Posted on January 8th, 2010 No comments
Written by Benjamin Dangl
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.
Posted on January 8th, 2010 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.”
Posted on October 20th, 2009 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.”
Posted on June 8th, 2009 No comments
Written by Benjamin Dangl
Source: The Guardian Unlimited
In the war of the Pacific in 1879, a conflict in part over access to guano for fertiliser, Chile took away Bolivia’s only access to the Pacific Ocean. More than a century later, demands from Bolivia for the recuperation of this land are now louder than ever.
The most recently proposed solution to the diplomatic crisis seems to be straight out of a science fiction novel: the construction of a 150km tunnel from Bolivia to an artificial island created by the excavated dirt.
The tunnel, proposed by three Chilean architects, would allow for regular vehicle transport and include a gas duct to export gas (Bolivia is home to extensive natural gas reserves).
Similar to many Bolivians’ demands for a fully nationalised gas industry and land reform, Bolivia’s call for access to the ocean is bound up in a widespread desire to recuperate looted riches and natural wealth. However, this most recent proposal falls significantly short of the full access due to Bolivia, and seems to be yet another sign that Chile is not taking Bolivia seriously in its demands.
Tito Hoz de Vila, a Bolivian senator and president of the government’s commission on foreign relations, said the tunnel idea was “a mockery and insult to the intelligence of the Bolivian people“.
Bolivian President Evo Morales has been a strong advocate for access to the ocean, and in recent years has been in negotiations regarding the issue with Chilean President Michelle Bachelet.
Mariano Fernández, the Chilean foreign minister, told reporters that he considered the tunnel plan “an avant-garde proposal that will be interesting to hear about. … It’s an important subject for Chile, very important for Bolivia and it’s not easy to find ways to solve all our problems from one day to the next.” Yet this time-consuming and expensive project is far from a solution, and more likely another way to delay action on the part of the Chileans.
David Choquehuanca, the Bolivian foreign minister, said that he “laughed a bit” when he heard of the proposed tunnel. The minister explained: “What’s important is that even imaginative people are speaking about sea access for Bolivia.” Choquehuanca said he would not comment further on the proposal until it is officially presented by his Chilean counterpart.
After a meeting between President Bachelet and Fidel Castro in Cuba last February, Castro wrote a column in which he criticised Chile for not respecting Bolivia’s demands for access to the sea. He wrote that the Chilean “oligarchy” has been denying Bolivia its ocean port, and that the land taken over by Chile contains the largest copper reserve in the world, providing the Chilean economy with millions of dollars each year. This is another reason Chile should simply give over the land that is indeed Bolivia’s.
Humberto Eliash, one of the Chilean architects proposing the tunnel, told the BBC: “Poets say that we must build a bridge between Bolivia and the Pacific that jumps over Chile. We wanted to see if it could work in reality.” But instead of going high above ground, Eliash and his colleagues are looking underground.
The tunnel would be one of the longest in the world and take approximately a decade to complete. “In the beginning, we thought the idea was a little crazy, but now we think it can really be viable,” Eliash said. “I see this as a possible dream, not madness.”
But such a plan does appear to verge on madness, especially when he proposes that the impoverished country of Bolivia should cover the tab. Taking a decade to complete would also allow politicians to simply push away responsibility for fully addressing this urgent issue.
Eliash explained that many diplomatic, trade and migration-related problems are currently being resolved with tunnels in various parts of the world, including the construction of a tunnel between China and Taiwan. The architect also cited the plans to connect Spain to Morocco through a tunnel.
A major challenge faced by such construction in Bolivia and Chile is financial. The architects suggest that Bolivia fund the costly project, using the profits generated by the sea port to help recover costs.
According to the proposal, part of the tunnel would pass under Peru, and later resurface in the Pacific in a territory owned by Chile, Bolivia and Peru. These factors could all create political problems with Peru. And recently, Peruvian-Bolivian relations have taken a turn for the worse.
Peru has made the deplorable decision of offering refuge to ex-ministers under former Bolivian President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada. The ex-ministers are accused by the Bolivian government of being involved in the 2003 massacre of 67 people in the Gas war, a popular uprising which developed in part due to outrage over a plan to export Bolivian gas to the US through a Chilean – formerly Bolivian – port.
Morales told reporters that relations with Peru are now at “high risk” after what he said was a “provocation and an open aggression” by Peruvian President Alan Garcia. The trial against Sanchez de Lozada and his cohorts began on 18 May in Bolivia.
If Chile formally proposes the tunnel option, it is difficult to say what Morales’s response will be. In previous speeches, he has said he will never give up fighting for Bolivia’s access to the sea, and in early March promised that “if we recuperate Bolivia’s access to the sea, I promise I will dance the [traditional] Morenada dance at Carnaval.”
Yet when Morales made that promise he was talking about full access to the land and ports stolen by Chile in an unfair war over a century ago. He wasn’t talking about an incredibly costly, dangerous, time-consuming and, thanks to relations with Peru, diplomatically impossible tunnel.
It’s time for the Chilean government to start taking its Andean neighbour seriously in its demands for recuperation of the land and resources that are rightfully Bolivian and stop suggesting proposals that will only worsen diplomatic relations, not help them.
Posted on May 31st, 2009 No comments
By Benjamin Dangl
Sunday, 24 May 2009
El Alto-based hip-hop artist Abraham Bojorquez died early in the morning on Wednesday, May 20 in El Alto, Bolivia. He was killed when a bus hit him as he walking home.
Abraham, 26 years old, was a member of the popular hip-hop group Ukamau y Ké, and in recent years had become increasingly well known within Bolivia and internationally. His music blended ancient Andean folk styles and new hip-hop beats with lyrics about revolution and social change. Through his music he demanded justice for those killed in the 2003 Gas War, spread political consciousness, spoke of the reality of life in El Alto, and criticized the lying corporate media. He was a radio host at the cultural center Wayna Tambo in El Alto, and regularly traveled around Bolivia to prisons, rural and mining communities to offer classes on hip-hop to young rappers.
