Bush Spending U.S. Tax Dollars to Foment Unrest in Bolivia
By Benjamin Dangl, The Progressive
Posted on March 10, 2008, Printed on March 10, 2008
A thick fence, surveillance cameras, and armed guards protect the U.S. Embassy in La Paz. The embassy is a tall, white building with narrow slits of windows that make it look like a military bunker. After passing through a security checkpoint, I sit down with U.S. Embassy spokesman Eric Watnik and ask if the embassy is working against the socialist government of Evo Morales. “Our cooperation in Bolivia is apolitical, transparent, and given directly to assist in the development of the country,” Watnik tells me. “It is given to benefit those who need it most.”
From the Bush Administration’s perspective, that turns out to mean Morales’s opponents. Declassified documents and interviews on the ground in Bolivia prove that the Bush Administration is using U.S. taxpayers’ money to undermine the Morales government and coopt the country’s dynamic social movements–just as it has tried to do recently in Venezuela and traditionally throughout Latin America.
Much of that money is going through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). In July 2002, a declassified message from the U.S. embassy in Bolivia to Washington included the following message: “A planned USAID political party reform project aims at implementing an existing Bolivian law that would . . . over the long run, help build moderate, pro-democracy political parties that can serve as a counterweight to the radical MAS or its successors.” MAS refers to Morales’s party, which, in English, stands for Movement Toward Socialism.
Morales won the presidency in December 2005 with 54 percent of the vote, but five regional governments went to rightwing politicians. After Morales’s victory, USAID, through its Office of Transition Initiatives, decided “to provide support to fledgling regional governments,” USAID documents reveal.
Throughout 2006, four of these five resource-rich lowland departments pushed for greater autonomy from the Morales-led central government, often threatening to secede from the nation. U.S. funds have emboldened them, with the Office of Transition Initiatives funneling “116 grants for $4,451,249 to help departmental governments operate more strategically,” the documents state.
“USAID helps with the process of decentralization,” says Jose Carvallo, a press spokesperson for the main rightwing opposition political party, Democratic and Social Power. “They help with improving democracy in Bolivia through seminars and courses to discuss issues of autonomy.”
“The U.S. Embassy is helping this opposition,” agrees Raul Prada, who works for Morales’s party. Prada is sitting down in a crowded La Paz cafe and eating ice cream. His upper lip is black and blue from a beating he received at the hands of Morales’s opponents while Prada was working on the new constitutional assembly. “The ice cream is to lessen the swelling,” he explains. The Morales government organized this constitutional assembly to redistribute wealth from natural resources and guarantee broader access to education, land, water, gas, electricity, and health care for the country’s poor majority. I had seen Prada in the early days of the Morales administration. He was wearing an indigenous wiphala flag pin and happily chewing coca leaves in his government office. This time, he wasn’t as hopeful. He took another scoop of ice cream and continued: “USAID is in Santa Cruz and other departments to help fund and strengthen the infrastructure of the rightwing governors.”
In August 2007, Morales told a diplomatic gathering in La Paz, “I cannot understand how some ambassadors dedicate themselves to politics, and not diplomacy, in our country. . . . That is not called cooperation. That is called conspiracy.” Bolivian Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera said that the U.S. Embassy was funding the government’s political opponents in an effort to develop “ideological and political resistance.” One example is USAID’s financing of Juan Carlos Urenda, an adviser to the rightwing Civic Committee, and author of the Autonomy Statute, a plan for Santa Cruz’s secession from Bolivia.
“There is absolutely no truth to any allegation that the U.S. is using its aid funds to try and influence the political process or in any way undermine the government,” says State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey. USAID officials point out that this support has gone to all Bolivian governors, not just those in the opposition. Despite Casey’s assertion, this funding has been controversial. On October 10, Bolivia’s supreme court approved a decree that prohibits international funding of activities in Bolivia without state regulation. One article in the law explains that Bolivia will not accept money with political or ideological strings attached.
In Bolivia, where much of the political muscle is in the streets with social organizations and unions, it’s not enough for Washington to work only at levels of high political power. They have to reach the grassroots as well. One USAID official told me by e-mail that the Office of Transition Initiatives “launched its Bolivia program to help reduce tensions in areas prone to social conflict (in particular El Alto) and to assist the country in preparing for upcoming electoral events.”
To find out how this played out on the ground, I meet with El Alto-based journalist Julio Mamani in the Regional Workers’ Center in his city, which neighbors La Paz.
