Keep Your Eyes Peeled

The woman sitting next to me interrupted the discussion by yelling, “Enough of this analysis, let’s start talking about the actual demands we have for Bolivia’s future!” A murmur of agreement went up around me and everyone started shouting out their ideas: A real nationalization of Bolivia’s natural gas! The industrialization of our primary resources! National control of foreign-owned electricity and mining companies! Diversification of career training for our youth! A constitutional assembly that is accountable to the actual people of Bolivia! An education that is based on the Bolivian reality! The demands kept coming for almost an hour, at which time our workgroup on “The Economic Atmosphere in Bolivia” had to report our proposals to the larger assembly of Bolivian citizens who had travelled from poor, urban periphery neighbourhoods in cities all over Bolivia to participate in this national meeting of “neighbors.”

Internationally, all eyes are on Bolivia. Ever since December of 2005, when citizens elected the first indigenous president in Bolivia’s history, left-wing Evo Morales, the world has been watching to see what path the new government would take. Moreover, Evo Morales is just one in a series of leftist, progressive presidents being elected in South America: Luíz Lula da Silva in Brazil, Néstor Kirchner in Argentina, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Tabaré Vázquez in Uruguay. These presidents share strong critiques of both United States international policy and the current neo-liberal economic model. Among conservatives around the globe, these South American presidents are likened to Fidel Castro, and are accused of stripping freedoms from their citizens, ending property rights, and breaking international trade laws by nationalizing foreign industries. According to the Right, the head of this new “South American Axis of Evil” is Hugo Chavez, a dynamic and provocative leader who has no fear of publicly criticizing President George W. Bush, as his speech at the United Nations referring to Bush as the “devil” readily proves. Evo Morale’s close friendship with Chávez, and his promises to nationalize Bolivia’s gas and create a new Bolivian constitution, has put him second on the radar of presidents to worry about.

However, in left-wing circles around the globe, Bolivia, Venezuela and the anti-US South American block in general are seen as the new hope for achieving real structural changes that address social inequalities. Finally it looks like citizens are electing presidents who are dedicated to ending the current neo-liberal regime, standing up against Bush, and refusing to watch calmly as the poor of the world get poorer and the rich get richer. Evo Morales is bringing coca leaves to UN meetings. Hugo Chávez is bringing Noam Chomsky. And both are bringing feelings of hope and optimism to an international population of left-wing activists who, for the past twenty years, have been fighting a losing battle for change against a current of free-trade agreements and Washington Consensus-imbued development organizations. The tables are turning and as long as Pinochet-esque coups are kept to a minimum, some real change can start happening.

I am one of the optimists. However, my optimism for South America has little to do with Chávez, Lula and Evo, and everything to do with the actual citizens of South America. Through my experiences living in Brazil for a year, and my current residence in Bolivia, it is obvious that the left-wing of the United States is much more enthusiastic about these leaders than the left-wing in South America. Although Lula recently won his re-election, he had to fight a hard battle against the onslaught of critiques he has received for the past two years from the Brazilian left. At the IV World Social Forum in Porto Alegre in January of 2005, Lula’s plenary speech could hardly be heard over the voices of loud protestors screaming chants that conveyed one main message: Lula had sold out.

Feelings among Bolivian citizens seem to be following a similar trend. After less than a year in office, people are reflecting on what has been accomplished and they are not happy. From Bolivian citizens I am hearing the same statements I heard two years ago in Brazil: “I voted for Evo in his first election, but I am not going to vote for him again.” So why am I optimistic? The answer is simple: my optimism is in the people.

In the Bolivian city of Cochabamba, I currently work for a NGO called Centro de Documentación y Información-Bolivia (CEDIB), which is part of the national program Poder Local (Local Power). Poder Local’s mission is to support the development of neighbourhood organizations in Bolivia, and to raise the critical consciousness of the members of these organizations, in order to help them play an active role in defining the political vision and future of Bolivia. There is a network of seven different NGOs which make up the Poder Local program, located in major cities around the country. Among the program’s many activities is bringing together poor Bolivian citizens from around the country to discuss in detail the possibility of the “other Bolivia” they want to live in. At a national meeting held in October 2006 the poor and marginalized around the country attended, bringing their communities’ problems to the table: no access to water, lack of a sewage system, no health facilities, overcrowded schools with unqualified teachers, unemployment, corruption of local political bosses, co-option of local neighbourhood leaders. Over two days the Bolivians at this national gathering critically analyzed the nine months of Evo’s government and discussed their demands for the changes they want to see in Bolivia’s future.