For more details on Abraham’s life and music, see this article: Rapping in Aymara: Bolivian Hip-Hop as an Instrument of Struggle
I first met Abraham in 2006 when doing research for a book on Bolivian politics and social movements, and he offered invaluable time, input, and interviews, enriching the book with his stories of growing up as an orphan in El Alto, working in a sweat shop in Brazil, joining the Bolivian military, and then entering the street barricades as an activist in the 2003 Gas War. Woven throughout this dramatic story was Abraham’s hip-hop, an art he began in poor neighborhoods in Brazil, and brought back to El Alto.
Aside from being a key character I extensively interviewed for the book, I came to know the city while walking the streets and markets of El Alto with Abraham, listening to his stories of the city, its youth, meeting members of his family who produced beautiful carnival costumes and masks. After the book was completed, I received more emails, responses and comments regarding Abraham and his hip-hop than any other person or topic in the book. When I went on tour with the book in the US, I showed a music video of a rap song he did at nearly every event. We performed a Challa (indigenous, Andean blessing) for the book together recently when it came out in Spanish in La Paz, tossing alcohol and coca leaves on its pages for good luck. So Abraham was very much present throughout the whole process of writing and getting the book out into the world, offering support, stories and inspiration.
Over this time, he became one of my closest friends in Bolivia. Countless people from around Bolivia and the globe, including many rappers, activists, journalists, photographers and documentary film makers, became friends with this generous and talented person, and I was among the many drawn to his music, ideas and life story. The extent of this network of friends and fans obviously had to do with his incredible artistic and poetic ability, but it also had to do with his humbleness, sense of humor, and commitment to remaining true to his roots, his city, his friends and his struggle as he became more and more popular as a hip-hop star.
This was very clear to me when I met with him in La Paz a few days before his death. He greeted me in the Plaza del Estudiante with a hug and his big, contagious smile. We walked over to a café where I ordered a coca tea and he ordered some juice. Over the years, the news he shared of his hip-hop career kept on getting better and better, and this time he really seemed on top of the world.
He had just performed with the Argentine rock band Bersuit Vergarabat, and showed me the cover story in an Argentine cultural magazine that showed a few photos of him onstage with the band’s lead singer. Abraham was particularly happy about the fact that the day after the show, instead of just hanging out in the lounge of an expensive La Paz hotel, the Argentine band walked around a popular El Alto market with Abraham. In previous years, Abraham and his hip-hop comrades had rapped onstage along with other star groups such as Manu Chau, Actitud Maria Marta and Dead Prez.
Abraham has performed around Latin America, including in Ecuador, Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela. And he was regularly invited to perform – and teach hip-hop classes around Bolivia. During this recent meeting, he spoke of an even busier schedule than usual, performing in one Bolivian city one day, and then traveling by bus for another concert the following day, and on and on – a busy, hip-hop star life.
Abraham said he had recently rapped at a youth gathering in Cochabamba where Bolivian President Evo Morales was present. Morales was moved by Abraham’s rapping, and invited him to rap at an event in El Alto the following day where the government would be giving out newly built homes. As much as he was excited about this new connection with Morales, Abraham decided to turn down the offer to stick around Cochabamba to meet other obligations with youth and union groups in the city.
We spoke about some of the same themes we had talked about a lot over the last few years, one of them being the media. Abraham had a very clear analysis of the misinformation put out by corporate and right wing media, and often rapped and spoke about the “lying media.” As an artist and radio host, he also spoke regularly about the need to provide alternative, honest information about what was really happening around the world – the real stories about police repression, the root causes of poverty, corporate looting, as well as popular struggles and social change in Latin America. He seriously believed in the struggle to provide and distribute these real stories, so that they would become a part of the official history, and people didn’t go through life without knowing the truth about politics, society and history.
(Download Ukamau y Ké album “Para La Raza” by clicking here)
He talked about the need to take into account criticisms of the Evo Morales government, but to also look at it from a different perspective, look at it from beyond the borders of Bolivia, to compare the situation in Bolivia to political situations elsewhere in the world. Then, he said, you can really see that what’s happening here is really new, exciting and historic.
Abraham was excited about the upcoming release of a new CD he was working on, and we talked about ways to distribute it in the US. Abraham spoke about how he was seeing an improvement in his music, lyrics and rapping, and how he thought he would always be improving his style. Clearly, he was looking forward to a long life in which such hard work, connections and political conviction would be without a horizon, without a limit, and help bring about social change on an even greater level. We parted ways after the coca tea and juice was long gone, hugging and wishing each other luck. I think we left each other both convinced that Abraham’s rapid and amazing trajectory as an artist was just getting started, and he would continue to rise to new heights, with his new CD, connections and plans.
After our meeting, and before he died, he rapped on a main street in La Paz. It was a cold Saturday night, and the crowd was very excited to see him, warming up by dancing and cheering. He shook his fist in the air, jumping around the stage, rapping about Latin American unity and economic crisis. His words echoed across the Andes for the last time. A few days later, when walking home late at night from a party, he was killed by a speeding bus on a road in El Alto.
Abraham understood the rapid passage of time. He understood the importance and urgency of spreading political awareness through his music, and leaving something behind. He once spoke of the fact that he was happy to know that his music would be available to his grandchildren. Luckily, as a musician, activist and poet, his spirit and message will live on through his music.
It will also live on through the huge number of people he influenced as a teacher, colleague and hip-hop leader. He had an impact on countless young people’s lives in mines, jails and impoverished communities across Bolivia. Abraham spoke of the need to help spread hip-hop as a tool, an instrument of struggle, an art and way of expression that desperate young people could turn to instead of hard drugs and violence. Thanks to his guidance, and the CDs he helped record with these hip-hop students, he changed lives.
This part of Abraham’s work reflects another trait of his – his generosity. He could have easily used his rising popularity to simply consolidate his fame and power, but instead he shared his knowledge, connections, stories and skills with the whole world, uniting and empowering people. Thanks to this, his legacy lives on.
