Before diving in, let me say that I really do intend to use this blog more often. I’ve found it hard to muster the time and energy to write about current events here in Bolivia since returning over four months ago, although I’ve wanted to. I think part of the problem is that I keep feeling the need to start from the beginning and
cover all the different aspects of what’s going on here (not to mention writing more personal updates, and trying to figure out if/how to separate blogging on public events from blogging on family life), and I just get overwhelmed and end up writing nothing. But this week political conflicts have intensified, and several people have written asking me for some insight. So, here’s an attempt. It’s long, but you can read it in sections as you wish.
First, I’ll do what I’ve so often done here, and refer you all to one of my favorite sources on goings-on in Bolivia, the “Blog from Bolivia,” by my friend Jim Shultz, director of The Democracy Center. He has a good post on this week’s events, as well as a link to a recent briefing paper on the constitutional assembly. And his updates will no doubt continue. Jim’s, like, real smart and stuff. And I usually agree with and always appreciate his assessment of things.
Rather than retelling, less ably, the parts of the story Jim has covered, let me try to give a broader, briefer nutshell explanation of what’s happening here for those who don’t follow Bolivian politics with any regularity. Then I’ll try to add some observations about some of those aspects I’ve been meaning to tell you about for months.
Recent Bolivian History in a Wee Nutshell
The most indigenous country in South America, Bolivia is blessed with incredible cultural and environmental diversity and wealth. It is cursed with the second-worst economic poverty in the Western Hemisphere (after Haiti), and a history of political instability, corruption, racism, colonialism, and oppression of the poor, rural, and indigenous majority of its population.
In 2000, building on a 500+ year tradition of resistance to colonial imperialism, Bolivians (and a few of us gringos) here in Cochabamba rose up in protest over the privatization of water, booting a (San-Francisco-based-) Bechtel-led transnational consortium out of the country and sparking 5 years of protest against the political project of a political elite dominated by a U.S.-imposed economic model called “neoliberalism” or “the Washington Consensus,” based largely on market-economics and privatization/commodification of everything under the sun (or, in the case of Cochabamba, clouds, i.e. even rain water). After some horrifically violent government repression in 2003 and the subsequent ousting of two administrations, Bolivians went to the polls in late 2005 and elected Evo Morales president with an unprecedented 54% majority (in Bolivia’s multi-party system, previous winners had 20-25%).
Morales is Bolivia’s first indigenous president. He rose to national prominence as head of Bolivias federated coca-growers’ unions (a position he still holds). He and his Vice President, Alvaro Garcia Linera (I know Alvaro a bit – I first met him when he was a political prisoner in the 1990s for involvement in an indigenist guerrilla organization), came to power largely thanks to a broad base of indigenous Bolivians, who had a handful of historic demands. Along with nationalization of many of the country’s resources (principally gas and oil) and land reform, one central promise of the new government was to call a Constituent Assembly to rewrite Bolivia’s constitution, in hopes of creating a new, “plurinational” State in which previously excluded classes would have a much greater role. The new government did indeed convene the assembly. You can read about that process, and where it has brought us this week, by clicking the link to Jim Shultz’s blog above.
My take is that the changes the Morales administration seeks are generally good and needed, and that they’ve gone about pursuing those changes with a mixed record of admirable trailblazing and expected fumbling and shortfalls.
The opposition to the Morales government and its political project is fierce, wealthy, powerful, and nasty. (It is also clearly backed by the United States, even if the degree and nature of US support remains a matter of debate.)
The new constitution, more than the gas nationalization and other changes, represents a potential direct threat to the power of elites who have run things here for a long time and have no intention of giving up power. They have pushed several issues in the context of the constitutional debate - issues like regional autonomy and the location of the capital, which get a lot of mentions in the international press but are difficult for an international audience to make sense of. Basically, I think it’s fair to say that autonomy is a real and complex issue, while moving the capital is a silly made-up issue which has nevertheless served to violently divide a whole lot of people, and both have been used by the opposition with the overriding intention of derailing the Constituent Assembly.
