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  • Beyond Evo Morales’ Electoral Victory: A View from La Paz

    Posted on November 1st, 2014 Administrator No comments

    By Ben Dangl

    Originally published on October 17, 2014

    Source: TeleSUR English

    The sun shone brightly in La Paz, Bolivia on election day this past Sunday. The cars and buses that usually fill the winding streets were prohibited for the day in order to prevent people from voting more than once in different locations. As a result, the air was crisp and clear, and children played soccer in the open roads, bicyclists took advantage of the freedom, and families enjoyed picnics and games while street vendors sold barbecued beef and chicken. It was a day of voting, but for many people in La Paz, it was also a celebratory time with family. As we now know, the voters that day would go on to grant President Evo Morales a third term in office with roughly 60 percent of the vote.

    I walked around La Paz throughout the day, visiting middle and working class neighborhoods across the city to interview voters on how they voted, or planned to vote, and why. The vast majority of the people I spoke with were enthusiastic about the Evo Morales administration and his Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) political party. For example, Maria Isabel Viscarra, a language teacher in the city had this to say:

    “I voted for President Evo, because I am convinced that he is an excellent president. I’ve read through the history of my country many times, and I’ve seen that he is the best president in terms of the economy, education, development and other issues. With the previous governments the only thing they ever did was loot the country, and only look after their own personal interests. This isn’t the case with this government. This government is in function of the people, it is dedicated to creating an inclusive country, one without discrimination. Because here racism was very strong, and this racism is a legacy of colonialism, but now things have changed.”

    It wasn’t a surprise that Morales and many members of his party won the election. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere recently (see this article for the implications of the election and this look back on Morales’ time office), Morales was likely to win in part because of the success of his administration in lifting people out of poverty, empowering marginalized sectors of society with funding to school children, mothers and the elderly, and building new infrastructure and public works projects. The funding for such programs largely came from newly nationalized industries and businesses.

    In addition, people continue to support the government as it marks a break from the neoliberal past when racist and oppressive right wing presidents typically ran the country. Now, with Morales representing the indigenous and poor majority of Bolivia, many voters continue to identify with their president. (To put this popularity in context, consider the fact that unpopular neoliberal president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada won the elections in 2002 with just 22.5 percent of the vote, compared to Morales’ approximately 60 percent on Sunday.)

    However, serious criticisms of the MAS took the limelight in the lead up to the elections. For example, in recent months a movement grew momentum against sexist comments from political candidates and a wave of violence against women in the country. Outspoken critics from the left continue to critique the MAS’s emphasis on an extractive-based economy in mining and gas; while such industries have created funding for the government, they have also polluted the land and rivers, and displaced rural and indigenous communities. In addition, the Morales government recently passed a law which criminalizes protest against mining operations, and grants more water rights to miners than to local farming communities. In its drive for political hegemony, the MAS has also co-opted and divided some of the country’s social movements, leading to less autonomy and open criticism among grassroots activists.

    Among opponents of the MAS I spoke with, views varied widely. Ivan Villafuerte, a lawyer in a middle class neighborhood in La Paz told me why he did not support the government:

    “The government of Evo Morales, which is a government that has done positive things, has also done negative things. For example, one of the positive things is the funds they have reserved in the government. Some other positive aspects are the public works the MAS has constructed, for example here in La Paz the aerial cable car, and a new two-lane highway to the city of Oruro. And in regards to the negative aspects, nationally and generally, is the level of political persecution against the opposition to the government. The other negative thing is the MAS’s focus on the rural social movements in the country, without focusing sufficiently on the middle class in the cities; this government has not helped the middle class at all.”

    Morales himself recently reflected on what is perhaps a growing pitfall of the MAS – its reliance on Evo as a central feature of its popularity, something the president has of course perpetuated and encouraged. However, after Sunday’s election he told the BBC that he heard a critique from a union leader during the campaign who told him, “Evo, you are really bad.” Evo responded, “Why bad?” The explanation: “Because you have eliminated the MAS. Here there are no Masistas, there are just Evistas.” Morales told the BBC, “This has me worried. Clearly, someone has to lead… I understand this Latin American way of thinking that everything is always about a single person, but I don’t like it.” Morales has said throughout the current campaign that he doesn’t plan to seek another term.

