Voting vs. Movement
A Perspective on Today’s Election in Bolivia
By Luis A. Gomez and Jean Friedsky
Special to the Narco News Bulletin
December 18, 2005
The clock has officially wound down. Today, Sunday, December 18, 2005 Bolivians will go to the polls to elect their new president and Congress. The contest between Evo Morales and Jorge “Tuto” Quiroga has become one of Latin America’s most anticipated elections in years, viewed as a battle between Bolivia’s widespread anti-imperialist sentiment and the neoliberal Washington–friendly status quo. Whether Evo will win the presidency has thus been cast as the baseline for determining the path on which Bolivia will proceed.
This is an over-simplified perspective, and a damaging one. So, as is custom here on Narco News, we would like to set the record straight.
First, a glimpse of what some social movements have been up to in the past few months:
- On December 4th, the Cochabamba-based Coordinating Committee for theDefense of Water and Life, along with more than 40 organizations from across the country, founded the National Coordinating Committee in Defense of Water and Basic Services, an unprecedented coalition with tremendous potential.
- Members of the Guarani nation issued an denunciation of Spanish oil company Repsol last month for the environmental destruction the company has caused on Guarani land and are embarking on a campaign to force the company to respect local laws and international standards.
- Just last week, Alteños (residents of the indigenous city of El Alto, next to La Pasz) convoked a national Popular Workers Summit, pledging to unite in the fight for “nationalization without indemnity,” a National Popular Assembly, and several other workers’ demands. (They concluded that no political party represented these interests and issued the next government a 90-day deadline for proving their worth before mobilization begins).
Though they have passed under the international radar, these developments show that many on the Bolivian left have not been immersed in electoral fever. These groups continue to shape their own future through grassroots organizing, rather than entrust their dreams to a political party.
As for the election itself, a quick review of what’s being said. If you have read even one article on Bolivia in the past month, you have heard the following:
- Evo Morales (seen by some as Che Guevara’s reincarnation) is an indigenous former llama herder who may or may not be receiving direct funding from Chavez, but whose radical campaign trail rhetoric scares Washington.
- Evo’s political party, MAS (Movement Towards Socialism in its Spanish initials), is representative of Bolivia’s leftist majority and plans to legalize coca and reverse Bolivia’s neoliberal economic course.
- The MAS’ inability to fulfill its own campaign promises could cause its downfall.
Separating out the lies (Chavez’s supposed funding) and the trite simplifications (Evo=Che), we are left with mis-representations easily exposed by examining MAS’s own proposals. For example:
- Coca: Evo has not said his government will unilaterally decriminalize coca. On the contrary, they have agreed to respect all previous international accords on coca eradication, including those signed with the United States.
- Economic Policy: A recent in-depth report published by the reputable Bolivian NGO Center for Labor and Agrarian Studies (CEDLA in its Spanish subtitles) on the three leading political parties’ governmental plans finds that “the electoral proposals of MAS, Podemos (Tuto’s party) and UN (National Unity Party) maintain a neoliberal economic political orientation that favors the accumulation of transnational capital and the growth of the primary-export sectors, with the state’s role being to guarantee the reproduction of private capital—fundamentally transnational—in Bolivia’s strategic economic sectors.”
- Gas: MAS has stated that it will respect the Hydrocarbons Law signed on May 18, 2005—the controversial bill that sparked the May/June mobilizations of this year (the infamous Second Gas War). As for the MAS’s “nationalization” promises, CEDLA’s investigation finds that all three parties’ proposals “seek to veil their interest in maintaining, with certain differences, the monopoly control by the transnational corporations of the hydrocarbon resources of the country.”
The possible downfall of a MAS government could actually result from its complying with its own agenda, rather than its inability to do so.
The campaigns have been laden with mud-slinging and politics-as-usual. Tuto and the Right denounce Evo as a narco-trafficker who will run the nation into the ground. The rightwing campaign ads and slogans have racist and condescending undertones. And figuring out the exact governmental plan of Podemos is a challenge; getting access to an interview with someone who can to talk about their programs is virtually impossible.
The wide-spread current mistrust of the MAS by the social movements who, through their street protests, handed Evo his chance to be president in 2005 on a golden platter is only occasionally discussed in the media. Ignored is that fact that their criticism is grounded in the MAS’ own actions.
Since 2002, MAS has behaved like a traditional political party—sacrificing the demands of their constituency for politically expedient ends. Its close alliance to the Mesa government and its delayed support of nationalization in May and June are the two most commonly cited examples of how the MAS has already begun to de-legitimize itself in the eyes of the people.
It is all but given that Evo will win the popular vote—by what margin and whether the Congress follows that lead are the remaining questions. Should he win by more than 5 percent, only to be blocked from ascension to the Presidency by the right wing, the streets will likely erupt before March.
The possibility of an Evo presidency makes many nervous, including us. Our fear is not that Evo’s broad bases will revolt should he not satisfy expectations, but that they won’t.
In recent years, Evo’s primary constituency (the cocaleros) and the more radical sectors (the Aymara of El Alto and the surrounding highland provinces) have risen up simultaneously when their interests overlap. But what happens if one group’s allegiance to an elected official overrides their desire to protest?
A resulting split could have irreparable damages for Bolivia’s indigenous—arguably the strongest social movement base in the world today.
For all of these reasons, Narco News focused away from the electoral ring almost completely during the past two and a half months. We embarked instead on the train of life, traveling through the terrain of coca, land and justice for the crimes of Black October to find out what the people care about and what they are doing to make a change. The Evo and MAS presence in these areas was minimal at best, misleading at worst.
From our point of view, votes on Sunday will have little direct impact on life in Bolivia: the demands and the dreams of the people, the exploitation and the ransacking, will remain static. Should Evo become the next president, the Bolivian left may be in for a greater scare than Washington.
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