Bolivia on the Train of Life
The Elections and the Social Movements Today
By Jean Friedsky and Luis A. Gómez
Part One of a Series, Special to The Narco News Bulletin
September 9, 2005
LA PAZ: It’s been almost three months since the May-June uprising in Bolivia that brought the country to a halt, the government to its knees and President Carlos Mesa to an abrupt end of his term. The four weeks of protests were catalyzed by the passage of the new Hydrocarbons Law that increased the royalties and taxes on foreign companies extracting Bolivian natural gas. To the people of South America’s poorest nation who had long been demanding that the wealth produced by their country’s resources benefit the masses, the new law was unacceptable.
Within days, one of the biggest mobilizations in Bolivia’s recent history began to take shape. Coca growers made a week-long trek from the town of Caracollo to La Paz (the seat of national government), and trucks loaded with miners arrived as thousands of residents from El Alto – La Paz’s radical neighbor – started daily descents toward the government palace. El Alto declared a general strike that began to slowly suffocate La Paz. Hundreds of miles away, boulders, barbed wire, and tree trunks were dragged onto on the country’s few highways, blocking imports, exports, and land travel. At the vanguard of these massive demonstrations were the El Alto residents and the indigenous Aymara of the northern highlands, but hundreds of thousands of others – teachers, coca growers, students, taxi drivers, workers, miners – joined in the struggle.
By the end of the second week, three basic demands had emerged: the nationalization of the country’s hydrocarbons; the realization of a Constituent Assembly to rewrite a new constitution (a promise that Mesa’s government had made a year and a half earlier); and guarantees that autonomy would not be given to the department (state) of Santa Cruz (autonomy being codeword for the right wing’s efforts to maintain their profits from the region’s gas and petroleum reserves).
The marches grew, and the blockades slowly shut down La Paz and the entire country. Unable to find another alternative, Mesa resigned on June 6, which only intensified the conflict: next in line was right-wing Senate President Hormando Vaca Diez, whose accession would have provoked a civil war. To the relief of all, Vaca Diez renounced his right to the office, as did Mario Cossío (then the president of the Chamber of Deputies), though not before the social movements lost a mineworkers’ leader on the last day of protests. Just before midnight on Thursday June 9, Eduardo Rodríguez Veltzé, president of the Supreme Court, was sworn in as president of Bolivia, making it clear that he was fulfilling his constitutional mandate only to call new elections.
When the tear gas settled and the rocks were moved from the roads during the following days, it was not because the social movements had satisfied their demands. They accepted this temporary truce because, after four weeks of mobilization and a now “lame duck” government, the promise of new elections for President and National Congress gave them a reasonable opportunity to take a breath and think about next steps.
New elections presented to the Bolivian people an unavoidable question: Do we or do we not try to take state power? Since then, the left has given a multitude of answers. That’s what this report is about, at least in part…
The Electoral Locomotive
On September 5, ninety days before the December 4 general election, all the Bolivian political parties showed up at the National Electoral Court to register their lists of candidates. And so opened the new campaign season in this country, in which the right’s presidential candidates include former president Jorge “Tuto” Quiroga and cement magnate Samuel Doria Media. Also worth mentioning: the non-participation of former president Jaime Paz Zamora’s Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR), the failure of the seven cities’ mayors to create a wide electoral front… and a series of flag switches (from left to right, from right to left) and low blows struck in all directions via the media; the typical stuff.
Hopping onto the election express, we’ve got the popular parties and a good part of the Bolivian social movements. There, in the luxury car, is coca growers’ congressman Evo Morales with the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS). Morales will once again run for president, this time accompanied by analyst and former Narco News School of Authentic Journalism Professor Alvaro García Linera as his shiny new vice presidential candidate. The latest polls show a dead heat between “Tuto” Quiroga, Doria Medina, and Evo…
Until Sunday, September 4, Abel Mamani, president of the Federation of Neighborhood Committees of El Alto, was onboard that train as well… but they pushed him off. According to a report from the Agencia de Prensa Alteña (El Alto Press Agency), the members of the MAS “used the Federation of Neighborhood Committees (FEJUVE) and the Regional Workers’ Federation (COR) through their leaders, who saw themselves as potential candidates, only to obtain support for the next national elections and not to promote representatives of El Alto who would be capable of fighting for the development of El Alto and the surrounding department.” Surprised?