    Among some of the people I spoke with on Sunday, Evo was the central focus of their support. As Yolanda Wachari, a street vendor in a working class neighborhood of La Paz explained:

    “I hope that Evo stays in power for many years because he’s done so much for the people. I support the way Evo governs. He’s done a lot for our country.  No other president has accomplished what Evo has accomplished. I am very happy that he’s our president because now there are more highways, we have our aerial cable car in La Paz and the indigenous universities. The majority of the poor people support him. He’s the only president that has remembered the poor people in Bolivia.”

    After Morales announced his victory, celebrations filled the Plaza Murillo in La Paz, with folk music playing late into the night. The blue and black colors of the MAS party mixed with the multi-colored Wiphala flag, representing the many indigenous groups in Bolivia. Members of the various campesino, workers and indigenous organizations that work closely with the MAS were well represented in the festivities.

    As with any presidency, contradictions and challenges still abound; Morales just announced plans for a controversial nuclear power plant to be built in earthquake-prone La Paz. Abortion is still largely illegal in the country, and from January to September of this year 157 women were murdered. Toxic fields of soy are expanding in the eastern part of the country with the MAS government’s blessing. And some of the very indigenous and rural communities that government programs are meant to support are being displaced by extractive industries across the country.

    Yet in the car-less, sunny streets of La Paz on election day, the enthusiasm for the government was palpable. Criticisms aside, MAS supporters that I spoke with shared the view that it would take time for the Morales administration to help recover the country from so many years of neoliberal robbery and exploitation. As music teacher Jorge Quispe Bustillos explained, “I believe that we need to continue with this government, because this process, this change, needs time for there to be real results.”

  • Elections in Bolivia: Interviews with Voters in the Streets and at the Polls

    Posted on November 1st, 2014 Administrator No comments

    By Ben Dangl

    Originally published on October 12, 2014

    Today Bolivia went to the polls for a general election which is expected to grant victories to President Evo Morales and many other politicians in his Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) political party. (Update: Evo Morales has declared victory for a third term in office.) Below is a collection of interviews conducted today with voters from middle and working class neighborhoods in La Paz, Bolivia on how they voted and what they think of the MAS government. For more information on the election, its implications, and the successes and pitfalls of the MAS, see this article: Why Evo Morales Will Likely Win Upcoming Elections in Bolivia.

    “I hope that Evo stays in power for many years because he’s done so much for the people. I support the way Evo governs. He’s done a lot for our country.  No other president has accomplished what Evo has accomplished. I am very happy that he’s our president because now there are more highways, we have our aerial cable car in La Paz and the indigenous universities. The majority of the poor people support him. He’s the only president that has remembered the poor people in Bolivia.” - Yolanda Wachari, street vendor



    “The government of Evo Morales, which is a government that has done positive things, has also done negative things. For example, one of the positive things is the funds they have reserved in the government. Some other positive aspects are the public works the MAS has constructed, for example here in La Paz the aerial cable car, and a new two-lane highway to the city of Oruro. And in regards to the negative aspects, nationally and generally, is the level of political persecution against the opposition to the government. The other negative thing is the MAS’s focus on the rural social movements in the country, without focusing sufficiently on the middle class in the cities; this government has not helped the middle class at all.” - Ivan Villafuerte, lawyer


    “President Evo does good work. He has created good public projects, and provided computers for school children. Evo does good work, and he’s not robbing everything like other presidents we’ve had in the past. This government provides support for children, pregnant women and the elderly. And for these reasons I voted for him this morning.” - Angelica Calle, street vendor


    “I voted for President Evo because I am convinced that he is an excellent president. I’ve read through the history of my country many times, and I’ve seen that he is the best president in terms of the economy, education, development and other issues. With the previous governments the only thing they ever did was loot the country, and only look after their own personal interests. This isn’t the case with this government. This government is in function of the people, it is dedicated to creating an inclusive country, one without discrimination. Because here racism was very strong, and this racism is a legacy of colonialism, but now things have changed.” - Maria Isabel Viscarra, language teacher


    “I don’t particularly support the MAS government. I don’t share many of the ideas of the current government because of many things they’ve done in the past, but lamentably they continue in power. For example, before the government eradicated more coca, but since the cocaleros are supporters of Evo, he’s valued them more, with more benefits to this sector than to others.” - Fernando, worker


    “I believe that we need to continue with this government, because this process, this change, needs time for there to be real results. I support the continuation of this government to truly see, in five or ten years, the results that this government wants to achieve.” - Jorge Quispe Bustillos, music teacher


    “I’ve made the decision to vote for the current government, for President Evo Morales, because I’ve seen that things are changing in the country. In the past, with other governments, there was a lot of corruption, and I’m not seeing a lot of that now. So I’m voting for Evo, and I hope to see even more changes in the country.” - Henrique Apu, construction worker


