Morales Confronts New Challenges

Bolivian airline workers demanding the nationalization of Lloyd Aereo Boliviano (LAB) block the runway of the Santa Cruz airport with a plane. (Photo: Aizar Raldes / AFP-Getty Images)

Three months into Evo Morales' presidential term, much of Bolivia's mainstream media has been focusing on a range of protests and mobilizations by different sectors that have sprung up across the country. El Nuevo Dia (April 2) commented that Morales was "getting a taste of his own medicine of blockades and mobilizations, as he became engulfed in a wave of protests."

Mainstream media reports indicate that health workers, teachers and bus drivers have all pledged to go on strike, while indigenous communities in the southeast of the country blockaded roads for 24 hours to press for the creation of a 10th departmento (state).

The center of most of the media's attention has focused on what has become Morales' biggest headache — the protest by pilots and other airline workers demanding the re-nationalization of Lloyd Aereo Boliviano (LAB) airline. After occupying three airport runways, the protesting workers were removed by Bolivian police and soldiers using tear gas.

A New Wave of Protests?

According to Morales' vice president, Alvaro Garcia Linera, in comments he made to La Paz El Diario (April 2), "Bolivia is and will continue to be a site of mobilizations and protests by sectors which for decades have been abandoned in regards to legitimate demands," but that it had to be taken into consideration that the big social movements that generated the uprisings in October 2003 and June 2005 — the neighborhood committees of El Alto, cooperative miners, and the coca grower unions — are not the ones that are currently mobilizing.

He added: "We are doing everything we can to collect these demands, but we should not exaggerate the level of social tension. It is worrying: the government would have preferred not to have these types of dispersed conflicts, but which can be resolved. We will gather these demands, but one thing is very clear, the business owners that have investments have to pay their taxes."

Morales spokesperson Alex Contreras was reported by El Potosi (April 3) as saying that those workers who were demonstrating had no reason to do so as the government was willing to consider all their demands. However, he also explained that the government would not accept some of the demands, because "we all have rights, but we also have responsibilities to attend to." He made specific reference to the interdepartmental bus drivers, saying that their demand not to have to pay taxes "was not a just demand because there are some business owners who are the ones who do not want to pay taxes."


The case of LAB perhaps best explains the complexities of the situation. Privatized in 1996, over 50 percent of the company was transferred into the hands of a Brazilian company, Viacao Aerea de Sao Paulo (VASP), which began to dismantle LAB including selling off the company's spare parts and engine turbines.

Just under half of the company's shares are held in a trust, managed by foreign financial institutions, that cannot legally be touched by the Bolivian government.

In 2001, Bolivian multi-millionaire Ernesto Asbun bought enough shares from VASP to take over LAB.

In February this year, most of LAB's 2000 employees walked off the job, demanding back wages as well as payment of the airline's debt to the public pension system. The airline had more than $160 million in debts. The government intervened in LAB, arresting Asbun on corruption charges.

On March 28, the Constitutional Tribunal (T.C.) upheld an appeal by Asbun, declaring the government intervention in LAB illegal. Two days later, Judge Constancio Alcon decided that Asbun would be released on bail of less than $5000, despite pleas by the government for his preventive detention.

The next day, hundreds of striking LAB workers blocked runways with airplanes, cars, mobile stairways and other equipment, stopping flights from the cities of Cochabamba and Tarija.

According to a El Potosi report (March 31), Morales said he had "come to the conclusion that corruption is powerful in Bolivia," and asked how much money the T.C. had received in order to rule in favor of Asbun. "When I was detained for marching and mobilizing my companeros for their demands, a judge gave me a fine of [around $7500] in order to be released from jail."

Unable to move forward legally on this front, government officials entered negotiation with the LAB workers, stating the government's position was that it would not "nationalize corruption" and burden the government with Asbun's debts and at the same time let him off the hook.

Rather, they argued that Asbun should be punished for his crimes and that a new airline could be established under majority state ownership. Initially, the LAB workers rejected the offer, with the ensuing clashes in the three occupied airports. As the conflict escalated, negotiations continued and by April 4 La Razon reported that, according to union general secretary Gustavo Vizcarra, the workers were no longer asking for nationalization.

The Associated Press reported on April 5 that Asbun agreed to the demand of LAB pilots and other employees that he resign and sell his stake in the airline.

Challenges Ahead

Even before the T.C. ruling on LAB, Morales, who was propelled to the presidency by his indigenous supporters through their "political instrument" the Movement toward Socialism (M.A.S.), has already begun to come into conflict with the existing state institutions, specifically the judiciary.

In an interview with Paul Mason from the BBC, published online on April 5, Morales expressed his frustration on this issue: "You want to issue a decree to help the poor, the indigenous people, the popular movements, the workers … but there's another law. Another padlock. It's full of padlocks that mean you can't transform things from the palace … I feel like a prisoner of the neoliberal laws."

There are two ways out of this dilemma for Morales — to back down in the face of opposition from the capitalist state bureaucracy and to start doing the bidding of its big-business masters, or to rely on the self-organization of the working people to force through increasingly radical measures against those powerful interests.

The use of the police and military in the LAB dispute, although worrying, can hardly be seen as Morales having chosen the first option. The majority of the other protests have been met with dialogue and solutions, as the LAB case was in the end as well. The events have to be placed in the context of attempts by the right wing to attack Morales by trying to portray the country as descending into chaos. By blockading airport runways, the LAB workers were potentially endangering the lives of other airline passengers.

Morales' growing public support can be explained by his initial steps toward regaining control of Bolivia's gas industry, with the aim, according to Morales, of completing the nationalization of Bolivia's hydrocarbon reserves by July 12.

Another important step was taken on March 4, when the parliament voted to move ahead with elections of delegates for the constituent assembly on July 2, as well as a referendum to grant greater autonomy to the country's nine regional departments. According to a poll by Apoyo, Opinión y Mercado, 69 percent of Bolivian voters would vote "yes" in the referendum.

Another poll, carried out by Apoyo, Opinión y Mercado, in the period March 13-25, indicate that Morales' voter support is at 80 percent, more than 25 percentage points higher than the vote he received in last December's presidential election. His support is even higher in the capital La Paz and in the nearby predominately indigenous city of El Alto — 82 percent and 86 percent, respectively.

Morales won the presidential election by building alliances among Bolivia's diverse regional and sectorial social movements, attempting to unite them behind a national anti-imperialist project aimed at "decolonizing" the white-dominated, racist Bolivian state. Central to this project is nationalizing gas and a constituent assembly to re-found the Bolivian state, this time with the participation of the indigenous majority. As Morales pointed out to Mason: "In last year's election we only captured government — with the Constituent Assembly we want to capture political power."