This week, as the Assembly deadline nears, both sides have moved to forward their agendas, and violent protests have erupted. 3 or 4 people are dead. Many are injured. The future is unclear, but it’s hard for me to imagine it will be very good, at least for a while.
As for me and my family, we are fine, not feeling personally threatened at all. The worst violence has been in Sucre so far, but even when things erupt here, it’s fairly easy to steer clear of danger.
Elements to understand
For reasons I don’t fully fathom, much international coverage of events here tends to ignore one extremely important element of what’s happening here: racism. But being here, it is clear to me that racism underlies all of the conflicts here, and is playing an increasingly blatant and calculated role.
In Sucre, in addition to assaults on anyone suspected of being a MAS member or supporter, anyone who looks like they are from La Paz, which is to say Aymara Indians, is attacked in the street.
It would be hard to understate the degree to which hatred of indigenous Bolivians and campesinos (rural peasants) has manifest itself since the election of Evo Morales. Racial hatred has helped fuel increasingly harsh regionalisms and general xenophobia. And of course, it is a product of history that classism necessarily goes hand-in-hand with racism here.
As is so often the case, racism often infects the very people it attacks. Many poor and very indigenous-looking people here say horribly prejudiced things about “Indians.” (Bolivia is ~65% indigenous according to the most recent census, which is based on self-reporting, i.e. a majority of Bolivians self-identify as indigenous, and many more with indigenous ethnic ancestry identify as mestizo or mixed). But the worst divisions are between classes. In the wealthier neighborhoods here, be it in restaurants or even in church, I often find myself looking at young men with a certain style of clothing and manners and wondering if they were out wielding bats on January 11th (see 2 paragraphs below).
In a particularly wicked turn, a popular argument among those in the opposition is that the MAS government itself is racist (and fascist/totalitarian), that it invents and exploits racial divisions and only seeks to advance those it deems “indigenous.” I believe this argument reflects an intentionally twisted understanding of race, ethnicity, discrimination, and oppression. At best it reflects a dangerous ignorance of the same.
I recently met with the prefect (governor) of the department of Cochabamba, Manfred Reyes Villa, with a delegation of North Americans. Very early on in his remarks, he made a point of instructing us that we should not believe the romantic myth propagated abroad about this government being indigenous and responding to popular demands for change. “Evo Morales is not even indigenous. He’s nothing but a coca grower. He doesn’t even speak an indigenous Bolivian language.” In formal settings, a lot of Manfred’s supporters and others in the opposition will say the same. “We’re all mestizos here – nobody is white or indigenous.” But I can’t count how many times in the past four months I’ve also heard Evo detractors, in more casual conversation, refer to him as “Ese indio de mierda,” (“that shitty Indian”), or say, “It’s a disgrace! How can we have an ignorant campesino as our president?!”
Before this week, the most recent bloody street violence in Bolivia had been in January of this year. Despite a strong referendum vote against regional autonomy in Cochabamba just a few months earlier, Manfred Reyes Villa had called for a new vote on the issue in an attempt to jump into the fore of the national debate and position himself as a top opposition leader. Campesinos marched on the city of Cochabamba in protest. The prefecture door was burned, as were a couple of cars. Then, well organized groups began calling on residents of the city to defend against the campesino invaders. Trucks drove through wealthy neighborhoods, distributing baseball bats, golf clubs, and sticks with nails in them. Throngs of the counter-protesters swarmed across police lines and attacked the campesinos, going after women and the elderly first and hurling vicious racial attacks, as well as brutal blows with their weapons. Street battles ensued, and by the end of the day 2 campesinos and one middle-class urban teen were dead.
The racism displayed that day shocked Cochabamba and all of Bolivia. Many youth groups were formed to study, organize, and act against racism and violence. Kids who had never witnessed such naked racist brutality, and had just been filled with newfound pride in their diverse and indigenous cultural heritage by the election of an Aymara campesino migrant as president, were and are scandalized by the social divisions now so clear in their community.
