50 years of the People's Assembly in Bolivia

Image: André Ulysses de Salis


In October 1970, a general strike defeated a military coup d'état in the Andean country, when the Commune of La Paz was installed.

In October 1970 a general strike led by the Central Operaria Boliviana (COB) defeated a military coup d'état. This movement was only possible after a period of organizing and building the unity of the workers, their unions and political organizations, and the political division and weakening of the Bolivian armed forces. Since November 1964, Bolivia has lived under a military dictatorship. On November 4, General René Barrientos led the coup that overthrew the MNR (Revolutionary Nationalist Movement) regime that had come to power after the April 1952 revolution. workers and peasants.

Also in that period – directly driven by revolutionary mobilizations – an agrarian reform was initiated, universal suffrage was instituted and the country's large tin mining companies were nationalized. The core of workers' mobilization was in the miners' unions, which managed to form the then powerful COB. This, in its initial period, acted as a true worker power in a situation of dual powers with the MNR government. Even though the MNR succeeded in the following years in dismantling the revolutionary nucleus in the labor movement, chasing the militants of the POR (Partido Operário Revolucionário, then a section of the Fourth International) and other influential left-wing parties in the COB, co-opting a good part of the union leaders with government positions, corrupting a portion of peasant leaders, had not yet managed to consolidate itself as power. It was seen as an unreliable regime for the interests of imperialism.

Worker and peasant mobilizations resumed in the 1960s and this was partly related to the impact of the victory of the Cuban revolution in 1959. With the support of the United States, the MNR governments had not only managed to dismantle the revolutionary impulse, but had also implemented the first IMF “adjustment plans” in Latin America, dissolved the armed militias of unions and rebuilt the Bolivian army. It was this army that turned against the MNR itself and in the service of US imperialist interests in Bolivia in 1964.

However, it should be noted that the close presence of the revolution and the echoes of the defeat in the Chaco War, an armed conflict with Paraguay (1932-1936), which led to the nationalization of Bolivian oil in 1937 by the military, did not guarantee complete cohesion of the Bolivian army against national interests. There was a nationalist ideology that permeated part of Bolivian officials and was contradictory in part with a complete submission to the interests of US imperialism.

The COB for an “anti-imperialist” front

In 1969 General René Barrientos – in whose government Ernesto Che Guevara was captured and murdered – dies in a plane crash. The army maintains control of the country and general Ovando Candia assumes the government, which brings as a novelty an attempt at political opening allowing the return of exiled union leaders and leftist militants, allowing the holding of union congresses and the circulation of newspapers. Also during this period, the US company Gulf Oil was nationalized and an industrial development project based on the country's mineral deposits was debated, linked to an attempt at an independent foreign policy.

The army splits and one wing accuses the government of making dangerous concessions to the left. The labor movement seeks to make the most of the small opening to quickly reorganize itself. Despite democratic and nationalist overtones, that same army and its generals had not only murdered Che Guevara, but had savagely repressed mining unions in the infamous Massacre of San Juan in 1967, machine-gunning dozens of workers. The COB holds its 4th National Congress in May 1970 and approves a socialist thesis proposing to carry out the broadest anti-imperialist front to recover not only democracy, but also open the way for a socialist regime.

During this period, the government of Salvador Allende rose to power in Chile and in Peru, General Velasco Alvarado began a broad program of nationalization of companies and agrarian reform, causing direct political repercussions in the region. The reaction of conservative forces articulated with the interests of the US and the Brazilian dictatorship expressed themselves and reacted quickly.

Radicalization after a failed coup

On October 4, 1970 General Rogélio Miranda tries to overthrow the government of General Ovando with a military coup. The Bolivian working class, organized around the COB and its unions, took the initiative and on the 6th, the “Political Command of the COB and the People” was formed, which decreed a general strike for the 7th of October. The military coup stalls and the army splits further. A wing led by General Juan José Torres is negotiating shares with the COB seeking to form a shared government. The political command of the COB presents a platform of demands or “Mandate of the Popular Forces” and seeks to advance an independent path exploring the possibility of division and fragility of the army. Generals Ovando and Rogélio Miranda retreat and the Torres government, with the support of the COB, assumes power. The general strike manages to defeat the coup supporters and opens a gap for an independent offensive by the labor and popular movement. General Torres seeks support and commitment from the trade union movement, without, however, dismantling or arresting the coup-mongering military, who continued to conspire.

The situation of instability of the new government would continue until August 1971 and Torres sought to balance between the independent offensive of the labor movement and the pressure of the extreme right-wing military coup. On January 11, 1971, these soldiers tried again to take power without success in a new coup attempt now led by Colonel Hugo Banzer. The COB and the Political Command, which brings together parties and entities, reacted, mobilized the workers and then decided to take a bolder initiative: convening a popular assembly, a type of workers'-popular parliament with delegates elected directly by the workers and peasants. The objective is to pave the way for the construction of an autonomous and independent power capable of defeating military governments through democracy. A process of deputies' elections involves the unions, the peasant movement and the student movement, the main political parties and extends throughout the country.

The People's Assembly settles into the occupied parliament building

On the 1971st of May XNUMX, after a march of tens of thousands of workers through the capital, La Paz, the working class occupies the seat of the Bolivian parliament, which was closed. The Popular Assembly, or Commune of La Paz, is proclaimed.

For a few weeks in June and July (June 22 to July 2) debate sessions take place between elected deputies from across the country. Several resolutions are approved that seek to pave the way for an autonomous, popular workers' power. At the same time, in the departments, regional People's Assemblies are formed, initiating a movement of popular self-organization.

It was about exploiting the weaknesses and divisions of the Bolivian military regime and building a national majority around the Popular Assembly. It was necessary to involve mainly the great mass of peasants in the country and to act at the base of the divided and demoralized army itself. Several resolutions linked to popular claims are approved. The process was expanding, but there was still no time to consolidate, and a new national session was called for the month of September.

The boldness and capacity for independent articulation and the unity revealed by the organizations of the Bolivian working class had united the Bolivian nation around democracy. A general strike articulated around very concrete demands managed to divide and defeat the military coup of October 1970, which pointed to a new path for the Bolivian nation. A new military action started in the city of Santa Cruz on the 19th and ended on the 23rd of August 1971 in La Paz – with the support of the Brazilian dictatorship and the US – interrupted this democratic, workers and popular movement in full ascension.

*Everaldo de Oliveira Andrade is a professor at the Department of History at FFLCH-USP. Author, among other books, of Bolivia: democracy and revolution. The Commune of La Paz, 1971 (Avenue).


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