Abraham was one of those unique people who are able to speak poetically in a non-cliché way at the drop of a hat. Whether we were talking about a movie, a politician, or telling a joke, he always had this capacity to slip into a kind of poetic reverie, as if he was always rapping, or at least thinking of and working on lyrics for his next song.
This happened one night a few years ago during a failed attempt to broadcast a rap performance and interview over the internet from La Paz to Vermont. We were both hunkered down in a crowded internet café, and the connection with an eager crowd in Vermont just kept failing, until finally we came through over the phone instead. Abraham rapped to the crowd in the US, and to the surprised group in the internet café, then fielded questions about Bolivia from the VT listeners. Then Abraham asked the Vermonters about US politics, the Bush administration and the War in Iraq, and later spoke of his surprise about how similar the hopes and challenges in US sounded to those in Bolivia.
Afterward, on the sidewalk, walking toward a pizza place, we lamented the technological setbacks of the exchange, and spoke a bit about those political and social similarities across borders, and the importance of building those kinds of bridges of understanding, connecting and uniting people across continents – and bad internet connections.
Then he said something – one of his poetic reflections – that I didn’t quite understand, it was lost in translation. So he stopped to explain, picked up a stick, and drew a line in the dirt near the road. “See,” he said, finishing the line, “it’s important to make a new path in the dirt, in the world, so that other people can travel more easily on that path, moving even farther along.”
And I think that this is what Abraham did with his life: he fought, rapped, and shared, creating a new path, so that the road is easier for others, so that those he left behind can live a better life, can make it even farther along than he did in this hard world, where life is too short, and the Abrahams are too few.
Goodbye and Jallalla, Abraham!
Posted on April 18th, 2009 No comments
By Benjamin Dangl
April 17, 2009
At the Summit of the Americas this weekend, the US will find that the hemisphere is no longer its playground
While George Bush was the most unpopular president ever in South America, Barack Obama could end up being the most popular. To that end, much hinges on this weekend’s fifth Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, where all of the hemisphere’s heads of state – minus Raúl Castro of Cuba – will be in attendance.
In order to break with Bush’s disastrous legacy in Latin American relations, Obama would do well to follow the strategy set out by his vice president, Joe Biden, during his recent visit to Chile: “The time of the United States dictating unilaterally, the time where we only talk and don’t listen, is over,” Biden said.
At the last Summit of the Americas, in Mar del Plata, Argentina in 2005, Bush didn’t listen. Ignoring the region’s leaders and the hundreds of thousands of protesters filling the streets, he tried to shove the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) down South America’s throat one last time. Bush failed in Mar del Plata because he didn’t realize that Latin America is no longer Washington’s backyard.
When Obama meets with Latin America’s presidents this weekend he should treat them as sovereign neighbors, because - from trade policies to military alliances - Latin America has already declared its independence from the US.
Free trade agreements pushed by the US are now being replaced by south-to-south trade deals built through the leftist Bolivarian Alternative of the Americas (ALBA), the People’s Trade Agreement and the European Union-style Southern Common Market (Mercosur). Thanks in part to this autonomy from the US, South America has weathered the current economic crisis better than many other economic regions.
Various diplomatic crises in South America in 2008 – from Colombia’s bombing of a guerilla camp on Ecuadorian soil, to a right-wing massacre of government supporters in Bolivia – were solved in meetings between South American leaders, without the presence of US officials. Last April, when the US Navy announced it would restart its Fourth Fleet in the Caribbean, Hugo Chavez responded that Venezuela would begin joint naval exercises with Russia in the same area.
Obama could begin to acknowledge South America’s independence by ending the US economic embargo against Cuba. The region’s leaders have called for an end to the US embargo, which inhibits the freedoms and livelihoods of Cuban citizens. Though Obama has announced some plans to lift travel and remittance restrictions on Cuba, ending the rest of the embargo would send a clear signal to Latin America that the US is ready to treat the region with respect.
Aside from the Cuban embargo, the biggest fault lines at the upcoming summit are likely to emerge around economic policy and trade. “The Free Trade Area of the Americas is the law of the jungle, only the strongest survive,” Evo Morales told me back in 2003, before he became Bolivia’s fist indigenous president, and was still a union organiser and coca farmer. “From the point of view of the indigenous people here, the FTAA is an agreement to legalise the colonisation of the Americas.”
Obama shares some of Morales’ sentiments. The new US president has been a critic of the free trade agreement with Colombia because of that country’s violations of labour rights and its repression of unionised workers. In a newspaper column in June 2005, Obama explained his stance against the Central American free trade agreement, citing its lack of environmental and labour regulations, and said that “the larger problem is what’s missing from our prevailing policy on trade and globalization - namely, meaningful assistance for those who are not reaping its benefits.”
Such views will be warmly received by the region’s presidents, many of whom see the alleviation of poverty as way to curtail organized crime and narco-trafficking – two topics sure to be discussed at the summit, and were part of the discussions between Obama and Mexico’s president Felipe Calderón during Obama’s brief stop there yesterday. To make progess at the summit, Obama should withdraw US support and financing for the disastrous Plan Colombia, stress non-military solutions in the drug war, and develop economic relations with Latin America than benefit a majority of its population. Doing so would make a clean break from the Bush years, and show that the US is interested in being a neighbour, not an empire.
After all, at this weekend’s summit, Obama may have no other choice but to lead by following, because as Evo Morales once told a reporter, “If the 19th century belonged to Europe and the 20th century to the United States, the 21st century will belong to America, to Latin America.”
Posted on April 18th, 2009 No comments
Written by Benjamin Dangl
Thursday, 16 April 2009
After Bolivia beat the Argentine soccer team led by legendary Diego Maradona by 6 to 1, Maradona told reporters, “Every Bolivia goal was a stab in my heart.” Bolivia was expected to lose the April 1 match as Argentina is ranked as the 6th best soccer team in the world, and Maradona enjoys godlike status among soccer fans. This story of David and Goliath in the Andes is just one of various events shaking up the hemisphere.