    “I support the MAS government because this government has helped to create jobs. Also, here in Bolivia there are many single mothers, and I support the fact that the government helps single mothers. And this is why I am going to vote for the MAS.”  - Yola Carona Quispe Alejo, street vendor, mother of two children


    ***

    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, and TowardFreedom.com, a progressive perspective on world events. Twitter: https://twitter.com/bendangl

  • Photo Essay: Thousands March in El Alto, Bolivia Demanding Justice for 2003 Gas War Massacre

    Posted on November 1st, 2014 Administrator No comments

    By Benjamin Dangl

    Published on October 19, 2014

    All photos by Benjamin Dangl

    Thousands of people marched in El Alto, Bolivia on Friday, October 17th to demand justice for the 2003 massacre of over 60 people during the country’s Gas War under the Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada (Goni) administration. Sanchez de Lozada is currently living freely in the US, and marchers demanded he and others in his government be brought to Bolivia to be tried for ordering the violence. October marks the anniversary of that assault on the city, and people mobilized on Friday to remember and to demand justice.

    “Today we’re marching to remember on the 11th anniversary of the Gas War, which was aimed at getting rid of the neoliberal government of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada,” El Alto neighborhood council member Daniel Cama said while marching down the streets of the city. “We demand justice, and we demand the extradition of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada and [former Defense Minister] Carlos Sanchez de Berzain, because they were the ones that led the massacre against the people of El Alto. This violence left many widows, orphans and injured people that are still demanding justice. Today we are marching to celebrate and remember the dead who fought for our natural resources.”

    Bolivia’s Gas War is largely credited for ushering in a period of progressive change marked by policies led by President Evo Morales, who was re-elected on October 12th for a third term in office. The “Martyrs of the Gas War” are often recalled as the protagonists that led to the nationalization of sectors of Bolivia’s gas industry, a move which has generated funding for many popular social programs the Morales’ administration has developed to alleviate poverty. (For more information, see this article on the ten year anniversary of the Gas War and this article on the case against Goni.)

    On Friday, thousands of El Alto residents marched from different points in the city, converging for a rally in the city center, where social movement leaders and victims of the Gas War spoke to a large crowd. Cheers regularly broke out, including the angry cry, “We Want Goni’s Head!” Many activists in the Gas War itself were present, such as the prominent participation by the city’s Fejuve neighborhood organizations. In a march meant to remember those days of repression and struggle, many veterans of the conflict marched down the same streets, and under the same bridges, where the army led their attack.

    There was a notable absence of politicians at the day’s events, something many speakers at the rally commented on. Various marchers explained that the Morales government was moving forward with nationalization plans and progressive policies fought for in the streets of the Gas War. However, activists also complained that the Morales administration has not supported the working class city of El Alto with sufficient public projects and infrastructure.

    “We’re marching for those brothers and sisters who died or were injured in the Gas War,” explained El Alto resident Genoveve Rodriguez. “As time has passed not even the government remembers this conflict, and they haven’t created enough public projects to help out the city of El Alto.”

    The following photos are of the October 17th march, including the vast participation of the neighborhood councils and family members of Gas War victims, as well as the rally which ended the day’s mobilization with speeches and music.


    El Alto’s Fejuve neighborhood organizations, key participants in the Gas War, led the march.

    Family members of Gas War victims rallied for justice in El Alto.

    A cross in downtown El Alto reads “11 Years of Impunity.”

    A Bolivian hip-hop group was among many bands performing at the rally following the march.

    A commemorative mural in El Alto depicting the Gas War.

    ***

    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, and TowardFreedom.com, a progressive perspective on world events. Twitter: https://twitter.com/bendangl Email: BenDangl(at)gmail(dot)com

  • Bolivia: Has Evo Morales proven his critics wrong?

    Posted on November 1st, 2014 Administrator No comments

    By Ben Dangl

    October 12, 2014

    Source: Al Jazeera English

    Evo Morales will most likely be re-elected today because he is a better alternative than his neoliberal predecessors and their contemporary counterparts.

    Morales’ presidency is historic for a number of reasons. Consider the fact that before the 1952 National Revolution, indigenous people weren’t even allowed to enter the Plaza Murillo in front of the presidential palace because they were believed to be too dirty and unsanitary. Now an indigenous president and poor farmer without a college education sits in the presidential palace itself, and is likely to be re-elected to a third term in office today with a huge wave of support.

