Bolivia: Cleaning up the Bull Ring

The bull, among the Persian Zoroastrians as well as the Huichol people of Mexico, represents the sun which comes to earth and bleeds to give life to the earth. This powerful creature is a symbol, therefore, of divine power which is willing to bleed for the good of humanity and all life. In Hispanic (meaning, Spanish and Spanish (speaking) America) the running of the bulls is an exciting and dangerous festival where the Anglo game of Chicken takes on the bulk of a mighty mammal with horns and mighty power. In some places, like rural Ecuador, it’s usually a game of young men with too much testosterone jumping in a makeshift bullring with a puzzled bull and antagonizing it until it charges. The bull usually has something tied to its back — it might also be just a rope girding the bull — and the young man daring, stealthy or stupid enough to untie the knot wins a prize. In the stands are hordes of spectators, all secretly hoping the bull will gore someone and they may even witness a death as they eat fried fava beans or peanuts and swill their favorite drinks. The game never stops as one bull follows another and the young men do their best to get its attention for just enough time to be pursued just so far. Virtually no one ever unties the knot and wins a prize since most of the young men who were driven into the ring by testosterone, flee it just as quickly in a rush of adrenaline when the bull charges.

The running of the bulls is a sport which some might find quite disagreeable, even when no one is killed and the bull only gets little more than an unusual amount of exercise. But as a sport there are sometimes winners and sometimes losers and sometimes a win or a loss can have far reaching implications.

Over the past few weeks in Bolivia something reminiscent of this strange annual running of the bulls has taken place. The five departments rebelled against the great bull of Evo Morale´s government, with the support of two thirds of the country, including the core of the well-organized indigenous movement. They challenged and antagonized the government which has until now been quite patient with the Media Luna (Half Moon), as the combined opposition departmental governments are called. Morales and his supporters patiently endured the racist rhetoric, the insults and even the ransacking of government offices by the lighter skinned citizens of the opposition. But when, on September 11th, the opposition in El Porvenir and Filadelfia in the department of Pando drew blood, slaughtering an unknown number of campesinos (farmers), the bull of the Bolivian state transformed from Fernando to a powerful force that embodied the return of Tupac Katari.

First, President Morales declared a state of emergency, sent in the army to quell the violence and asked the U.S. ambassador to leave ( Note: you’ve surely heard the joke that goes: Why doesn’t the U.S. have a coup d’etat? Because it doesn’t have a U.S. embassy…). Then Morales began to marshall his support internationally.

President Hugo Chavez was the first to leap to the defense of President Evo Morales, and he did so in the strongest of terms. After all, he had been experiencing something very similar in Venezuela’s own version of the running of the bulls. On the day before the massacre in Bolivia, another coup plot against Chavez was uncovered. Feeling the wounds personally, the following day Chavez showed his solidarity with Bolivia by expelling the U.S. ambassador, Patrick Duddy and made a reference to the “Yankee shits,” going well beyond his usual colorful rhetoric.

Just as a charging bull is often unaware of a sword hidden beneath the bullfighter’s cape, Chavez then charged into near disaster. He began to criticize the Bolivian military, in particular the Chief of the Armed Forces, General Luis Trigo, who Chavez accused of not doing enough and he threatened to come to come to President Morale’s defense.

Chavez’s comments were a diplomatic disaster in Bolivia for two obvious reasons. First, his criticism of a fellow military officer of another nation, and an ally at that, was viewed by many as an injury to the pride of the Bolivian armed forces and the people of Bolivia. Secondly, the comments were viewed as an intervention into the internal affairs of the Bolivian state which also precluded any possibility of Chavez playing a role as neutral mediator.

The implications for power alignments in South America became clear in the meeting, a few days later, of UNASUR, the recently formed Union of South American Nations, taking place in Santiago, Chile, and hosted by President Michel Bachelet. Chavez, as a result of his diplomatic blunder, was no longer the powerful bull in the ring at this event. Brazil, the up and coming powerhouse running on Bolivian natural gas, was front and center stage and there was no one to challenge Lula’s clear authority in the context. Chavez was sidelined, or ignored, when he attempted to get the organization to make a statement of opposition to U.S. interventionism. Instead, the UNASUR simply put out a clear statement of support for Morales and brought all hopes of the opposition in Bolivia for independence to a definitive end.

The implications of the first meeting of UNASUR are enormous: For now, the “moderates” have won the day and most analysts see that as a positive development for Bolivia. Morales returned to his country greatly strengthened, especially as the prefect (governor) of Pando was arrested for violating the state of emergency and now faces terrorism and genocide charges. Mario Cossío, representing the opposition departments, signed an agreement with Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera to begin negotiations with the government in Cochabamba, viewed as neutral territory by both sides of the conflict. As a result, opposition forces began to relinquish control of government offices and return them to the authorities in Santa Cruz and Tarija. The young boys on testosterone now felt the adrenaline and began a quick retreat, especially in the face of a highly organized, and increasingly more angry, social movement backing Morales began to march on the opposition.

Initially the social movements organized demonstrations of support for Morales and as a call for the arrest of Leopoldo Fernandez, the Pando prefect who many see as having masterminded the massacre of September 11. These demonstrations, while massive, were localized in La Paz. However, even as Morales was meeting with UNASUR, campesinos began to organize armed marches into the opposition strongholds.

At the moment, even as the opposition is lifting its blockades of the highways, thousands of campesinos are converging on opposition centers and putting into place their own blockades, enforced by massive numbers (there are at the moment, for instance, five thousand MASista campesinos sealing off routes to Santa Cruz) and also by force of arms. Campesinos are beginning training in arms and shotguns used for hunting are being brought down from the walls to ensure that no further massacres take place in protests against the racist attacks, civil coup attempts and massacres perpetrated by the opposition.

The running of the bulls gets mighty interesting when you hand the bull a gun.

Clifton Ross is a writer and videographer. His book, Translations from Silence won the 2010 Josephine Miles Award for Literary Excellence from Oakland PEN and has just been published in Spanish by Editorial Perro y Rana, Venezuela. His film, Venezuela: Revolution from the Inside Out was published in 2008 by PM Press. He can be contacted at clifross1(at)yahoo.com. Read other articles by Clifton.