Bolivian President Evo Morales just completed a five day hunger strike to push through legislation that allows him to run again in general elections this December. And at this weekend’s Summit of the Americas US President Barack Obama will meet with Latin American presidents who may end up giving some economic advice to their troubled neighbor in the north.
Evo Morales on a Hunger Strike
When opposition party members in Bolivia left a Congress session on April 9, refusing to pass a bill that would allow for general elections in December of this year, Evo Morales began a hunger strike while thousands of government supporters rallied in the streets in support of the bill. Morales began the fast to pressure opponents into passing the legislation, which in addition to enabling elections, would give indigenous communities broader representation in parliament and give Bolivian citizens living abroad the right to vote in the December elections. The opposition blocked the bill in part because they said it would give Morales more power and did not significantly prevent the possibility of electoral fraud. On April 12, opposition members returned to Congress when Morales agreed to changes regarding a new voter registry.
During his hunger strike, Morales slept on a mattress on the floor in the presidential palace and chewed coca leaves to fight off hunger. Morales said that this was the 18th hunger strike he participated in; before becoming president, Morales was a long-time coca farmer, union organizer and congressman. He said the longest hunger strike he had been on lasted 18 days while he was in jail, according to Bloomberg. But Morales wasn’t alone: 3,000 other MAS supporters, activists, workers and union members also participated in the hunger strike, including Bolivians in Spain and Argentina.
Early in the morning on April 14, once it was official that the Senate passed the bill, Morales ended his strike. “Happily, we have accomplished something important,” he told reporters. “The people should not forget that you need to fight for change. We alone can’t guarantee this revolutionary process, but with people power it’s possible.”
This controversy erupted just weeks after Bolivia’s new constitution was approved in a January 25 national referendum. Among other significant changes, the constitution grants unprecedented rights to the country’s indigenous majority and establishes a broader role for the state in the management of the economy and natural resources.
Summit of the Americas: Cuba, Obama and Chavez
On April 17-19 the Summit of the Americas will take place in Trinidad and Tobago. Most of the hemisphere’s presidents will be in attendance. It will also mark the first meeting between Presidents Barack Obama and Hugo Chavez.
Before the larger Summit begins, a Summit for the Bolivarian Alternative of the Americas (ALBA) will take place in Venezuela from April 14-15. Those planning to attend this gathering include President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, Evo Morales, Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo, and others. Chavez announced that this ALBA meeting will take place with the objective of formulating common positions to bring to Trinidad and Tobago, including plans regarding the formation of a regional currency, called the Sucre. These leaders are also likely to lead the push for an end to the blockade against Cuba.
Chavez said that if the US wants to come to the Summit “with the same excluding discourse of the empire – on the blockade – then the result will be that nothing has changed. Everything will stay the same… Cuba is a point of honor for the peoples of Latin America. We cannot accept that the United States should continue trampling over the nations of our America.”
In a recent column, Fidel Castro noted that Obama planned to lift travel and remittance restrictions to Cuba, but that that wouldn’t be enough – the blockade still needs to be lifted. “[N]ot a word was said about the harshest of measures: the blockade,” Castro wrote. “This is the way a truly genocidal measure is piously called, one whose damage cannot be calculated only on the basis of its economic effects, for it constantly takes human lives and brings painful suffering to our people. Numerous diagnostic equipment and crucial medicines — made in Europe, Japan or any other country — are not available to our patients if they carry U.S. components or software.”
The blockade against Cuba will likely be a hot topic of debate at this weekend’s Summit, and will be partly fueled by tension between Obama and Chavez. Explaining the failure of the Bush administration in the region, Obama once said, it is “No wonder, then, that demagogues like Hugo Chavez have stepped into this vacuum. His predictable yet perilous mix of anti-American rhetoric, authoritarian government, and checkbook diplomacy offers the same false promise as the tried and failed ideologies of the past.”
Yet a closer look at the region will show that the rise of leaders like Chavez is a result of more than just neglect on the part of the empire – it has to do with the disastrous impact of neoliberalism in the region, and a desire among Latin Americans to seek out alternatives. Considering the current economic crisis in the US, Obama could learn a thing or two from the policies of leaders like Chavez, who is incredibly popular in Venezuela, works in solidarity with many of the region’s leaders, and has developed sucessful economic policies in his country. At the upcoming Summit, Obama should put into action something he said when meeting with the G20: “We exercise our leadership best when we are listening.”
Latin America Changes
Those expecting an end to the same old Cold War tactics toward Latin America from Washington may be surprised when Obama continues to treat the region as a backyard. Yet whether or not the perspective from Washington changes, Latin America is certainly a different place than it was 30 years ago.
I asked Greg Grandin, a professor of history at New York University, and the author, most recently, of Empire’s Workshop, if another US-backed coup such as the one that happened against socialist Chilean President Salvador Allende in 1973 would be possible in today’s Latin America. He said, “I don’t think it would be possible. There isn’t a constituency for a coup. In the 1970s, US policy was getting a lot more traction because people were afraid of the rise of the left, and they were interested in an economic alliance with the US. Now, the [Latin American] middle class could still go with the US, common crime could be a wedge issue that could drive Latin America away from the left. But US policy is so destructive that it has really eviscerated the middle class. Now, there is no domestic constituency that the US could latch onto. The US did have a broader base of support in the 1970s, but neoliberalism undermined it.”
Grandin explained that in the 1960s and 1970s, security agencies in Latin America built up their relationship with Washington to “subordinate their interests to the US’s cold war crusade.” There was a willingness among the Latin American middle class to do this, Grandin explained, and the US was also interested in building the infrastructure and networks to ensure that the region’s new dictators’ fanaticism could be led by anti-communism. “Now in South America, there has been a wide rejection to subordinate their military to the US,” Grandin explained. “In a 2005 defense meeting in Quito, Ecuador [former US Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld attempted to elevate the war on terror in the region [as a military priority], and it was roundly rejected. … As of now, I don’t think there has been a willingness for Latin America to serve as an outpost of this unified war [on terror].”