A Powerful, Wealthy, and Well-Organized Opposition
Economics plays a huge role in Bolivia. Keep in mind that Latin America is the region with the greatest disparity between rich and poor in the world, and the opposition here is led by the wealthiest citizens of the poorest country in that region (after Haiti). So it is important to point out that a strange situation exists in Bolivia, in which poor and well-organized sectors of society have managed to take control of the government, but have not actually taken control of power, per se. They have pockets of power, to be sure, but the power still residing with the government’s main political enemies is formidable, to say the least.
The opposition leaders have a lot to lose should the changes the government is proposing come to pass (changes demanded by the previously excluded majorities here). They own massive tracts of land, illegally given to many of them by military dictatorships. In the regions where they own this land, Bolivia’s 1953 land reform was never enforced, and a feudal kind of slavery still exists in many cases.
The opposition is also populated by former political leaders and high government functionaries who are much more experienced, politically savvy, wealthy, and connected than the leaders of the current government. They have friends in the US and elsewhere. They have run things for decades. They are not as clever as one might expect, but they are able to make things extremely difficult for the government.
They also own much of the media in Bolivia, and use it agressively. The news reporting here is shockingly biased and misleading. In many cases, it is just propaganda thinly disguised as journalism. The day before any protest, reporters find supporters of the protest, coach them on how to explain what they’ll be doing and why, and then show dozens of these “man-on-the-street” interviews in a row, as if they were random samplings, with 100% saying, “Yes, we have to support the protest! I’ll be there!” And then the reporters say, “There you have it. Cochabamba supports the protest. That will be tomorrow, noon, in the plaza, and everyone should bring pots and pans to bang…”
During yesterday’s general strike, I actually saw a 3-minute piece on how the peaceful citizens blockading the streets there were having a nice, traditional barbecue. Finally, the reporter said, on air, “Can I have a little bit of barbecue, to show the people what good and friendly people are carrying out this protest? There you have it – unfortunately I can’t actually share this meat with you in the studio and the viewers at home, but this is for all of you from our friends here at the blockades in Santa Cruz. Cheers!”
Many times, I’ve seen all major media outlets report opposition leaders’ accusations that Evo Morales’ government is totalitarian and dictatorial. The irony of that message being repeatedly communicated to the nation on tv, radio, and in print has caused me to joke with friends here: “If this is what it’s like to live under a totalitarian dictatorship, maybe I’ve always been too quick to judge totalitarian dictators. If it was this good under Stalin, Franco, and Hitler, I don’t quite see what all the fuss was about.”
After the violence over the weekend, Evo Morales addressed the country asking for calm, and almost all the networks refused to air his speech. In Sucre, tv stations openly called for vengeance and attacks on police and on government offices.
There are a lot of paid propaganda spots on television here from both sides. Much of it is from the opposition. Government-sponsored propaganda generally makes me squeamish – it’s just so George Orwell – but lately I’ve found myself wishing Evo and Co. would do more. This week, though, at least one or two channels started airing a great ad paid for by the administration, making some of the points I’ve been wishing they would make more forcefully. A woman gets in a taxi and says, “Driver, what do you think about the inflation? Everything is going up – rice, meat, oil. Sugar will surely go up, too!” And the driver answers, “But who do you think owns all of those industries? Branko Marinkovic (the head of the Santa Cruz Civic Committee) owns the biggest cooking oil producer in Bolivia. The Monasterios family owns the biggest cattle ranches. The family of the prefect of Santa Cruz owns the biggest sugar refinery. Don’t you think they have direct control over the sudden rise in prices?” She answers, “But why don’t we know abou this?” “How would we find out? The newspapers and television channels – Red Uno, Unitel – are owned by the same people.” “You mean on top of stealing from us, they lie to us, too?” “They may lie to you – me, I don’t listen to a word they say!” It’s all true. I hope people catch on.
Do also note in Jim’s blog that our prefect, Manfred Reyes Villa, openly called on the military to take power from the Morales government last week. Fortunately, the military quickly and roundly denounced his remarks. But it gives an idea of how desperate and undemocratic prominent opposition politicians are.