In their “Analysis and Vision of the Country” these citizens wrote that “Capitalist neo-liberalism is based in the decline of worker’s salaries, massive unemployment, and employment that comes without stability or social benefits. It causes foreign migration, maintains poverty, dismantles the functioning of a productive state, strips countries of their natural resources and sustains corruption and nepotism. And it continues completely vigorously.” The document goes on to say that the strength of neo-liberalism comes from the apathy of social organizations, which is a result of the lack of information, the passivity, the divided and isolated movements for change, and the fact that people do not have the consciousness of the role they need to play in this historical process. In other words, for change to happen in Bolivia the people themselves need to assume the responsibility as makers of change in their own country.

What changes do they want to see? As I quickly learned in the economic workgroup I attended, change is not a theoretical phrase thrown around to draw attention. Rather, Bolivian citizens have a very clear idea of the direction they want their country to go and how to start going in that direction. The most important demand of this workgroup was a true nationalization of Bolivia’s gas. Rather than the 50% nationalization Evo’s government has implemented, the poor of Bolivia want 100%. The second most important theme of discussion was the current Constitutional Assembly that is taking place in the Bolivian capital of Sucre. The Bolivian Constitutional Assembly is in charge of writing a new Constitution, and has the ability to implement many of the structural changes that Bolivians want to see. The participants of this meeting, however, denounced the way in which the members of the Constitutional Assembly were elected and declared that the current composition of the Assembly would never produce the actual changes the people of Bolivia hoped for when voting Evo into office. Therefore, they demanded the restructuring of the Constitutional Assembly to include the participation of the poor, urban neighbourhoods and marginalized populations. Citizens at this gathering also blamed the recent massacre in the Huanuní mines on a history of prioritizing private interests, which has pitted two poor populations against each other. The only solution is for the Bolivian government to take control of the mines and use their resources for improving the living conditions of both populations involved.

Other demands included the industrialization of Bolivia’s primary products, the strengthening of neighborhood organizations, more investment in health and education, a stop to corruption on both national and local levels, the participative representation of neighborhood organizations on a government level, alternative forms of communication that are not controlled by multi-national companies, political education within the school system, and an end to discrimination against indigenous populations and women.

The right-wing refers to Evo Morales as a populist leader, but Evo is something much more potentially dangerous for the current global regime than populist leaders of the past. Evo is a left-wing leader who is being c ritically supported by a highly politically conscious population. He is supported because he was elected into office by 54% of the population, and because the indigenous people of Bolivia, which makes up 60% of the population, would take to the streets in seconds if there were a coup to overthrow him. Yet he is constantly criticized by the same people who would defend him. And through this criticism he is being pushed to keep the promises he made during his election campaign and listen to the demands of the citizens of Bolivia.

The typical Latin American populist leader, who attracts the masses by giving them direct economic benefits and favors that do little to actually change the greater societal structures that keep people in poverty, may be a thing of the past. In today’s Latin America not only do people talk about politics, they use terms such as globalization, neo-liberalism, capitalism, the IMF and US imperialism as part of daily vocabulary. In Bolivia, do not try to offer any solutions that involve privatization and IMF loans with hidden costs—the people will not stand for it. I am living in Cochabamba, the city that kicked out the multi-national corporation Bechtel in 2000 when the government suggested privatizing the city’s water system to solve the lack of access to water in many parts of the city.

All eyes are on South America, and all eyes are on Bolivia. But the fact is that all eyes might be looking too high. There is no doubt that serious changes will be coming from this part of the world in the near future, but you might miss the action if you do not look down, because the real changes are probably coming from the bottom, up.

Rebecca Tarlau is currently based in Bolivia. Her blog is

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