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  • Capitalism’s Bullets in Latin America: Invisible Empires, State Power and 21st Century Colonialism

    Posted on August 13th, 2014 Administrator No comments

    By Ben Dangl

    Originally published on June 17. 2014 at TowardFreedom.com

    “Soccer, metaphor for war, at times turns into real war,” wrote Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano. For many people in Brazil, a war has indeed broken out surrounding the current World Cup. Poor communities have been displaced by stadiums and related infrastructure for the event, the high level of security has increased police violence, and the enormous economic costs of the World Cup are seen by many as a blow against the rights of the country’s most impoverished people. As a result of these controversies, the international sports event has been met with wide-spread protests.

    Cracking down on some of these protests are Brazilian security forces trained by the US private military and security company Academic, previously known as Blackwater. This training was brought to light by the Brazilian press and US sportswriter David Zirin, who, in an article on the topic, pointed to a 2009 diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks, which showed that Washington anticipated the World Cup-related crises in Brazil would provide opportunities for various types of US involvement. Zirin wrote that for Washington, “Brazil’s misery created room for opportunism.”

    Capitalism’s bullets follow the World Cup just as they do Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) signed with the US. Five years ago this month, protests were raging in northern Peru where thousands of indigenous Awajun and Wambis men, women and children were blockading roads against oil, logging and gas exploitation on Amazonian land. The Peruvian government, having just signed an FTA with the US, was unsure how to deal with the protests – partly because the controversial concessions in the Amazon were granted to meet the FTA requirements. According to a diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks, on June 1st, 2009 the US State Department sent a message to the US Embassy in Lima: “Should Congress and [Peruvian] President Garcia give in to the [protesters’] pressure, there would be implications for the recently implemented Peru-US Free Trade Agreement.” Four days later, the Peruvian government responded to the protest with deadly violence, leading to a conflict which left 34 dead, including 24 police officers and 10 civilians. The US-supported escalation of the conflict worked; the FTA moved forward as planned.

    The US is infamous for its imperial history in the region. But Washington isn’t the only empire in its backyard. Global and local forces of capitalism, imperialism and modern-day colonialism are at work across Latin America, from soccer stadiums to copper mines.

    China has outpaced the US as the primary trading partner with the region’s richest countries; most of its business is in the area of natural resource extraction. And for many nations in the southern cone, Brazil – now a world superpower outpacing Britain as the 6th largest economy – is an imperial force, utilizing much of the region’s natural wealth, land and hydroelectric power to fuel its booming industries and population.

    Capitalism has many faces and allies, and they’re not just based in the global north or within these economic giants. As sociologist William Robinson writes “The new face of global capitalism in Latin America is driven as much by local capitalist classes that have sought integration into the ranks of the transnational capitalist class as by transnational corporate and financial capital.” From Mexico to Argentina, this local capitalist class has created some 70 globally-competitive transnational conglomerates.

    Friends of empire and capital are found at the heights of power among Latin America’s political leaders. While the US has spied on Latin America for years, as recently made clear by Edward Snowden’s leaks, Chile’s Michelle Bachelet administration asked for the US government’s help in spying on Mapuche indigenous leaders defending land rights during her first term in office. While the US supported the coup against Fernando Lugo of Paraguay in 2012, before he was pushed out of office, Lugo himself called for a state of emergency in the countryside to expand repression of campesino activists fighting soy company incursions on their land.

    For many indigenous communities in Latin America, the state, often in alliance with transnational corporations, maintains a colonialist worldview into the 21st century, particularly in the area of natural resource extraction in mining, oil and gas industries. As Professor Manuela Picq of the Universidad San Francisco de Quito in Ecuador writes, “The unilateral expropriation of land for mining today is a continuation of the Doctrine of Discovery. It conceptualized the New World as terra nullis, authorizing colonial powers to conquer and exploit land in the Americas. […] Today, the idea of ‘empty’ lands survives in extractivist practices.”

    Indeed, mining concessions have been granted on 80% of Colombia’s legally-recognized indigenous territories, and 407,000 square kilometers of Amazon-based mining areas are on indigenous land. As a part of this region-wide extractivist land grab, Picq explains that 200 activists were killed in Peru between 2006 and 2011, 200 people were criminalized in Ecuador for protesting the privatization of natural resources, and 11 anti-extractivist activists have been murdered in Argentina since 2010.

    The mining industry is also typically devastating for the environment, whether it’s run by the state or the private sector. Picq points out that Guatemala’s Marlin mine, owned by the Canadian company Goldcorp, utilizes in just one hour the same amount of water a local family uses over the span of 22 years, and the mining industry in Chile – where the state owns the largest copper producing company in the world – utilizes 37% of the nation’s electricity.

    Capitalism, empire and 21st century colonialism come from afar and descend on their victims in Latin America. But these forces are also in the tear gas canisters that Brazil’s security forces use at the World Cup, in the state that extracts natural resources on indigenous territory, and in the free trade deals signed in blood.

    ***

    Benjamin Dangl has worked as a journalist throughout Latin America, covering social movements and politics in the region for over a decade. He is the author of the books Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America, and The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia. Dangl is currently a doctoral candidate in Latin American History at McGill University, and edits UpsideDownWorld.org, a website on activism and politics in Latin America, andTowardFreedom.com, a progressive perspective on world events. Email: BenDangl(at)gmail(dot)com. Twitter: @bendangl

  • The Politics of Pachamama: Natural Resource Extraction vs. Indigenous Rights and the Environment in Latin America

    Posted on August 13th, 2014 Administrator No comments

    Originally published on April 2, 2014 at TowardFreedom.com

    En Español: La política de Pachamama: Extracción de recursos naturales contra derechos de los indígenas y el medioambiente en América Latina

    When I sat down to an early morning interview with Evo Morales over a decade ago in Cochabamba, Bolivia, the then-coca farmer leader and dissident congressman was drinking fresh-squeezed orange juice and ignoring the constant rings of the landline phone at his union’s office. Just a few weeks before our meeting, a nation-wide social movement demanded that Bolivia’s natural gas reserves be put under state control. How the wealth underground could benefit the poor majority above ground was on everybody’s mind.

    As far as his political ambitions were concerned in terms of Bolivian natural gas, Morales wanted natural resources to “construct a political instrument of liberation and unity for Latin America.” He was widely considered a popular contender for the presidency, and was clear that the indigenous politics he sought to mobilize as a leader were tied to a vision of Bolivia recovering its natural wealth for national development. “We, the indigenous people, after 500 years of resistance, are retaking power. This retaking of power is oriented towards the recovery of our own riches, our own natural resources.” That was in 2003. Two years later he was elected Bolivia’s first indigenous president.