And one of the most frustrating things about the opposition: they have learned well how to use the language of democracy, and now of civil disobedience and even nonviolence. They know how well all of this plays to sectors like the US Embassy or the international press. This Orwellian mangling of language truly makes one wonder how dialog with such people – so desperately needed – can ever be possible.
That said, the government has generally sought dialogue at almost every turn. For the past two years, they have dialogued and negotiated with everyone they could, and avoided violent conflict where other governments surely would have engaged in it. In the last few weeks, however, they have responded to mounting pressure by the opposition by lowering their own heads and barreling ahead with their agenda, which has served to exacerbate things. Today, though, the president, the MAS prefect of La Paz, and the president of the Constituent Assembly are calling for dialogue. But the forces of opposition refuse. They don’t want dialogue because they have no interest in compromise – they seek only the failure of the government, consequences be damned.
Shades of Rwanda
For years now, I have told people in peace-studies and peace-building circles that Bolivia deserves much more attention than it receives. I feel that it has been the perfect example of a place where much theory about violence prevention and conflict transformation could be put into action. While things often seem quite dramatic to us on the ground here, Bolivian conflict has tended to be relatively low-intensity when compared to other parts of the world, particularly when discussing violence.
Now, I am very aware that one of the main strategies of the opposition, particularly through the media, has been to hype the existence and likelihood of conflict, in the hopes of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Whenever things get tense, headlines scream things like “The brink of civil war?” And so I do not wish to be alarmist inasmuch as being such would mean falling into a trap meant to foment the very conflicts I wish to avert.
But I fear not naming one of my most alarming concerns: I am observing here many classic elements of the lead-up to bloody conflict, and specifically the use of strategies that were successfully used to spur the genocide in Rwanda in 1994.
I don’t know what it was like on the ground in Rwanda in the years, months, and days leading up to the massacres there. I hope and suppose it is likely that, as has been the case with so many conflicts here, the clashes in Bolivia will remain at a much lower intensity than places like Rwanda. But all of the pieces seem to be in place – a general climate of discontent and resentment after a long history of colonial oppression; a concentrated campaign aimed at stirring up fear, hatred, and racial/ethnic and regional divisions; the aggressive use of the media in promulgating violent conflict; the near-total silence of international observers regarding these same trends. It is a frightening potion, to be sure.
I should mention here that, as in the case of Rwanda, I fear the church – in particular my own Roman Catholic Church – will do little to stop the conflicts. The bishops unnecessarily parrot the minority opposition’s arguments. Elitist clergy hold the most powerful positions. Dioceses have been divided as parishes have fallen into line with the general political sentiments of their neighborhoods, defined by class. The upper-middle-class former Maryknoll parish where I was married has taken up the disturbing and offensive custom of playing the national anthem during the consecration of the Eucharist. The pastor there is one the top vicars for the Archdiocese of Cochabamba. Basically, the Church hierarchy has lost its long-time place as the most trusted institution in Bolivia. Whereas conflicting parties used to beg the church to mediate, the bishops now find themselves repeatedly publicly offering to mediate conflict, and nobody takes them up on it. The Vice President has said that the Catholic Church is the last bastion of colonialism in Bolivia. Good priests I know say they agree with him.
Two confounding issues: ‘autonomy’ and the capital
The issues of autonomy and the location of the capital (specifically, the demand to move the seat of government from La Paz to the official capital, Sucre) have loomed large in recent conflicts. Here’s an explanation of both, from my perspective and as briefly as possible:
The eastern, lowlands part of Bolivia, now commonly called the “media luna” or half-moon due to its roughly crescent-like shape, is where a lot of the gas is here. There has always been a certain regionalism in Bolivia, particularly between “kollas,” from the Andean region, and “cambas,” from the lowlands. So, while calls for regional autonomy have been very minor in the past – particularly when what little wealth existed in Bolivia was coming from the Andean mining industry – the opposition to Evo Morales has pushed calls for “regional autonomy” (departmental – basically like states’ rights), making the argument that oil and gas money should stay where the oil and gas is, and not be wasted on the trouble-making Indians in the highlands. So, “Autonomy Now!” has become a battle cry for the cambas, especially in Santa Cruz.