The recent history is more or less this:
In early August, García Linera, just days before officially launching his candidacy, held meetings with several different social organizations, including FEJUVE and COR from El Alto, the Coordinating Committee for the Defense of Water and Life, and the Bolivian Workers’ Federation (COB). The former guerrilla’s idea was to create a single united social front, which he would represent in a probable Evo Morales administration. But not everyone was thrilled, including the United Bolivian Farm Workers’ Federation’s (CSUTCB) Felipe Quispe, the legendary el Mallku of the Aymara nation. “It is not humanly possible; there is no liquid or chemical that could unite us,” Quispe explained, and abruptly broke his ties to García Linera, beginning a new diversifying process among the social movements.
Regardless, Evo Morales, Alvaro García Linera, and the MAS followers took their proposal forward. García Linera obtained support from various sources such as the Water Coordinating Committee and Oscar Olivera (though this support is explicitly critical). After the pacts were sealed, the patronage quarrels began. Who among those aligned with the MAS party would benefit from the well known “cuoteo politico” (the corrupt trading of political offices for allegiance, which Alvaro very humorously called “positions of electoral power”)? With complete control of who runs under their name in the congressional races, national party heads began to pick from their new list of allied organizations… how many people from group A will we run for deputy, who from group B will get to be prefect (departmental governor), who of our allies wants to be a senator…
On August 9, García Linera announced that the social front he had requested to support his candidacy was virtually consolidated and backed the MAS program. The candidate discussion moved ahead with full force but, curiously, not a single program proposal has come out, save for a something called “The MAS’ Ten Commandments.” This document fails to mention some of the most urgent issues, and speaks abstractly of laws to investigate wealthy estates, for autonomy, for the land issue, among other vague points. But the MAS does not speak of coca, nor directly of a “trial of responsibility” for former president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada for the massacres of October 2003. In the document’s discourse on the problem of land ownership, nowhere is there mention of the burning conflict surrounding the Landless Movement (MST), which has been forced off of large estates in Santa Cruz and suffers from constant aggression on the part of the state and landed elite.
Did we forget to mention that the great majority of the Landless are with the MAS? Or that coca growers (also of the MAS) from the northern Yungas region are about to initiate a blockade because the construction of a military base continues to threaten their way of life? Or that a few days ago we were with the families of people killed during the insurrection of October 2003 because their demand for justice continues and they keep fighting with the strength of their dead companions? No, we did not forget, but it seems that the MAS did, because except for speaking of campaigns and government, of candidates and of victory, they have not yet touched on these issues directly.
Well, the “great accord” that García Linera sought did not completely come together. The COB (one of the most important forces behind the mobilization of May and June) refused to sign on. Abel Mamani was thrown from the MAS train car on Sunday, a few hours before the deadline for signing up candidates. A downright ugly action, it left the FEJUVE president out of the race for the left.
Counterpoint Between Candidates
Also aboard the electoral train is el Mallku, once again running as the presidential candidate of the Indigenous Pachakuti Movement (MIP). Now, Felipe Quispe is neither a fool nor blind – he knows that his candidacy will not summon even half the votes of Evo’s… so why does he do it? We asked him. And Quispe explained to us the necessity of keeping his historical MIP party alive, “because if we skip two elections, as both presidential and local elections are happening now, we could lose our legal status as a party, which is not our own party but rather belongs to our people.”
Now, we are poor, the candidate is poor… the MIP is a political instrument of the poor. So, we are going to face the electoral process with what we have, in a homegrown fashion, but I know that we will move ahead. And that is what we have proposed: to begin our proselytizing among the poor, everywhere, in the Yungas, in the communities; everywhere that we say has the force of necessity.