    Fast forward to March of this year. It was a sunny Saturday morning in downtown La Paz, and street vendors were putting up their stalls for the day alongside a rock band that was organizing a small concert in a pedestrian walkway. I was meeting with Mama Nilda Rojas, a leader of the dissident indigenous group CONAMAQ, a confederation of Aymara and Quechua communities in the country. Rojas, along with her colleagues and family, had been persecuted by the Morales government in part for their activism against extractive industries. “The indigenous territories are in resistance,” she explained, “because the open veins of Latin America are still bleeding, still covering the earth with blood. This blood is being taken away by all the extractive industries.”

    While Morales saw the wealth underground as a tool for liberation, Rojas saw the president as someone who was pressing forward with extractive industries – in mining, oil and gas operations – without concern for the environmental destruction and displacement of rural communities they left in their wake.

    How could Morales and Rojas be so at odds? Part of the answer lies in the wider conflicts between the politics of extractivism among countries led by leftist governments in Latin America, and the politics of Pachamama (Mother Earth), and how indigenous movements have resisted extractivism in defense of their rights, land and the environment.

    Since the early 2000s a wave of leftist presidents were elected in Latin America on platforms that included using the region’s vast natural resource wealth to fund social programs, expand access to healthcare and education, redistribute wealth, empower workers, fight poverty, and build national economic sovereignty.

    Within this shift, the state, rather than the private sphere, has taken up a greater role in extraction to benefit wider society, rather than to simply fill the pockets of a few CEOs of multinational corporations, as had been the norm under neoliberal governments. The environmental and social costs of extraction are still present, but with a different economic vision. “Extractive activities and the export of raw materials continue as before, but are now justified with a progressive discourse,” explains Puerto Rican environmental journalist Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero.

    While many economies and citizens have benefitted from the state’s larger involvement in the extraction of these resources, extractivism under progressive governments, as it had under neoliberalism, still displaces rural communities, poisons water sources, kills the soil, and undermines indigenous territorial autonomy. As Argentine sociologist Maristella Svampa writes, Latin American “progressivism’s practice and policies ultimately correspond to a conventional and hegemonic idea of development based on the idea of infinite progress and supposedly inexhaustible natural resources.” Buoyed by the progressive discourse and mandate of the Latin American left, this extractive trend has produced alarming results across the region.

    Following Argentina’s 2001-2002 crisis, the Nestor and Cristina Kirchner presidencies have worked successfully to rehabilitate Argentina’s economy, empower workers, and apply progressive economic policy to make the country more sovereign; following years of neoliberalism, where public services and state-owned enterprises were privatized, the Kirchners have put various industries under state control, and used new government revenues to fund social programs and make the country less beholden to international lenders and corporations.

    As a part of this shift, in 2012, the Argentine state obtained 51% control of the hydrocarbon company YPF, which was privatized in the 1990s. Last year, however, Argentina’s YPF signed a deal with Chevron to expand natural gas fracking in the country, operations set to proceed on Mapuche indigenous territory. In response, indigenous communities to be affected by the fracking took over four YPF oil rigs. “It’s not just the land they are taking,” Lautaro Nahuel, of the Mapuche Confederation of Neuquén, explained to Earth Island Journal. “All the natural life in this region is interconnected. Here, they’ll affect the Neuquén River, which is the river we drink out of.” Protests against YPF-Chevron fracking plans are ongoing in the country.

    Uruguayan President José “Pepe” Mujica, who has garnered international attention recently for his government’s legalization of marijuana, abortion and same sex marriage, and his offer to host released Guantanamo detainees, is moving forward with a deal with Anglo-Swiss mining group Zamin Ferrous for a major open-pit mining operation that would involve the extraction of 18 million tons of iron ore from the country over the next 12-15 years. Aside from the mining operation itself, the plan includes the construction of pipelines to ship the ore inland to the country’s Atlantic coast. Critics have pointed out that the plan would wreak havoc on the region’s biodiversity and displace local farmers. In response to the plans, a national movement is currently underway to organize a referendum to ban open pit mining in Uruguay.

    While Brazil’s President Luiz Lula da Silva and his successor Dilma Rousseff, both of the Workers’ Party, have helped expand the middle class in the country, and initiated successful social programs aimed at eliminating poverty and hunger, their administrations have also presided over vast economy of extractivism that leaves no place for small farmers or environmental concerns. Brazil is home the largest mining industry in the region: in 2011 it extracted more than twice the amount of minerals than all other South American nations combined, and is the world’s largest producer of soy, a GMO crop rapidly expanding across the continent with a mixture of deadly pesticides that are killing the soil, poisoning water sources, and pushing small farmers out of the countryside and into Latin America’s urban slums.

    Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa has famously championed the environment in his country, aiding with the passage of a 2008 constitution that gave rights to nature, and beginning an initiative in 2007 to keep the oil in Ecuador’s Yasuní National Park in the ground. In exchange for not drilling the oil in this area rich in biodiversity, the plan called for international donors to contribute $3.6 billion (half of the oil’s value) to the UN’s Development Program for global programs in healthcare, education and other areas. Last August, with only $13 million donated, and $116 million more pledged, Correa announced that the initiative had failed, and that oil extraction would proceed in Yasuní. In a televised address, the president said, “The world has failed us.”

    Yet while Correa rightfully spoke of the obligations of wealthier nations to contribute to solving the dilemmas of the global climate crisis, at home he expanded the mining industry and criminalized indigenous movements who protested extractive industries in their territories. Under his administration, numerous indigenous leaders organizing against mining, water privatization measures, and hydrocarbon extraction have been jailed for their activism.

    Criminalization of indigenous activists fighting against mining in Peru has also become the norm for this mineral-rich nation. Under the presidency of Ollanta Humala, mining has boomed, and with it so have conflicts where local communities are fighting to defend land and water rights.

    In Bolivia, President Evo Morales has spoken widely of respecting Pachamama, fighting against the world’s climate crisis, and utilizing indigenous philosophies such as Buen Vivir (Living Well) for living in harmony with the earth. His government has enacted progressive policies in terms of creating more governmental revenue through the state management of natural resource extraction, and using that revenue for wage increases, national social programs in healthcare, pensions, education and infrastructure development. The Morales administration and his party, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), has also pressed forward with constitutional changes and laws that protect the environment, empower indigenous communities, and make access to basic utilities and resources a right. Yet the rhetoric and promise of many of these changes contradict the way MAS policies have played out on the ground.

    The government has advocated for a plan to build a major highway through the TIPNIS indigenous territory and national park. Protests against the government plans galvanized a movement for indigenous rights and environmentalism. In response, the government led brutal repression against families marching in protest of the highway in 2011. Government violence left 70 wounded; victims and their families and allies are still searching for justice.

    Most recently, the MAS promise of respecting Mother Earth and indigenous and small farmer rights clashed against another of its plans; the Mining Law, which was passed by the MAS-controlled congress in late March, and was on its way to the Senate, when protests against the law forced the government to suspend its passage pending more input from critics. While private cooperativist mining groups, notorious for their lack of concern for the environment and local communities impacted by mining, protested the law because it did not grant them to the right to sell their resources to foreign and private entities without sufficient government oversight, other groups with different demands have put forth their critiques. Separate from the cooperativist miners, these farmer and indigenous movement critics are more concerned with issues such as water access and the right to protest.

    The Mining Law gives the mining industry the right to use public water for its water-intensive and toxic operation, while disregarding the rights of rural and farming communities to that same water. Furthermore, the law criminalizes protest against mining operations, leaving those communities that would bear the brunt of the industry’s pollution and displacement without any legal recourse to defend their homes. In response to the law, a number of indigenous and small farmer organizations have taken to the streets in protest.

    I spoke with CONAMAQ indigenous leader Mama Nilda Rojas about her view of the Mining Law. “The Morales government has told us that it ‘will govern by listening to the bases,’ and that ‘the laws will come from the bottom-up.’” But this is not what happened with the Mining Law, Rojas said, which was created without sufficient input from representatives of communities impacted the most by mining. “This is a law which criminalizes the right to protest. With this law we won’t be able to build road blockades, we won’t be able to march [against mining operations],” she explained. “We’re well aware that it was the same Evo Morales who would participate in marches and road blockades [years ago]. And so how is it that he is taking away this right to protest?”

    “This government has given a false discourse on an international level, defending Pachamama, defending Mother Earth,” Rojas explained, while the reality in Bolivia is quite a different story.

    Meanwhile, outside of Latin America, governments, activists, and social movements are looking to places like Bolivia and Ecuador as examples for overcoming capitalism and tackling climate change. The model of Yasuní, and respecting the rights of nature can and should have an impact outside of these countries, and wealthier nations and their consumers and industries based in the global north need to step up to the plate in terms of taking on the challenges of the climate crisis.

    In many ways, much of Latin America’s left are major improvements from their neoliberal predecessors, and have helped forge an exciting path toward alternatives that have served as inspirations across the world. Overall, they have brought countries out of the shadow of the International Monetary Fund and US-backed dictatorships, and toward a position of self-determination. For the sake of these new directions, the neoliberal right hopefully will not regain power in the region any time soon, and Washington will be unable to further meddle in an increasingly independent Latin America.

    Yet as the march toward progress continues in its many forms, and election years come and go, the losers of Latin America’s new left are often the same as before – the dispossessed rural communities and indigenous movements that helped pave the way to these presidents’ elections in the first place. In the name of progress, Mother Earth, Buen Vivir, and 21st century socialism, these governments are helping to poison rivers and the land, and displace, jail and kill anti-extraction activists. Solidarity that is blind to this contradiction can do a disservice to various grassroots movements struggling for a better world.

    If an alternative model is to succeed that truly places quality of life and respect for the environment over raising the gross domestic product and expanding consumerism, that puts sustainability over dependency on the extraction of finite raw materials, that puts the rights to small scale agriculture and indigenous territorial autonomy ahead of mining and soy companies, it will likely come from these grassroots movements. If this model is to transform the region’s wider progressive trends, these spaces of dissent and debate in indigenous, environmental and farmer movements need to be respected and amplified, not crushed and silenced.

    “We are on our feet, marching against extractivism,” Rojas said. “Mother Earth is tired.”

    ***

    Benjamin Dangl has worked as a journalist throughout Latin America, covering social movements and politics in the region for over a decade. He is the author of the books Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America, and The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia. Dangl is currently a doctoral candidate in Latin American History at McGill University, and edits UpsideDownWorld.org, a website on activism and politics in Latin America, andTowardFreedom.com, a progressive perspective on world events. Email: BenDangl(at)gmail(dot)com. Twitter: @bendangl

  • Struggle over Bolivia´s mining law is part of a wider conflict across the Andes

    Posted on August 13th, 2014 Administrator No comments

    By Ben Dangl

    Originally published on April 3, 2014 in Vice.com

    On Monday night, outside of Cochabamba, Bolivia, a conflict between police and miners protesting a new mining law left two miners dead and 50 people injured. The miners died of bullet wounds to the head. Forty-three policemen were also taken prisoner by the miners. The miners wielded dynamite against the armed police forces, though it’s still unclear who provoked the fight.

    Before taking hostages, the miners had organized roadblocks across the country against a new mining law that would give the administration of President Evo Morales oversight of private tin, silver, and zinc miners’ transactions with private or foreign companies. (The Bolivian government also owns enormous public mines, which would not be effected by this aspect of the law.) The Morales administration wants to maintain oversight of sales and mining development in the private sector in order ensure that the resources benefit the country, rather than simply enrich private and foreign investors. The miners protesting on Monday all work in the private sector and, curiously, aren’t part of a leftist attempt for collective control of their mines—they simply want the right to be able to sell the minerals they extract to any person or company they please.

    Congressman José Antonio Yucra of the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS, the party led by President Morales) explained to the press that “there is great interest in million-dollar contracts that the cooperativist [private miners] would have with foreign [companies]” if the government did not regulate the industry. But the fight over the mining law is part of a much wider conflict across the Andes and Latin America. Who profits from the extraction of natural resources? Who pays when mining or oil exploration harms the environment and local communities? To what extent are local communities consulted about resource extraction that destroys their land, water, and livelihoods? Despite leftist rhetoric about protecting the environment and working on behalf of the region’s downtrodden, the presidents of Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador, among others, are charging ahead with destructive mining, gas, and oil industrialization at a rapid pace.

    Mining of copper, lead, and zinc in Peru, for example, has been booming, and alongside this boom, indigenous and agrarian communities have fought against the destruction of their land, water, and homes. In Ecuador, protesters against extractive industries have been criminalized as the government moves forward with oil and mining projects. A recent lawsuit by Ecuadorean villagers against Chevron made it clear who pays and who profits when a community is devastated to extract natural wealth: Despite allegedly spilling 18 million gallons of toxic wastewater in rural Ecuador, an international court said Chevron did not have to pay to clean up the damage. “We will fight [the lawsuit] until Hell freezes over,” said a Chevron representative. “And then we’ll fight it out on the ice.”

