Bolivia on the Brink

Bolivia is on the brink of civil war. With a popular government attempting to put forward a new constitution and an elite intent on blocking change, or failing that separating the resource-rich part of the country from the rest, events are moving rapidly and will culminate in May, when the constitution and the autonomy proposal are to be decided by referendum. Manuel Rozental, a Colombian activist, recently visited Bolivia with the Hemispheric Alliance of Social Movements.

Justin Podur: Can you talk about what is happening in Bolivia?

Manuel Rozental: The first point is that entire Bolivian state, government, all of Bolivia’s institutions and resources – tin, gas, biofuels, soy, sugar cane, water – were in a constant process of being systematically delivered to transnational corporations and neoliberal interests and their local allies among the tiny and wealthy oligarchy up until the end of 2005.

Massive protests and mobilizations ended up forcing the resignation of Gonzalo (“Goni”) Sanchez de Lozada (in October 2003) and forced elections in 2005. Even though Goni left in 2003, the entire process kept going until the very minute when the new President, Evo Morales, took office in January 2006.

So in January 2006, Evo takes over a government that isn’t his and a state that’s already been kidnapped. That’s the challenge they give him. The right knows that he will not be able to run the country under existing conditions. But they also know that he won’t be able to transform it in a revolutionary way, because he was elected to those institutions. So he has a double problem. He has to rule within a rotten, rat-filled house about to fall, constructed to work against the people. But he was elected by the people to demolish that house and build another one.

So what he does – he has an agenda, which is an advantage, an agenda that the popular movements delivered to him, known as the October agenda. That’s October 2003 when they managed to kick out Goni. The agenda includes:

The nationalization of Bolivia’s resources and/or the recovery of sovereignty (it’s the same thing to Bolivians)

A major agrarian reform, a land reform, based on the recognition of the ancestral, collective ownership of the land. Not just redistribution, but a different use of the land altogether.

Re-founding of the nation. That’s the term they use. The current institutions don’t work. We want a new nation, a new house, as they call it.

So he came to power stating that’s his agenda and he’s going to follow it. His first move was a symbolic one. He had the army take over the major gas deposits of the country that have been in the hands of transnationals. This was done almost immediately, in May 2006. Then he called a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution, called the ‘constitucion politica del estado’ which is supposed to lead to the re-foundation of the country. Evo’s proposal is the new constitution will feature a massive agrarian reform project to return the land to the traditional collective ownership of the people.

Evo may have made a mistake here because he put all his eggs in one basket – that of the new constitution, and mistakes are very costly because anything he does by force, by decree, will trigger a huge reaction by the right. We should clarify that the right controls economic power throughout the country. They are the largest landowners. They own the territories where the major resources are.

JP: So most of the land is just privately owned?

MR: Privately and also outright illegally owned, but owned. The clearest example is a fellow called Branco Marinkovic. He’s Croatian in origin, his family came to the flatlands, the eastern part of the country, where all the gas and soy is, around the time of WWII. He owns millions of hectares of land. The titles are illegally or irregularly obtained and wouldn’t hold in any court but he has an enormous amount of power and is one of the greatest enemies of Evo and his government.

The eastern region, is called the ‘media luna’. It is half of the country, Santa Cruz city and six other provinces, consisting of lightly populated, resource-rich lowlands essentially owned by 19 families (See for example in Spanish, Raul Bustamente’s article “En Santa Cruz ya reina el fascismo” in Argenpress, and “La Rebelion de los 100 clanes” in Econoticias Bolivia). Most of these families are of European ancestry or call themselves ‘whites’ even if they’re mestizos.

They are profoundly racist and well known to be. While we were in Bolivia, we were told by several people that these people still sell people with the land, a feudal practice. They have economic power and control over the media – all of the mainstream media is controlled by them except for one TV channel and one radio station that are government run. The judicial system within the government is still in the hands of the right. They won the ‘prefecturas’ — the local governments in five of the six provinces in the media luna. Evo had the majority for the presidency, even in that region, but the right, or the 19 clans, won locally. They retain control in the eastern region.