    Morales’ presidency is also notable when considering his predecessors. For much of the past 30 years, Bolivian heads of state simply massacred workers when they didn’t comply, sold off mineral wealth to foreign corporations while Bolivians remained bound in poverty, and worked closely with Washington to undermine the country’s sovereignty and militarise coca producing regions.

    As Bolivians head to the polls, this history will be present as voters reflect on this racist past and Morales’ neoliberal predecessors (and their contemporary counterparts) who, rather than attempting to empower the indigenous and poor majority, typically repressed and exploited them.

    In spite of critics from the right and upper classes, Morales’ background has contributed to his popularity, as Bolivia’s poor and indigenous majority identify with him. Indeed, his rise to the presidency is a story of humble beginnings, radical politics and grassroots activism, pointing to some of the reasons he’ll be re-elected today.

    Humble beginnings

    Evo Morales was born in 1959 into a poor llama-herding family in Isallavi, near Oruro, at an altitude of around 12,000 feet above sea level. This isolated area lacked access to electricity, drinking water, and healthcare, leading to the young deaths of three of Morales’ seven siblings due to a lack of medical attention.

    As a child, Morales once walked for a month with his father and their herd of llamas from Oruro to Cochabamba. His most vivid memories of this trip were “the large buses that travelled on the highway, full of people who threw out the peels of oranges and plantains. I picked up these peels to eat. Since then, one of my biggest dreams was to travel in one of those buses.”

    The family migrated to the Chapare region of Cochabamba in hopes of a better life. Here his life was marked by the US-led war on drugs, which in Bolivia meant a war on the leftist and anti-imperialist coca farmers who grew the leaf to survive and sold it to a legal market. (Though it is a key ingredient in cocaine, the coca leaf is used legally for medicinal and cultural purposes in the country.)

    One event vividly stuck out for Morales after moving to the coca-growing region: In Chipiriri, a cocalero (coca farmer) was killed by the military for refusing to plead guilty to trafficking drugs.

    “Without any contemplation, [the military] covered his body in gasoline and, in front of many people, burned him alive,” Morales said. The gory scene pushed him to become involved in coca unions to fight against the repression under the war on drugs. Morales was later jailed and tortured on various occasions for this activism.

    When drug-war related violence galvanised the cocalero movement for change, Morales quickly became their spokesman. He was a cocalero leader before he became a congressman and later a president. For cocaleros in the streets, Morales was a crucial ally in the government.

    Grassroots uprisings

    Morales was also a participant in various uprisings in the 2000s which paved the way for his election in 2005. He and other cocaleros were involved in Cochabamba’s Water War in 2000 against a plan to privatise the city’s water, and a 2003 movement advocating the nationalisation of Bolivian gas. Such struggles rejected the standard neoliberal policies that dominated Bolivian politics since the 1980s, when a string of presidents came to power undermining worker and indigenous power, and sold off much of Bolivia’s natural resources to foreign corporations. Morales rode this discontent into the presidential palace when he was elected in 2005, promising to institutionalise many of the victories already won in the streets.

    When Morales came into office in 2006, many doubted that an indigenous farmer without a college education could bring the country out of a cycle of economic and social crises.

    The upper and middle classes in the country were afraid of his radical rhetoric, and criticised his fiery condemnation of US imperialism and capitalism. These wealthier sectors of society wanted one of their own to run the country - but they had already had their chance, for decades, and the results were disastrous.

    Yet Morales’ rhetoric against Washington and the economic model which had ruined the country resonated with the millions of poor Bolivians who had seen enough of business as usual and wanted an alternative, an alternative Morales promised to deliver. In addition, the impoverished and indigenous majority of Bolivia identified with Morales’ humble beginnings; unlike the standard racist and elite presidents of the past, Morales was seen as one of their own.

    For many Bolivians, Morales’ presidency meant a window of opportunity for historic change. Morales’ popularity was born and buoyed by neoliberalism’s harmful effects on the country. Shortly after taking office, he put sectors of the country’s gas industry under state control, convened an assembly to rewrite the country’s constitution, and made good on many of his promises to focus on alleviating poverty in the country and empowering marginalised sectors of society. And Morales wasn’t alone, he was joining a wave of presidents across the region who championed progressive and anti-imperialist policies, from Argentina toVenezuela.

    Popular alternative

    At the time of this writing, the policies of Morales government have had a positive impact on much of the population. The GDP has steadily grown from 2009 to 2013, and the UN reports that Bolivia has thehighest rate of poverty reduction in Latin America, with a 32.2 percent drop from 2000 to 2012. Employment rates and wages have also gone up, with a notable 20 percent minimum wage raise last year.

