New Internationalist

Bolivia’s new politics

Issue 387

On a Saturday morning last August, Alvaro Garcia Linera, a Bolivian sociologist who spent five years in jail as an accused guerrilla, stood before a union hall in Cochabamba, surrounded by leaders of Bolivia’s diverse social movements.

Present were the men and women who had led Cochabamba’s famous revolt against water privatization, peasant leaders of the landless movement, miners, students and others who had been a part of the nationwide road blockades that had just tossed another Bolivian president out of office. In four months Bolivia was to hold unplanned elections for a new president and congress. Social movement leaders were considering their options.

Staring upwards, as if collecting his thoughts as he spoke them, Linera told the gathering: ‘In the last five years we have accomplished a great deal with resistance. We kicked out Bechtel [US-based water transnational]. We stopped the International Monetary Fund. We blocked the export of gas and oil [the plan by a former president to sell off fuel at bargain prices to the US].’

‘We’re entering government to work for the people. No-one has put limits on what we can do’

‘But now,’ Linera explained, ‘the two things we are demanding – a constituent assembly [to rewrite Bolivia’s constitution] and nationalization of the gas and oil – those we cannot win with resistance. Such demands can only be won by taking control of the Government.’

But the leading candidate on the Left, Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party leader Evo Morales, while maintaining a powerful base amid campesino coca growers, had strained relations with other social movements. He had compromised too far on the gas issue in the Congress, they felt, abandoning the call for nationalization in favour of higher taxes on foreign oil companies. The Left was splintering, once again, in the face of its biggest political opportunity since the 1952 revolution.

A month later Bolivia’s Left succeeded in putting aside their differences and coalesced in a united political front, a coalition that Linera played a large hand in piecing together. The man once tortured by the Bolivian army agreed to join Morales as his vice-presidential running mate and as his informal ambassador to those social movements most sceptical about MAS.

That alliance held, and on 18 December 2005 Morales and Linera won an historic victory, capturing a greater margin of the popular vote than any previous candidate in Bolivian history. South America’s most indigenous nation had elected its first indigenous president.

Outside Morales’ headquarters on election night, supporter David Jovis stood in a circle clapping and cheering, waving handkerchiefs and dancing the cueca, a traditional Bolivian dance. ‘This is a triumph not only of a candidate and a party, but really of a people,’ Jovis shouted over the celebrating crowd.

‘In all of my life, I’ve never seen anything like this,’ said Christian Vargas, a local lawyer. ‘That a candidate would win over 50 per cent, and that candidate be campesino – someone who never went to school… This is something historic.’

For the marginalized and the poor, Bolivia has arrived at a moment of great optimism. The new MAS Government promises to reshape the country by putting an end to two decades of Washington-prescribed free-market economic policies and a wave of privatization and deregulation that has further enriched the powerful few. Now the new Government must deal with the two key issues Linera identified back in August – nationalization of Bolivia’s vast gas and oil reserves and the convening of a constituent assembly. It will not be easy.

On the gas issue, MAS’s still-vague proposals are likely to fall far short of social movement demands for total state control over gas production and industrialization. Foreign oil companies, including Repsol of Spain, British Gas, Petrobras, Shell and others, stand at the ready to take Bolivia before international trade courts if Morales and Linera tinker too much with the lucrative contracts they negotiated behind closed doors in the 1990s.

A deep regional divide marks the attitude towards the constituent assembly, the historical demand of indigenous communities. Social movement leaders, and especially the indigenous of the high, barren altiplano, expect elections for assembly members by July, and demand the assembly have sovereign powers; even the power to shut down the Congress if it so chooses. But the wealthy élites of Bolivia’s gas-rich lowlands are advocating for a more limited assembly while pushing for ‘regional autonomy’: a code word here for more control of and profit from the gas and oil.

Hovering over all this is the shadow of Washington. Bush Administration officials have been hammering away for months at Morales, painting him as a pawn of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Cuban President Fidel Castro. The US Embassy in La Paz has repeatedly made public remarks warning of the danger of a MAS Government making changes to drug control laws, long a source of contention. The Bolivian Government gets 25 per cent of its budget from foreign aid and is likely to see the World Bank and IMF working hard to limit its political options.

Linera is frank. ‘Fifty-four per cent was a major victory. But the question of power has not yet been resolved. How do we use the executive power to continue increasing spaces of social power?’ He is hopeful. ‘We’re entering government to work for the people. No-one has put limits on what we can do.’ But he is also frank about potential serious consequences. ‘A major confrontation is a definite possibility. We can lose. We can fail in three months, six months – they could bury us.’

But for many the hope of change outweighs the substantial risks involved. ‘I think it’s going to be very difficult to govern, to make lines of change; but everything in time,’ says Jovis. ‘What the people have asked for, nothing is impossible.’

Gretchen Gordon is a researcher with The Democracy Center in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Jim Shultz is the Center’s executive director.

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