Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
Bolivia, a country used to being ignored by the western media, has hit the headlines in recent months due to the marked increase in violence among opponents and supporters of the government. In December 2005, an electorate in which 62 per cent of the population identify themselves as indigenous voted in their first indigenous president, Evo Morales, on a mandate of radical reform. This has met with fierce opposition among Bolivia’s wealthy, predominantly white elite.
Particularly controversial has been the issue of land reform. Bolivia has one of the most unequal rates of land ownership in the world, with one per cent of landowners owning two-thirds of the country’s farm land. It is no surprise, then, that Morales’s proposed reforms have provoked the ire of Bolivia’s landed elites. In the richer provinces, these elites began orchestrating violence against indigenous people in alliance with crypto-fascist paramilitary youth mobs. Among their demands are regional autonomy and a greater share of oil and gas profits – concessions that Morales is unwilling to give. At the time of writing, the worst of the violence seems to have subsided and talks between the government and opposition have resulted in Bolivia’s Congress approving a referendum on a new constitution early next year. But the underlying conflict is unlikely to be easily resolved and could flare up again at any time.
Conflict of interests
In Civil War is not a Stupid Thing, the political economist Christopher Cramer critically reflects upon the prevailing ideology surrounding conflict in the ‘third world’. He argues that historically the west has looked upon conflict in these places as a ‘deviant aberration from a more normal world of liberal peace, best exemplified by Northern prosperity and stability’. For Cramer, in the past few years this prejudice has been integrated into a neoliberal analysis that emphasises the immediate economic costs to societies of conflict, with these two assumptions combining to support the notion that conflict is ‘development in reverse’.
A cursory look at the British media’s reporting of the crisis in Bolivia supports Cramer’s thesis. Both the Guardian and the Independent observed that Bolivia was beginning to resemble a ‘failed state’. The Daily Telegraph’s Daniel Hannan chided the Bolivian government for placing ideology before compromise, accusing ‘Morales’s palaeo-socialism’ of ‘shrinking the economy’, thereby having the effect that ‘Bolivians are poorer, angrier and more violent than I have ever known them – they deserve better than this’. The Financial Times, meanwhile, harboured doubts about the ability of ‘increasingly politicised institutions to support entrepreneurialism and economic growth’. The message is clear: conflict is antiquated, a distraction from the more civilised business of money making.
It woould be ironic if the west’s detached attitude to events in Latin America were to be explained in part by neoliberal notions, given that the current global neoliberal order had its bloody birth in Latin America – in Chile in 1973. In the wake of the US-sponsored coup that overthrew Salvador Allende’s democratically-elected government, economists from Milton Friedman’s Chicago School rammed through radical neoliberal reforms. Chile served as a laboratory for radical ideas that would later be adopted by the west, with Margaret Thatcher an infamous admirer of the military dictator General Pinochet’s ‘restructuring’ of Chilean society.
There are, in fact, close parallels between the modern histories of Britain and Bolivia. The post-war era in both countries was shaped by popular democratic governments that vastly expanded the public realm. In Britain, the Labour government of Clement Atlee nationalised Britain’s major industries and founded the NHS. In 1952 in Bolivia, the left-wing National Revolutionary Movement (MNR) of Victor Paz Estenssoro nationalised the mines and established national education and healthcare systems. In both countries these reforms remained largely unchanged until the mid-1980s.
Bolivia embraced neoliberal changes in 1985, following the re-election of the MNR – once again headed by Paz. This time, Paz promptly reversed the reforms of 1952, floating the peso, cutting public sector salaries and eliminating food subsidies, price controls and restrictions on foreign commerce. As in Britain, the neoliberal revolution continued through the 1990s with the privatisation of the oil, gas, tin, telecommunications and railway industries.
War on democracy
In Bolivia, the manner in which these reforms were instituted was profoundly undemocratic. Paz had run on a mandate of fiscal responsibility and an allegiance to his ‘nationalist revolutionary’ past. Once in power, though, the New Economic Policy (NEP) was instituted as a presidential decree. The idea was to pass the reforms before trade union and civil and peasant groups had a chance to react. React they did, however, just as the British unions did in response to Thatcher’s reforms, calling a general strike. As Naomi Klein has noted, Paz’s response ‘made Thatcher’s treatment of the miners seem tame’. He declared a state of emergency and rounded up the top 200 union leaders, loaded them on to planes and flew them to remote jails in the Amazon.
The turn to neoliberalism has been a common theme of the past 30 years in much of the world – to the extent that we can now speak of a neoliberal global economic order. In large measure this global revolution has relied upon circumventing national democratic processes. ‘Privatisation’ and ‘liberalisation’, in reality, amount to technical terms for removing critical economic decisions from the realm of public accountability. Democracy is further undermined when national democratic decisions can be vetoed by capital flight as a consequence of international free trade. This is something John Maynard Keynes recognised when he warned that ‘nothing less than the democratic experiment in self-government [is] endangered by the threat of global financial forces.’
In Bolivia, neoliberalism was initially hailed as an enormous success. Prior to Paz’s reforms, inflation had skyrocketed to over 14,000 per cent. Within two years of the reforms it had been brought down to 10 per cent. But as inflation came down, unemployment went up. Bolivia experienced massive lay offs, including 22,000 from the state mines alone, rising to 45,000 by 1991.
Unemployment took its heaviest toll on Bolivia’s fragile industrial sector. Without state backing, factory closures led to 35,000 people losing their jobs. Those that remained in employment did not fare much better, with real wages dropping by 40 per cent. Not only did neoliberalism fail to create jobs, but the dismantling of the central bureaucracy undermined the government’s ability to respond to the damaging effects of joblessness. Many who lost jobs migrated to the east of the country to grow coca, which by the 1980s was Bolivia’s most profitable export.
