Issue 59, Winter 2007/2008 [pdf]
Issue 59

Table of Discontents

A Call to Porn, by Masha

Climate Justice in Boston, by Evan Greer

CORI Keeps People Locked Up, by Jonathan Barry

Zoning Law Change Limits Number of Students Who Can Share an Apartment, by Jeff Reinhardt

From Chile to Guantanamo, by Sofia Jarrin

Hollow Glory, by Mikey Sweeney

Power to the People of Bolivia, by William Budington

Public Demand Grows for Bush to Release Details of Plan Mexico, by Jennifer Truskowsi

Uncovering the Eastern Service Workers Association, by Nate Leskovic

Power to the People of Bolivia

Bolivian Woman, Sitting

Bolivia is a country divided in two. In the West lies vast natural gas resources, the seat of the government at La Paz, and the indigenous majority. In the East, the white minority and business interests exert power from the city of Santa Cruz. Until very recently, Bolivia’s white rulers maintained a regime of terror and expropriation of the indigenous, with an illusion of peace being maintained by brutal police forces and repression of union movements.
In 2000, President and one-time dictator Hugo Banzer privatized the water distribution system in Bolivia’s third largest city of Cochabamba. This single action left thousands without access to clean drinking water, and as a result the city exploded in a wave of protest and union activity. As news about Cochabamba spread, a broader and more cohesive indigenous social movement began to take form, uniting miners, cocaleros (coca growers), craft workers, and social activists. They started to demand entry into the political arena. In December 2005, Evo Morales became president of the republic, the first indigenous president in the nation’s history.
Evo Morales and his Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) party ran on a ticket of land reform, rewriting the constitution, and broadening social programs for the nation’s poor. In a recent interview, vice president Alvaro Garcia Linera described the land reform project:
If you look at the program put forth by the poor in Bolivia, it doesn’t propose socializing all wealth or property. What you find is the demand for opportunities, a demand to take part in the distribution of resources. I haven’t seen anyone who’s saying, “We have to take all the land away from the hacendados [large landowners].” They say, “We want to have land too, we also have a right to have land.”1
Asserting the people’s right to the land has been a central theme of the Morales government. By September of 2006, Morales had already distributed 2,301 titles of state-owned land, promising to increase that amount to 20 hectares by the end of his term in 2011. 2 While this may seem like a radical move, it is important to note that this land is not a product of expropriation from the rich, but rather a reallocation of what the Morales government has deemed ‘unproductive land.’ Still, this plan has been met with fierce opposition from the eastern landowners, who criticize the reform as hinting at communism.
Rewriting the constitution has been a more difficult task for the government to institute. Set in the city of Sucre at the site of an old theater, a new form of political theatrics is taking place. The Constituent Assembly, the body charged with creating the new document, has been bitterly divided between representatives of the rich and those of the poor. Since August 2006, the process has been impeded day after day by deliberation, bureaucratic obstinacy, and even occasional physical violence. In addition, rowdy street mobilizations organized by powerful right-wing Santa Cruz leaders have disrupted the assembly’s work. As a result, not one article has been agreed to by representatives of the assembly.
The right-wing demonstrations have stagnated the assembly so much that on November 24th, an executive order by Morales moved the assembly to the military barracks of Sucre. At the barracks, and in spite of opposition within the MAS party, the “MAS-proposed version of the Constitutional text was approved in full.”3
Almost instantly, the colonial city became a “battlefield,” where “students and citizen groups went at the police with escalating intensity while the latter responded with tear gas and rubber bullets.”4 In the ensuing conflict, four demonstrators were left dead. Jumping at the opportunity, the media from Santa Cruz applauded the demonstrators as “democracy’s heroes,” despite the fact that they were throwing Molotov cocktails through the windows of MAS politician Osvaldo Peredo and vandalizing the city. The conflict has left the two sides more antagonistic than ever, and in the most violent situation in years.
Much of the violence has been prompted by the Santa Cruz-based Civic Committee, an organization formed with one purpose: to destabilize the popular government. Under the catch-all word “autonomy,” the civic committee plans to break away from the central government, “and take the natural resources with them.”5 Although Branco Marincovic is their leader and public face, the militant wing of the organization plays a more sinister role. The Civic Committee youth gangs openly admit to attacking the indigenous minority on the streets of Santa Cruz, though they say it is in self-defense. They wear green arm-bands with imagery reminiscent of fascism.
The third goal of the MAS government - opening up the political arena to indigenous participation - hinges on the success of the other two. Only fifty years ago, indigenous Bolivians had no right to vote. Even today, those without proper documentation, among them the poorest in the country, cannot provide the paperwork necessary to prove that they are “eligible” voters. Still, without the material means of survival, it is difficult to even think of gaining voting rights. And without an overturning of the legal system that keeps these inequities in place, it is impossible to achieve equitable representation.
Although the Morales government seems to have opened up the political arena to the poor and indigenous, in a way the MAS merely rode in on the curtails of a popular movement already in full swing. From this perspective, it is extremely problematic to say that it was the Morales government that provided the framework for grassroots participation in political change. Instead, the reverse seems closer to the truth: It was the grassroots social movements and indigenous workers struggles that enabled Morales’ rise to power. It was the initial demands and political power that was exerted through grassroots activism that brought MAS into government in the first place.
Now this real political power is in danger of being destroyed by the redirection of energies into gaining political representation, rather than the furthering of conditions that make grassroots political power possible. As the case in Bolivia demonstrates, real political change is created neither by politicians nor governments, however well-intentioned. Instead, real political change is made possible by the struggles of everyday people.

2 The Economist, September 21st, 2006
4 Ibid.
5 Unreported World: Anarchy in the Andes, 13:40

Other articles by William Budington.


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