    The Morales approach of putting various industries under state control, from mines to telecommunications companies, has generated enormous funds for the government, which it is using for infrastructure - only 10 percent of the country’s roads are paved - and social programmes to lift children, mothers and the elderly out of poverty. Thanks to a successful literacy programme, UNESCO has declared the country free of illiteracy.

    Such success indicates that socialist-style policies do indeed work better than those of the Morales’ administration’s neoliberal predecessors. This kind of progressive change is likely to lead his re-election today.

    This isn’t to say that his time in office hasn’t been without its contradictions and pitfalls. The extractive nature of the economy has put more of the mining and gas wealth into government hands through nationalised industries, providing much-needed funds for social programmes and infrastructure. However, such industries have also displaced rural communities and polluted rivers and the land. Recently, the Morales government passed a law which criminalises protest against mining operations, and grants more water rights to miners than to local agricultural communities.

    Many of the country’s vibrant social movements have also been coopted under the hegemonic power of Evo Morales and his political party, the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS). Such cooptation has led to lost autonomy among social movements and a lack of critical spaces for dissent and open critique from the left.

    Such critiques aside, Morales and a significant number of other politicians in his party are likely to win today because of their break with a neoliberal past and what they have done to positively impact the lives of many Bolivians.

    Benjamin 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, and TowardFreedom.com, a progressive perspective on world events.

  • Why Evo Morales Will Likely Win Upcoming Elections in Bolivia

    Posted on November 1st, 2014 Administrator No comments

    By Ben Dangl

    October 7, 2014

    Buses charged through downtown La Paz, Bolivia, honking horns and belching exhaust, as street vendors hawked ice cream and cell phones. I walked past corner stores selling mining equipment, and climbed the steps to the central offices of the Bartolina Sisa indigenous and women farmers’ organization, a close ally of President Evo Morales, who is expected to be re-elected to a third term on October 12th.

    “Our challenge as an organization is to continue moving forward, continue protecting this process of change which has cost so many men, women, young people and even children so much,” Anselma Perlacios Peralta, the organization’s current Secretary of the Defense of the Coca Leaf, told me last April. We were sitting on sofas beneath framed portraits of Evo Morales and Latin American independence leader Simón Bolívar.

    The process of change, or proceso de cambio, is the phrase typically used to describe the far-reaching political project of Morales’ Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), a party which grew out of social movements; Morales, the country’s first indigenous president, is himself a former union leader and coca farmer. The costs, for Perlacios, are a reference to the many struggles against neoliberal policies and imperialism that led to the MAS election for the first time, in 2005. “We have been a fundamental part of this process, and as an organization we have to continue pushing, we have to continue advancing,” she explained.

    Along with the Bartolina Sisa organization, the MAS enjoys crucial support from the Bolivian Workers’ Center, the Confederation of Rural Workers of Bolivia, and other major sectors of civil society and workers organizations. Perlacios’ comment underlines the commitment among MAS allies to bolster the momentum and support of the government in its projects, protecting and advancing Morales’ vision from the streets, union meetings, strikes and road blockades.

    Morales is almost certainly going to win the election – he is currently polling with 59% support, 47 points ahead of his closest opponent, Doria Medina, a right wing politician who is one among many of the fractured opposition candidates running against Morales. The president’s likely victory at the polls, along with many other MAS politicians running for office on October 12th, is in part a result of popular economic and social policies which have lifted people out of poverty and empowered marginalized sectors of society.

    But the votes for the MAS don’t articulate the serious divisions among various leftist social movements regarding the government, the negative environmental impacts of the MAS’s extractivist industries, or what kind of grassroots autonomy has been lost through the MAS’s channeling of people’s power. From the streets to the government palace, the looming elections have put the successes and shortcomings of the proceso de cambio into focus.

    Why Morales Will Likely Win

    It’s easy to see why Morales will likely be re-elected; many Bolivians have benefited from his time in office. Thanks to government efforts, a recent report from the UN noted that Bolivia has the highest rate of poverty reduction in Latin America, with a 32.2% drop from 2000 to 2012. The GDP has grown steadily from 2009-2013, and employment rates and wages have also gone up, with a notable 20% minimum wage raise last year.

    The Morales administration’s nationalization of various sectors in the hydrocarbon and telecommunications industry, among others, have led to an enormous rise in government funds, allowing for expanded state-initiatives in infrastructure and social programs supporting elderly people living in poverty as well as school children and pregnant mothers. Thanks in part to a literacy program introduced by Cuba called “Yes I Can,” Bolivia has become free of illiteracy, according to UNESCO.

