[Marxism] Roger Burbach: Confrontation in Bolivia over Agrarian Reform

Walter Lippmann walterlx at earthlink.net
Thu Nov 30 15:00:13 MST 2006

Confrontation in Bolivia over Agrarian Reform
By Roger Burbach
November 30, 2006

TThe government of Evo Morales and the indigenous social movements of
Bolivia have won an historic victory with the passage of an agrarian
reform law that calls for the “expropriation of lands” that “do not
serve a just social-economic function.” According to Miguel Urisote,
the director of the Land Foundation, an independent research center
in La Paz, “this is a blow to the latifundias, the large estates
where many Indians often work in slave-like conditions.”

Morales sent agrarian reform legislation to the Bolivian Congress
just over half a year ago. It passed the Chamber of Deputies where
Morales’ party, the Movement Towards Socialism, or MAS, has a
majority. But then it was stymied in the Senate where the right wing
opposition has a majority of one. Protesting the impasse, thousands
of Indians descended on La Paz from the four corners of the country.
Delia Duran who started marching twenty days ago from the eastern
department of Santa Cruz, the strong hold of the large landowners,
said: “We are tired of working for the families of the rich. When are
we going to be able to work for ourselves? We want our own property,
we have nothing, we live in huts made of straw and plastic.”

Fearful of this mass mobilization, the right wing parties abandoned
the Senate two weeks ago, depriving it of the quorum necessary to
conduct any business. Backed by the demonstrators, President Morales
declared that if the Senate “does not want to change the law, the
people will rise up to change it by force.” He threatened to issue an
executive decree enabling him to expropriate lands by fiat.

But he did not need to take this dramatic step as the rug was pulled
out from under the absent Senators. Under Bolivian law each Senator
has a substitute who is entitled to vote if the designated Senator is
absent or unable to attend Senate sessions. Three of these
substitutes switched sides. They went to the Senate, forming a 
quorum along with the MAS Senators and passed the agrarian 
reform legislation. Another critical law dealing with the petroleum
companies operating in Bolivia was also passed. Forty -four new
contracts with the companies were approved, ceding more revenue to
the government and recognizing the state’s basic control over the
country’s natural gas resources.

The opposition is outraged, claiming fraud and that the government
bought off the substitute Senators. But according to Teresa Morales
of the Center for Strategic Studies in La Paz, “the substitutes come
from the north, the poorest region of Bolivia. Two of the substitutes
are themselves participants in indigenous movements and they
responded to pressures from the grass roots.”

Just as important as the agrarian reform law is the struggle that is
occurring over the Constituent Assembly that was elected earlier this
year to draft a new constitution and to “refound” the country’s
governing institutions. The Movement Towards Socialism controls 54
percent of the Assembly’s delegates, and along with allied parties
and social movements it has over 60 percent of the votes. Meeting
since July, the Assembly has accomplished nothing because the right
wing parties are insisting that a two- thirds vote is necessary to
approve any of the planks of the new constitution. MAS asserts that a
majority is sufficient to work on the new constitution and that only
the final draft must be approved by a two-thirds vote. Then it will
be submitted to the population for majority approval in a national

Last week MAS and its allies decided to start drafting the different
parts of the constitution with a simple majority. The right wing
opposition immediately began to tie up the sessions, with some of its
delegates proclaiming a hunger strike, saying they would not leave
the building where the assembly meets. In four of Bolivia’s nine
departments, the opposition has taken control of local civic
committees, even calling for secession from the Bolivian state if the
Assembly uses the majority voting rule. Morales responded by
declaring that another mass march like the one for agrarian reform
might be needed “to put order in the Constituent Assembly.”

The opposition however continues to fragment. Several assembly
delegates from right wing parties have announced that they will now
participate in its sessions and collaborate with MAS and the social
movements. According to Miguel Urisote of the Land Foundation, “the
large landowners and the agro-industrial interests of Santa Cruz are
loosing their economic and political clout. Their anti-Indian and
racist policies are being rejected even by some of their traditional
allies. The agrarian reform law and the Constituent Assembly are
opening the road to a new Bolivia.”

Roger Burbach is director of the Center for the Study of the
Americas, CENSA, based in Berkeley, CA. He has written “The Pinochet
Affair: State Terrorism and Global Justice,” and is currently working
on a book on the social movements and the new left in Latin America.

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