“There was a lot of rebellious ideology and organizational power in El Alto in 2003,” Mamani explains, referring to the populist uprising that overthrew President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada. “So USAID strengthened its presence in El Alto, and focused their funding and programs on developing youth leadership. Their style of leadership was not based on the radical demands of the city or the horizontal leadership styles of the unions. They wanted to push these new leaders away from the city’s unions and into hierarchical government positions.”
The USAID programs demobilized the youth. “USAID always took advantage of the poverty of the people,” Mamani says. “They even put up USAID flags in areas alongside the Bolivian flag and the wiphala.”
It was not hard to find other stories of what the U.S. government had been doing to influence economics and politics in Bolivia. Luis Gonzalez, an economics student at the University of San Simon in Cochabamba, describes a panel he went to in 2006 that was organized by the Millennium Foundation. That year, this foundation received $155,738 from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) through the Center for International Private Enterprise, a nonprofit affiliate of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Gonzalez, in glasses and a dark ponytail, described a panel that focused on criticizing state control of the gas industry (a major demand of social movements). “The panelists said that foreign investment and production in Bolivia will diminish if the gas remains under partial state control,” says Gonzalez. “They advocated privatization, corporate control, and pushed neoliberal policies.”
That same year, the NED funded another $110,134 to groups in Bolivia through the Center for International Private Enterprise to, according to NED documents, “provide information about the effects of proposed economic reforms to decision-makers involved in the Constituent Assembly.” According to documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by muckraker Jeremy Bigwood, the NED also funded programs that brought thirteen young “emerging leaders” from Bolivia to Washington between 2002 and 2004 to strengthen their rightwing political parties. The MAS, and other leftist parties, were not invited to these meetings.
The U.S. Embassy even appears to be using Fulbright scholars in its effort to undermine the Bolivian government. One Fulbright scholar in Bolivia, who wished to remain anonymous, explained that during recent orientation meetings at the embassy in La Paz, “a member of the U.S. Embassy’s security apparatus requested reports back to the embassy with detailed information if we should encounter any Venezuelans or Cubans in the field.” Both Venezuela and Cuba provide funding, doctors, and expertise to support their socialist ally Morales. The student adds that the embassy’s request “contradicts the Fulbright program’s guidelines, which prohibit us from interfering in politics or doing anything that would offend the host country.”
After finding out about the negative work the U.S. government was doing in Bolivia, I was curious to see one of the positive projects USAID officials touted so often. It took more than two weeks for them to get back to me–plenty of time, I thought, to choose the picture perfect example of their “apolitical” and development work organized “to benefit those who need it most.”
They put me in touch with Wilma Rocha, the boss at a clothing factory in El Alto called Club de Madres Nueva Esperanza (Mothers’ Club of New Hope). A USAID consultant worked in the factory in 2005-2006, offering advice on management issues and facilitating the export of the business’s clothing to U.S. markets. In a city of well-organized, working class radicals, Rocha is one of the few rightwingers. She is a fierce critic of the Morales administration and the El Alto unions and neighborhood councils.
Ten female employees are knitting at a table in the corner of a vast pink factory room full of dozens of empty sewing machines. “For three months we’ve barely had any work at all,” one of the women explains while Rocha waits at a distance. “When we do get paychecks, the pay is horrible.” I ask for her name, but she says she can’t give it to me. “If the boss finds out we are being critical, she’ll beat us.”
Benjamin Dangl is the author of “The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia” (AK Press, March 2007). For more information on his book and current book reading tour, visit www.boliviabook.com
© 2008 The Progressive All rights reserved.
View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/77572/
Two articles about the progress of Bolivia’s social revolution with the distribution of lifetime pensions to nearly 700,000 elderly Bolivians. Finally, the riches of the country, stolen for hundreds of years is being returned to the people of Bolivia.
It is refreshing to hear the following from the Bolivian Army Chief of the Second Division of Oruro, Bolivia, Commander Vladivostock Menacho:
“The government is changing from an economic vision to a humanist one, and
even more a Bolivian vision, looking more within,” Menacho told Prensa
Latina shortly after the first payment in Oruro.
He reiterated that the Army remains at the service of the people and of the
constitutionally elected government, and he considered any military activity
not aimed at defending the Constitution insurrectionary.