In this political scenario, without unity from the social movements, with the demands of May and June still unmet for the people, Jean went to see Alvaro García Linera. With both el Mallku and with Alvaro, we touched on a few points surrounding the political agenda imposed by the people as well as their own intentions in entering campaigns. The first issue that caught our attention was precisely that of unity.
When we asked García Linera why unity was important, when the social movements have achieved so much without it, the MAS’ vice responded: “It is not true that they achieved anything without unity. There was unity in the first Gas War, in May and June, and in the Water War: we were all together.” He also explained that there is no national unity because the social movements are regional. “We have to put the movements into something more vertical, so that they can have access to power.” For him, that means consolidation in MAS, which he sees as “an arm of the left.”
Felipe Quispe answered differently when we asked the simple question: Why is there no unity in this campaign with the MAS? “We have differences with the MAS, we are not of one single line,” he said. “They proclaim a socialist program, but nevertheless there is contradiction within them. They speak of Andean capitalism, of an Andean bourgeoisie… in fewer words, of Andean neoliberalism.” Quispe also defended the MIP’s indigenous line as “something sacred” to them. “We cannot renounce that, because we are rooted in a communitarian society, of ayllus and communities where there are no rich or poor, where all human beings have equal living conditions. Let there be no racism; let the whites, the blacks, the indigenous, and the mestizos all be there… all the inhabitants of this ancestral land.”
El Mallku’s conclusion was devastating:
Our organization differs with the MAS in many things. But we have also signed various social and anti-neoliberal agreements with them. For example, we recently in April signed a pact for hydrocarbon nationalization… but all of a sudden, Evo Morales backs out and says that royalties should be fifty percent for the transnational and fifty for the Bolivian people. So, we do not agree with that kind of thought.
After coming around in late June to the people’s cry, MAS now proposes nationalizing hydrocarbons. In fact, it is the first of “The Ten Commandments” – “nationalization of the hydrocarbons and industrialization of the gas.” And as García Linera told is, “it will be impossible to have a MAS government without nationalization.” El Mallku, in his “simple and concrete” program, proposes it “without any reimbursement for the transnational corporations.” So there is at least a minimal convergence between the two programs in this fundamental demand of the people.
Both political groups believe the Constituent Assembly an opportunity to profoundly change this country. The MAS speaks of “designing the new dignified, communitarian, and productive National State”. The MIP, says Felipe Quispe, is along the same lines, but the movement’s members want “a sovereign and native Assembly. A Constituent Assembly composed ninety percent of indigenous people.”
Both Quispe and García Linera told us many things about the political strategies and conception of the present scenario in Bolivia, which we will share with you at another time. But we will close by saying that, while el Mallku is aware of the difficulties he faces as a candidate, the MAS vice presidential candidate is happy and sure that his possible triumph will be a victory for “the great majority of the people.” Though, as the law allows, Alvaro García Linera also registered as a congressional candidate (as Evo Morales, Felipe Quispe and many others have also done in their time).
“For my part, no, I am not going to be a congressman,” Quispe told us, making clear that his way of doing politics is based on “growing.” However, he did not completly dismiss the possibility. “If it turns out that a wide part of the MIP decides that I should be a congressman, then I would have to be one…” Surely, there are others onboard the electoral train, though they are smaller than those of the MAS or the MIP and are all quite behind in reviewing their chances and the reach of their political proposals…
The scenario as it is, your correspondents in Bolivia have decided to let the Bolivia electoral train leave without us. We expect little or nothing from it for now, except for the usual gossip and low blows of traditional campaigning. We took a look to see if the schedule hanging in the station had something to offer us. And indeed, the train of life appeared, picking us up.
Welcome aboard, kind readers; this train will make stops at the follow stations: land, coca, water, justice, health, education, work, gas. We’ll see what the people say, what is happening with the lives of millions of Bolivians – nearly all of them indigenous, those whose survival is threatened daily – while the politicians parade on, as one Aymara leader told us, “in this market of political posts, in [their] animal fair.” We suggest you stay in your seats, dear readers, because it is here that we will begin to understand a deeper, richer Bolivia…one that is not determined by the clock of the electoral schedule.
Enjoy the trip!
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