Bolivia’s Trial by Fire
winning a landslide election victory on December 18th, Bolivian
president-elect Evo Morales announced plans to nationalize the country’s
gas reserves, rewrite the constitution in a popular assembly, redistribute
land to poor farmers and change the rules of the U.S.-led war on drugs in
The Social Movements and the State
the presidential candidates that ran in the December election, Morales has
the broadest ties to the country’s social movements. However, he has
played limited roles in the popular uprisings of recent years. During the
height of the gas war in 2003, when massive mobilizations were organized
to demand the nationalization of the country’s gas reserves, Morales was
attending meetings in
Morales’ actions during these revolts were aimed at generating broad support among diverse sectors of society, including the middle class and those who didn’t fully support the tactics of protest groups. This strategy, combined with directing the momentum of social movements into the electoral realm, resulted in his landslide victory on December 18th.
In spite of Morales’ relative distance from social movements, his victory in a country where the political landscape has been shaped by such movements presents the possibility for massive social change. Once he assumes office, Morales has pledged to organize a Constituent Assembly of diverse social sectors to rewrite the country’s constitution. It is possible that this could allow for a powerful collaboration between social movements and the state.
Vice President-elect Alvaro Garcia Linera says such collaboration is possible. He contends that MAS, the Movement Toward Socialism party which he and Morales belong to, is not a party but rather "a coalition of flexible social movements that has expanded its actions to the electoral arena. There is no structure; it is a leader and movements, and there is nothing in between. This means that MAS must depend on mobilizations or on the temperament of the social movements." (1)
Olivera, a key leader in the revolt against Bechtel’s privatization of
To sustain their momentum and unity, an alliance between some of the most dynamic social groups was formed in early December 2005 in the first Congress of the National Front for the Defense of Water and Basic Human Services. This alliance includes the Water Coordinating Committee of Cochabamba, the Federation of Neighborhood Councils of El Alto, the Water and Drainage Cooperatives of Santa Cruz, as well as neighborhood organizations, cooperatives, irrigation farmers, and committees on electricity, water rights and other services from all over the country. In many cases, these autonomous groups have organized methods of providing citizens with basic services which the state fails to offer. Such a coalition of grassroots forces may pave the way for a nation-wide, alternative form of governance.
Tangling Over Coca
Morales plans to fully legalize the production of coca leaves and change
the rules of the U.S.-led war on drugs in his country. White House
officials are wary of any deviation from its anti-narcotics plan in
recent report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office explains
that, "While the
interview on National Public Radio (NPR), Nicholas Burns, the State
Department’s undersecretary for political affairs, said the Bush
administration hopes "that the new government of Evo Morales in
it is a key ingredient in cocaine, coca has been used for centuries in the
Andean region for medicinal purposes; it relieves hunger, sickness and
fatigue. It’s also an ingredient in Coca-Cola, cough syrups, wines,
chewing gum, and diet pills. The U.S. Embassy’s website for
"Trying to compare coca to cocaine is like trying to compare coffee beans to methamphetamines, there’s a universe of difference between the two," Sanho Tree from the Institute for Policy Studies explained on NPR. "We have to respect that indigenous cultures have used and continue to use coca in its traditional form, which is almost impossible to abuse in its natural state."
Ann Potter worked from 1999 to 2002 as an advisor to Morales, and since
then has been the main advisor to the Coordination of the Six Women
Federations of the Chapare, the country’s biggest coca growing region.
Potter explained that although Morales plans to continue a hard line
approach against the drug trade, the current policies of the
"One billion dollars has been spent [on alternative crop development] over the last 20 years and there is little to show for it," she said. "Forced eradication resulted in many dead, more wounded, armed forces thieving and raping."
widely held among critics of
report from the Congressional Research Service stated that the
Andean Information Network, a Bolivia-based NGO which monitors human
rights issues in the U.S.-led war on drugs, recommends that "the
Between a Rock and Hard Place
In regard to the country’s gas reserves, the Morales administration could go in two directions. It could fully nationalize the gas reserves and face the wrath of multinational corporations and lending institutions that want exactly the opposite to happen. Or it could renegotiate contracts with gas corporations, and partially nationalize the industry. Choosing the latter option would likely generate massive protests and road blockades. Social movement leaders have stated that if Morales doesn’t fully nationalize the gas, the population will mobilize to hold the administration’s feet to the flames.
"We will nationalize the natural resources, gas and hydrocarbons," Morales explained. "We are not going to nationalize the assets of the multinationals. Any state has the right to use its natural resources. We must establish new contracts with the oil companies based on equilibrium. We are going to guarantee the returns on their investment and their profits, but not looting and stealing." (3)
Any move that Morales makes is likely to upset either corporate investors, social movements or both. Previous Bolivian presidents Carlos Mesa and Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada walked similar gauntlets and ended up being ousted from office by protests.
secession movement in
methods of destabilization are already underway. Documents obtained
through the Freedom of Information Act reveal that the
U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's direction, the Pentagon has
pushed for a number of small Cooperative Security Locations (CSLs) based
U.S. Embassy in
"The objectives of the U.S.A. in South America have always been to secure strategic material like oil in Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela, tin mines in Bolivia, copper mines in Chile, and always to maintain lines of access open," Luiz Alberto Moniz Bandeira, a Brazilian political scientist at the Universidade de Brasilia, wrote in the Folha de Săo Paulo. (8)
Orlando Castillo, a Paraguayan human rights leader, said the goal of
While grappling with these challenges, the Morales administration will have to answer to the millions of Bolivians who, in the December election, gave him the biggest mandate in the country’s history.
centuries Bolivians have, in the words of Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano,
"suffered…the curse of their own wealth." The country’s tin, copper and
silver were exploited by foreign companies that made enormous profits
has traveled and worked as a journalist in
Other Articles by Benjamin Dangl
Eyes on US
Troops in Paraguay as Bolivian Election Nears