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Bolivia: From Pre-Revolution to General Elections

By Sergio Reyes

As we meet this morning of December 18, 2005 (*), the people of Bolivia are attempting to find an outlet through the ballot to a sustained crisis that has shaken the country up for the last three years. Nearly 3.5 million voters out of a population of 8.5 millions will decide today among 6 candidates to the Presidency and, for the first time, for Governorships to the 9 Departments of Bolivia. These elections are general elections and therefore also senators and congressmen will be elected.

According to the polls, the leading candidates are Evo Morales from the Movement Toward Socialism (Spanish acronym, “MAS” for Movimiento al Socialismo) with about 40% of support. Jorge Quiroga of the neoliberal coalition Democratic and Social Power (with the Spanish acronym “Podemos” for Poder Democratic y Social) is expected to obtain about 27% of the vote. The third preference goes to businessman Samuel Doria Medina of National Unity, with about 9% of the vote.

With all these electoral information then, why did I entitled this talk as “from pre-revolution to elections?” – The history of Bolivia, like that of almost all of Latin America has been a constant struggle between those who want to exploit and control resources and people, and those who resist. In the case of Bolivia, where the majority of the people are of either pure indigenous or mixed indigenous background the nature of resistance is even more complex than the simple resistance of workers to the exploitation of capitalists in their quest to increase their profit through industrialization, mining, fishing or agriculture.

Bolivia is one the countries with the highest level of poverty in Latin America. Ironically, the country offers incredible possibilities for wealth. The minerals of the Andes were for a long time the main source of wealth for the rich of European descent in the country. In the 1900s, however, oil, natural gas and coca leaves plantations, became important sources of export and wealth.

This country has seen incredible struggles carried out by its people. In 1952 the National Revolutionary Movement lead a progressive revolution that changed a very conservative and racist order that denied the right to vote to the majority of its population. The revolution introduced programs designed to provide greater political, economic and social opportunities for indigenous people. The government extended the vote to all people, promoted education in rural villages and redistributed land, breaking up the large estates or latifundia established during colonial times, assigning small plots to native farmers.

Regardless of these well-intentioned reforms, which in many ways simply allowed the local capitalist groups to grow and strengthen, the problems and suffering of the majority of the people have remained up to this day. In fact, it is my uneducated observation that is possible that beyond the natural contradictions between oppressors and oppressed in any capitalist country, there is a contradiction that is even more ancient and deep than the inherent contradictions of capitalist development. I believe that what we have in Bolivia, and possibly in other countries like Peru and Ecuador is the fact that European colonialism is still inconclusive.

My hypothesis is that capitalist colonialism has not fully penetrated and therefore has not completely dominated the original cultures of these regions. Notice that when I mentioned the 1952 revolution I said that the government “promoted education in rural villages”. Well, guess what kind of education was promoted. The nationalist reformers of those times wanted to educate people to function in a Spanish-centric system. They were not interested in the native cultures, in studying and teaching the Aymara or Quechua languages, which are spoken extensively in the highlands of Bolivia. They also didn’t care much for original forms of economic organizations or agricultural methods. Still, it is more important for the school system of Bolivia to teach English or French as a second language than to teach and study the native languages.

One of the six presidential candidates is Felipe Quispe of the Indigenous Pachacuti Movement (Spanish acronym MIP, Movimiento Indigena Pachacuti), who in the sixties was the leader of the Guerrilla Army Tupac Atari, and as a result was captured and imprisoned for many years. The proposal of the MIP is to regain their indigenous territories and to develop their own nation. Quispe was elected to the Congress of Bolivia, but resigned since his voice was buried in that body that legislated for the benefit of the wealthy and not of his people. Now he is running for the presidency as means to have a national audience as the MIP seeks to become a strong political option in the entire country.

And it is another candidate of indigenous ethnic background, Evo Morales of the MAS who will probably become the next President of Bolivia. Morales has been the top leader of the Federation of Coca Leaves Farmers of Chapare, and was elected to Congress in 1997.

In 2002, Morales run for President and obtained a surprising 2nd place, behind the elected right-wing president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, who only lasted one year in power.

In reality starting in the year 2000 there were large popular mobilizations in Bolivia in defense of people’s interests in many fronts, including the struggle to keep the water industry from being privatized. Also in the previous administration of the ex-military dictator Hugo Banzer who was elected president from 1997 to 2002, the administration had proceeded to dismantle in 1999 the state owned oil industry to allow foreign companies to take over.