Bolivia Pension, Social Revolution
Cochabamba, Bolivia, Feb 1 (Prensa Latina) Bolivian President Evo Morales
announced on Friday a real social revolution has begun with a lifetime
pension benefiting almost 700,000 elderly Bolivians.
The president headed the ceremony of payment of the so called Dignity Rent
at about 25 dollars monthly.
Morales pointed out the nationalization of hydrocarbons and other natural
resources now allows to accomplish that social measure, a historic demand by
a sector ignored by previous governments.
Regarding that, he called on the mayors of the so called Crescent not to be
ungrateful with the elderly, and no longer oppose the source funding the
pension, which results from energy resources and the Direct Tax on
Morales recalled that the previous benefit called Solidarity Bond (Bonosol)
depended on utilities of private companies, which provided no guarantee.
“Bolivia is economically reliable now, and I can assure you that
privatization and plundering of our natural resources have ended with the
Dignity Pension,” he remarked.
ef dig ga mf
Bolivia Pays Life Pensions to Seniors
Oruro, Bolivia, Feb 1 (Prensa Latina) Beginning Friday, the Bolivian Armed
Forces will pay life pensions to people over 60 years of age, considering
this a moral and humanist obligation.
Chief of Oruro Second Division, Comdr. Vladivostok Menacho ratified the
commitment of the military institutions with the process boosted by Bolivian
President Evo Morales.
“The government is changing from an economic vision to a humanist one, and
even more a Bolivian vision, looking more within,” Menacho told Prensa
Latina shortly after the first payment in Oruro.
He reiterated that the Army remains at the service of the people and of the
constitutionally elected government, and he considered any military activity
not aimed at defending the Constitution insurrectionary.
A long line of senior citizens began waiting outside the Oruro regiment
early this morning, to begin receiving the monthly benefit of 200 Bolivians
(about 25 dollars).
For the first time a government recognizes the work of those who don’t live
on investment income, although in 1948 a supreme decree established 10
favorable principles in favor of the elderly, but until now, rights were
Education Minister Magdalena Cajias emphasized that in this way the work of
the people who “already fulfilled their role with their children, families
and their homeland is recognized, and now they have the right to be taken
care of by the State”.
ECUADORIAN President Rafael Correa has condemned agreements signed by right-wing forces in his country and those of Bolivia in an attempt to maintain neoliberal structures and traditional policies in these nations – and including the possibility of an assassination attempt on his person – and left-wing parties, social and indigenous movements who are fighting for a new constitution are remaining on the alert.
The current situation in Ecuador is highly tense in terms of the structural reform plans that are being promoted by Correa, a 43-year old economist with an anti-neoliberal position, in tune with the formulas of the progressive currents that are beginning to establish themselves in Latin America: regional integration and the elimination of poverty.
The organization of the reforms, discussions, and preliminary agreements already adopted by the Constituent Assembly, which should conclude its work by next May 24 and the results of which will be subjected to a popular referendum possibly two months later, have accelerated the launch of anti-government plans, the primary public expression being an opposition march that was overwhelmed by thousands of followers of the Alianza País Party of the renovating administration.
As is already known, the traditional parties were crushed by the leftist Alianza País coalition, led by Correa, which won the presidential elections and then in the referendum for the installation of the Constituent Assembly, meaning that the first year of the young economist’s government passed in relative tranquility with respect to his plans, despite knowing that at any given moment the discredited opposition would begin to show its talons.
The movement against the transformations planned by the Quito administration is being led by the Social Christian mayor of Guayaquil, Jaime Nebot who, during the mid-January demonstration, promised the launch of national actions against the new constitution so that the “No” vote will prevail at the ballot boxes when the referendum takes place.
Nebot, who has lost the presidential elections on two occasions and remained in the shadows in 2007, has a strong political base in Guayaquil where powerful oligarchs are located.
Taking part in his regular Saturday radio show, 48 hours before the opposition march, the president pointed out that “the oligarchy is going to make it impossible for everything to stay the same and return to Congress, in order to defeat the laws passed by the Assembly, and to continue with privatized oil.”
On January, the first anniversary of his mandate, Correa condemned right-wing opposition groups in Ecuador and Bolivia, commenting that “agreements have been signed between the oligarchy in Guayaquil and Santa Cruz (Bolivia) to transform these regions (the ones with the greatest economic potential) into autonomies which, in real terms, is separatism.”
