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Bolivia’s Trial by Fire
by Benjamin Dangl
12 January 2006

Benjamin Dangl has traveled and worked as a journalist in Bolivia and Paraguay.

He edits, uncovering activism and politics in Latin America and, a progressive perspective on world events.

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After winning a landslide election victory on December 18th, Bolivian president-elect Evo Morales announced plans to nationalize the country’s gas reserves, rewrite the constitution in a popular assembly, redistribute land to poor farmers and change the rules of the U.S.-led war on drugs in Bolivia.

If he follows through on such promises, he’ll face enormous pressure from the Bush administration, corporations and international lenders. If he chooses a more moderate path, Bolivia’s social movements are likely to organize the type of protests and strikes that have ousted two presidents in two years.

In the gas-rich Santa Cruz region, business elites are working toward seceding from the country to privatize the gas reserves. Meanwhile, U.S. troops stationed in neighboring Paraguay may be poised to intervene if the Andean country sways too far from Washington’s interests.

For Bolivian social movements and the government, 2006 will be a trial by fire.

The Social Movements and the State

Among the presidential candidates that ran in the December election, Morales has the broadest ties to the country’s social movements.

However, he has played limited roles in the popular uprisings of recent years. During the height of the gas war in 2003, when massive mobilizations were organized to demand the nationalization of the country’s gas reserves, Morales was attending meetings in Geneva on parliamentary politics.

After the 2003 uprising ousted right-wing president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, Morales urged social movement leaders to accept then vice president Carlos Mesa as Sanchez de Lozada’s replacement.

In June 2005, when another protest campaign demanding gas nationalization forced Mesa to resign, Morales helped direct the social movements into governmental channels, pushing for an interim president while new elections were organized.

Morales’ actions during these revolts were aimed at generating broad support among diverse sectors of society, including the middle class and those who didn’t fully support the tactics of protest groups. This strategy, combined with directing the momentum of social movements into the electoral realm, resulted in his landslide victory on December 18th.

In spite of Morales’ relative distance from social movements, his victory in a country where the political landscape has been shaped by such movements presents the possibility for massive social change. Once he assumes office, Morales has pledged to organize a Constituent Assembly of diverse social sectors to rewrite the country’s constitution. It is possible that this could allow for a powerful collaboration between social movements and the state.

Vice President-elect Alvaro Garcia Linera says such collaboration is possible.

He contends that MAS, the Movement Toward Socialism party which he and Morales belong to, is not a party but rather,

“a coalition of flexible social movements that has expanded its actions to the electoral arena. There is no structure; it is a leader and movements, and there is nothing in between. This means that MAS must depend on mobilizations or on the temperament of the social movements.”(1)

Oscar Olivera, a key leader in the revolt against Bechtel’s privatization of Cochabamba’s water in 2000, believes the relationship between social movements and the Morales administration will play a vital role in creating radical change in the country.

Olivera participated in the December election because he felt that it was part of,

“a process of building strength so that in the next government… we can regain control of natural resources and end the monopoly that the political parties have over electoral politics…

We are creating a movement, a nonpartisan social-political front that addresses the most vital needs of the people through a profound change in power relations, social relations, and the management of water, electricity, and garbage.” (2)

To sustain their momentum and unity, an alliance between some of the most dynamic social groups was formed in early December 2005 in the first Congress of the National Front for the Defense of Water and Basic Human Services.

This alliance includes the Water Coordinating Committee of Cochabamba, the Federation of Neighborhood Councils of El Alto, the Water and Drainage Cooperatives of Santa Cruz, as well as neighborhood organizations, cooperatives, irrigation farmers, and committees on electricity, water rights and other services from all over the country.

In many cases, these autonomous groups have organized methods of providing citizens with basic services which the state fails to offer. Such a coalition of grassroots forces may pave the way for a nation-wide, alternative form of governance.

Tangling Over Coca

Morales plans to fully legalize the production of coca leaves and change the rules of the U.S.-led war on drugs in his country.

White House officials are wary of any deviation from its anti-narcotics plan in Latin America; a strategy they claim has been successful. However, U.S. government statistics and reports from analysts in Bolivia tell a different story.