Less than two dozen families own half a million of the most fertile hectares in Bolivia. They have power and they’re very aggressive. Their first strategy is defamation like in Venezuela or everywhere else. The media is constantly attacking the government, misrepresenting the truth, everything that goes wrong is because of Evo. Their second strategy is to raise in the price of essential goods, including food. They control the land and the supermarkets, the distribution networks – and can drive up the prices through scarcities, hoarding – and they blame Evo. Third, from the local governments they have triggered a racial war against the highlands in Bolivia (called the Collasuyo), the western part where the majority of the country, indigenous people, and Evo’s base, live. When the Inca ruled, they had 4 provinces, Tawanntinsuyo, and the Collasuyo was one of them. What the right has done has labeled everyone from the highlands as Collas and blame them for everything. They call themselves Cambas (the ones from the lowlands). In the city of Santa Cruz, the capital of the eastern region and the center of the insurgency against Evo’s government, anyone that dares to look or speak like a Colla, is abused, discriminated against, beaten, even killed. The situation in Santa Cruz is unbearable. This is ‘supported’ by lurid media tales, sometimes fabricated, of Colla evils. The anger is real, and it’s being taken out on people in the streets.


JP: And the Collas’ economic role is day laborers and domestic labor, presumably? 

MR: In Santa Cruz? Yes, you’ve described it. There are also some small lowland indigenous communities. It is Aymaras and Quechuas in the highlands. But in the lowlands you have Guarani, and others who live in the jungles. These groups have long been the slaves of the wealthy families, completely reduced to servitude.

One very interesting piece of information: the idea of a new constitution actually came from the lowlands. In 1991, three hundred indigenous people from Bolivia who live on the border with Brazil, mostly Guarani, walked all the way from that border to La Paz – it took them a month. The whole country was watching them walk. They demanded a new Constitution – this was during the old, neoliberal regime. The idea stayed there and it’s always been an indigenous initiative from the lowlands. It was an act of dignity, one of the acts of dignity that Bolivia is used to seeing. Evo took that initiative from them.

There is another interesting thing about Santa Cruz and the lowlands. The local governors who never cared about democracy or social justice, now on behalf of democracy are calling for a referendum to establish autonomous control over what they call ‘their land’, which is the ‘media luna’. They want this referendum for May 4 and are pushing it through the prefectures. They’re using intimidation and threats.

They visited the US Congress about 3 weeks ago and delivered a letter to Republican representatives and senators requesting that the free trade agreement negotiations be restarted with Bolivia for the benefit of the people, through their local governments. They bypassed the national elected government – and went directly for the US. 

JP: That’s taking the logic of bilateral free trade agreements and “coalitions of the willing” – which the US negotiated after the overall FTAA failed, to an extreme – making deals with local governments when the national government won’t support a deal.

MR: Although the US denies it, there are a couple of important pieces of information pointing to a US hand in all this. The US Ambassador for Bolivia, whose name is Philip S. Goldberg, worked on  Yugoslavia in the 1990s when Yugoslavia was broken into pieces.

In Bolivia, he is seen as a specialist in breaking up countries. He claims to be respecting a sovereign nation, but two weeks ago a Fulbright scholar from the US, John Alexander van Schaick, went to the media with a letter stating that every US citizen in Bolivia had been called to the US embassy in La Paz and requested to provide them information on the activities of any Venezuelan or Cuban citizens in Bolivia and any wrongdoing of Bolivian authorities against democracy. Peace Corps volunteers confirmed von Schaick’s story (the story came out around Feb 14/08, in ABC news and other outlets). In other words, as he says in his letter, to spy. Von Schaick was appalled, but there is no doubt plenty more of that happening behind the scenes.

The right is trying to destroy the October agenda. They won’t accept the constitution unless they have autonomy. Their demand is for the autonomy referendum to be decided first, then the constitution can be carried out. They’re de-facto dividing the country as a condition for the constitution. The institutional structure is in the hands of the right, they keep control over it by local governance in their provinces. They call for the free trade agreement to question the legitimacy of the regime. The argument is economic: people are poor, prices are rising, and that’s all a consequence of Evo’s breaking up the free trade agreement negotiations and slowing down the globalization process. 

JP: But neither the government nor the movements are just going to stand back and let this happen. What is happening on the other side?

MR: The story is this. Bolivia went through what intellectuals call the ‘rebellious period’ of 2000-2005.

Sanchez de Lozada was the minister under Victor Paz Estenssoro in 1985 that passed one piece of legislation. One law, 21060. It was the entire package of neoliberal reforms in one piece of legislation. That one law privatized every mine in the country. It privatized almost every one of the national public enterprises and services. It consequently forcibly displaced more than 250,000 people who were miners and their families, out of the mining sector, from one day to the next.

JP: And this is a country of 8.5 million people.

MR: He threw people in from one minute to the next into a condition of abject misery without any social networks or protection. If you look behind this, you’ll find as Naomi Klein shows in book – Jeffrey Sachs, who applied the same approach in Poland.

