Bolivia’s Trial By Fire

The Social Movements and the State

In June 2005, when another protest campaign demanding gas nationalization forced Mesa to resign, Morales helped direct the social movements into governmental channels, pushing for an interim president while new elections were organized.

In spite of Morales’ relative distance from social movements, his victory in a country where the political landscape has been shaped by such movements presents the possibility for massive social change. Once he assumes office, Morales has pledged to organize a Constituent Assembly of diverse social sectors to rewrite the country’s constitution. It is possible that this could allow for a powerful collaboration between social movements and the state.

Oscar Olivera, a key leader in the revolt against Bechtel’s privatization of Cochabamba’s water in 2000, believes the relationship between social movements and the Morales administration will play a vital role in creating radical change in the country. Olivera participated in the December election because he felt that it was part of “a process of building strength so that in the next government…we can regain control of natural resources and end the monopoly that the political parties have over electoral politics…We are creating a movement, a nonpartisan social-political front that addresses the most vital needs of the people through a profound change in power relations, social relations, and the management of water, electricity, and garbage.” (2)

Tangling Over Coca

A recent report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office explains that, “While the U.S. has poured 6 billion dollars into the drug war in the Andes over the past five years…the number of drug users in the U.S. has remained roughly constant.”

Though it is a key ingredient in cocaine, coca has been used for centuries in the Andean region for medicinal purposes; it relieves hunger, sickness and fatigue. It’s also an ingredient in Coca-Cola, cough syrups, wines, chewing gum, and diet pills. The U.S. Embassy’s website for Bolivia suggests chewing coca leaves to alleviate altitude sickness.

Georg Ann Potter worked from 1999 to 2002 as an advisor to Morales, and since then has been the main advisor to the Coordination of the Six Women Federations of the Chapare, the country’s biggest coca growing region. Potter explained that although Morales plans to continue a hard line approach against the drug trade, the current policies of the U.S. war on drugs need to change.

It’s widely held among critics of Washington’s anti-narcotics agenda for Latin America that the U.S. government uses the war on drugs as an excuse for maintaining a military and political presence in the region.

The Andean Information Network, a Bolivia-based NGO which monitors human rights issues in the U.S.-led war on drugs, recommends that “the U.S. should recognize studies that have determined that domestic education, prevention, and rehabilitation programs are more effective in altering drug consumption, and accordingly address the demand side of the war on drugs.”

In regard to the country’s gas reserves, the Morales administration could go in two directions. It could fully nationalize the gas reserves and face the wrath of multinational corporations and lending institutions that want exactly the opposite to happen. Or it could renegotiate contracts with gas corporations, and partially nationalize the industry. Choosing the latter option would likely generate massive protests and road blockades. Social movement leaders have stated that if Morales doesn’t fully nationalize the gas, the population will mobilize to hold the administration’s feet to the flames.

Any move that Morales makes is likely to upset either corporate investors, social movements or both. Previous Bolivian presidents Carlos Mesa and Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada walked similar gauntlets and ended up being ousted from office by protests.

Other methods of destabilization are already underway. Documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act reveal that the U.S. government has spent millions to support discredited right-wing political parties and stifle grassroots movements in Bolivia. Between 2002 and 2004, a grant from the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy (NED) allowed for the training of thirteen “emerging political leaders” from right-wing parties in Bolivia. These 25-to 35-year-old politicians were brought to Washington for seminars. Their party-strengthening projects in Bolivia were subsequently funded by the NED. (4)

Outright U.S. military intervention in Bolivia is a possibility. An airbase in Mariscal Estigarribia, Paraguay is reportedly being utilized by hundreds of U.S. troops. The base, which was constructed by U.S. technicians in the 1980s under Paraguayan dictator Alfredo Stroessner, is 200 kilometers from the border with Bolivia and is larger than the international airport in Paraguay’s capital. Analysts in the region believe these troops could be poised to intervene in Bolivia to suppress leftist movements and secure the country’s gas reserves. (5)

The U.S. Embassy in Paraguay contends that no plans for a military outpost are underway and that the military operations are based on humanitarian efforts. However, State Department reports do not mention any funding for humanitarian works in Paraguay. They do mention that funding for the Counterterrorism Fellowship Program in the country doubled in 2005. (7)

“The objectives of the U.S.A. in South America have always been to secure strategic material like oil in Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela, tin mines in Bolivia, copper mines in Chile, and always to maintain lines of access open,” Luiz Alberto Moniz Bandeira, a Brazilian political scientist at the Universidade de Brasilia, wrote in the Folha de São Paulo. (8)

While grappling with these challenges, the Morales administration will have to answer to the millions of Bolivians who, in the December election, gave him the biggest mandate in the country’s history.

Benjamin Dangl has traveled and worked as a journalist in Bolivia and Paraguay. He edits, uncovering activism and politics in Latin America and, a progressive perspective on world events. Email Ben(at)

1. Raul Zibechi, “Two Opposing Views of Social Change in Bolivia”, IRC Americas, 12-14-05

3. Jorge Martin, “Bolivia after the election victory of the MAS – Morales cannot serve two masters”, In Defense of Marxism, 10-1-05

5. Benjamin Dangl, “U.S. Military in Paraguay Prepares To “Spread Democracy””, Upside Down World, 9-15-05

7. Dangl

9. Benjamin Dangl, “An Interview with Paraguayan Human Rights Activist Orlando Castillo”, Upside Down World, 10-16-05

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