    In Bolivia, indigenous movements are organizing against the environmental devastation that accompanies mining and other extractive industries.

    “The open veins of Latin America are still bleeding,” Mama Nilda Rojas, a leader of the dissident indigenous organization CONAMAQ, told me in a recent interview in La Paz, Bolivia. Rojas believes that President Morales and the MAS party are paving the way for further extractive industries, led either by the government or by foreign corporations operating with the government’s blessing—and they’ve already done so by ignoring the rights of local communities.

    Nilda’s father, CONAMAQ leader Cancio Rojas, was jailed in 2012 (and later released) for protesting against the Canadian South American Silver Corporation’s operations in his community in Potosi.

    While the new and controversial mining law limits the rights of miners to sell their resources, it also gives the mining industry rights to use public water for its water-intensive and toxic operation, while disregarding the rights of rural and farming communities to that same water. Furthermore, the law criminalizes protest against mining operations, leaving those communities that would bear the brunt of the industry’s pollution and displacement without any legal recourse to defend their homes.

    Another problem with the law, and the mining industry in general, says Bolivian independent journalist Marielle Cauthin, is that it is based on the premise that the only way Bolivia can develop is through the extraction and sale of raw materials, rather than by overcoming its dependence on such an economy. “The Bolivian state believes that [mining and related industries] is our destiny, but this will only bring us closer toward the death of our environment and indigenous communities.”

    In the wake of the violence in Bolivia, the government announced on Tuesday that it will suspend the approval of the mining law (it was on its way to the Senate) in an effort to de-escalate the conflict and open a dialogue with miners. At the time of this writing, private miners are still blocking roads across Bolivia to keep pressure on the government. In a country where politics takes place in both the streets and the Senate, blockades, protests, and even miners taking the police hostage are a part of politics as usual. Meanwhile, the families of the two miners who died in the confrontation on Monday —Juan Manuel Cachaca and Jhonny Huisa Condori— are asking for justice and an investigation into the events surrounding the miners’ deaths. The police, for their part, have been released.

    Ben Dangl’s latest book is Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America. Follow him on Twitter.

  • Pachamama and Progress: Conflicting Visions for Latin America’s Future

    Posted on August 13th, 2014 Administrator No comments

    By Ben Dangl

    Originally published on August 26, 2010 in TowardFreedom.com

    Miners in Potosí, Bolivia set off sticks of dynamite as cold winter winds zipped through the city, passing street barricades, protests, hunger strikers and an occupied electrical plant. These actions took place place from late July to mid-August against the perceived neglect of the Evo Morales administration toward the impoverished Potosí region.

    This showdown in Bolivia is similar to conflicts across Latin America between the promises of left-leaning governments, the needs of the people and the finite resources of Pachamama (Mother Earth).

    Diverse social organizations, miners, unions, students, local residents, and even the city’s soccer team, united in the protest in late July. The mobilizations shut down the city and many mining operations. Residents criticized what they saw as the government’s lack of attention, funding and development projects for Potosí, the poorest department in the country.

    Among the demands were the completion of a highway between the neighboring department of Tarija and Potosí, a cement and metallurgical factory, an airport, and the preservation of Cerro Rico, a historic silver mine now in decay. After 19 days of mobilizations, the activists and the Morales government reached a resolution in which the administration agreed to all of the protesters’ demands.

    This recent conflict in Potosí is one of many that have taken place in the country regarding the distribution of government funds, execution of development projects and access to natural resources. In mid-June, various indigenous movements from eastern Bolivia gathered for a march to assert their autonomy over the management of land and the extraction of gas and minerals in their territory.

    At the heart of these conflicts is a question leftist governments and social movements across Latin America are grappling with: what should this “other world that is possible” look like?

    “Is it one based on constant economic growth, even if this is ‘socialist’ and would raise the real income of people in the global South?” sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein asks about today’s Latin America. “Or is it what some are calling a change in civilizational values, a world of buen vivir [living well]?” This latter philosophy includes living in harmony with others and with nature, rather than accumulating capital and material things while destroying the earth.

    Besides conflicting visions of this “other world that is possible” (from the World Social Forum’s slogan) is the divergence between political rhetoric and reality. Many leftist governments across the region lack the political will – or are constrained by economic and political forces, and the state – to carry out much-needed structural changes to allow people to live well.

    Government promises and policies are empty without action on the part of both politicians and the people. At the recent Social Forum of the Americas in Asunción, Paraguay Roberto Baggio of Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement, told IPS News, “When we talk about agrarian reform, we’re talking about making access to property more democratic and laws that make it possible to take action, because a good land reform program is not sufficient if concrete actions are not taken.”

    This view reflects one of the dominant roles Latin American social movements find themselves in now. Few are seeking to overthrow governments as they did when explicitly neoliberal administrations were in power. Rather, writes Uruguayan journalist Raúl Zibechi, there is “something more subtle; the social movements have begun to place limits on governments.” From Ecuador and Venezuela, to Argentina and Bolivia, this new relationship between movements and governments is still being defined.

    Another participant in this dance is the earth itself. Considering the onslaught of global warming, the soy boom, and the ecological destruction of logging, oil, gas and mining industries, the need to apply the philosophy of buen vivir is as pressing as ever.

    As Nobel Prize-winning indigenous activist Rigoberta Menchu reminded participants at the Social Forum in Paraguay, “We can’t dominate the Earth; she dominates us.”

    ***

    The relationship between social movements and states in seven different Latin American countries is examined in Benjamin Dangl’s forthcoming book Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America (AK Press, October 2010):http://dancingwithdynamite.com/

    Dangl is also the author of The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia (AK Press, 2007), and editor of TowardFreedom.com, a progressive perspective on world events and UpsideDownWorld.org, covering activism and politics inLatin America. Email Bendangl(at)gmail(dot)com.

  • The Andean Connection: Tracking the Drug War’s Coca Leaves and Failed Policies -

    Posted on August 13th, 2014 Administrator No comments

    By Ben Dangl

    Originally published on August 4, 2011 in The Indypendent

    Cocaine, the drug fueling the trade that’s left thousands dead in Mexico and Central America since 2007 and which 1.4 million Americans are addicted to, originates with two species of the coca plant grown in the South American Andes. Ninety percent of the U.S. market for cocaine is fed by Colombia, with the rest largely provided by Peru and Bolivia.