Grandin wrote in a 2006 article that the Pentagon has tried to “ratchet up a sense of ideological urgency” in the war on terror in Latin America. But these pleas have fallen on deaf ears. “The cause of terrorism,” said Brazil’s Vice President José Alencar, “is not just fundamentalism, but misery and hunger.”
However, the Latin America Obama will visit this weekend is already significantly different than the one Rumsfeld tried to convince in 2005. Obama’s counterparts in the south are generally more independent and leftist than they were even four years ago. But all that can change, and at least some of it depends on how Obama works with – or ignores - the region.
Outside of Obama’s influence, one question remains: will changes made by leftist leaders in Latin America be irrevocable, even if the right regains power in the region in the next five years? No, according to political analyst Laura Carlsen of the Americas Program in Mexico City, “In order for that to happen it would take more than just a change in the government, and I find it unlikely for anything like that to happen in the short term. It took years for the left in power to build up these social movements and the development of alternatives. It was the result of that process that brought these governments into power, and to reverse it you would have to silence or repress these movements.”
I asked Grandin the same question. “It depends,” he said, “the changes seemed pretty irrevocable in the 1970s and with Reaganism and militarism… The failure of neoliberalism is certain, but it’s hard to say what the response will be in the long term.”
This weekend’s summit, where Obama and Chavez will shake hands for the first time, might offer some glimpses into the region’s future.
Benjamin Dangl is currently based in Paraguay, and is the author of “The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia” (AK Press), and the editor of UpsideDownWorld.org, a website on activism and politics in Latin America, and TowardFreedom.com, a progressive perspective on world events. Email: Bendangl(at)gmail(dot)com.
By Benjamin Dangl
Five years ago, when Evo Morales was a rising political star as a congressman and coca farmer, I met him in his office in Cochabamba, Bolivia. He was drinking orange juice and sifting through the morning newspapers when I asked him about a meeting he just had with Brazilian President Lula. “The main issue that we spoke about was how we can construct a political instrument of liberation and unity for Latin America,” Morales told me.
Now President Morales is one of many left-leaning South American leaders playing that instrument. This unified bloc is effectively replacing Washington’s presence in the region, from military training grounds to diplomatic meetings. In varying degrees, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Paraguay, and Venezuela are demonstrating that the days of U.S.-backed coups, gunship diplomacy, and Chicago Boys’ neoliberalism may very well be over for South America. The election of Barack Obama also gave hope for a less cowboy approach from Washington.
While many of the current left-of-center leaders in Latin America were elected on anti-imperialist and anti-neoliberal platforms, the general scope of their policies varies widely. On the left side of the spectrum sit Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, Evo Morales of Bolivia, and Rafael Correa of Ecuador. They have focused on nationalizing natural resources and redistributing the subsequent wealth to social programs to benefit the countries’ poor majorities. They have also enacted constitutional changes aimed at redistributing land and increasing popular participation in government policy, decision-making, and budgeting. Chávez, Morales, and Correa were also more outspoken than other leaders in their critique of the Bush Administration.
Lula, Michelle Bachelet of Chile, and Nestor and Cristina Kirchner of Argentina have been more moderate in their approach toward confronting neoliberalism, but have been trailblazers in human rights and in their dealings with the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and World Trade Organization. Though they haven’t been as radical in their economic and social policies, they have shown solidarity with Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador.
A conflict in Bolivia this past September proved to be a litmus test for the new regional unity. Just weeks after a recall vote invigorated Morales with 67 percent support across the country, a small group of thugs hired by the rightwing opposition led a wave of violence against Morales’s supporters. The worst of these days of road blockades, protests, and racist attacks took place on September 11 in the tropical state of Pando. A private militia allegedly funded by the rightwing governor, Leopoldo Fernández, fired on a thousand unarmed pro-Morales men, women, and children marching toward the state’s capital. The attack left dozens dead and wounded.
Just before this violence hit a boiling point, Morales kicked U.S. Ambassador to Bolivia Philip Goldberg out of the country, accusing him of supporting the rightwing opposition. Morales said of Goldberg, “He is conspiring against democracy and seeking the division of Bolivia.” Numerous interviews and declassified documents prove that the U.S. Embassy has supported the Bolivian opposition. Goldberg denies these charges. At a protest in which effigies of opposition governors and American flags were burned, Edgar Patana, the leader of the Regional Workers’ Center of Bolivia, spoke to reporters of Morales’s decision to kick out Goldberg: “If he hadn’t expelled him we would be tearing down the U.S. Embassy today.” Chávez followed Morales’s lead and kicked out the U.S. ambassador in that country. The Bush Administration responded by ejecting both nations’ ambassadors from Washington.
When Morales arrived at a meeting of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) in Santiago, Chile, following the conflict, he condemned the rightwing violence in his country as part of a “civic coup d’état.” UNASUR is the most recent, and perhaps most effective, new coalition of South American nations. It emerged in its present form in 2007 to ensure, among other things, sovereignty, peace, and solidarity in the region. At the emergency meeting held to resolve the Bolivian conflict, the region’s presidents unanimously backed Morales, condemned the opposition’s violent tactics, and emphasized that they wouldn’t recognize the separatists.
At the gathering, Bachelet took the leaders on a tour of the government palace, into the room where former president Salvador Allende committed suicide when a U.S.-backed coup against him took place in 1973. “The message was clear that this wasn’t going to happen, that a democratically elected leader won’t be forced from power in a violent coup while the rest of the region’s leaders watch,” says Laura Carlsen, a longtime Latin American political analyst and director of the Americas Program in Mexico City.
On September 16, just days after the U.S. ambassador was expelled from Bolivia, the Bush Administration announced that Bolivia had “failed demonstrably during the previous twelve months” to meet its “obligations under international counternarcotics agreements.” On September 26, the Bush Administration made clear its plans to cancel Bolivia’s participation in the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act because of its failure in counternarcotics efforts. The canceling of this trade act is expected to result in the unemployment of some 20,000 Bolivians. Ironically, many of these recently unemployment workers will now likely seek work in coca production as a way to make ends meet.