“They (he said, referring to oligarchic groups in the two countries) are using the separatist projects to torpedo government plans and destabilize us. Behind the discontent of the most prosperous cities in the two countries “there is a regional strategy to prevent the progressive governments from making changes.” The right-wing movements of the two nations are very similar: they speak Spanish but they think in English and have dominated the economy and politics for a long time. They are extremely opulent, semi-ignorant and elitist, and they are mocking the socialism of the 21st century,” he affirmed.
In the case of Ecuador, according to the president, the right-wing plan is aimed at ensuring that the government loses the referendum in which the people will give the green light to the new constitution drawn up by the Constituent Assembly, which has a government majority and is installed in the city of Monticristi.
What has emerged in Ecuador (as well as in Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua) is the ideological struggle between two political views with respect to the future of the region: the first of which has declared the new socialism of the 21st century with its national characteristics; and the other which, despite its failure, still continues to defend neoliberalism and representative democracy.
On a number of occasions, the president has exposed the existence of plans to assassinate him. “I have received death threats,” for which reason he urged the people to remain united in order to defeat those he described as “anti-patriotic”. In the work that is underway, “there are threats and dangers” and for this reason, he warned about the latest actions against him.
While Nebot has refused Correa’s invitation to stand in the next presidential elections that might well take place after the referendum on the new national constitution, on January 26 the Ecuadorian government warned foreign oil companies that if they refuse to modify their current contracts, their investments will be returned and the state will assume control of the oil fields they are currently exploiting. “We are not tricking anyone; we will return their millions and they can go away smiling,” said the president, who is enjoying the popular support of more than 75% of the Ecuadorian population, one of the poorest in Latin America. Analysts and political scientists agree that 2008 looks set to be a difficult year for the government of Ecuador.
Havana. January 31, 2008
A third, defining year
BY NIDIA DIAZ —Special for Granma International—
EVO Morales and his party, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), have just breached the threshold that places them in their third year of government, a crucial, defining moment, during which the revolutionary process for the re-founding of Bolivia is in play.
In the past 25 years, no Bolivian president has ever reached the Quemado Palace the way Evo Morales did, with the support of 57% of the electorate, a figure that rose to more than 80% when, on May 1, 2006, he announced the nationalization of hydrocarbons and the recuperation of national sovereignty over the country’s natural resources. At this point in its administration, the MAS government is facing the unavoidable challenge of winning the wrestling match with the opposition oligarchy as the only way to move forward with the country’s much-needed transformation.
Morales and his movement also need to demonstrate the obvious: that the struggle in Bolivia is not on racial lines, as the corporate media insists, but is rather a class struggle; in other words, a battle between the rich and the poor, between the bourgeoisie and its political representatives, sidelined from power, and the people, who are demanding social justice and inclusion as citizens of the nation.
It is true that this battle cannot ignore the racist positions – so nakedly exposed on the Bolivian political scene – of those who believe themselves superior and the heirs to the old colonial regime, whose mission for centuries was the subjugation and exploitation of the indigenous population, of which president Morales is a part. Such travesties do not conform to the reality that the MAS government, an expression of the popular will, is moving the country forward and has resolved in just two years some of the most important demands of the last 30 years.
First was the nationalization of hydrocarbons. At that time, the oligarchy proclaimed that the transnational oil companies operating in the country would never accept the renegotiation of their contracts on the terms set out by the government. They were sure that the president would have to postpone the renegotiations and that the foreign oil companies were sure to pull out of Bolivia.
That didn’t happen, neither the one nor the other. The new contracts were accepted, at the last minute, right before their expiration. Bolivia recovered the profits that neoliberal governments had allowed to escape for years for social programs. Since then, the hydrocarbon income has grown from $200 million to nearly $2 billion.
Also recovered by the state were four hugely important enterprises: Bolivian Oil and Gas (YPFB), the Vinto metallurgical company, the Huanuni mining company and the Illimani Waters enterprise.nstitute, Bolivian foreign trade has grown to its highest level in history, “thus increasing its coefficient of trade openness to an unprecedented level of 80%.”
Bolivian exports have reached a new record at close to $4.3 billion, thanks to natural gas and minerals.
The government has paid special attention to the provision of credits for small businesses with the goal of promoting production in sectors such as food, metallurgy, precious metal working, plastic, leather and forestry, among others. And, looking to continued progress, the government this year has planned to allocate nearly $3 billion to public and private investment, as a result of which a 5.7% increase in the gross domestic product is expected.
