I am currently in Bolivia with my family for the holidays, visiting the in-laws and other friends. I originally started this blog with hopes of returning to live in Bolivia soon, thinking that it would be a good way to keep people updated on our lives here. We’re still living in Seattle, but I’m looking into some possibilities down here during our stay. At any rate, it is interesting to actually be posting an update from Bolivia on this site, the way I had first imagined. And it is an especially interesting time to be doing so, as today is Election Day, and Bolivia has been in the international news a lot lately. So, a few observations…
These are special elections, brought about by the resignation of the last president brought on by protests. That president, in turn, had risen from vice president under similar circumstances. There are many issues being debated. As always, Jim Shultz of the Democracy Center has a lot of good analysis on his Blog from Bolivia, including this election backgrounder.
On a personal note, these elections are pretty fascinating to me because I know one of the major vice presidential candidates, Alvaro Garcia Linera, who is running with Evo Morales in the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party. Alvaro, along with Felipe “Mallku” Quispe and at least 10 others, was arrested in 1992 and accused of all sorts of crimes in connection with a guerrilla group called the Guerrilla Army of Tupac Katari (EGTK). Alvaro, like the rest, was brutally tortured, imprisoned for 5 years, and is now out on provisional liberty, but their travesty of a trial continues, 13 years later, with no proof having been presented against them to this day. I have followed this case rather closely over the years, and perhaps I’ll write more on it some time. But the thing is that I first met Alvaro in Chonchocorro Prison outside of El Alto, have met him on several occasions since, and we have some very close friends in common. It is truly weird to see him on tv campaign ads, on posters, his name on murals, etc.
I’ve had mixed feelings about Alvaro over the years, but I’ve come increasingly to respect him. He has a lot of credibility with poor and indigenous people, particularly Aymara communities in the altiplano. His old friend, Felipe Quispe (“El Mallku”), was the main leader in the movements that shut down La Paz and much of the country a couple of years ago. At that same time, Evo Morales, who has been well-known for many years as the leader of Bolivia’s coca farmers, was losing popularity among many of the more radical indigenist movements. Alvaro was an advisor to both. Quispe’s Pachakuti movement/party has lost a lot of steam, but that was not translating into support for Evo until Alvaro joined Evo’s ticket. In July/August of 2004 when I was here, during Bolivia’s referendum on the future of the country’s natural gas reserves, I heard a lot of people say Evo had sold out, that he was just an ambitious politician, etc. But with the announcement that Alvaro, promising to represent the agenda of the indigenous social movements, would run on Evo’s ticket, the Bolivian Left was basically unified behind MAS overnight. I think people are probably right to trust Alvaro. He is very intelligent, well-educated, has proven his commitment to struggle with the poor majority here, he listens well and has deep respect for indigenous people and culture, and he seems to be realistic enough that I even believe him capable of carrying on relationships with the U.S. and transnational corporations.
Evo is leading in the polls, but there are all sorts of reasons he might not become president (see the Democracy Center for more on this). I just have a few comments on his candidacy:
First, one of the main things I’ve seen written about Evo Morales in the U.S. press is that he will legalize coca production. This is a pretty poor representation of Evo’s stance on the coca issue.
Coca is the main ingredient in cocaine. It is also used in many medicines and in Coca Cola. In Andean traditional culture, it is a sacred plant, used in religious ceremonies, and chewed or drunk as an herbal tea. It kills hunger pain, eases altitude sickness, and is generally helpful in its traditional uses. Some workers (miners, most classically) chew it constantly by the cheekful, which is not particularly healthy, but either is being a Bolivian miner. In the 1970s - largely under the dictatorship of Hugo Banzer, under whose tutelage Evo’s current main opponent, Tuto Quiroga, first came to national political prominence – coca cultivation spread to non-traditional areas, where variations on the plant made it worse for chewing, but better for cocaine production. Mines were closed and huge numbers of miners – well organized but unaccustomed to tropical climates and farming – were relocated to the new coca-growing regions. They could work for years to earn pennies on crops like coffee and bananas, or they could grow the very easily farmed coca for decent money. They largely chose the latter, and were met with intense U.S.-led repression. A law, 1008, was written by the U.S. government and imposed on Bolivia. You can look it up – it’s terribly unjust and abusive. The coca farmers resisted, and Evo became the leader of that organized resistance.