“As Bolivia’s South American neighbors rallied in support of the Morales government at a crucial moment, the Bush Administration devoted its attention to castigating Bolivia for expelling the U.S. ambassador—and ‘decertification’ was the nearest weapon at hand,” says a report from the Andean Information Network, a drug policy and human rights organization based in Cochabamba.
Morales responded by expelling the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency from the Chapare, a major coca-producing region in the country, and announcing plans to bolster trade with Venezuela to make up for the loss of the trade deal.
Other events over the past three years signal a shift away from Washington. The failure of neoliberalism in South America, and the subsequent rise of the new Latin American left, was clear at President George W. Bush’s arrival at a regional summit for the Organization of American States in Mar de Plata, Argentina, in 2005, where soccer legend Diego Maradona told reporters, “I’m proud as an Argentine to repudiate the presence of this human trash, George Bush.” The massive protests that greeted Bush were a physical manifestation of public sentiment bubbling under the surface of street protests and economic ministries across the hemisphere: that the Free Trade Area of the Americas, a plan promoted ardently by the Bush Administration, to extend NAFTA-style trade policy throughout the entire region, was dead.
In October of 2007, Ecuador’s Correa announced that his administration would not renew Washington’s lease on a U.S. airbase in Manta, Ecuador, unless Washington allowed Ecuador to open a military base in Miami (the U.S. refused). In March of 2008, when the Colombian military conducted a cross-border bombing into a camp of the guerrilla group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia in Ecuador, U.S. diplomats said Colombia was justified and should operate with flexibility in its “war on terrorism” across borders. But regional leaders condemned Colombia’s actions and solved the tense conflict diplomatically without U.S. involvement.
Last April, the U.S. Navy announced it would revive its Fourth Fleet in the Caribbean. Venezuela responded in September by announcing joint naval exercises with Russia in the same area. Venezuela and Brazil are also leading plans to develop a NATO-like South American Defense Council. “I once said that if NATO exists—the North Atlantic Treaty Organization—why couldn’t SATO exist? The South Atlantic Treaty Organization,” Chávez said in a speech.
Then in Brazil in December, thirty-one Latin American and Caribbean leaders welcomed Cuba to the Summit of the Americas, which pointedly excluded Washington. “Cuba returns to where it always belonged,” said Chávez. “We’re complete.” For good measure, participants at the summit roundly denounced the U.S. embargo of Cuba.
The U.S. is also losing influence in Latin America due to the decline of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), an institution through which the U.S. wielded significant power.
“In the last four years the IMF’s total loan portfolio has shrunk from $105 billion to less than $10 billion,” explains Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington D.C., explains in a recent report. “The organization itself is currently running a $400 million annual deficit and has been forced to downsize.”
The Bank of the South is a lending institution first advocated by Chávez, and now embraced by seven South American nations as a substitute for institutions such as the IMF and World Bank.
Other agreements involving trade with each other are in the works. And some South American nations, particularly Venezuela and Bolivia, are looking to Russia and China—rather than the U.S.—for new trade and military deals. According to the Associated Press, China’s trade with Latin America jumped from $10 billion in 2000 to $102.6 billion in 2007. Recently, Bolivia signed a deal with Russia to purchase five new defense helicopters, and Venezuela announced plans to buy Russian tanks and reconnaissance vehicles. Meanwhile, Brazil inked an $11 billion deal with France in December for military items.
The current financial crisis in the U.S. may signal the end of thirty years of neoliberal trade policies pressed upon the region from the Global North. Some analysts believe the departure from such policies in South America will allow individual economies to better weather the U.S. crisis. Rather than trembling in fear, many Latin American leaders see the U.S. crisis as an opportunity to widen regional integration. “This is the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Carlsen explains. For his part, Chávez mocked Bush’s sudden conversion to nationalizing banks, calling him “Comrade Bush.”
It’s unclear whether he’ll be calling the new President “Comrade Obama.” Last May, Obama labeled Chávez a “demagogue” and said, “His predictable yet perilous mix of anti-American rhetoric, authoritarian government, and checkbook diplomacy offers the same false promise as the tried and failed ideologies of the past.” Obama also called Morales’s and Nicaragua President Daniel Ortega’s vision “stale.”
Obama’s national security spokesperson, Wendy Morigi, also said he was “very concerned” about Morales’s expulsion of U.S. Ambassador Goldberg and that Morales was “attempting to lay blame on outsiders.” She also commented that Obama was “profoundly troubled by President Hugo Chávez’s unprovoked expulsion of U.S. Ambassador Patrick Duddy.”
But many people in Latin America are sick and tired of being so focused on Washington. As Ecuador’s President Correa said upon receiving the news of Obama’s victory: “The day will come when Latin America doesn’t have to worry about who is in the presidency of the United States, because it will be sovereign and autonomous enough to stand on its own two feet.”
By Benjamin Dangl
March 14, 2009
Over 3,000 Bolivian and Peruvian indigenous activists recently marched in El Alto in commemoration of the March 13th, 1781 siege of La Paz, Bolivia launched from El Alto by indigenous rebels Tupac Katari and Bartolina Sisa. The siege was against Spanish rule and for indigenous liberation in the Andes. At a gathering the night before the recent anniversary mobilization, Eugene Rojas, the mayor of Achacachi, said, “We, the indigenous, organized a siege of La Paz in the past, and we will do it again if we need to.” Rojas alluded to the long-postponed decolonization that Katari and Sisa dreamed of over two centuries ago. Today, those dreams of liberation are at once alive and in jeopardy.
After the nationalist confetti of the January 25th constitutional referendum blew away, and the busted water balloons and foam of Carnival washed down the streets with the rain, political scandals filled the Bolivian airwaves. Besides the challenges of applying the changes in the new constitution, recent cases of government corruption, shaky relations with Washington and political unrest show that the road to the December general elections is likely to be a rocky one.
