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Bolivia at the crossroads

A deeply divided Bolivia will go to the polls this month. Evo Morales, the coca growers' leader and leader of the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), will challenge Tuto Quiroga, a white neoliberal enterpreneur and vice president under the former dictator Hugo Banzer.

December 1, 2005
7 min read

The deep divisions between the two candidates reflect the divisions existing in the country as a whole between the landlord-dominated eastern plains and the mainly indigenous western mountain region. At stake is not only the presidency, but the future of the ten million people who live in the poorest country in South America. The social movements, strong enough to drive out three presidents in five years, are expectant. And preparing for the worst.

The Bolivian elections have been postponed until 18 December 2005 by presidential decree. They were due two weeks earlier, until president Eduardo Rodriguez Veltze stepped in to cut the knot of a political stalemate which had lasted for five weeks.

The constitutional crisis began at the end of September, when the Supreme Court ordered a readjustment in parliamentary seat allocations to reflect the results of the 2001 census. This readjustment would have benefited the Eastern provinces of Cochabamba and, more importantly, Santa Cruz, home of the most conservative elements within the Bolivian political landscape, including major landowners and businessmen who make no secret of their intention to leave Bolivia and declare an autonomous state if matters get “out of hand”. In this way, the technical question of seat allocation soon became a matter of regional pride: none of the provinces which were to lose seats wanted to give way, and Santa Cruz stood firm in its claims, fuelling separatist feelings.

But other major issues have been largely excluded from the campaign. The issue of the nationalisation of natural resources and the creation of a Constitutional assembly, two essential demands of the indigenous, citizens’ and social movements since the so-called Gas War in October 2003, have been largely absent from the main political debate. Not even Evo Morales and his MAS running-mate Alvaro Garcia have managed (or, some say, wanted) to challenge this and put forward clear proposals to contest the strictly neoliberal programme of Jorge “Tuto” Quiroga, the main candidate of the right-wing elites which have been controlling Bolivia ever since independence from Spain in the 1820s.

Social movements

“We’re expectant,” says A., a young, radical aymara indigenous activist from El Alto who prefers not to be named in full. “If Morales wins but doesn’t respect his word and doesn’t nationalise natural gas and doesn’t call the Constitutional assembly, we will give him three months, then we’ll rebel again.” Needless to say, those three months will be much less in case of a Tuto Quiroga victory.

El Alto was the core of the social protests which forced president Gonzalo Sanchez De Lozada to flee the country in October 2003, and Carlos Mesa to step down in June this year. The city of 800,000 people controls the main airports and highway to La Paz. When El Alto moves, La Paz gets strangled: no fuel, no food, no links with the rest of the country and the world. A considerable veto power which the movements, aymara and social alike have learned to use.

“Now it’s time to move forward,” claims Pablo Mamani, director of the sociology department of El Alto Autonomous University, “the clandestine nation humiliated through centuries of white and mestizos’ dominance, is getting ready to take its role in the running of the country.” This is the basic rationale behind the demand for a Constitutional Assembly – which would aim to disperse the power concentrated with a handful of families, not more than 120, who have been running the country for generations.

It is a claim that reflects and tries to overcome the deep running divisions which tear Bolivia apart: indigenous (60-70% of the population) versus whites and mestizos; mountain versus plains; West versus East; cities versus countryside.

“It is the structure of the state that we have to challenge,” says Roberto Rodriguez, professor of economics at the Cochabamba University. “Bolivia is still a colonial state, we are providers of raw materials and cheap labour, and the economic structure is still a semi feudal one, though dressed up with a neoliberal cloak.” Rodriguez is rather skeptical about the chances that Evo Morales will stick to his promises: “I do not think that he can change this, since one of the steps to be taken is to de-power parties and party controls on the insitutions, to empower citizens and social organizations.”

Alongside him stands Oscar Olivera, spokeperson of the Coordinadora en defensa del agua y de la vida (the Coalition in Defense of Water and Life), the movement which in the year 2000 led the famous Water War in Cochabamba and forced the US multinational Bechtel to quit the country and abandon the water facility privatisation scheme. He is one Bolivia’s most influential social leaders, and his opinion differs from Rodriguez’s. Asked whether he’s going to vote, he says: “Yes, and I’ll vote Morales, because we cannot afford Tuto Quiroga to win. But we have big differences with the MAS. When we speak about nationalization of natural resources we do not think about going back to the old, corrupted and inefficient state managment, dominated by parties. We rather think of social control and citizens’ participation in the decision making process. We do not want to trade an elite for another elite, albeit indigenous and left-oriented. We want power to be shared, spread and dispersed among citizens and social organizations”.

This political goal coincides with the desires of the aymara indigenous, who want a political and institutional system that is far more accountable to the community. “The aymara model of community control is highly interesting, but specific to the aymara”, says Roberto Rodriguez, “I do not think it can be implemented the same way in non-aymara communities, but it is something we have to think about and try to integrate in a different state architecture”.

In order to overcome doubts and criticisms, Evo Morales’ vice president-to-be took a rabbit from his marxist hat: according to him, Bolivia needs a “process of primitive accumulation” and industrialisation which enables the construction of an “Andean socialism”. This can be interpreted in two ways: as “yes, we are going to nationalize and increase the state intervention in the economy to improve living conditions,” or as “don’t worry to much, you landlords and enterpeneurs, you’re going to continue to make money and be safe behind your gated villas”.

Consequently, both sides remain to be convinced. The rich elites of southern La Paz and the separatist landlords of Santa Cruz prefer to rely on Tuto Quiroga and (according to some reports) are gathering arms to respond to what they understand as a “worst case scenario.” On the other hand, the social movements, young aymaras and their community leaders demand a different relation with the resources of the Pachamama, Mother Earth, and not just industrial exploitation. They fear state-run monopolies which would give further space to corruption and political patronage without changing the basic framework of the state.

A difficult context

Nontheless, everybody seems to be willing to give Evo a chance. He plays his cards, relying on the support of peasants and miners organizations in his home province, Cochabamba, and on his allure among the vast masses of the Bolivian poor. But he knows, as everybody else does, that the possibility of changing Bolivia cannot ignore the geopolitics of Latin America. Will the US, in need of Bolivian gas (and oil) resources, let Bolivians decide? Will Brazil and Argentina, both interested in Bolivian gas and so close to its borders, let Bolivians decide? Will the army, split into at least two different factions, let Bolivians decide?

The landlords of Santa Cruz are not the only ones gathering arms. In the aymara heartland of Achacachi, on the shores of Titicaca lake, everybody talks about the “Indigenous Barracks of Qala Chaca,” home of the indigenous and elusive aymara army. Equipped with old 1950s mauser rifles but with an unmatched knowledge of the area, they are also expectant. The whole country is holding its breath. At least until 18 December. The mistrust towards politicians of all kind finds its way into the songs of a leading rock band, Los Atajo. Playing live in El Alto in a ceremony to remember the tens of victims of the Gas War, their singer Pachi Maldonado, explains: “Our presidente is a short guy from El Alto, so short that people call him Pulga [flee].” Then the ellectric guitars and the accordion come in: “Todo bien, Pulga presidente&.”. “You see, neither Evo nor Tuto,” clarifies A.

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