Among other things, Law 1008 mandates triple-jeopardy. Over 70% of Bolivia’s prison population is in jail for 1008. The majority of those are still awaiting sentencing – sometimes for years. Many of those have been acquitted twice already, but the law says that the government can and must appeal all the way to the supreme court, so they sit in prison and wait. Others were convicted, but the government appeals in hopes of a harsher sentence. If the appeal fails but it takes longer than the time of the original sentence, those are simply years the accused will never get back. And it is almost exclusively poor Bolivians who suffer under 1008. Kingpin types are very rarely prosecuted here. Even the “guilty” may have been involved in activities such as selling raw materials like toilet paper and kerosene, or moving small amounts of drugs, or the terribly dangerous and low-paying job of stomping coca-leaves and chemicals in maceration pits. Human rights abuses in the coca growing regions are reported with frequency.
Evo has taken what I consider too hard a line at times. He has denied that the majority of the coca was destined for cocaine in places where it clearly was, and he has not only defended those already growing coca, but pushed to spread its cultivation to other parts of the country. That said, his current platform plank regarding drugs is to overturn Law 1008, and I fully agree with him there. Also – and this seems to get almost no coverage abroad – he has said he will be harder on high-level traffickers than the current law is, and that he wants to cooperate with U.S. anti-narcotics authorities in pursuing them. He also says he wants to industrialize the coca sector. This may or may not be a big success, but it’s not a bad idea. I bring a big box of coca tea back to the states every time I visit here. It’s good. It can be used in many products. And Bolivia has a lot of it. So he wants to capitalize on that – not create cocaine factories, which is what it often sounds like in the media. So, there’s your promise to “legalize coca.”
Far bigger issues right now, though, are the future of Bolivia’s rich natural resources – particularly the possible nationalization of natural gas and oil – and two movements regarding Bolivia’s political structure: the move, mainly from the Andean region, for a Constituent Assembly to rewrite the constitution (in hopes of better representing indigenous people, communities, and cultures); and the move, mainly from the eastern lowlands, to have more regional autonomy (largely pushed by wealthy people who never minded being part of one Bolivia when wealth came from Andean mines, but who no longer tolerate whiny Andean Indians getting in the way of selling off “their” oil and gas).
The nationalization issue is another one where Evo and others are misrepresented in much international press coverage. There are a few people here whose ideological vision deludes them into thinking that Bolivia’s natural gas can and should be exploited exclusively by and for Bolivians. Unfortunately, that is also the way most other “nationalization” proponents here are portrayed. The MAS platform seeks to cancel or renegotiate existing contracts, which were negotiated in secret without popular debate and which give very favorable conditions to transnational energy firms as opposed to the Bolivian people. They recognized that the gas is only a treasure when much of it is traded, and they recognized that Bolivians do not have the necessary infrastructure – or the funds to develop it- for extracting and processing the gas themselves. They have the support of regional energy giant Venezuela. They have promises from China and elsewhere for support. And they are gambling (I think with fair odds) that the transnationals, who now say they’ll walk away completely if more demanding conditions are imposed,will actually stick around to renegotiate because they just can’t walk away from all that gas.
democracy vs. justice
I think it is worth pointing out, in the midst of analyzing a democratic contest and in light of the common and logical sentiments expressed by many international observers bothered by Evo’s common resort to street protests, that part of the reason for the popular support for Evo, the push for a Constituent Assembly, and the common recourse to street tactics here, is the fact that democracy simply hasn't caught on with a large part of the poor, indigenous majority in Bolivia. It has not worked for them. It has not made life better. So, the pursuit of justice and a new political system is a higher priority for much of the Evo camp than is majority rule. That seems unfair to people who feel they've been well-represented or somehow benefited from democracy, but it makes sense if you consider that not too much has changed for much of Evo's constituency since the introduction of democratic elections here.
Also, the feeling is that those who oppose such change - or at least oppose the candidates pursuing it - even if they are the majority, are either wealthier, whiter people who benefit from an unjust status quo, or poor people who've been manipulated into voting against their own self-interest.
It is interesting to contrast with the U.S. or many other democracies. The central challenge a constitutional democracy seeks to address is the balance between respecting the will of the majority, and protecting the rights of minorities. So, struggles like the 1950s-1960s movement for civil rights in the US fit that mold - the minority Black population struggling for rights in a system dominated by whites. In Bolivia, however, it is the majority indigenous population that is poor and feels largely unprotected under the current "democratic" system. That said, to the extent that democracy is defined simply by the holding of elections, Bolivia does have democracy.
From here stems the debate we are witnessing among international observers and throughout Bolivia, between those who equate democracy as it currently exists with justice, and those who have experienced the two to be quite unrelated. Taking this into account, it is interesting that Evo and his consituents have not given up on the potential of democracy altogether. They continue to struggle on both fronts - contesting elections, but still willing to hit the streets if need be, in the pursuit of social justice.
The "grand experiment" we so often talk of when discussing U.S. democracy is really hardly treated as an experiment at all any more. If DeTocqueville were alive today, I believe he'd be in Bolivia, and he'd be enthralled.
Finally, I've been talking to everyone I meet here (Cochabamba and La Paz) for the last 9 days about the elections, and they are 99% for Evo, but I've been most impressed by what seems a universal realism. Nobody thinks things won't get bad again before they get better, and nobody thinks Evo is the solution to all their problems. They all explain very clearly - some noting that they supported Tuto, Banzer, Goni, and others in the past - that they simply see that the country wants and needs change, and Evo will at least try for it and move things somehow, however slowly, toward a better future. I've heard better analysis from taxi drivers and storekeepers here than I heard on CNN or read in the major US newspapers leading up to the US elections last fall. That, more than any political leader, gives me much hope.
While it’s true that, ultimately, I don’t think hope resides primarily in political leaders, today is nevertheless a big day. As the Democracy Center explains well, even the presidency won’t be decided for a few weeks. But today is a milestone. I went with my father-in-law and sister-in-law to their voting place. It was exciting. Lots of people, young and old, little kids, vendors outside selling food and even toys, and long lines of friendly, peaceful people moving efficiently through the voting process. Also, there is a generally special mood in the air, as there are no cars in the streets today, and families are out walking, strollers and bikes everywhere, and you can hear the birds sing. I love just being a witness to it all. Evo is leading in the early returns, just now coming in. He has about 41%, Tuto about 35%. There are so many more things that have occurred to me to write these days, and hopefully I’ll get a chance to post more soon, but for now, let’s all just hope and pray for a Bolivian future marked by justice and peace.
On this Advent Sunday, hope is alive among a poor and suffering people. It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.
UPDATE: My dad, the retired DEA agent, sends me the following helpful comments:
it really might be confusing to your readers when they read that coca is used in Coca Cola. Most people have heard that Coca Cola used to contain small amounts of cocaine prior to 1903 when it was removed. What we were taught, and what most folks don’t know is that some of the other extracts such as the waxes and flavoring agents are still used in the production of Coca Cola. If someone reads your current blog comment, they might think you are saying that cocaine is still used in Coca Cola, and since they know it isn’t, they might get hung up on what they think is an error and discount some of the other things you are saying. Coca is also imported into the US for the production of pharmaceutical cocaine, which is a Schedule II controlled substance used as a topical anesthetic in eye and nasal surgeries. You might also want to add that importing coca-tea in tea bags into the US is legal.
And, as another DEA agent here in Bolivia once pointed out to me, there is one guy (I don't know his name) who has a permit from the DEA to export coca from Bolivia to the U.S. He sells it to one company (I've heard but can't confirm that it's a subsidiary of Coca Cola) which then breaks it down and sells the Coca Cola biproducts to Coca Cola, and the alkaloid biproducts to pharmaceutical firms. One frustration of the DEA here in Bolivia was that that one guy bought his coca from the Chapare region - the non-traditional coca-growing region that grew along with the export of Bolivian cocaine, and the very region where Evo first rose to power.