Sanchez de Lozada continued the process of neo-liberal measures, creating special state plans to help the development of business, exporting Bolivian natural gas to Chile, and raising taxes. The Bolivian masses reacted strongly against his administration with massive demonstrations and road blockades. The president mobilized the police and troops against the demonstrators leaving more than 60 people dead and 400 wounded. In October of 2003, the people of el Alto surrounded the presidential Palace demanding the president’s resignation. Sanchez de Lozada and his ministers escaped, and his vice-president Carlos Mesa assumed the presidency promising to support the demands of the people and not to mobilize the armed forces against the people.

The Movement Toward Socialism played a central role in these struggles together with workers, mining and peasant unions. President Mesa in spite of his promises didn’t satisfy the demands of the people, in terms of passing legislature that would return permanently the control of petroleum and gas to the state. On the contrary, it opened the way for more concessions to foreign oil companies and refused to pass legislature leading to a new Constitutional Assembly to modify the Constitution that among other things would make it illegal to defer property of the state to private hands. The people reacted with strikes, blockades and demonstrations forcing him to resign for good in June of 2005.

The political brokers of Bolivia, including the MAS, agreed on allowing the Head of the Supreme Court (and not the head of the Senate as he was rejected by the mass of the people for his alliance with the right-wing) to act as president and to call to new elections for the month of December.

As you can see, the people of Bolivia were able to remove two presidents via mobilization between 2002 and 2005. At one point, just like it also happened in Ecuador the people were demanding the resignation of the entire political elite, including members of Congress.

Possibly tonight the voting of the Bolivian people will confirm what the polls have already announced, and Evo Morales will become the first indigenous president of Bolivia and Latin America. Morales promises to administer the country under the ethical code of Quechuas and Aymaras that says: “Ama sua, Ama llula, Ama quella”, that means, “don’t be a crook, don’t be a liar, don’t be lazy.”

It is unlikely that Morales will obtain an absolute majority and the current Congress will have to decide between the two top vote getters. Yet, Morales has secured statements from U.S. diplomats in Bolivia, that they will keep hands off the process and will work with him if he is elected. Likewise, the head of the Bolivian Army has promised to uphold the election results and the Constitution. In turn, MAS has softened its anti-capitalist language and the vice-presidential candidate has declared that they will implement an “Andean and amazonic type of capitalism”, whatever that may mean.

In reference to their policies regarding the oil industry, they affirm that they will regain tight control in state hands of this sector, allowing private companies to participate in the industry as “service providers to the state.” Morales says that if these companies agree with this role, they will be welcome to stay in the country and continue their operations, otherwise, he says, “they have the right to leave.”

In terms of international policy, Morales supports the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) in opposition to the Area of Free Trade of the Americas promoted by the United States. He is a personal friend of current Presidents Hugo Chavez, Inacio “Lula” da Silva, and Fidel Castro and is proud of this friendship.

In reference to the United States, Morales says “we want trade and diplomatic relations with the U.S. if these are not to be relations of domination toward us, but rather of understanding of our policies to solve problems that the majority of our people confront, those who have been condemned to be humiliated and exterminated. If the U.S. has any respect for humanity, they have to understand our proposal to save life, to save humanity, to save the planet.”

Yet, even if Evo Morales is elected President of Bolivia, will his election solve the conflict that took Bolivia to the edge of revolution? Unlikely. The main organizations that mobilized the people in La Paz in defense of the rights of the people to their natural resources, including water, oil, gas and the plantations of coca leaves, the Regional Central Workers Organization of El Alto and Federation of Neighborhood Councils (Federacion de Juntas Vecinales) have notified whoever wins the elections they have 90 days to come up with proposals and actions to solve the issues of natural resources, the imprisonment of former President Sanchez de Lozada for crimes against humanity and the call to the formation of Constitutional Assembly. Also pending are important issues promoted by the emerging capitalists in the Santa Cruz region, who are demanding autonomy.

Morales will face the challenge of pressures from the right, the left and the United States. Will the MAS rise up to the challenge or will they become like other groups in the past that begun with progressive agendas and then slowly or suddenly moved to the right? Whatever the answer given by history to this question, what is clear is that the Bolivian people will continue their struggle as they have already done for centuries.


(*) Transcription of a talk delivered before the Community Church of Boston congregation on 12/18/2005 as part of their regular Sunday Forums program.