This came to haunt Sanchez de Lozada years later, when he was re-elected. The people who led the uprising against his government and blockaded access into and out of La Paz, were the people of El Alto. These are the people that were displaced by law 21060. El Alto is in the mountains that surround the capital city. These are mostly Aymara who were victims of the recipe of globalization that Sanchez de Lozada applied and they organized themselves in the city using ancestral strategies of the Aymara that they have used ever since the Spanish colonization. The Aymaras were never conquered militarily by the Spaniards, and they blockaded the Spanish villages, starved them and forced them to retreat. Prior to 2003, the last blockade, very famous and remembered, was in 1781. It’s important because it was the rebellion of Tupac Katari. Tupac Katari was captured by the Spanish, tortured and killed. He was drawn and quartered. He said, when he died, “volvere y seremos milliones” – I will return, and I will be millions.

Bolivia has been in a constant uprising since 1952. In 1952 there was an agrarian reform – there all kinds of mistakes, and it failed, and eventually the whole process moved right and led to military dictatorships through the 1970s, with horrendously repressive regimes that were used to exploit miners and cheap labor.

In the 1980s, the neoliberal agenda was imposed under Paz Esstensoro. It reacheed a climax in 2000, when Aguas del Tinari, acting on behalf of Bechtel, privatized water overnight – starting the uprising in Cochabamba, forcing the government to retract the legislation and return the water to public ownership. Then Goni tried to pass legislation, a half-measure nationalization package, that led to another uprising. Finally in 2003, the gas was going to be delivered to multinationals, leading to the uprising in El Alto. Goni’s police killed more than 300 people, but he got to resign and live. He was replaced by Mesa, his vice-president, who kept things going in the same way and stayed in power as long as he could, claiming ‘ungovernability’, and elections were called for December 2005.

The rebellious forces, the popular forces, are three. One is the movement for water. The birthplace is Cochabamba, Oscar Olivera is the famous character and the organization, the federation of factory workers of Cochabamba. The second is El Alto, already mentioned. The third is the Chapare and the cocaleros. The reason it’s the other source of uprising is during the government of Paz Estenssoro, the US intervened against the drug trade with a sort of ‘Plan Bolivia’, where the US military could be and act in Bolivia as they wanted with absolute impunity. So there was a massacre in the Chapare region against cocaleros. 30 were killed. Marches of cocaleros took place in 1995, 1997, and 2000. They joined the Guerra del Agua (Water War). These three forces came together to overthrow Goni and seek representation in MAS (“Movimiento al Socialismo”, movement toward socialism), Evo’s political party. MAS isn’t exactly a political party. It’s called an ‘instrumento politico’, a political instrument.

JP: What’s the difference?

MR: It’s there to carry about the agenda of the people. Parties usually establish their own structure and set their own agenda. The new country sought is based on Aymara and Quechua traditions, same as the Zapatistas, “mandar obedeciendo” (lead by obeying). The theme of Evo’s acceptance speech was “I want you to tell me what to do.”

The Vice-President, Alvaro Garcia Linera, is also interesting. He is a mathematician by training. In 2000, he joined the Tupac Katari guerrilla movement, led by Felipe Quispe, and went to jail, he is a self-educated sociologist and an author of several of the most profound books on Bolivian social movements, social context and dynamics. Since he left jail, he formally joined a University and pursued his research oriented towards knowledge generation for a popular uprising. As Evo has moved closer to peasants, being an Aymara by origin, Garcia Linera, of middle class mestizo origin, became closer to the popular (mostly indigenous) movement. He says openly and clearly that it must be a government of the social movements or it will not succeed. 

JP: So what is the government doing at the official level. What is happening in the legislature?

MR: One thing is that Evo proposed a national development plan that is called ‘vivir bien’, ‘live well’. It outlines in the first couple of chapters what it means in the native tradition to ‘live well’, which is completely opposite to the accumulation that capital proposes. So there’s a package of legislation proposed to reverse privatization of services. But it’s mostly dependent on the approval of the constitution because the institutions are still tied to the neoliberal agenda, as I stated initially.

The problem with the constitution has been this: the social movements expected to be directly represented at the assembly. But the way it worked out, it was political parties that took part in the constitutional assembly, not movements. It was through parties that people could bring forth their interests. Some movements felt they could go through MAS and express their views through that. Others are frustrated because they expected to be there directly, not through parties. Now everything is mostly on hold until the constitution is passed.

JP: Is it going to pass?

MR: Evo won with 54% of the vote, unprecedented in Bolivia. For a native person to win with such a clear majority was remarkable and unprecedented. But then he set himself up nearly impossible conditions to move forward. Every point of the constitution has to be agreed by 75% by the assembly. This is a major mistake – it gives the right in the assembly a veto.