Within the social arena, the Juancito Pinto school subsidy has been introduced to guarantee children’s attendance and also approved was the Dignity bonus, which provides a retirement pension to all Bolivians over the age of 60. The latter being a conquest that partially repays the tremendous social and moral debt owed to those who have been exploited and ignored despite their contribution to society.
Thanks to the solidarity of the Cuban revolution and the Venezuelan Bolivarian government, 109 municipalities in the country have been declared free of illiteracy. As of last month, Operation Miracle had restored the sight of some 187,000 Bolivians and 900 medical clinics had been established, 30 of them mobile, in order to serve remote rural areas. Not to mention the 20 hospitals already opened with the help of Cuba, whose doctors and health professionals have reached locations where health care services have never before been made available.
The establishment of the Constituent Assembly and the approval of the new proposed constitution, despite hostile media campaigns and sabotage attacks, which left a number of dead, has been one of the revolution’s major conquests in Bolivia. The constitution crafted by the assembly will be submitted to a popular vote this year.
The tangible accomplishments of the Evo Morales government are innumerable and it is precisely because of these achievements that the oligarchy cannot forgive him and is maintaining its strong opposition on the national political scene, obstructing every step forward taken to benefit the people.
The national talks convened by Morales are currently at a standstill.
He has decided to submit his presidency and the mandates of department governors to a popular recall referendum so that it is the sovereign will of the people that settles this struggle in which a minority refuses to give up its privileges in the face of the vast majority who, for the first time, can discern a ray of hope in the future. One more reason to follow closely each and every event that takes place during this defining third year of the Evo Morales MAS government.
Same US games – different country.
La Paz, Jan 31 (Prensa Latina) Bolivian Government Minister Alfredo
Rada on Thursday ratified the dissolution of two irregular units
functioning parallel to the Intelligence Direction, subordinated to
the National Police.
The top official announced that the closing of the Organism for the
Development of Police Studies (ODEP), previously known as Special
Operations Command (COPES), is in line with supreme decrees.
Rada also accused the US embassy in Bolivia for funding COPES, which
carried out possibly unconstitutional activities.
The minister explained that the organization received technology and
professional training to respond to private interests, and not in
function of the State.
The official also announced that the Task Group for Special Crime
Investigations (GTIDE) was dissolved, and will be now subordinated to
the National Intelligence Direction.
That entity was created to coordinate investigation actions, and
fight crimes of higher social impact.
President Evo Morales stated on Wednesday his government would close
US-funded intelligence police services.
Why Bolivia Matters
Laura Carlsen | January 7, 2008
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Americas Program, Center for International Policy (CIP)
Bolivia’s National Palace is a classic colonial building that sits on the pigeon-filled Plaza Murillo in downtown La Paz. It’s more often called the “Palacio Quemado” or “Burned Palace” because it’s been set on fire repeatedly by dissidents of one stripe or another over the centuries since Bolivia gained its fragile independence. Today, painted a cheery yellow, it stands as a reminder of a conflictive past and a fresh future.
During the colonial period the Spanish exploited the country’s mineral wealth without mercy, leading to the death of hundreds of thousands of indigenous mineworkers and uprisings that punctuated the nation’s history with blood and legends. Between forced labor, the war of independence, and European diseases, the new nation began its life as a republic rich in natural resources but with a decimated populace. In the words of an historian in 1831, Bolivia was like “a beggar seated on a throne of gold.”
In many ways, the nation’s predicament changed little over the two centuries of republican life. The indigenous population, if no longer enslaved, confronted permanent inequality in political institutions and economic opportunities. The constant flow of resource wealth to a criollo elite—allied with foreign interests—cut deep channels into Bolivian society. Those flows changed form but scarcely diminished with the advent of globalization.
The government of President Evo Morales came to power in January 2006 with bold plans to change all this. Its main promise to its indigenous and impoverished base of support was to reform the constitution to assure the indigenous majority the full exercise of its citizenship, and to redistribute national wealth in favor of the poor.
Despite winning an absolute majority in the 2005 presidential elections, the Morales administration has had considerable difficulty leveraging its political capital into an efficient reform process.
For the fledgling government of President Evo Morales, a new constitution is the cornerstone of lasting change. The goal is to create a new legal structure for Bolivian society that for the first time in the nation’s history respects and legally recognizes diversity in a “plurinational” country.
