What's Up With Bolivia?
by Abie Flaxhammer
Have you heard much about Bolivia? It's been in the news, but the news page has been crowded lately. Bolivia expelled the US ambassador on Sept. 11, 2008, so we heard a little bit about that. Bolivian President Evo Morales explained this action: "The ambassador of the United States is conspiring against democracy and wants Bolivia to break apart." Let's dig a little deeper.
Evo Morales was elected president of Bolivia in 2005. He is an Aymara Indian, the first indigenous person ever to be president in Bolivia. He came out of the organized labor movement, and his political party, which is called the Movement Towards Socialism, has always seemed a little, well, socialist. Oh, did I mention the union he belongs to is a confederation of coca growers? (The coca leaf has been an important plant in Andean indigenous traditions for thousands of years. It is also used in the production of cocaine and for this reason is a controlled substance in many countries.) This is why the US media views the Bolivian president as an indigenous coca-growing socialist. In South America, he is more often viewed as a democratically elected president, with wide support from Bolivians and from South American nations.
When we hear about Evo or Bolivia here, it is always about resource redistribution (or occasionally about coca eradication). Most recently, the news has focused on conflict between the central government, led by Morales, and the "autonomist" regions, resource-rich eastern states that oppose land reforms and other nationalization projects. This disagreement got hot on Sept. 11, just before the US ambassador was kicked out, when the Pando province militia attacked a rally of about 1000 pro-Morales peasants. At least 30 of the peasants were killed in the attack. National troops then arrested the Pando governor for his suspected involvement, and the attorney general accused him of genocide. The US ambassador was, in part, expelled for meeting with opposition governors on the eve of the massacre. But Jim Shultz, Executive Director of the Democracy Center in Cochabamba, Bolivia, says our ambassador was so incompetent that he might not have known his actions would seem seditious. Jim told Democracy Now!, "He is beyond clueless in terms of how this appears in Bolivia and the rest of Latin America."
But, this is just the latest manifestation of a larger struggle, which thoughtful observers have compared to the civil rights movement or anti-apartheid. Tanya Kerssen from the Center for the Study of the Americas says, "There are deep class and race divisions in this country that are the legacy of colonialism and neocolonialism. I think 'Bolivia on the Brink' has become a bit of a cliché. From the point of view of the social movements, Bolivia is on the brink of historic change that will finally bring equity and justice to the indigenous majority. They are ready to fight and die to bring this change about. And, to be clear, from what I hear from people, the social movements see themselves as supporting the democratic process in the face of corruption. This is the part, I think, that's missing from discussions about what's happening in Bolivia. The social movements see themselves as defending their democratically elected [Morales] government that has just received a 67 percent vote of approval, including support in the eastern regions."
Kathryn Ledebeur, Director of the Andean Information Network spoke in Washington, D.C. recently on "The Bolivia Crisis for Beginners." She says that a common misconception is that Morales is a puppet of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. Actually, there are many groups with many interests who pressure the government to make change. Tanya Kerssen agrees, "This is not like the US, where we vote our choice for president and then sit back and trust that she or he will represent us. The social movements know that Morales will represent them as long as they have his back, so to speak. They protest to make their voices heard to the president, as well as to his opposition."
Resource wars are also at the heart of this struggle. Who will benefit from the oil, gas, and land of Bolivia? There are some great victories in Bolivia's resource wars of the recent past, like the "Water War" at the beginning of this decade, when massive strikes stopped Bechtel and other corporations from privatizing the water supply. And there is one cash crop that brings Bolivia into the news here enough to be worth special mention, that traditional plant/cocaine ingredient/flavoring agent, coca. Since coca is a key ingredient in manufacturing cocaine, it is considered illegal by the United Nations, but it actually is legal in the US. This might seem a little confusing, especially since George Bush says we should suspend trade benefits for Bolivia because they won't work towards coca eradication. Evo prefers a policy that is tough on drug traffickers but does not force farmers to abandon the crop on which their livelihoods depend.
I find the way social movements in Bolivia make their voices heard inspiring, and if you do too, you might be wondering how you can get in on it. The most fun would probably be to catch a fast train down and be there to see it unfold. But what's most fun for me is not necessarily what's best for the movement. It's actually the unglamorous letter-writing and office visits that we in the belly of the beast can provide (you can also order some Bolivian coca tea online). As we enter the homestretch of our electoral theater, take this as a lesson of what can be won in the streets and with the ballot box, and how the powerful will fight to keep what they've got if the people vote to take it away.