While ultimate responsibility for the NEP lies with Paz and his ’emergency team’ of technocrats and business leaders, the reforms were also largely a product of the aggressive influence of international financial institutions, particularly the IMF and World Bank. The NEP was largely designed to court their approval, while the waves of privatisations in the 1990s were on the explicit instructions of the IMF – in fact, the IMF was so impressed with the results that Bolivia was held up as a model for less developed countries around the world.
The Bolivian government’s pandering to the demands of the IMF in the 1990s can be interpreted as a consequence of the devastation wrought on Bolivia’s democracy by the NEP. Having been shut out of the sphere of governance, the public had limited means with which to press the government to act in its interests. The result was a return to an imperial arrangement whereby Bolivia’s elites auctioned off their country’s land and resources to the highest foreign bidders.
The looting of Bolivia reached its nadir in 2000 when the World Bank facilitated the privatisation of the water supply in the city of Cochambamba to a foreign multinational consortium led by London-based International Water Limited (IWL). In exchange Bolivia would receive $600 million of debt relief. The consortium immediately raised water rates by 35 per cent, and in the drive for profit maximisation a law was even briefly passed prohibiting people from collecting rainwater. For the majority of Bolivians, their patience had run out.
In voting for Morales and his party in 2005, the Movement towards Socialism (MAS), Bolivians voted for democracy. Morales was elected on a platform of facilitating popular participation in the running of the country and the economy through the widening of the public sphere, the representation of social movements in executive office and the introduction of indigenous rights. Nationalisation of key industries ensured that profits stayed in Bolivia and the government had the capacity to govern.
As left historians Forrest Hylton and Trevor Sinclair elegantly put it in their book Revolutionary Horizons: ‘The election of Evo Morales did not bring about a revolution. It was a revolution that brought about the government of Evo Morales.’
Prior to the 2005 election, popular mobilisation had already brought down two presidents and vetoed the accession of a third. The toppling of these governments was not led by MAS; rather the MAS leadership trailed a popular mobilisation led by indigenous groups, trade unions and federations of coca growers.
It was out of this coalition that the proposals for nationalisation, constitutional reform and economic and political restructuring emerged. MAS itself was a political organisation founded by civil groups in the 1990s to articulate popular demands. In his inauguration speech Morales appealed to these groups saying ‘Control me. If I can’t advance, push me, brothers and sisters. Correct me constantly, because I may err.’
Morales was reliant on these groups during the crisis. That Morales’s supporters continue to resist the opposition’s campaign of violence is testament to their overwhelming national support and ability to mobilise to defend the government’s legitimacy.
While the British media openly discussed the possibility of a civil war, Morales’s popularity has risen since the 2005 election, including in the richer provinces. It is this support that pressured opposition members in Congress to ratify a new draft of the Bolivian constitution on 21 October. A national referendum on whether or not to make the document official is scheduled for 25 January next year.
It is significant that Bolivia’s latest crisis coincided with the 35th anniversary of the coup in Chile. It is also worth reminding ourselves that it is doubtful whether the Chile coup would have succeeded without international complicity. The parallels have not gone unnoticed in Latin America as neighbouring countries have queued up to pledge support to Morales and condemn the violence. Argentine president Christina Kirchner warned: ‘If we don’t act now, in 30 years we may be watching documentaries [about Bolivia] like those we see today about Salvador Allende.’ Her statement contained a veiled reference to the US government, whose shadow looms large over the crisis. In September, relations between the US and Bolivia became openly hostile when Morales expelled the US ambassador, accusing him of subverting Bolivia’s democracy by colluding with opposition groups.
A revolution without borders
In the 1980s, the US waged a war against a democratic revolution in Nicaragua. During the revolution, Tomas Borge, a founding member of the Sandinistas, stated his desire for a ‘revolution without borders’. What he meant was that he hoped the revolution could serve as a model for other societies. In the context of the cold war, the US government and its backers in the media did not need to resort to a sophisticated neoliberal analysis to distort the meaning of Borge’s words; it was enough to report that Nicaragua was intent on spreading a permanent ‘Soviet-style’ revolution across the western hemisphere.
The reality is that the distortion was intended to conceal something far more threatening – what Oxfam rather shrewdly described at the time as ‘the threat of the good example’. Bolivia’s experiment with democracy is an example for all of us. At a time in which neoliberalism has hollowed out our democracy while simultaneously propelling us down a path of economic and ecological disaster, the stakes could not be higher. Showing solidarity with Bolivia at this time is undoubtedly important for the people there. It might be just as important for us. n
Dipesh Pandya speaks to documentary film-maker Sanjay Kak, who for 30 years has been working outside the mainstream to tell a story rooted in the struggles of those excluded by India’s militarism and its narrative of neoliberal growth
Jeremy Gilbert on how radical Labour politics can be inspired by the utopianism of the counterculture
Disasters have unequal impacts – it's the poor and marginalised who suffer most. David Harvey writes on Hurricane Harvey
Survivors of the fire are still relying on thousands of community volunteers, writes Dan Renwick - but the failed council is plotting a comeback
What if it's not us who are sick, asks Rod Tweedy, but a system at odds with who we are as social beings?
The people could reach a democratic and non-violent solution if they were freed from US meddling, argues Boaventura de Sousa Santos
A decade after the start of the crash, economic power is in our hands – we must take it, writes Ann Pettifor
Nick Dowson looks at the new wave of co-ops and community groups where people are building their own truly affordable homes
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it
The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going
A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism
Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase
Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields
Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton
Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi
A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain
Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank
Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded
West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens
Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age
Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today
The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics
Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.
Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making
Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show
The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services
With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas
Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world
A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle
Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune
Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali
To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi
Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun
Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh
With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook