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Bolivia: A coup against a peaceful political revolution

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La Paz, Bolivia. Image: EEJC/Wikimedia Commons

I am heartsick and angry about the coup in Bolivia. As Medea Benjamin writes from Bolivia, "the conflict here is spiraling out of control and I fear it will only get worse." Our so-called progressive Liberal government in Canada still refuses to denounce the racist coup. A democratically elected government was overthrown by the police and army, who then installed an interim president who is openly racist against the majority of Indigenous people in Bolivia. Thirty unarmed protesters have been killed so far and still Justin Trudeau is silent.

There is a lot at stake in Bolivia, a country with a long history of racism and violent oppression against its Indigenous majority. Evo Morales and the Movement for Socialism (MAS) was in the process of changing all that, even proving that socialism can work; reducing poverty and increasing economic growth.

Others have written about his positive record and detailed the horrors of the coup. What I want to do here is explain why Bolivia and its Indigenous leadership are so important to the future of the world.

In the summer of 2006, I spent five weeks in Bolivia to observe one of the most extraordinary revolutions in the history of humanity.

I was one of the first western journalists to interview Morales. At the time he told me: "First of all we must finish with the colonial state. Second finish with the neoliberal model. Our democracy has to non-violently guarantee the cultural revolution (of the majority of Indigenous peoples). It is culture that will change all of the structures of the colonial state.

"The Indigenous communities have historically lived in community. In collectivity, in harmony not only with each other as human beings but with mother earth and nature. We have to recover that."

Some would argue that Morales forgot some of these goals in the last few years, but there is no question that he came closer than any other government I can think of. In any case, if the people of Bolivia think he has failed, they should have the opportunity to vote him out of office in a democratic election. Before he was forced out, Morales himself said he would agree to such an election, but the right wing knew he would win and threatened violence to force his resignation with the support of Canada, slavishly following U.S. policy. 

In 2006, I was working on a book, Transforming Power: From the Personal to the Political. It was in part about the pink wave in Latin America and decided to visit Bolivia as part of my research. Below is an excerpt from a chapter in that book:

A deeply racist society, Bolivia had just elected an Indigenous government, which was attempting, with some success so far, to implement policies based on Indigenous practices and values. Little attention had been given to Bolivia -- not only in the global media but even within the writings of the left. When I started to look for information in 2006, the only written material I could find about Bolivia was decades old.

The streets are full of native women wearing bowler hats and native costumes. Each of the 34 different Indigenous communities in Bolivia wear distinctive clothing and hats. I never got an explanation for the bowler hats or how the women keep them on their heads in the windy climate, but it is a striking sight, especially on the head of a tiny woman wearing a very wide typical skirt and colourful shirt and jacket. Then I went to La Paz and with the help of a friend who had lived there, I was able to interview Morales and some of his ministers.

One day I was waiting for someone outside the office of a government minister. One of the most amazing signs of change is the number of campesinos (peasants), who have walked from their collective farms to La Paz to meet with their ministers. I started a conversation with one young man, who asked why I was interested in Bolivia. "I am interested in democracy," I responded, "and I think this is a very important experiment in democracy." 

"Yes, we know a lot about democracy here in Bolivia," he responded. "The problem is that our governments haven't understood it.  We are hoping this one will be different."

So far, it looks like this one is very different. 

Rooted in centuries-old traditions of communitarian socialism, reciprocity, and a oneness with the earth, and combined with decades of radical and militant trade-union and Indigenous struggles, the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) came to power in December 2005.  Evo, as everyone here calls him, is not only the first Indigenous leader in the Americas in more than 500 years, he is also a campesino and leader of the cocaleros (coca growers), one of the most militant groups in the country.

Morales explained to me that the Bolivian Indigenous organizations made a commitment at the Continental Indigenous Summit, held in November 1992 to mark the quincentennial of Christopher Columbus's voyage to move from resistance to the taking of power. The MAS led by Morales is not a political party in the classical sense. It is what people here call a political instrument of the social organizations. All the Indigenous campesino organizations got together and formed a political organization that could contest elections. While these organizations started the MAS, they were joined by various elements of the middle class, including intellectuals and elements of the urban left.

Nonetheless, Morales's power is in the tremendous support he has from a mobilized Indigenous movement.

The Constituent Assembly is not only symbolic of a re-founding of the country, with the Indigenous majority finally in government, but it promises to take some fundamental measures to change the economy as well as the structure of the state.  Since my visit, the often-racist Opposition has done everything possible to block these changes. From thugs to procedural wrangling to referenda on autonomy for the regions, the right in Bolivia, supported by the United States, has thrown every roadblock short of a coup into the path of the peaceful revolution begun with Morales's election.

When right-wing thugs started attacking MAS Constituent Assembly members in the fall of 2007, instead of sending in the army, Morales called on the Indigenous social organizations to mobilize, and they responded in their masses, backing off the violent opposition through their greater numbers. This is a peaceful revolution, the like of which we have never really seen before. So far, they have resisted violence themselves, even though they control the instruments of state violence, the army and the police. Understanding that there will be extreme opposition to this deep a transformation, the leadership of the MAS relies on the strength of an organized populace rather than the armed might of the state. On the other hand, they reject the idea that change can be gradual, and employ the same instruments used by the neoliberal state to make way for the new.

During my first visit to Bolivia we stopped on the road from La Paz to Cochabamba at the point of highest elevation, and three little children came to greet us. The older brother was about eight, his sisters six and three. They were beautiful, and, like all tourists, I wanted a photo. "No photo," the brother said firmly. Susan, who was travelling with me as interpreter and friend, thought he wanted money, so she offered some. "No photo," he insisted. 

"What would you like, then?" she asked him.

"A notebook," he replied.

Here we were, Gringo tourists asking this peasant child what he would like from us, and what he wanted was a notebook so he could go to school. Everyone in Bolivia to whom we told that story, from cabinet ministers to union leaders, responded with tears. Even the poorest peasant child living on a mountaintop now believes that he or she can do whatever she wants. "Evo gives us hope," one young teacher in Cochabamba told me. "We have never had hope before."

To symbolize these values, Morales cut his own salary and the salaries of all elected officials and government managers by 50 per cent, from 10,000 Bolivianos a month to 5,000. He explained that, when he was a campesino, he had lived on 1,000 Bolivianos ($125 US) a month, so he doesn't know why he and other government officials can't live on 5,000. The money saved went to hire 3,000 new teachers.

Political ideas emanating from Andean Indigenous philosophy present a polar opposite to the ideas of neoliberalism, but they are also quite different from many of the ideas of the traditional left. The focus of most of these movements is on pluralism and a multi-ethnic or multinational state. This idea, it is interesting to note, is also reflected in global movements around the world in which not just a respect for differences, but a real celebration of them, is part of the movement.

In Bolivia, they are trying to recreate a country without any one group or culture dominating. This is complex work and involves questions of autonomy and decentralization in a country with thirty-four Indigenous groups claiming cultural -- and in some cases land -- rights.

The challenges are formidable, but so is the energy and spirit of the people. For more than 500 years they have waited for this moment, and now it is theirs.

Judy Rebick is the founding publisher of rabble.ca. Her latest book is a memoir Heroes in My Head.

Image: EEJC/Wikimedia Commons

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