Meanwhile, the MAS proposal for a new constitution also seeks decentralization and sub-national autonomies, but four different kinds rather than just departmental. They want autonomies for departments; sub-regions; municipalities; and indigenous and campesino groups. They have a whole complex, very interesting plan for how this would play out.
So, the issue is more complex than is normally explained in news reports. But the media-luna’s call for regional autonomy has been used to undermine the power of the Morales government at every turn. In Santa Cruz leaders have taken over the airport and begun charging arriving pilots cash “tax” payments, which are deposited in private bank accounts to circumvent paying normal national taxes. They have taken over the local tax offices. And the prefect there, during a standoff over the airport, publicly called on Cruceños to defend their airport from the police, saying “I am your only commander!” Now, the threat is that if the new constitution fails – or is passed in a way the opposition finds objectionable – they will begin to exercise “de facto autonomy.”
Of course, aside from wanting to maintain control over gas revenues, the autonomy has been a central plank in the opposition’s campaign to divide Bolivians, region by region. Another plank has been the issue of the capital.
A hundred years ago, there was a Federal War here, in which the seat of government was moved from the traditional capital of Sucre to the city of La Paz, where it remains. Only the supreme court is in Sucre. Now, the opposition – led by people in Santa Cruz, far from Sucre – has convinced people in Sucre and its department, Chuquisaca, that they should be the full capital, and that this would bring much-needed economic development to Chuquisaca.
Not to put too fine a point on it, this is a completely bogus issue. The proposal is unrealistic, most of the country doesn’t care, the issue was introduced at the Constituent Assembly later than the rules allow, and it is clearly being used only to divide the kollas and turn Chuquisaca against the president, with the overarching goal of derailing the Constituent Assembly.
In this sense, it has been an incredibly effective tool. Even MAS members from Chuquisaca split with the government and supported the proposal to move the capital. Sucre is now in total chaos, and the Assembly looks rather doomed.
Finally: Crisis Quashes Nuance
One thing that I’ve noticed happens in a situation like Bolivia’s, is a kind of circling of wagons among people who may not get along quite famously on the open trail.
It happens elsewhere, too. For years now I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to understand the situation in Venezuela. There are a lot of things that make me suspicious of Hugo Chavez, to say the least. But I know the corporate media coverage of Venezuela is less than trustworthy. At the same time, I’ve often been somewhat confounded by the cheerleading I’ve heard in the alternative media and even by friends in Venezuela. I may not trust reports that highlight all of the opposition’s claims and none of Chavez’s supporters’, but I am also wary of uncritical apologetics – for any government. I think now, being in Bolivia, I understand better.
I know a LOT of leftist types in Bolivia who, in our conversations here, are highly critical of the Morales government on many fronts. But those same friends know full well that the right-wing opposition here (and I don’t mean fiscal conservatives; I mean, in many cases, quite literally fascists) controls the dominant messages being transmitted to the masses of Bolivians and to the international community. And they know that some of Bolivia’s most important observers, such as North Americans, tend to watch Latin America through a lens tinted with preconceptions that favor the opposition. They also know that we live in a world of soundbites, and that the rest of the world understands little of the complicated issues at hand in Bolivia. And these are people whose main frustrations with the MAS government are with what they see as failures to successfully advance an agenda with which they generally agree. They have “how” beefs, not so much “what” beefs.
So, there is a common understanding among such people that criticizing the Morales administration publicly serves the interests of the opposition more than it serves their own interests. Two other parallels come to mind.
One is the controversy around public remarks by Bill Cosby and the idea that, to the extent that his comments may have some inherent merit, they constitute “airing dirty laundry” beyond the African American community, and do more harm than good.
Another is the public discourse of martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador. Inside the Church, Romero was a vociferous critic of priests and others who used liberation theology to justify taking up arms and putting their faith in secular political revolution as holding the promise of the Reign of God. At the same time, in his homilies and public pronouncements, Romero was – increasingly as time went on – very careful to always point out first and foremost the violence of the Salvadoran regime and military, the violence of poverty, and the legitimate issues of justice underlying the divisions in Salvadoran society. He did not allow his pacifism to be used by those opponents of the revolution who perpetrated the greatest forms of violence against the Salvadoran people.