The Corruption Scandal
In late January, Santos Ramirez, a key architect and member of the Movement Toward Socialism party, (MAS, the political party of indigenous president Evo Morales) and director of the YPFB – the state oil and gas company – was hauled off to jail on corruption charges. Investigations showed that Ramirez asked for a bribe in order to provide an $86 million contract to Argentine-Bolivian Company Catler Uniservice for a natural gas plant. The investigations started when a manager at Catler was murdered and robbed of $450,000 - money that was apparently going to Ramirez’s aide, according to Reuters. Ramirez is now in San Pedro jail in La Paz, the same place former Pando governor Leopoldo Fernandez is currently held after being implicated in a massacre of MAS supporters in Pando in September 2008.
Ramirez’s arrest struck a harsh blow to the MAS administration which has always pledged to put an end to the country’s legacy of corruption. The difference this time around however, compared to what was the norm in previous administrations, is that Ramirez actually was actually sent to jail; under past governments some of the most corrupt politicians remained free.
After the Ramirez scandal blew up, Morales said, “It’s been totally proven that foreign agents, CIA agents, were infiltrated (in YPFB) … Maybe that’s the way the (U.S.) empire has to conspire against the policies that we’re pushing forward.”
Alfredo Rada, the Minister of Government, accused Francisco Martinez, a US diplomat, of being a CIA agent and helping to infiltrate the YPFB. Morales accused Martinez of “coordinating contacts” with a Bolivian police officer that the government says infiltrated the YPFB, following orders from the CIA. Morales explained that “deep investigations” had proved Martinez was also “in permanent contact with opposition groups” in Bolivia. The Bolivian president then kicked Martinez out of the country. The expulsion of Martinez follows that of former US ambassador to Bolivia Philip Goldberg in September of 2008. Goldberg was also accused of collaborating with the right wing opposition to undermine the Morales administration. (See Undermining Bolivia for more.)
“There is clearly a connection in the activities that the former ambassador Philip Goldberg, USAID, the DEA and now Martinez have been doing here in Bolivia,” an anonymous official in Bolivia’s Government Ministry said to Josh Partlow of the Washington Post. “These are suspicious acts that have nothing to do with diplomacy or foreign aid. … This conduct of interference, and it cannot be called anything else, is not tolerated here anymore.”
“We reject the allegations,” the US state department said in a statement regarding the events. “We can’t understand how the president can assure us that he wants better relations with the United States and at the same time continue to make false accusations,” said Denise Urs, a US embassy spokeswoman.
In a press conference on March 13, Tom Shannon, the US assistant state secretary for Latin American Affairs, commented on the expulsion of the US diplomat from Bolivia. “We need a full diplomatic dialogue and a high-quality dialogue… And regrettably, up to this point, as we have sought to engage the Bolivians around the issues that have provoked their own actions, we have yet to receive what we would consider to be a coherent or a consistent response.”
Meanwhile, the Santos Ramirez corruption case is far from closed. On March 13, Ramirez demanded that he be let out of jail because he says no evidence has been produced that proves that he harmed the Bolivian government with his actions, as the supposed irregular contract with Catler has not yet been terminated.
Cárdenas’ House Occupied
On March 7, 350 people took over and occupied the country home of Victor Hugo Cárdenas. Cárdenas was vice president in the Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada administration of 1993-1997 and a harsh critic of Bolivia’s new constitution. The group of angry locals forced Cárdenas’ wife and three children to leave the house, while reportedly beating them.
Mario Huaypa, a representative of the group that occupied the house, told the Agencia Bolivian de Información that a general meeting was held within the community in which it was decided that the house should be expropriated because the land it was built on was illegally acquired by Cárdenas. The group said they will continue the occupation until the official Bolivian justice system looks into the case. The people who occupied the home introduced the supposedly eight legitimate owners of the land, who said that the land and house should be taken over and converted into a retirement home for the area’s elderly.
Cárdenas, an Aymara intellectual, governed in the 1990s with Sanchez de Lozada speaking on behalf of the indigenous population and their rights, while at the same time pushing through repressive and neoliberal policies that led to economic depression and state violence against indigenous people. To this day, public appearances by Cárdenas are regularly met with protests. The locals who occupied his house were also protesting the fact that Cárdenas campaigned against the new constitution. It is rumored that Cárdenas will run as a possible presidential candidate for the general elections in December.
The occupation of Cárdenas’ home has rightly been condemned throughout Bolivia, as the act only worsens the polarization in the country and pushes aside much-needed peaceful dialogue between opposing political factions. Unfortunately, violence has been even more extensively used by the Bolivian right wing since Morales took office in 2006. A right wing youth group in Santa Cruz has regularly attacked indigenous people in that city (see The Dark Side of Bolivia’s Half Moon.) In 2007 alone, there were approximately eight political bombings in Bolivia, most of which were against leftist unions or MAS party officials (see String of Bomb Attacks Prompts Hunger for Truth.) In 2008, right wing thugs destroyed various government and human rights offices across the country, and murdered some 20 pro-MAS farmers in the Pando, injuring dozens of others (see The Machine Gun and The Meeting Table). While the violence against Cárdenas’ family members and the house occupation should be condemned, so should the widespread violence unleashed by Bolivia’s right wing against indigenous and pro-MAS citizens.
Misinformation and Decolonization
In other news, the US State Department recently released a human rights report on Bolivia which did not even mention the Santa Cruz Youth Group and similarly violent right wing groups, or the repression they have let loose on Bolivia’s indigenous majority. The report does mention the charges against former Bolivian president Sanchez de Lozada, but does not mention that the country in which this criminal is currently enjoying refuge is the same one that issued the human rights report. The report explains, “On October 17, the attorney general’s office formally indicted former president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada and former defense minister Sanchez Berzain on criminal charges in connection with the deaths of up to 60 persons in October 2003. In November the government submitted a request for Sanchez de Lozada’s extradition from the country to which he fled.” (For more on the irony of the US issuing such human rights reports, see the recent article, Who is America to judge?)