The Constituent Assembly arose as a demand by social movements in the 1990s and more specifically in the Water War of Cochabamba in 2000-2001. In recent years neoliberal governments made legal and constitutional changes to grant private investors near carte-blanche access to natural resources and basic services, exposing the poor nation to one of the most unequal and exploitive forms of globalization found in the hemisphere. These legal changes became the hallmark of their governments and the source of their downfall.
For instance, in 2003 President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada fled to the United States after his government fired into a crowd of protestors, killing dozens. He and former defense minister Sanchez Berzain currently face extradition demands and a lawsuit from the Center for Constitutional Rights for damages related to the murder of 67 women, men, and children in the September and October protests, nearly all from indigenous Aymara communities.
After taking office the Morales government moved rapidly to institute the Constituent Assembly. The unprecedented process required establishing new institutions and rules that have generated ambiguity at times and conflict throughout. Acrimonious negotiations, dualing mobilizations in the streets, and overheated media warnings of ungovernability held the nation in near permanent chaos from July of 2006 to the mandated deadline of Dec. 14, 2007. Much of that time the assembly was suspended.
The government has been criticized frequently by both the left and the right for errors of judgment and procedure, but it has attempted to keep dialogue open. The conservative opposition has taken a confrontational stance toward the Constituent Assembly—presided over by Quechua and women’s rights leader Silvia Lazarte —from the outset. The loosely coordinated opposition has zig-zagged between calls for greater adherence to the law and illegal acts of sabotage, including violence from civic committees and local neo-fascist groups. Finally, some but not all of the rightwing conservative parties launched a boycott of the institutional process.
The Assembly faced one obstacle after another. Debates over representation, regional autonomy, landholdings, and an old issue of where the nation’s capital should be physically located (Sucre or La Paz) tested the limits of a country facing entrenched interests and the uncertainties of moving from a historically unjust system to a new system yet to be defined.
Finally on December 9 the assembly approved the constitutional text with the required two-thirds vote, but with a boycott of the major political conservative party PODEMOS. The text now goes to a national referendum, but only after a separate referendum on the crucial issue of land reform.
In a recent interview with the CIP Americas Policy Program, Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera stated that the conflicts have their roots in Bolivia’s history and reflect a fundamentally healthy, if difficult, stage of democratic redefinition.
Following the boycotted assembly, four of the nine departmental governments declared autonomy, with some leaders going so far as to threaten secession. They have begun gathering signatures to call a referendum on a far more radical form of autonomy that would grant local governments broad control over resources found in their territories and erode central government authority and national cohesion. Since these departments concentrate much of the nation’s oil and gas and agricultural production, the move is a serious challenge to the Morales government, which has responded by declaring it divisive and illegal.
The text of the proposed constitution begins by declaring that Bolivia is “a unitary, plurinational, communitarian, free, independent, sovereign, democratic, social decentralized state, with territorial autonomies” that is founded on “plurality and political, economic, judicial, cultural, and linguistic pluralism.”
The sheer quantity of adjectives reveals the complexity of the political project underfoot. The declaration of principles reflects the recent history of Bolivia’s grassroots struggles for political representation for the indigenous majority and similar efforts in other Latin American nations with sizable indigenous populations.
It also addresses the age-old issue of the balance of power between federal, state, and local government by recognizing four types of autonomy: departmental, regional, municipal, and indigenous. The practical overlap here will be a challenge.
A detailed analysis of the 411 proposed articles now becomes the task at hand of Bolivian society as the constitution goes up for a popular referendum. But the other key element worth mentioning is the constitution’s overall concept of building a state that controls and regulates natural-resource use for the public good. This is a political sea change from the era when it was assumed that what was best for the private sector was best for the nation.
Why Bolivia Matters
To outsiders, Bolivia’s upheaval may seem like merely the latest in a seemingly endless series of conflicts in a tiny nation known for political instability.
The corporate-controlled media in the United States have carefully crafted an image of a relatively ignorant and violent populace running rampant over hopelessly weak institutions. These distorted images persist even though the deep changes proposed by the government have been conducted largely through legal channels and it has been the conservative opposition that has sought to undermine those processes.
The indigenous character of Evo Morales’s leadership and popular support plays like a subtle but palpably racist sub-theme in the international press, with the Wall Street Journal taking the lead in Evo-bashing. An Indian president, Morales is persistently portrayed as a pawn of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, and his deep ties to traditional coca growers are recast as nefarious drug lord activities. Numerous press reports portray indigenous organizations as mindless mobs intent on dismantling the remains of Bolivia’s dubious democratic institutions.