    An estimated 310 to 350 tons of refined cocaine were trafficked out of Colombia last year, enough to make a rail of nose candy that would encircle the earth twice. Along with exporting cocaine northward, Colombia has become a laboratory for failed drug war policies that are finding their way to Central America and Mexico.

    In July 2000 President Bill Clinton signed Plan Colombia (see sidebar below for more information) into law, initiating the anti-drug-producing and trafficking operation that has cost U.S. taxpayers more than $7.3 billion to date. U.S. military bases have been established in Colombia under the plan, as have extensive air patrols, pesticide spraying and surveillance. Because of the violence, some 2.5 million Colombians have been displaced.

    “The lessons of Colombia are being ignored in many ways. You’ll have mainstream analysts saying Colombia is the model to win the drug war. If Colombia is winning then what are the Colombians trafficking?” drug war expert Sanho Tree, a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., told The Indypendent.

    “Basically, our policy is to fracture and to break up the drug organizations, making them smaller, weaker and more manageable,” Tree said. “And it’s folly. Breaking up those big monopolies … created a huge vacuum for smaller operators to fill, and we can’t track smaller operations, much less disrupt them.” Prior to the escalation of the U.S.-backed drug war, large traffickers, such as the Medellín Cartel led by Pablo Escobar in the 1980s, ran much of the drug trade. Now, smaller outfits have filled that void.

    Just as busting up the big “drug monopolies in Colombia ended up democratizing the drug economy,” Tree explained,  “if you end up weakening and fracturing the big fish in Mexico, then you end up with a Darwinian solution so that only best survive. This ill-conceived state power ends up thinning out the herd, with the most cunning come out on top — selectively breeding supertraffickers.” The result is that billions of dollars and countless bullets are being thrown at smaller drug operations without generating long-term solutions.

    The “paramilitarization” of the conflict in Mexico and Central America is also replicating Colombia’s experience. Paramilitaries have been used to carry out a dirty war on behalf of the Colombian state, and the “paras,” as they are known, now run much of the drug trafficking there. Tree said, “People in Mexico are saying we need paramilitaries to chase down drug trade leaders and this runs the risk of repeating the same nightmare as in Colombia.” The right-wing paramilitary groups in Colombia, including the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia(AUC), which claimed more than 15,000 combatants a decade ago, works closely with the Colombian military and wealthy landowners by attacking guerrilla forces and dissidents. At least 1,000 soldiers and police charged with human rights abuses joined the AUC over the years, supplying the outfit with intelligence and guns. An official demobilization of paramilitaries began in 2003, but the paras and successor groups continue to operate. They are protected from extradition to the United States despite their involvement in the drug trade, and stand accused of thousands of extrajudicial assassinations. In addition to the drug trade, paras orchestrate violent land seizures against small farmers and have moved into cultivating African palm trees for biofuel production on the stolen land, colluding with high-ranking military officers and in a few instances receiving funding from the U.S. government, according to The Nation magazine.

    UNDER COVER

    “At the beginning of Plan Colombia, campesinos would plant out in the open, but those were sitting ducks, and it was easy pickings for the fumigation planes. Now it’s shade grown and intercropped with other crops, and the plants are also adapting in other ways that result in better yield per kilo of leaf,” Tree explained. The United States is focusing less on fumigations these days, in part because it’s harder to locate these smaller hidden plots of coca.

    While a handful of indigenous tribes legally produce a tiny amount of coca for government-sanctioned cultural purposes, most of the coca grown in Colombia is used to produce cocaine.

    For peasants in Colombia, farming coca is generally more lucrative than growing fruits or vegetables. Part of this is due to the fact that coca and coca paste are easier to transport than other agricultural products, especially for isolated farmers far from roads.

    Tree explained that many coca farmers have a small “lab” behind their house to transform the coca into coca paste. The lab consists of a wooden floor with a black plastic tarp over it, a 50-gallon drum of gasoline and ammonia. The coca is often chopped up by a weed-wacker, and processed with the chemicals into paste, which is later turned into cocaine to be sold in the U.S. markets.

    In a country of 46 million, Tree speculates, hundreds of thousands of people earn a living from coca farming and coca paste production. The people who grow coca are “the expendable ones,” he said, “they are fixed targets” for eradication and anti-drug efforts, whereas the traffickers are more mobile.

    “If you’re a coca farmer you can be wiped out, and the traffickers can buy from another peasant.” The farmers play a crucial, but risky role in the business, receiving a fraction of the money the trafficker receives. Smuggling the drugs carries its own obvious risks, but traffickers tend to get compensated in proportion to the dangers they face, since once cocaine gets across the U.S. border, its price increases dramatically.

    The drug war both in the Andes and in Mexico and Central America has resulted in bloodshed, displacement of poor communities and expansion of U.S. regional power. Since 2006, Mexico’s drug war has left more than 46,000 dead and displaced some 230,000.

    Drug interdiction efforts in Mexico and Colombia have transformed Central America into a key hub linking South America to Mexico and the United States. According to the L.A. Times, in 2010 more than two-thirds of U.S.-bound cocaine shipments passed through Central America, almost tripling in four years. Traffickers are also shifting production facilities. In March of this year, a major cocaine processing lab was discovered in Honduras, whose government fell to a U.S.-backed military coup in 2009. Central America has become one of the deadliest parts of the world, with approximately 79,000 homicides connected to drug trafficking and organized crime since 2005.

    CULTURE WAR

    Another casualty in the war on drugs has been the criminalization of the coca leaf and its growers. As Bolivian coca grower Leonilda Zurita told me in 2006, “A grape is a grape and through a long process you make wine. It’s the same with coca. Coca is coca and through a long process you can make cocaine.”

    Cocaine is derived from the coca leaf, but there is a big difference between the natural plant and the refined drug, which is one of the main arguments of coca farmers against the eradication of their crop. Coca leaves have been used in the Andes for millennia to relieve hunger, fatigue and sickness, to increase oxygen flow to the brain at high altitudes, and as a religious and cultural symbol.

    Across Bolivia, people chew the small green leaf like tobacco and drink tea made from it. Dried leaves are sold in small bags across much of Bolivia and Peru. The U.S. Embassy in La Paz, Bolivia, which has historically been a backer of coca eradication efforts in the country, suggests chewing the leaf to alleviate altitude sickness. Besides its traditional uses, coca has been an ingredient in anesthetics, cough syrups, wines, chewing gums, and in Coca-Cola. (The New York Times reported on July 1, 1988, that the Illinois-based Stephan Company, Coca-Cola’s supplier, was “the nation’s only legal commercial importer of coca leaves, which it obtains mainly from Peru and, to a lesser extent, Bolivia.” Its annual imports ranged from 56 metric tons to 588 metric tons during the ’80s.)

