Sucre, Bolivia â€” On Sunday, Aug. 6, President Evo Morales opened a Constituent Assembly here that in his words will re-found Bolivia on an entirely new basis. After weeks of negotiations with smaller parties, the Movement towards Socialism (MAS), Morales’s party, now has the two-thirds majority necessary to control the Assembly.
In a rare interview with him recently, he explained his vision for the Assembly: “First of all, we must finish with the colonial state. Second, finish with the neo-liberal model. Our democracy has to non-violently guarantee the cultural revolution (of the majority indigenous peoples). It is culture that will change all of the structures of the state. We have to finish with the colonial state.”
Peasants, indigenous people and youth are already pouring into the streets of Bolivia’s official capital, Sucre, in response to Morales’s call. Members of the Assembly were elected on July 2. Sunday morning will see a massive procession of all the different indigenous cultures of Bolivia, many in their traditional dress.
The Assembly is not only symbolic of a re-founding of the country with the indigenous majority finally in power but it promises to take some fundamental measures to change the country. The main opposition party is already protesting that Morales intends to use the Assembly as a way around the Senate where he doesn’t have a majority.
A peaceful revolution is happening in Bolivia, one of the poorest countries in the world. The indigenous majority has taken over the government and is beginning a profound transformation of the country. Their plan is based on the values and culture they have fought to maintain for more than 500 years against colonization, marginalization and discrimination.
The Quechua and Aymara people as well as smaller nations of indigenous people make up an estimated 70 per cent of the population of Bolivia, yet the minority mestizo (mixed race) elite have always ruled. In May 2006, a party representing this indigenous, mostly peasant or campesino majority came to power in a landslide victory. The Americas’ first indigenous president won an unprecedented 54 per cent of the vote in a field of eight candidates.
I met recently with Evo Morales, the leader and the symbol of what could be the most dramatic transformation of a country in recent history. The only comparison that even comes close is South Africa when the black majority took power in May 1994 under the leadership of Nelson Mandela.
Evo, as everyone here calls him, first outlined his vision: “The indigenous communities have historically lived in community, in collectivity, in harmony not only with each other as human beings but with mother earth and nature. We have to recover that. If we think about our goals in life as equality and justice, if we think of humanity, then the model of the West, industrialization and neo-liberalism, is destroying the planet earth, which for me is the great Pachamama (the supreme goddess of the Aymara and Quechua religions). And it’s heading towards destroying humanity. It really can do that. And from Bolivia we can make a modest contribution to defend life, to save humanity. That’s our responsibility.”
While Morales talks about the coming to power of the indigenous majority as a 500-year struggle, he explains the key moments in the process took place over the last 20 years.
“After they imposed the neo-liberal model, the battle was the campesino indigenous movement against this neo-liberal model. And the fight can be summed up in two ways: for power and territory. We needed to recuperate political power in order to recover the territory, including all natural resources.”
And there have been massive and successful struggles against various aspects of neo-liberalism since the early 1990s: from the famous water wars against the privatization of water in Cochabamba in 1992 to the fight, led by Morales, to protect the traditional growing of coca against U.S. attempts to eradicate it, to the brutal gas wars of 2003 where people in the El Alto just outside La Paz fought to stop the sell-off of natural gas and won at the cost of 70 dead and 200 wounded.
Morales explains that the Bolivians made a commitment in November 1992 at the Continental Indigenous Summit to move from resistance to the taking of power.
The Movement towards Socialism (MAS) led by Morales is not a political party in the classical sense. It is what people here call a political instrument of the social organizations. All the indigenous campesino organizations got together and formed a political organization that could contest elections. While these organizations started the MAS, they were joined by various elements of the middle class, including intellectuals and elements of the urban Left.
And you can see it everywhere. Most of the ministers and deputy ministers are themselves indigenous leaders of the social movements. Government offices are filled morning to night with campesinos who have come from the country to see their minister, usually without an appointment.
With typical modesty Morales says: “I’ve learned in my first months in government that it’s impossible in six months to resolve everything. But we’ve made some important steps in the social issues as well as in structural ways.” Here are some of the major steps:
The most dramatic move so far is what they call the nationalization of the hydrocarbon industry. Though rich in mineral resources with the second largest reserves of gas in South America, Bolivia is poor. People here say too many of their resources were stolen or sold to foreigners at fire sale prices, hoarded by a small group of rich Bolivians or wasted through massive corruption. In May, Morales signed a decree placing the energy sector under state control and with typical finesse, gave foreign energy firms six months in which to sell at least 51 per cent of their holdings to the state or leave the country. The economic plan of his government is to use these resources to develop small-scale industry and create jobs.
Next came the agrarian revolution. The new plan is to redistribute 20 million hectares to landless campesinos. They began with state owned land, which is already being redistributed. Their next step is to recover unproductive privately owned land that was illegally obtained. The only private land they intend to expropriate is where there is no other option to provide land to indigenous people and here the state will pay compensation. Perhaps the most radical element of the land reform is that land is being distributed to traditional communities, not to individuals.
Morales explains: “Where I was born there isn’t private property. Where I was born there is no individual property. This is the collectivity, this is the community. We live in community and that is really living.”
While most of the leadership of the MAS is male, there have been some important steps towards gender equality. Twenty-five per cent of the cabinet is women, including the ministers of health, the interior and justice, who is a former domestic worker.
The new president of the Constituent Assembly is an indigenous campesino woman. The indigenous women’s organization is proposing to the Assembly that all elected and appointed officials be 50 per cent female.
Morales is big on symbolic change, too. For example, the first act of his government was to reduce the salaries of all elected officials as well as state managers by 50 per cent. They used the money saved to hire 3,000 new teachers. At the same time, they increased the minimum wage by 50 per cent. Other changes include a massive literacy campaign and the provision of free health care with the help of thousands of Cuban doctors.
But probably the biggest symbol of the MAS government is the coca leaf. In the office where I met him hangs a portrait of Che Guevara made out of coca leaves.
Morales: “The idea that coca is cocaine is totally false. For example, you can have coca in pie. We campesinos, we would like to benefit from the coca leaf but in legal ways not in illegal ways. And we are hoping that little by little we can achieve justice. The coca leaf cannot continue to be hidden, imprisoned in its own house. It’s important to liberate it and undertake a process to do this.”
The opposition to the government is mostly centred in the Santa Cruz area among the wealthy landowners. So far its most powerful expression was a majority regional vote for autonomy in the referendum held at the same time as the constitutional assembly elections. Oddly for Canadians, the desire for autonomy is not based on cultural specificity but rather on keeping control of resources.
Morales’s popularity is growing. A recent poll makes him by far the most popular leader in South America with 81 per cent support. Observers comment that a big part of the growth of his popularity among the middle class is his honesty and commitment to combat corruption.
Morales still lives in his old neighbourhood in a poor barrio, never wears a suit and works from 5 a.m. to past midnight every day. “He gives us hope,” a young teacher told me. “For the first time, we have hope.”
This article first appeared in the Toronto Star