Bolivia: A Glimpse of Freedom
The long, wide, bleak streets of cobblestones and tufts of petrified grass reach for the sacred mountain Illimani, whose pyramid of snow is like a watchtower. There was almost no life here when I first came to Bolivia as a young reporter -- only the freezing airport and its inviting oxygen tent; now almost a million people live in El Alto, the highest city in the world, the creation of modern capitalism.
Alto is as symbolic of Latin America today as Cerro Rico is of the past. A
hill almost solid with silver, it was mined by slave labour and served to
bankroll the Spanish empire for three centuries. Both places are in the
poorest country on a continent of 225 million inhabitants, half of whom
are poor. Debt bondage, even slavery, still exists secretly in Bolivia,
whose hill of silver now takes second place to other natural treasures of
gas and water.
Bolivia was second only to Chile as a laboratory of "neoliberalism", the jargon for capitalism in its pure, Hobbesian form. The Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs designed the "shock therapy" that the IMF and World Bank administered in Bolivia, adding another dimension of poverty and suffering. With the privatization of the mines, tin finally collapsed, and the miners and their families headed for La Paz, settling on the bitter plain at El Alto, a thousand feet above the capital, without water and power and with little food. Farmers forced off their land by IMF diktats followed them, and their mass migration was typical of that of millions driven out of secure work by the foreign managers of the "Washington consensus", a fanaticism conceived at Bretton Woods in 1944 as a tool of empire. (Sachs sees himself as a liberal and is mentor to the gormless Bono, of Live Aid etcetera fame.)
Until now, Bolivia's modern presidents have all been rich, white men who ran the country on behalf of a tiny wealthy minority. Owners of vast tracts of land control the lowlands around Santa Cruz, reminiscent of their equivalent in South Africa. The pre-Inca indigenous majority were the "blacks" that were politically invisible, except as occasionally troublesome workers, especially the miners. People chewed coca leaves to relieve hunger; many died in their early middle years and their children were stunted. "My mother was worked to death on a big estate near Santa Cruz," a campesino told me. "If she was found learning to read, she was severely punished."
The last president but one, Sanchez de Lozada, a multimillionaire mine-owner now exiled in Maryland, had grown up in the United States and spoke better English than Spanish. He was known as "El Gringo." In colluding with the IMF and selling off the country's gas and water at knockdown prices to Brazilian, American and European multinationals, he fulfilled his role, like so many Latin American presidents, as Washington's viceroy. Indeed, Richard Nixon's contemptuous remark about Latin America -- "People don't give a shit about the place" -- was quite wrong; America's imperial design was inscribed on the lives of the people in its "backyard".
Last year, I interviewed Pablo Solon, son of the great Bolivian muralist Walter Solon, in an extraordinary room covered by his father's epic brush strokes. More visceral than Diego Rivera's images of the Mexican revolution, the pictures of injustice rage at you; the barbaric manipulation of people's lives shall not pass, they say. Pablo Solón, now an adviser to the government of Evo Morales, said: "The story of Bolivia is not unlike so many resource-rich countries where the majority are very poor. It is the story of the government behind the government and what the American embassy allows, for in that building is the true source of power in this country. The US doesn't have major investments here; what they fear is another Chavez; they don't want the 'bad example' to spread to Ecuador and beyond -- even to Nigeria, which might be inspired to tax the oil companies as never before. For the US, any genuine solution to poverty spells trouble."
"How much would it cost to solve the poverty of Bolivia?" I asked.
"A billion dollars; it's nothing. It's the example that matters, because that's the threat."
I drove out of El Alto with Juan Delfin, an indigenous church deacon, taxi driver and artist, who spoke about the conquistadores if they were within his memory. This is a society where a half-millennium of history is a presence and its subjugation and impoverishment are understood with anger. With Illimani looming ahead of us, a cemetery consumed the horizon. On the other side of the road was a small hill not of silver, but rubbish: a stinking, smoking, acrid hell of dust and dead dogs and wild pigs and women in traditional bowler hats digging with pickaxes for something, anything. "Here you have the symbol of everything we live and reject," said Delfin.
took me to a plaque with the names of 24 people shot to death by the army
in October 2003 when de Lozada tried to stop the people of El Alto
marching down to La Paz in protest against his selling-off of gas. Juan
Delfin linked their deaths to the lines of ordinary graves, many of them
children, "who also died violently, from poverty". A shepherd boy emerged
from a pile of stones where he lived, looking too small for his age.
Even the right to collect rainwater belonged to Bechtel. With an annual revenue of more than 17 billion dollars, the company's power is such that it expected and got (without the inconvenience of bidding) the contract to rebuild the US fortress in occupied Iraq. Yet, not only was Bechtel driven out of Bolivia in 2000, shortly followed by its mentor de Lozada, but the company has now dropped its compensation action against the government. It is a victory of huge significance, because it warns other multinationals in Bolivia (such as British Gas) that even if the government is prepared to compromise the wrath of the people, the movements are not.
also a warning to Evo Morales, whose electoral victory in December remains
largely symbolic here. An indigenous man now leads Bolivia for the first
time; the checkered pre-Inca flags are proudly on high everywhere. "The
elections aren't something we asked for, ever," said Oscar Olivera, the
Cochabamba union leader who led the anti-Bechtel revolt. "What the social
movements need to do now is to continue accumulating popular forces, to
build up our ability to pressure whatever government that comes. A Morales
government would be less difficult to love, but it will still be
The likeable Evo is on notice above all with his own people, but also with the Americans, the "government behind the government". Unless Washington can "lobotomize him" (as it did with Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti), it is likely to encourage a secessionist movement in the landowners' heartland of Santa Cruz, where the gas is and where the government has promised to redistribute unused land. Bolivia, like Venezuela, has glimpsed its freedom and demands our support.
John Pilger is an internationally renowned investigative journalist and documentary filmmaker. His newest book, Freedom Next Time, will be published in June by Bantam Press. Visit John Pilger's website: www.johnpilger.com. Thanks to Michelle Hunt at Granada Media.
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