    The green leaf also sustains Bolivians on a variety of levels, from miners risking their lives in deadly tin mines to farmers in the altiplano, a high altitude plains region. Coca aids protesters in long, arduous marches, street mobilizations and hunger strikes. Bolivia’s most powerful social movements and political parties have emerged from the farmers’ fight to grow coca and resist militarization.

    Much of the violence against coca and coca farmers in Bolivia ended when Evo Morales was elected president in 2006. A coca farmer or cocalero, Morales and his political party emerged from the coca union struggle against U.S.-led
    eradication. Under Morales, a different kind of control of coca production has taken place.

    The Morales administration is continuing and expanding cooperative eradication efforts initiated in the central region of Chapare in October 2004. In established coca growing zones in Bolivia, families are allowed to grow 1,600 square meters of coca. Cooperative eradication between security forces and farmers has created a much more peaceful environment than times when violent eradication was the norm.

    The 1,600-square-meter limit is based on what the government calculates to be sufficient for subsistence, for traditional use and in meeting the national legal demand for the leaf.

    Despite Bolivia’s efforts, cocaine production has increased according to Kathryn Ledebur, the director of the Andean Information Network, a drug policy think tank based in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Ledebur explained that coca growers in Bolivia have adopted techniques that originated in Colombia that are “less expensive, harder to detect and a lot more efficient.” The new method involves using pulverized coca leaves with a high level of cocaine alkaloid, resulting in a more lucrative operation that requires less space.

    “In Bolivia what you have is kind of a splintering into micro-trafficking organizations,” Ledebur said. “It doesn’t matter if you squash one small group, competition is so varied, it’s a great deal harder to detect.” However, Ledebur said, there is a “less violent dynamic here, smaller level trafficking and no indication of the huge across-the-board corruption that has characterized Mexico, Central America and Colombia.”

    Nonetheless, Washington’s war on drugs stretches from Ciudad Juarez in Mexico to La Paz, creating a pretext for intervention in other nations. It also provides an excuse for the suppression of indigenous and radical movements, as was the case in Bolivia.

    In that impoverished Andean nation, the coca leaf is an indigenous and cultural symbol of resistance against Washington’s imperialism and the violence of the war on drugs. As Leonilda Zurita told me, “This is not a war against narco-traffickers; it’s a war against those who are working to survive.”

    Benjamin Dangl is the author of Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America, and The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia.

  • Governing by Obeying the People: Bolivia’s Politics of the Street

    Posted on August 13th, 2014 Administrator No comments

    By Ben Dangl

    Originally published on February 22, 2011 in TowardFreedom.com

    From across North Africa to Wisconsin, activists are navigating a new terrain of global protest and relationships with their governments. Whether in ousting old tyrants or dealing with new allies in office, the example of Bolivia holds many lessons for social movements. An illustrative dynamic is now unfolding in this Andean country where the movements hold sway over the government palace, and the leftist President Evo Morales says he “governs by obeying the people.” But sometimes the people don’t give him any other choice.

    The day after Christmas last year, while Morales was away in Venezuela, Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera announced that, as a way to cut government spending, subsidies on gas would be slashed, resulting in a roughly 73% price increase for Bolivians. In cash-strapped Bolivia, where much of the population lives below the poverty line, this austerity measure was to be born largely on the backs of the poor.

    The neoliberal aspects of the policy shocked and outraged much of the country. Bolivian political commentator Rafael Bautista wrote that the gas price hikes followed the same neoliberal logic as Morales’ rightwing predecessors, embracing the concept that “to have more money we must sacrifice those who never have anything…” Bautista continued, “but who establishes these prices? It’s not the poor, it’s the market.” In this case the government was listening to the market over the people, and the price was to be paid with the “hunger of the poor.”

    The move also betrayed the decades-old social struggle to use natural resources for the benefit of the country. Bolivia has the largest natural gas reserves in South America, and Morales himself was ushered into office on a wave of protests demanding nationalization of gas and popular access to natural resources. He followed through with partial nationalization in 2006, and has met other campaign promises such as rewriting the constitution, expanding land reform and social services, and empowering indigenous communities.

    Bolivia’s social movements responded to the gas price hike announcement immediately, organizing protests, strikes and road blockades across the country to demand that the government back down. Even coca growers, Morales’ staunch allies, set up road blockades on a major highway. Bus drivers went on strike, and community organizations in El Alto marched, attacking government buildings. It was a historically-broad rejection of the policy, with more than just the usual organizations and sectors heading into the streets.

    In an effort to offset the increase in gas and food prices, the Morales government raised the wages of public employees by 20%. Yet the salary increase would not help workers in the private and massive informal sector. The government also offered assistance to farmers of rice, wheat and corn. Yet the gas prices and subsequent cost of food, basic goods and transportation continued to rise.

    Finally, on December 31st, as the protests showed no sign of stopping, Morales relented, saying he would reverse the price increase. In a televised speech, he said he would “continue to govern by obeying the people.” (He was drawing from the phrase Mandar Obedeciendo, Lead by Obeying, a slogan used by the Zapatistas.)

    Was he obeying the people, or was he simply forced to respond to their pressure? In either case, his move was significant; while politicians around the world have recently been responding to protests against austerity measures with tanks and bullets, Morales responded by (eventually) agreeing with protesters and backing down. This illustrates the autonomy of the Bolivian social movements and the power they have over the government.

    For the last decade, social movements in Bolivia have been the protagonists of the country’s history. This is because many of them understood that the fight for a better world didn’t end with the ousting of former right wing President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada in 2003, or even with the election of Evo Morales in 2006. Their struggle required constant mobilization and social transformation that didn’t fit into a government decree or a ballot box.

    “I think we are reconsidering not just a new way of doing politics, but above all a new way of managing our economy,” Bolivian activist leader Oscar Olivera said in a Latin American Solidarity Center interview on the recent gas conflict. “In this, it is the people who are making it possible.”

  • The Ambassador Has No Clothes: WikiLeaks Cable Lays Bare Washington’s Stance Toward Bolivia

    Posted on August 13th, 2014 Administrator No comments

    By Ben Dangl

    Originally published on December 2, 2010 in TowardFreedom.com

    A classified cable from the US embassy in La Paz, Bolivia released by WikiLeaks lays bare an embassy that is biased against the Evo Morales government, underestimates the sophistication of the governing party’s grassroots base, and out of touch with the political reality of the country.

    The recently released January 23, 2009 cable, entitled “Bolivia’s Referendum: Margin of Victory Matters,” analyzes the political landscape of the country in the lead up to the January 2009 referendum on the country’s new constitution, and was sent to all US embassies in South America and various offices in Washington.

    In 2006, the leftist union leader and politician Evo Morales was inaugurated as Bolivia’s first indigenous president. Since his election he and members of his party, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), have partially nationalized gas reserves, enacted land reform and convoked an assembly to rewrite the country’s constitution. Following years of debates among assembly members, this constitution was passed in a national referendum on January 25, 2009.

    The US embassy cable released by WikiLeaks that was written during the politically-charged days leading up to this vote shows a mischaracterization on the part of embassy officials of the MAS government and its supporters.

    The cable cites Bolivian newspaper reports that many community leaders and their supporters in the Altiplano, the high plains of western Bolivia, where much of the MAS support lies, had not even read the constitution, and instead would simply “take their marching orders from the MAS, and vote for the constitution.” Many had not read the document out of, according to the US embassy, “disinterest, blind faith in Evo Morales’ political project, and illiteracy.” The cable describes one meeting between members of the US embassy and Bolivian political officials who “lamented the way the MAS had ‘cheated’ and ‘fooled’ campesinos into believing Morales was himself truly indigenous or cared about indigenous issues.” The officials said the MAS popularity was due to “‘vertical control’ in the countryside…”

    These are all inaccurate portrayals of the dynamics of the MAS party and its grassroots base. Support for the constitution and the MAS did not simply grow out of illiteracy, disinterestedness, blind faith or the vertical control of the MAS over its members, as embassy officials would have those reading of this cable believe.

    While many social sectors in Bolivia had serious critiques of the new constitution, the writing and passage of it was largely the result of years of discussions and consultations with constituents. The political consciousness among the MAS party base, both rural and urban, is highly sophisticated and has benefited from years of social mobilizations and a first hand understanding of the needs of the impoverished majority of the country. People support the MAS because the party speaks to those needs, has opened up political participation to marginalized sectors of society, and has developed a political project that seeks to empower disenfranchised and indigenous communities.

    Such democratic tendencies challenge the economic interests and political power of Washington and the Bolivian right. It is telling, therefore, that many of the sources the US embassy drew from in this cable are members of the Bolivian right and critics of Morales.

    For example, in the cable, the embassy officials cite Bolivia’s Santa Cruz Civic Committee as a source on the supposed electoral fraud of the MAS. Since Morales’ election, this Civic Committee has risen to notoriety as a fierce critic of the MAS government, and is tied to Bolivian business elites, racist youth groups, and acts of violent repression against indigenous activists and MAS supporters.

    According to the released cable, US embassy officials were told by members of the Santa Cruz Civic Committee that they did not trust international electoral observers – including those from the Organization of American States, the Carter Center, the United Nations and the European Union – because they had “blessed” a August 2008 recall vote which empowered Morales with over 60% of the vote. Therefore, members of the Civic Committee did “not expect an honest review of the constitutional referendum” in January of 2009.

    These views are illustrative for a couple of reasons. For one thing, the US embassy, in this diplomatic primer on one of the most important votes of the decade in Bolivia, emphasized electoral fraud on the part of the MAS where leading international observers saw none. Secondly, it looked to the Civic Committee, an organization that is totally unrepresentative of the views of the majority of the population, as a source on the topic.

    Such misdirection and detachedness from Bolivia’s political reality was also demonstrated in a section of the cable which described a conflict in the department of Pando, Bolivia in September of 2008. Here, the embassy shares the views of an unnamed source:

    “In a conversation with PolOff, xxxxxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxxxxx alleged the MAS deliberately fomented unrest in Pando in September to justify a military siege, depose Prefect Leopoldo Fernandez, and arrest opposition-aligned leaders to swing the balance of power to the MAS in the Senate. Besides disabling the opposition’s ability to campaign by arresting many of its leaders,xxxxxxxxxxxx alleged the government crackdown changed Pando’s electoral map by causing hundreds of opposition voters to flee to Brazil while importing 2,000 new security forces, which xxxxxxxxxxxx claimed were likely MAS voters from the Altiplano (Reftel B).”

    This is an egregiously inaccurate portrayal of events. In September of 2008, in what Morales called a civic coup attempt, right forces in the country mobilized against the MAS government, ransacking human rights offices, attacking indigenous people and MAS supporters, and destabilizing the country. The most violent manifestation of this uprising occurred in Pando, where paramilitaries hired by Pando Prefect Leopoldo Fernandez fired on unarmed campesinos marching in support of the MAS. Following this upheaval, the US ambassador to Bolivia was kicked out of the country by Morales for “conspiring against democracy” and funding right wing opposition groups in Bolivia.

    This cable provides useful insights into the inner workings of Washington’s diplomacy toward Bolivia, and will hopefully be one among many more such cables that become available to the public, thus spreading awareness about the true tactics of Washington in international relations. These revelations have contributed an already extensive lack of trust among citizens around the world toward the US government.

    According to Bolivian Vice President Álvaro García Linera, this lack of trust toward Washington won’t be erased by castigating those who downloaded and leaked the documents. It will only be erased, said Linera, through “a change of attitude on the part of the North American government.”

    Benjamin Dangl is the author of the new book, Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America (AK Press, 2010), and The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia (AK Press, 2007). He is the editor of TowardFreedom.com, a progressive perspective on world events, and UpsideDownWorld.org, a website on activism and politics in Latin America. Email: Bendangl(at)gmail(dot)com

  • Bolivia’s Next Steps

    Posted on January 8th, 2010 Administrator No comments

    Written by Benjamin Dangl

    Published in The Nation on December 16, 2009

    A rainbow of campaign posters covered the stairways and tinted glass walls in the Bolivian Congress building. After arriving in the crowded office lobby of leftist Congressman Gustavo Torrico, I sat for hours next to union leaders and other rank-and-file constituents, waiting to speak with the politician.

    Torrico was meeting with members of the Bolivian Workers Center, one of the largest unions in the country. When I finally sat down on the couch in his dimly lit office, the smiling Congressman explained one of the key reasons for the success of the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), the party he and indigenous President Evo Morales helped construct.