JP: And the constitution will finally be decided on by referendum?

MR: Both the limits to land ownership by landlords (terratenientes) and constitutional referenda are on May 4. When all these difficulties started with the right, Evo put his job on the line, called for a recall referendum, which will also happen this year. He’ll have the people reinstate him in power.

JP: How is the battle playing out institutionally?

MR: Evo has to govern institutions that are controlled by the right. For example, take CIADI a body that exists within the World Bank for arbitrating disputes between governments and corporations. 98% of disputes at CIADI are won by the corporations. Therefore it is not an arbitration mechanism, but a corporate institution within the world bank that works against governments. Bolivia’s foreign affairs Ministry researched the outcome of CIADI’s interventions carefully and decided against remaining within a Centre that would act against the interests and rights of Bolivian people, so it announced through the official channels that it would not take part in CIADI, last May. Following that, a multinational corporation Unitel or ETI (a telephone/communication multinational from Italy, but acting legally from the Netherlands) that unfairly took over what is now the public telecommunications system (which the Bolivian government intends to recover for public ownership) ETI brought Bolivia before CIADI. CIADI and the WB have accepted an arbitrator’s role despite the fact that Bolivia has removed itself from arbitration. It is pretty fundamental to arbitration that the two sides have to agree to arbitration. In spite of that, CIADI is going ahead. The President of the WB, Robert Zoellick, will appoint a judge for them if Bolivia doesn’t! At the international level, the WB, financial institutions, are all playing against Bolivia. The legislation left behind by Goni binds Evo into these kinds of problems. He has not been able to really nationalize the gas enterprises or the national resources, the main point of the agenda. What he did was improve the relationship with the corporations so that more of the money and resources stay in the country. But he couldn’t nationalize them because the establishment doesn’t allow him to do that. He did get out of the FTA negotiation with the US.

As a side note though, the Andean nations, and the EU, are in FTA negotiations. Ecuador, Venezuela, and Bolivia have removed compromises to national sovereignty and resources and essential services from the agenda. They’re there for trade, not to lose sovereignty.

But back to the conflict in Bolivia. The right that was almost dismantled and destroyed by popular mobilization is now mobilized and has the initiative. They’re leading because their resurrected political parties have a voice at the constituent assembly and the local governments. There are is also a large and suspicious presence of Colombians operating in Bolivia (mostly from Santa Cruz), as they are in Ecuador (Guayaquil) and Venezuela (Maracaibo, Zulia, Apure, Táchira), all the US opponents to the elected popular democratic governments in the region end up having Colombians (paramilitaries?) operating in their countries from regional Governments seeking “autonomy” to divide the countries.

The right’s strategy is a maximalist one. They don’t tolerate any negotiations or discussions or dialogue, they want the government of Evo Morales gone, or they’ll take the wealthy half of the country. That’s it.

That forces the large majority of people in Bolivia, who don’t want these guys running their country, they don’t want globalization, from which they’ve suffered like no one – they are the 2nd poorest country in the hemisphere after Haiti – they survive in the informal market, and they’re being forced into war against the wealthy of Santa Cruz who want a bloodshed that would justify foreign intervention and civil war to restore transnationals to take the resources they want.

At stake in Bolivia are two things. One, a new model of government in absolute opposition to the established model where corporations and governments are a revolving door – Bolivia would have a revolving door between governments and social movements. That’s what this new constitution should bring, which would be a tremendous example of an alternative to globalization, to make it possible to have a government of the people, which is what they want. That’s what has to happen.

On the other hand you have the US and their counterparts, racist, wealthy, willing to destabilize the country and lead it to war on May 4, to keep the wealth in their hands. So the battle for Bolivia is the battle for the freedom and dignity of peoples – or submission to the neoliberal agenda. It’s not a problem for the Bolivian people, it’s everybody’s problem. The right is moving in the US, the media, etc. The progressive forces elsewhere have almost ignored Bolivia, and the social movements have demobilized because they are “in power” because Evo is in the government. They realize they have to mobilize in support of their own agenda through the current Government. To mobilize, understand the context, support the process – they’re calling on everybody in the Americas to help them. If the people of Bolivia manage to avert the civil war that is being planned against them, approve the Constitution and get well on their way to recover their sovereignty and establish a popular Government and pursue an National and international agenda that is an alternative to transnational theft and exploitation, it will be a victory for all popular and indigenous movements in the continent (and the world). The heroic people of Bolivia have moved forward from recovering their water, expelling a corporate regime and electing Evo Morales to calling upon everyone to join them on May 4th as they move forward for all of us.

Justin Podur is a writer based in Toronto.

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