And now I find myself in a similar situation. In the comments section on Jim Shultz’s blog, there are a handful of right-wing partisans who constantly leave angry screeds accusing Jim of never addressing the failures and abuses of the Morales government, and always addressing those of the opposition. As someone who values intellectual honesty, universal values, healthy skepticism of all state power, and dialog, I take those challenges to heart when considering my own public comments on the situation here. But to state every criticism I might have of this government given the context into which such critiques will be received would be to play into the kind of game US journalists play into when they confuse “balanced journalism” with saying equal numbers of damning things about all sides of every conflict. I’d much rather risk being labeled an apologist for this government than risk aiding and abetting its main opposition groups.
So, some day I will write about the troubling elements of militarism, the frequently baffling public rhetoric, the self-contradictions of the MAS regime. But for the moment, I am with my Bolivian friends: this president is the best real option I see for Bolivia right now, I generally support the government’s project, and they and their project are under concentrated attack. I say then, with all the enthusiasm an independent Christian anarchist pacifist skeptic in a foreign land can muster, “¡Viva La Constituyente! ¡Viva Evo!” And may peace with justice prevail.
That said, I don’t wish to end on a note of cheap hopefulness. I am indeed hopeful, because I have witnessed the courageous commitment of Bolivians to struggle for a better future, and the tendency of Bolivians to step back from the brink. But my hope is long-term. I must say it’s vague. For now, Sucre is in chaos, with no police and no proposal for a positive way forward. The opposition and the government are both desperate in the wake of this week’s events and as the December 14 deadline for the Constitutional Assembly nears. The new constitution may well be dead. At the same time, the government will not give up on its project to recreate Bolivia, to fulfill what it deeply believes to be a democratic and millennial mandate. And the opposition is only growing in its anger and determination to stop that project by any and all means available. As the government’s generally earnest attempts to achieve its revolution democratically face failure, one wonders what means the State will next employ. I find it difficult to imagine a quick, bloodless way through this to a desirable end. My immediate hope, then, is that this assessment reflects only my own lack of creative vision. Pray for Bolivia.
P.S. For those of you who read Spanish, there are three new pieces by my friend, Juan Carlos Pinto. Juan Carlos has been a friend of Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera since high school, they worked together in Mexico, and in 1992 they were both disappeared, tortured, and illegally imprisoned without a trial for 5 years, accused of terrorism for the links to a guerrilla organization. Juan Carlos has traditionally worked mainly with the Catholic Church, including working with me in prison ministry.
He is now working in REPAC, the Presidential Representation to the Constituent Assembly, helping to educate assembly members about the breadth of issues being debated in the assembly, and to educate the public as well.
He is currently in Sucre, and here he as written about the general events of the last week and their broader context, about the decision of the police to abandon the city, and about the inmates of Sucre’s prison, who were freed by the police so as not to leave them at the mercy of the attacking protesters, and who are now returning to prison on their own accord. It is powerful reading, and offers the first-person perspective of a Bolivian who is in the thick of it, who represents the government, and yet also writes in a voice very much his own.
I’ll translate just one passage:
“… Regardless of the radical way in which events have occurred, we are not witnessing a popular revolutionary insurrection, in which popular action achieves a collective re-taking of the city and its media in confrontation with the State, in which change occurs with conscience and a communal responsibility is assumed in place of the presence of the organizing State. This is not the Paris Commune with the victorious proletariat directing the process of social reorganization, taking self- determination as its foundation. It is the “Interinstitutional Committee,” (a self-appointed organization of opposition leaders) with its racist and exclusive discourse, which declares its fascism with the militant presence of it shock-troops – university groups and the “juventud cruceñista,” (a violent neo-Nazi style organization clearly linked to the Santa Cruz Civic Committee, although the latter denies this) who, supplied with offensive infrastructure and alcohol by functionaries (of opposition-led local governments), have taken control of the city.”