nationalized LAB would have to function in the
framework of a bourgeois economy. And everything I have read, including
from the union, says that LAB as a viable economic enterprise is DEAD.
It has ALREADY been looted, sacked, destroyed. If that is true, avoiding
bankruptcy is not an option unless there's a massive government bailout.
Bankruptcy is the way such enterprises get wound up in the framework of
a capitalist economy.

What Evo has proposed to the union is to create a new Bolivian national
airline. It can even keep the same name because that, as it turns out,
remained the government's property after nationalization. And as part of
this, the contracts and conditions under which imperialist companies run
Bolivia's airports, provide fuel and various services, also need to be

The latest news reports indicate that the unions have now accepted the
government's position. One union leader, Gustavo Vizacarra, general
secretary of the flight crew union, responded categorically to a

question: "No, there will be no nationalization, because that would mean
the state absorbing Asbún's debts." 

Instead, two different plans are being examined. One would have the
pension funds that own 49% of LAB request a new government intervention
of the airline. A second would be an expropriation of a small percentage
of Asbún's shares, although how exactly this would work isn't clearly
explained in the reports, but presumably then the majority interest
would belong to the pension funds and the state and they could take
control of the management. 

In either case, the company is clearly a basket case. For example,
management has failed to make pension contributions for five years even
though the money was withheld from workers paychecks. It owes tens of
millions of dollars in taxes. There are no accounting reports for the
last two years of operations, and government officials say openly the
ones from previous years appear to be fraudulent. Pilots are owed more
than three months' wages. LAB has failed to pay for the leasing of
planes it uses to fly its route to Madrid, forcing cancellation of those
flights at the order of a Miami court. The route to Miami may be the
next to go. And neighboring countries are examining the status of
Bolivia's airports as international airports because of the disruption
of operations.



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