The viciousness of these attacks on the Morales government best reveal the potential global impact of what it’s trying to do. Bolivia matters, to everyone seeking more just and stable societies, for two reasons that Vice President Garcia Linera describes as the “two conquests of equality”—political justice and economic justice.
The government’s attempt to establish conditions for the full exercise of citizenship for indigenous peoples goes beyond equal access to limited forms of representative democracy. Recognizing the rights for the 36 peoples mentioned in the new constitution implies devising concrete mechanisms to harmonize communitarian and liberal forms of justice and government that have very different logics. Every nation in the Western Hemisphere where indigenous peoples have survived the genocidal campaigns of the past five centuries faces this challenge.
The second challenge, the effort to harness the sustainable use of natural resources for the public good, tests the limits to change imposed by the global neoliberal system. Can a country climb from poverty to equitable development through constitutional reform?
The answer will depend in large part on the dynamics of Bolivian politics and the ability of the political leadership. But it will also depend on the extent of external limitations. In assessing those limitations, Mexican political analyst Adolfo Gilly points out “the inelastic limits that those who govern run into, whether it be the ferocious resistance of the classes that have been displaced from power, and their political and economic representatives, foreign as well as domestic; or the steel cage in which the new global neoliberal order encloses possibilities of action, along with the imminent presence of its powerful material base—the Pentagon, the military force of the United States; or the material limits of scarcity, national isolation, and poverty.”
The Morales administration has so far sought to break the ties that bind in various ways. It announced withdrawal from the U.S.-run School of the Americas—now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) but still often referred to by the less cumbersome name it carried prior to a 2001 revamping. SOA/WHINSEC is a military training facility in Georgia that has produced a long line of dictators and torturers throughout the hemisphere.
With respect to the global economy, the Bolivian government decided to withdraw from the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes of the World Bank, a trade arbitration system characterized by its supranational powers, lack of transparency, and bias toward investors.
Bolivia has sought renegotiation of its Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Mexico as well as opposing an FTA with the United States, while signing a People’s Trade Agreement with Venezuela and Cuba. In March of 2006 the government stated it would not seek to renew its standby agreement with the IMF, which was responsible for imposing neoliberal policies that hurt the national economy and its most vulnerable sectors.
The response of the Bush administration to the Morales government has been hostile but guarded. U.S. Agency for International Development has moved to directly fund projects in opposition regions to strengthen resistance to the policies of Morales’ party, the Movement for Socialism (MAS), as part of its “democracy-building” program.
The U.S. ambassador in Bolivia, Phillip Goldberg has had frequent run-ins with the Bolivian government over accusations of politically targeted aid. The ambassador recently stated that the relationship between the two countries was “complicated” and emphasized that cooperation would be focused on reducing coca cultivation. This formulation is ominous given the wide differences between the Morales government’s policy of promoting traditional coca growing while cracking down on cocaine production, and the U.S. drug war model centered on militarization and fumigation programs.
On the other hand, several Latin American nations have stepped up to support Bolivia following the termination of the Constituent Assembly. Brazil’s President Lula made a state visit and announced a $1 billion investment by the country’s state-owned petroleum company in oil and gas. The announcement was particularly significant since Brazil’s semi-public gas giant Petrobras initially protested the Morales government’s nationalization of control of its operations in the country and suspended further investment. Chilean president Michelle Bachelet also gave explicit support to the beleaguered government by promising to finish the Inter-Oceanic highway system.
Perhaps the most important determining factor in the success of the Morales program will be its relationship with progressive social movements of indigenous peoples, workers, miners, women, and others that created the revolutionary conditions that brought the MAS to power. Not only is this the government’s base of support, but it is the true source of national sovereignty and impetus for democratic change. Although the Evo Morales administration defines itself as “a government of social movements,” historians Forrest Hylton and Sinclair Thompson rightly point out that the relationship is far from simple and that it will be crucial that the independence and political space of those movements not be subsumed in the logic of the state.
Bolivia today is an open laboratory. It might seem an unlikely stage for such an ambitious experiment: a landlocked nation of scarcely nine million with strong vestiges of colonial rule and the continent’s highest poverty rate. Yet the effort to use the state to retake and redistribute resources ceded to private economic interests under globalization, to enfranchise indigenous populations, to narrow the appalling gap between the haves and have-nots of our era deserves a chance and will no doubt provide lessons for the rest of the world.
