Changing the Face of Bolivia

March 27, 2009 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

To understand the enormous political and social changes happening in Bolivia, one has to have some understanding of the history of the country.

It was created by Simon Bolivar at the end of the independence movement for Latin America and its iconic status represents the zenith of his achievements, although it lost huge tracts of land to Chile, Peru, Brazil and Paraguay in a series of 19th and 20th century wars.

It has the largest non-Spanish-speaking indigenous community of any Latin American country and also has one of the greatest gaps between rich and poor.

The modern political history of Bolivia stems in part from the 1952 revolution, in which the nationalist government sought to bring the main sources of the country’s wealth into public ownership.

But when the government encountered political intransigence within Bolivia and fluctuating prices for commodities such as silver and tin, it was forced to rely increasingly on international aid and support from the United States.

This support eventually became a millstone and degenerated into oppressive economic thinking and a series of military governments.

Indeed, Che Guevara’s death in Vallegrande in 1967 is the most well-known example of the defeat that the left forces suffered in Bolivia.

In reality, his death stemmed in part from the political disconnect between the campesino opposition to the military government and the urban industrial opposition to the same forces.

The 1980s saw Bolivian governments on a par with that of Pinochet’s in Chile and Galtieri’s in Argentina, which imprisoned people at will.

Such political debate as there was largely took place between rival military factions.

Many Bolivians were forced into exile by politics and poverty.

As Latin America eventually came out of the long night of military rule, the economic arguments developed into disputes about public spending and privatisation and, in Bolivia, the rights of indigenous people to speak their own language, occupy their own lands and grow the coca leaf, which is a benign product in its raw form.

To their eternal credit, the British National Union of Mineworkers always supported the Bolivian miners in their desperate hours of need and attempted to throw off the military occupation of the mines in order to present legitimate trade union activity. People in this country should never underestimate the importance of symbolic acts of solidarity.

There was a great battle over water privatisation in Cochabamba when the plan to sell off the water supply to international companies was defeated.

The growing strength of the coca growers’ federation eventually propelled Evo Morales into the presidency, the first elected indigenous president in Latin America.

Morales’s election was accompanied by a majority in the lower house of mass deputies for Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) and huge changes in the country. His government has nationalised a number of services and, crucially, it has nationalised hydrocarbon and mineral deposits.

The new constitution that was recently approved by over 61 per cent in a national referendum has granted equal status to all indigenous languages, land rights to traditional indigenous communities and some degree of self-government to nine provinces of Bolivia.

The debate about the constitution has been fierce and a special constitutional assembly was chaired by the redoubtable Silvia Lazarte, a self-taught indigenous woman and an extremely important and revered political figure in Bolivia.

She epitomises the changes that MAS has brought about.

There is enormous opposition to the new constitution and to the Morales government from a number of provinces, particularly Santa Cruz, which has the largest known deposits of gas and oil in the country. The debate centres around the question of who owns these resources.

Some 4,000 metres above sea level, in the poor but militant barrio of El Alto, I met representatives of the popular communities that have traditionally been the most oppressed by previous military governments.

They are now the most enthusiastic – but not uncritical – supporters of the Morales government.

They described their hopes and fears, their determination to achieve a better society and their aim to share Bolivia’s wealth with the poor of the infertile and inhospitable Altiplano.

The following day, I met the prefects of Santa Cruz in an air-conditioned office, away from the sweltering heat of the province’s relatively wealthy capital city.

They told me of their concerns about Bolivia’s change of direction and their fears over land reform and indigenous rights within the new constitution.

The new constitution is, like all such documents, a compromise.

The land reform limits new ownership to 5,000 hectares per individual, but it leaves intact the dozen or so mega-landowners who own hundreds of thousands of hectares of land, largely in the east of the country.

There are, however, reserve powers which allow the state to take over unproductive or unused land and redistribute it.

There are also indigenous people’s rights to occupy their own lands and use them in a traditional way for agriculture or stock-raising or managing sustainable forests.

Aside from Haiti, Bolivia has the largest proportion of poor people of any county in the Americas. And it faces the biggest challenges.

It’s short of capital to invest in exploration and processing of its rich mineral resources.

Generations of poverty and depression have led to more than a quarter of Bolivians moving abroad to Argentina, the US, Spain or the rest of Europe to seek a better life and still send remittances home.

The Bolivian people’s hopes rest on the new constitution and on the elections that are to take place later this year.

The potential for the richest provinces to break away from the rest of Bolivia is what excites the world’s media.

Undoubtedly, this is a huge issue, but most political leaders talk in terms of a different pattern of wealth-sharing rather than a complete breakaway and the poorest people talk much more in terms of education, health, housing and hope in the world.

Change of seismic proportions is taking place in Bolivia.

With the Morales election, the poor throughout the rest of the continent have seen a glimpse of a future based not on oppression and military government but based on democracy, accountability and the sharing of wealth.

Jeremy Corbyn is Labour MP for Islington North. This article first appeared in the Morning Star newspaper.

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