A recent report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office explains that,

“While the U.S. has poured 6 billion dollars into the drug war in the Andes over the past five years…the number of drug users in the U.S. has remained roughly constant.”

In an interview on National Public Radio (NPR), Nicholas Burns, the State Department’s undersecretary for political affairs, said the Bush administration hopes,

“that the new government of Evo Morales in Bolivia does not change course, does not somehow assert that it’s fine to grow coca and fine to sell it.”

Though it is a key ingredient in cocaine, coca has been used for centuries in the Andean region for medicinal purposes; it relieves hunger, sickness and fatigue.

It’s also an ingredient in Coca-Cola, cough syrups, wines, chewing gum, and diet pills.

The U.S. Embassy’s website for Bolivia suggests chewing coca leaves to alleviate altitude sickness.

“Trying to compare coca to cocaine is like trying to compare coffee beans to methamphetamines, there’s a universe of difference between the two,” Sanho Tree from the Institute for Policy Studies explained on NPR.

“We have to respect that indigenous cultures have used and continue to use coca in its traditional form, which is almost impossible to abuse in its natural state.”

Georg Ann Potter worked from 1999 to 2002 as an advisor to Morales, and since then has been the main advisor to the Coordination of the Six Women Federations of the Chapare, the country’s biggest coca growing region.

Potter explained that although Morales plans to continue a hard line approach against the drug trade, the current policies of the U.S. war on drugs need to change.

“One billion dollars has been spent [on alternative crop development] over the last 20 years and there is little to show for it,” she said. “Forced eradication resulted in many dead, more wounded, armed forces thieving and raping.”

It’s widely held among critics of Washington’s anti-narcotics agenda for Latin America that the U.S. government uses the war on drugs as an excuse for maintaining a military and political presence in the region.

A report from the Congressional Research Service stated that the U.S. war on drugs has had no effect on the price, purity and availability of cocaine in the U.S. Potter explained that even the U.S. government admits that,

“Bolivian cocaine, what there is of it, does not go to the U.S., but rather to Europe.”

The Andean Information Network, a Bolivia-based NGO which monitors human rights issues in the U.S.-led war on drugs, recommends that,

“the U.S. should recognize studies that have determined that domestic education, prevention, and rehabilitation programs are more effective in altering drug consumption, and accordingly address the demand side of the war on drugs.”

Between a Rock and Hard Place

In regard to the country’s gas reserves, the Morales administration could go in two directions.

It could fully nationalize the gas reserves and face the wrath of multinational corporations and lending institutions that want exactly the opposite to happen. Or it could renegotiate contracts with gas corporations, and partially nationalize the industry.

Choosing the latter option would likely generate massive protests and road blockades.

Social movement leaders have stated that if Morales doesn’t fully nationalize the gas, the population will mobilize to hold the administration’s feet to the flames.

“We will nationalize the natural resources, gas and hydrocarbons,” Morales explained.

“We are not going to nationalize the assets of the multinationals. Any state has the right to use its natural resources. We must establish new contracts with the oil companies based on equilibrium. We are going to guarantee the returns on their investment and their profits, but not looting and stealing.” (3)

Any move that Morales makes is likely to upset either corporate investors, social movements or both.

Previous Bolivian presidents Carlos Mesa and Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada walked similar gauntlets and ended up being ousted from office by protests.

A secession movement in Santa Cruz, the wealthiest district in the country, also threatens Bolivia’s peace. An elite group of businessmen lead the movement to separate Santa Cruz from the rest of the country, which would allow for the full privatization of the gas industry regardless of what protest groups, and the federal government, demand.

This group has been accused of maintaining militias organized to defend their autonomy.

Other methods of destabilization are already underway. Documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act reveal that the U.S. government has spent millions to support discredited right-wing political parties and stifle grassroots movements in Bolivia.

Between 2002 and 2004, a grant from the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy (NED) allowed for the training of thirteen “emerging political leaders” from right-wing parties in Bolivia. These 25-to 35-year-old politicians were brought to Washington for seminars.

Their party-strengthening projects in Bolivia were subsequently funded by the NED. (4)