    Click here to read the full article

  • The Speed of Change: Bolivian President Empowered by Re-Election

    Posted on January 8th, 2010 Administrator No comments

    Written by Benjamin Dangl

    Tuesday, 08 December 2009

    First published in Toward Freedom

    Bolivian President Evo Morales was re-elected on Sunday, December 6th in a landslide victory. After the polls closed, fireworks, music and celebrations filled the Plaza Murillo in downtown La Paz where Morales supporters chanted “Evo Again! Evo Again!” Addressing the crowd from the presidential palace balcony, Morales said, “The people, with their participation, showed once again that it’s possible to change Bolivia… We have the responsibility to deepen and accelerate this process of change.”

    Though the official results are not yet known, exit polls show that Morales won roughly 63% of the vote, with his closest rival, former conservative governor Manfred Reyes Villa, winning around 23% of the vote.

    The Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), Morales’ political party, also won over two thirds of the seats in the lower house and the senate, meaning the MAS administration will have an easier time passing laws without right wing opposition.

    Many of Bolivia’s indigenous and impoverished majority identify with Morales, an indigenous man who grew up poor and was a grassroots leader before his election as president in 2005. Many also voted for Morales because of new government programs aimed at empowering the country’s marginalized people.

    “Brother Evo Morales is working for the poorest people, for the people that are fighting for their survival,” El Alto street vendor Julio Fernandez told Bloomberg reporter Jonathan Levin on election day.

    “He’s changing things. He’s helping the poor and building highways and schools,” Veronica Canizaya, a 49-year old housewife, told Reuters before voting near Lake Titicaca.

    During his first four years in office Morales partially nationalized Bolivia’s vast gas reserves, ushered in a new constitution written in a constituent assembly, granted more rights to indigenous people and exerted more state-control over natural resources and the economy. Much of the wealth generated from new state-run industries has been directed to various social and development programs to benefit impoverished sectors of society.

    For example, Inez Mamani receives a government stipend to help her care for her newborn baby. The funding is thanks to the state-run gas company. Mamani, who also has five other children, spoke with Annie Murphy of National Public Radio about the program. “With my other children, there wasn’t a program like this. It was sad the way we raised them. Now they have milk, clothing, diapers, and it’s great that the government helps us. Before, natural resources were privately owned and there wasn’t this sort of support.”

    In addition to the support for mothers, the government also gives stipends to young students and the elderly; the stipends reached some 2 million people in 2009. “I’m a teacher and I see that the kids go to school with hope, because they get breakfast there and the subsidies … I ask them how they spend the hand-outs and some of them say they buy shoes. Some didn’t have shoes before,” Irene Paz told Reuters after voting in El Alto.

    Thanks to such far-reaching government programs and socialistic policies, Bolivia’s economic growth has been higher during the four years under Morales than at any other period during the last three decades, according to the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research.

    “None of this would have been possible without the government’s regaining control of the country’s natural resources,” said CEPR Co-Director Mark Weisbrot. “Bolivia’s fiscal stimulus over the past year was vastly larger than ours in the United States, relative to their economy.”

    During Morales’ new term in office, with over two thirds control in both houses of congress, the MAS government should be able to further apply the changes established in the new constitution, a document passed in a national vote this past January. The MAS base is eager for land reform, broader access to public services, development projects and more say in how their government is run. The mandate and demands for massive changes are now greater than ever.

    As Bolivian political analyst Franklin Pareja told IPS News, “In the past four years, the change was an illusion, and now it should be real.”

  • Socialist Soccer in the Andes

    Posted on October 20th, 2009 Administrator No comments

    Originally published in The Guardian Unlimited

    Written by Benjamin Dangl

    September 19, 2009

    Every Sunday night in La Paz, Bolivia the football stadium comes to life, with its bright lights dimming the stars. After the game, fireworks pound at the cool air and fans roam the streets shaking banners and cans of beer. This happens regardless of what political crisis or triumph the country is going through.

    “Whether it’s something we celebrate together, or a shipwreck that takes us all down, soccer counts in Latin America, sometimes more than anything else,” Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano writes in Soccer in Sun and Shadow.

    So when Bolivia’s football team recently failed to qualify for the World Cup, devoted fan and socialist President Evo Morales suggested an approach he’s taken when other businesses haven’t thrived. To solve the team’s problem, he said: “What better thing than the intervention of the state?

    Putting the football industry under state control would follow in the footsteps of other nationalisations the popular president has carried out in the gas, tin and telecommunications sectors.

    We’re sorry about the performance of our team in the qualifiers,” Morales told reporters in Bolivia. “Until now [football] has been [controlled] by private, autonomous entities … but they aren’t getting results.” He said nationalisation would “dignify” the national team.

    Though not always a fool-proof solution, recent history in Bolivia shows that state control of certain industries and companies has been more efficient than private control. Under Morales, the Bolivian state has often acted in the people’s best interest more than, for example, a foreign gas corporation. State-controlled industries have also generated revenue for the impoverished government, providing funds for much-needed social programmes and development work.

    Morales’s plan for the country’s football team says a lot about his economic vision for the country, a vision that buoys his popularity and, according to recent polls, ensures he will be elected president again by a wide margin in the December elections. It also speaks of his love for football, a sport that led him to the presidential palace.

    When he was 13, Morales, a child of poor farmers, began a team called Fraternidad (Brotherhood) in his small community in the Bolivian highlands. He took on the role of captain, player, referee and fundraiser. Morales explained: “I was like the owner of the team. I had to do the sheep shearing, for the llama wool. My father helped me. He was really a sportsman, we sold the wool to buy balls, uniforms.”

    When his family was forced by drought to migrate to the Chapare region to become coca farmers, he was quickly elected as the director of sports for the local coca union. That role led to other union positions as he rose through the ranks of the political left, eventually becoming president in 2005.

    He has since played in La Paz with Argentine football legend Diego Maradona, sending the ball used in the game to Fidel Castro, signing it: “With admiration for Fidel.” Later, he skipped a dinner with Chilean President Michele Bachelet to play a game in Santiago. His team beat the Chilean pros by 8 to 1.

    Morales is right in seeking to put Bolivia’s football team under state control. This multi-billion dollar business has favoured corporate elites for decades, separating the sport from the Latin American working-class culture that embraces and sustains it.

    “Soccer is an integrator,” Morales told Fox News last year. “It doesn’t just have to do with championships, trophies or medals. It means much more than that. Soccer makes us forget the politicians who are our specific problems. Even poverty, if only for 90 minutes, gives way to this social phenomenon.”