    The MAS coca policy, now underway with the notable absence of US agencies, has also been a success, with the U.N.’s Office on Drugs and Crime reporting that Bolivia is doing a fantastic job controlling coca production (the leaf is used legally for medicinal and cultural purposes in the country) and curtailing the manufacturing of cocaine, all without the violent militarization of coca-producing regions that historically was the norm.

    Major development projects have been initiated during Morales’ time in office, including most recently the country’s first wind farm, the launching of its first telecommunications satellite and continued improvement of Bolivia’s road infrastructure – only ten percent of the country’s roads are paved.

    Such policies have led to economic stability and a balanced budget; the MAS government has saved an enormous reserve of money in its state coffers, a huge break from the recent past when previous governments were typically crippled by debt. “We are showing the entire world that you can have socialist policies with macroeconomic equilibrium,” Economy and Finance Minister Luis Arce told the New York Times in February. “Everything we are going to do is directed at benefiting the poor.”

    Dark Sides of Development

    However, there are dark sides to this progress. Morales is internationally known as a defender of Mother Earth, but in Bolivia, his government has continued to amplify the extractivist focus of the country’s economy in areas of oil, gas and mining industries, albeit with a stronger role for the state rather than foreign corporations. “It is one thing to plunder the natural resources of a country for the benefit of another one. It is another thing to use those natural resources for the benefit of the people,” Morales explained to aninterviewer in 2010.

    While MAS politicians applaud this extractivist approach as a popular route to overcoming poverty and the structural burdens left by decades of neoliberalism, the environment and various indigenous and rural communities are paying a price. Nationalized sectors of extractivist industries are producing funds for the government’s popular programs, yet mining is poisoning rivers across the country. The Morales government is moving forward with plans to industrialize and export the country’s sought-after lithium deposits, yet a recent investigation by Bolivia’s Center for Labor and Agricultural Development Studies reported that the current lithium extraction plan will produce 1.5 million tons of toxic waste per year, resulting in “mountain ranges” of waste.

    A new Mining Law passed by the MAS-controlled congress in late March of this year criminalizes protest against mining operations, and gives the mining industry the right to use public water for its water-intensive and toxic operations, while disregarding the rights of rural and farming communities to that same water. And in recent years, MAS plans to build a highway through the TIPNIS indigenous territory and national park have sparked controversy, particularly when government violence against pro-TIPNIS activists in 2011 left 70 wounded.

    Social and indigenous movement critics of this extractivist approach have faced repression and a divide-and-conquer strategy on the part of the MAS government. As Julieta Ojeda of the Bolivian feminist group Mujeres Creando told me in 2012, “[Evo’s MAS] has penetrated certain organizations and divided them. They enter these social movement spaces and create divisions by forming their own parallel organizations.” As a result, some of the most vocal critics of extractivism and controversial development projects on the grassroots left have been marginalized and silenced.

    A MAS victory at the polls doesn’t speak of many such contested terrains of politics in the country which will continue to shape government policy and public consciousness long after the election. For example, a movement for women’s rights arose during this election season in the face of sexist comments from leading candidates and an ongoing wave of violence against women in the country. And some members of Bolivia’s largest campesino organization have threatened to cast votes against the MAS in protest of the party’s imposition of candidates without sufficient input from the grassroots.

    Major social movements, such as the Bartolina Sisa Confederation and the Confederation of Rural Workers of Bolivia, generally celebrate their relationship with the MAS and its expected victory on October 12th. Yet various protagonists in the country’s historic protest movements of the 2000s against neoliberalism, water privatization and government repression feel as though the transformative vision, autonomy, solidarity of those earlier street mobilizations has been swept up into the MAS machine and subordinated to its party’s hegemony, one movement leader at a time.

    “The MAS isn’t co-opting the social movements, but rather the movement’s leaders. They’re demobilizing the people,” renowned Bolivian sociologist Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui told me in La Paz. “When they have the people wait on directives of the state, they essentially put them into the service of the state.”

    Overall, it is the success of Morales’ party in bringing about positive change, as well as its ability to co-opt certain social movements and further controversial but lucrative extractivist industries, that will lead to electoral victory. A MAS victory at the polls is likely in spite of these contradictions and tensions, but also because of them.

    ***

    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, and TowardFreedom.com, a progressive perspective on world events. Twitter: https://twitter.com/bendangl

  • 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.