The U.S. embassy is always fighting the old race wars, but its ambitions are larger.
Elections in Bolivia on October 20 are being watched closely by those who have followed the astounding successes of that majority Indigenous nation, now led by an Indigenous social movement and its mestizo allies called the Movement toward Socialism (MAS). MAS, which is both a gathering of labor and grassroots coalitions and a political instrument, has presided over one of the hemisphere’s most vibrant economies, especially if measured by human happiness.
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MAS President Evo Morales Ayma is seeking reelection and leads the contenders by some 20 percent in the polls. He is a survivor of brutalization by the elite troops of Bolivia and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. When he was a union leader, they badly beat him and apparently thought he was dead. His neighbors were raped by the soldiers, their homes set aflame. Small coca farmers tell that the United States wanted to eradicate the poor and not the drug trade, because the oligarchy was deeply enmeshed in international cocaine trafficking and the U.S. worked with them hand in glove.
We can assume that Bolivians who think this way are always in the target sights of the United States. Women coca farmers, who are mostly Indigenous, took the initiative to organize collectively from the 1980s forward. At moments of national tension between the left and the right, Indigenous women across the country are beaten by rightwing militants, insulted, and driven out of public spaces in the cities. The twentieth-century elites are trying to win back their privileges through elections, however, facing probable defeat, they are calling for massive disobedience on the grounds of voter fraud – a claim with no evidence. Bolivia’s Indigenous cardinal, recently appointed by the pope, called on all the candidates to respect the vote of the people. The vote can be followed in real time on mobile devices.
Events in Bolivia are badly distorted by most mainstream press that prefers the old ways of doing things: The era when the U.S. embassy had an office inside the National Palace and another in Bolivia’s central bank, before MAS came to the presidency in 2006.
The wisdom of MAS lay in their decision to move with all possible speed to install the foundations of people’s power in this nation of 11.5 million. Facing a recall referendum from the right in 2008, MAS launched a process of mass participation to invent a constitution worthy of the people. Bloody aggression was the response of their political opponents.
The same rightwing shock brigades in the large lowland city of Santa Cruz that brutalized the poor over a decade ago, a group calling itself the Union of Santa Cruz Youth (UJC) that is fond of the symbols of fascism, mobilized its members to create chaos at a huge MAS rally on October 15. Their homemade weapons and bombs were discovered. They beat a police officer, who was hospitalized in critical condition. The third candidate in the polls, corporate executive and now senator Oscar Ortiz, defends the UJC as upstanding youth. Ortiz promoted, unsuccessfully, the violent secession of the lowland regions in 2008, with the assistance of the U.S. ambassador who had presided over the partition of Yugoslavia.
The Constitution guarantees diverse practices of democracy: Indigenous or communal, participatory or grassroots, and representative or electoral. In the coming 5 years, MAS wishes to anchor rights already in place, to root them so deeply they can never be removed: economic sovereignty, cultural dignity for 36 Afro and Indigenous nations, full personhood for women and an end to violence, in a nation that now enjoys the third-highest ratio of women politicians on earth, universal and free health care, universal and free education, and universal retirement benefits.
Starting in the first years of MAS governance, sweeping agrarian reform was enacted with generous credit. Over half of Bolivians receive state bonds based on need, and these have kept children in school, eased the hardships of elders, and cut infant mortality by half. Not even the leading rightwing candidate, Carlos De Mesa, dares to touch these programs, or so he says. De Mesa was the vice president of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, the president who ordered repression that killed 67 people in 2003, in the Indigenous city of El Alto during the working-class protests to defend Bolivia’s gas from sale to foreigners.
According to Evo Morales, De Mesa was anointed as the U.S. embassy candidate at an embassy function in 2017. De Mesa’s program is that of the International Monetary Fund.
Working-class and peasant politicians achieved majority control of the legislature years ago, many of them young because MAS was able to lower the age limit from 30 years to 18. Their presence has secured an array of gender rights, and respect for ancient spiritual practices that the evangelical right terms “witchcraft.” More recently, MAS legislators are trying to clean corruption out of the judiciary.
None of the eight opposition parties are socialist. They are opposed to an array of state programs subsidizing cell phones, cooking gas hook-ups, electricity, internet, piped water, and housing for those in need at low interest rates that has benefitted hundreds of thousands of people.
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In thirteen years since coming to power, MAS has guided Bolivia from one of the hemisphere’s nations with the greatest indices of human suffering, to a ranking among the five countries in the region with the most egalitarian distribution of income. Poverty has been cut by more than half and Bolivia enjoys the healthiest economy in South America.
The economic strategy called miraculous by agencies of the United Nations such as the Food and Agriculture Organization and the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, by rightwing journals, by the BBC, and even by the World Bank, is premised on “the bellies and the wallets of all Bolivians.” These are the words of Abrahám Pérez of the Bolivian Network for the Practice of Critical Economics, which in the 1990s devised a systematic plan based on “the constant strengthening of internal demand,” precisely “to withstand the shocks and assaults of the global economy.”
The strategy has involved, first, progressive nationalization of natural resources and companies serving fundamental needs. Second, building the industrial capacity to process subsoil resources has yielded many millions in added value. Third, the state invested the profits from expropriated companies and subsoil riches in the most pressing needs of the poor majority. In addition, a significant amount of the redistributed wealth comes from the flattening or lowering of the highest salaries of public servants. These straightforward and successful measures are anathema to the opposition parties.
Since the beginnings of MAS power, the attempts to overthrow a government made up of Indigenous, youth and women have been varied and intense, but almost always with the same core actors, people who absorbed the riches of the country during the neoliberal era when they themselves governed.
The emotions of the right have reached a fever pitch with the elections. Constitutionally recognized flags of Indigenous unity –the wiphala– are being banned from opposition rallies, burned and dirtied. Women who are Aymara street vendors and Quechua MAS members have been attacked during rightwing rallies in public plazas. Men who attend public MAS meetings suffer greater physical violence from the gangs of opposition youth who attack the perimeters of the political meetings. One can see such things as an effigy of the Indigenous president held up on a stick, swinging like a lynched corpse. While the neoliberal elites welcome into their midst Indigenous individuals who think like themselves, it’s clear that their party faithful are fighting the old race wars.
The U.S. embassy is always fighting the old race wars, but its ambitions are larger. Bolivia’s MAS is widely admired for its extraordinary economic skill, and for its courage in international arenas where Bolivian leadership has challenged the world to achieve peace, to reverse climate change, to honor the planet, its waters and of course its original peoples, to abolish borders, to dismantle U.S. hegemony, and to forge a coherent challenge to neoliberal thinking and practice.
The U.S. has staged coups with much less reason, and president Evo Morales reports that such coup plans are in progress according to “information gathered from so-called civic committees in Cochabamba and in La Paz, that involve former or inactive-duty military men, as well as some members of the Santa Cruz civic committee. They have been meeting. I have recordings of their conversations, they are preparing and saying: ‘We’ll launch the coup d’etat if Evo wins’.”
Bolivia votes today to decide on a political project that serves us all.
By Cindy Forster, professor of history in California, now collecting testimonies of African and Indigenous struggle in the Caribbean and Latin America.