On the media front, Bolivia has recently witnessed the all too common bias and misinformation from various US press outlets. A recent piece in The Atlantic Monthly by Eliza Barclay was particularly egregious. The title itself – “The Mugabe of the Andes?” – alludes to the article’s suggestions that most political violence in Bolivia comes from Morales and his supporters – not a racist right wing. In the article, Barclay fails to quote a single MAS supporter, or anyone offering a more nuanced view of the country’s political landscape. She focuses on how Morales’ “rhetoric studded with racial references aimed at his opposition” has created divisions in the country, and then goes on to mention the September 2008 violence in Pando without saying that right wing governor Leopoldo Fernandez, not Morales, was behind the massacre. She mentions that US ambassador Goldberg was expelled, but doesn’t say why. Barclay also writes that Bolivia’s “highland regions remain stuck in a poverty trap that Morales has shown little flair for unlocking” but fails to mention that, as the website Abiding in Bolivia pointed out, the Bolivian government is “running a surplus and massively expanding its budget and infrastructure spending.”
Though the MAS has made plenty of mistakes and Morales is far from a perfect president, Barclay’s article leads the reader to believe that the country is brimming with people who hate the MAS government. The fact is that Morales, in his 2005 election, August 2008 recall referendum and recent constitutional vote, received significantly more support from the population than Barack Obama did in the 2008 US elections. Luckily, photographer Evan Abramson offered a much more accurate view of Bolivia in this excellent narrated photo essay, which was posted on the Atlantic’s website to accompany the article. (For more media analysis on coverage of Bolivia see Borev.net and Abiding in Bolivia.)
One example of the positive policies of the MAS government was demonstrated on March 14, when Morales redistributed some 94,000 acres in the eastern part of the country to small farmers. The land of US rancher Ron Larsen was among the acres redistributed. Bolivia’s new constitution, which limits new land purchase at 12,400 acres, has empowered the MAS government’s plans for land reform. ”Private property will always be respected but we want people who are not interested in equality to change their thinking and focus more on country than currency,” Morales said, upon officially redistributing the land. Many of the Guarani farmers in the area that received the land, including various families on the Larsen ranch, had been living in conditions of slavery. Morales explained that, “To own land is to have freedom, and if there is land and freedom, there is justice.”
While the Atlantic Monthly misled their readers, on March 14th, the NY Times did publish an Op-Ed by Evo Morales on his demand for decriminalizing coca, a leaf widely used throughout the Andes for medicinal and cultural purposes. At a recent UN meeting in Vienna, Morales called for the legalization of the coca leaf, and even chewed coca at the meeting. Some 48 years ago the UN incorrectly classified the coca leaf as a narcotic. In his NY Times piece, Morales writes, “Why is Bolivia so concerned with the coca leaf? Because it is an important symbol of the history and identity of the indigenous cultures of the Andes.”
Indeed, symbolism, history and identity have taken center stage in today’s Bolivia. Just recently it was announced that a statue of Che Guevara situated at the entrance to the city of El Alto will, after outcries and protests from numerous residents, be replaced instead with statues of Tupac Katari and Bartolina Sisa, as these two heroes more accurately represent the city’s legacy of anti-colonial, indigenous rebellion. As Bolivia continues on its rocky road to the December general elections, the process of decolonization, so often lauded by MAS government officials, takes on many forms in this country in the midst of historic transitions.
By Benjamin Dangl
Saturday, 07 February 2009
Fog covered El Alto, Bolivia on Saturday morning as social movements from around the country marched into the city to mark the official passage of Bolivia’s new constitution. “This is the second independence, the true liberation of Bolivia,” Bolivian President Evo Morales said as he signed the new constitution.
The new constitution was approved by 61.43% of voters in a national referendum on January 25th. Among many other changes, the document empowers Bolivia’s indigenous and Afro-Bolivian communities, establishes broader access to basic services, education and healthcare, limits the size of large land purchases, expands the role of the state in the management of natural resources and the economy and prohibits the existence US military bases on Bolivian soil.
Wilfredo, a Movement Toward Socialism (MAS, the political party of Morales) activist, attended the event in El Alto with his daughter Betty on his shoulders. He said “I am a MAS fanatic, it’s in my blood. It is very important that this event is happening in El Alto, because during the Gas War in 2003 it was El Alto that kicked out [President] Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada and brought about this process. Now change will even come to Santa Cruz!”
El Alto, a rapidly growing city outside of La Paz, has been the site of numerous revolts in recent years, revolts which set in stone many demands – including the nationalization of gas and the re-writing of the constitution – that become major platforms of the MAS. El Alto was also the base for the 1781 seige of Spanish-controlled La Paz led by indigenous rebel Tupac Katari. Morales spoke at length of Katari’s legacy, describing the passage of the new constitution as the continuation of a struggle sparked in part by Katari in his fight for indigenous liberation.
“After 500 years of rebellion against invasions, against permanent looting, after more than 180 years of resistance against the colonial state, after 20 years of permanent struggle against the neoliberal model, today, 7th of February of 2009, a new Bolivia is born,” Morales said, his voice echoing across the altiplano.
Bolivian flag-colored kites flew in the sky, countless fireworks shot off from rooftops, some of them colliding in the air, and exploding onto neighboring buildings. Social organizations’ banners were draped from balconies around the neighborhood.
Daniel Quiroga, a union member of the Regional Workers’ Center who was born in El Alto, said “I support the constitution because I am handicapped and this new constitution supports handicapped people. The constitution will bring about change in Bolivia without corruption. This is why I voted for it.”
“For the first time in the history of Latin America, and in the world, basic services, water, electricity, telephone are now a human right, they will be a public service not a private business,” Morales said in his speech. When he announced that the new constitution prohibits foreign military bases on Bolivian soil, the crowd went wild.
Guatemalan indigenous rights activist Rigoberta Menchu, winner of the 1992 Nobel Peace prize, was in attendance. Regarding Bolivia’s new constitution, Menchu said, “It is something that will open a new era of struggle for the people of this continent.”