Laura Carlsen (lcarlsen(a)ciponline.org) is director of the Americas Policy Program (www.americaspolicy.org) at the Center for International Policy in Mexico City, where she has been a writer and political analyst for two decades.
In 2003, a good friend and I attended a speech at American University by just-thrown-out-of-his-country Gonzalo Sanchez de Losada, who days earlier was forced to resign as president of Bolivia. We had been watching the news from Bolivia the previous few weeks and witnessed the hundreds of thousands of largely indigenous citizens of Bolivia who were determined not to let him export Bolivia’s vast gas reserves. We thought it would be good to attend his speech and demonstrate a little solidarity with the people of Bolivia — the ones back in Bolivia, that is.
When Sanchez de Losada became president for the second time in 2002 (first term was 1993-1997) he received a great deal of help from the United States. In an article by Jane Hamsher that I found on Fire Dog Lake, we learn that Sanchez de Losada was given a boost in his campaign by a bank of Democratic campaign strategists that included high rollers such as James Carville and Bob Shrum. A documentary film was made of this “collaboration” called “Our Brand is Crisis” and you can see a trailer of it.
“Goni,” as he is known, was born in 1930 and spent virtually all of his school years in the U.S. in exile with his father. He returned to Bolivia in 1951 armed with an American education and American accented Spanish. In later years, he earned his street name in Bolivia, “El Gringo.”
Even though the Carville/Shrum team helped Goni attain his second term as president, they were unsuccessful in getting him off of shaky ground – he won the election with a bit over 20 percent of the vote and the privatizations he shepherded through during his last administration were still a fresh. But, when he announced the intention to export natural gas, all hell broke loose. All opposition parties fell into a swift coalition against Goni, including Evo Morales’ MAS or Movement to Socialism.
Goni resisted the will of the people over several months. First, with a proposal to impose an onerous income tax in early 2003 and then the gas export decision later in the year. Yet, it was his ordering the Bolivian military to use deadly force against largely unarmed demonstrators which tipped the scales. Before it was all over, well over 80 people were killed and 500 people injured (definite numbers of killed and injured are still unavailable). Below are two videos, Parts 1 and 2, showing the confrontations between the troops and the unarmed demonstrators which took place in 2003. In mid-October 2003, when hundreds of thousands of Bolivians came down from the Altiplano to La Paz to demand the president’s resignation, Goni was a goner. Sanchez de Losada was later indicted on crimes of genocide. Of course, since he fled here to the US, the government has not been willing to cooperate with the current Bolivian government to have him extradited to Bolivia to face criminal charges.
Oh, and the night in October 2003 when my friend and I went to hear Goni speak at American University, I lost my nerve, but she didn’t — she interrupted his speech twice and called him a murderer and a thief.
Here are a few references you might want to check out:
VIDEOS OF 2003 BOLIVIAN MILITARY ATTACKS ON DEMONSTRATORS
Residents of northern Bolivia surround a Venezuelan Air Force C-130 Hercules, responding to a call from the state governor to not allow Venezuelan planes land at their region’s airports, moments after it landed in Riberalta, Beni state, December 6, 2007. Dozens of residents threw stones at the plane in protest over Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s influence in Bolivian internal affairs, forcing the plane to take off hurriedly to search for safe haven across the border in the Brazilian city of Rio Branco.(REUTERS/David Bernal)
Bolivian Mob Attacks Venezuelan Military Plane With Rocks
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, LA PAZ, BOLIVIA
An angry mob of Bolivian civilians threw rocks at a Venezuelan military plane refueling at an airport in northeastern Bolivia, forcing the unwelcome aircraft to fly out of town, according to a Dec. 6 report. The leader of a local civic group opposed to President Evo Morales, who is a top ally of leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, said no Venezuelan military planes would be allowed to land in Riberalta, especially if they are carrying weapons. “We have to defend our people,” Riberalta Civic Committee President Marcos Jauregui was quoted as saying by the Catholic news agency Erbol. “Why wasn’t there a press conference to disclose what they are bringing to the country? We must be vigilant because we will not allow Venezuelan planes to come,” he said. A Bolivian aviation source, who requested anonymity, confirmed that the plane was a Hercules airplane belonging to the Venezuelan air force. The source said the plane landed in Riberalta after it was not allowed to refuel at its original destination, the Brazilian city of Rio Branco, for unknown reasons. Up to 200 people with signs saying “Enough interference!” threw stones at the plane, which left to an unknown destination amid rumors it was carrying weapons.