New Day for Bolivia
Today is Day One of the new Morales government in Bolivia. No one had predicted the tectonic shift which resulted in a 54 percent victory for the man everyone knows as Evo, the Aymaran Indian, leader of the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), and longtime head of the coca growers union. "It's like the slaves have elected the president, for the first time in 513 years," since the death of the last Inca king, said one community leader in El Alto, the vast Indian community that looks down upon this Spanish colonial city.
When he organized his doomed guerrilla base here in the Sixties, Che Guevara voiced despair in his Bolivian diaries of ever awakening the indigenous people around him. But today, a new Bolivian diary is being written, by Morales and the newly empowered people who elected him.
Bolivia's population mainly consists of Aymaran and Quechua people; they are the poorest in the Americas. They won the right to vote only fifty years ago, in a 1952 nationalist revolution that left them culturally and economically subordinate.
What are the immediate prospects and long-term implications for Morales's new Bolivia? On Day One there was widespread exhilaration, but there were also creeping worries. Social activists were delighted by some of his promises, for example, his inaugural declaration that the privatization of water violates a "basic human right." Only days before, the Bechtel Corporation had dropped its suit against Bolivia for alleged losses in a water-management project that ended when protesters from Cochabamba drove Bechtel from the country. Corporate insiders admitted that a major factor in Bechtel's retreat was "reputational," a desire to save its corporate image from further tarnishing.
Pablo Solon, a close friend of Morales and the country's leading critic of corporate-driven free trade pacts, was delighted by the news on water, almost giddy at the new possibilities, but worried that the United States already was moving behind the scenes to thwart Morales's vision of an independent democratic socialism, a kind of New Deal for the indigenous.
When we spoke, Solon sat in his foundation headquarters, amid dozens of exquisite sketches from the collection of his father, a well-known muralist. Images of tin miners with skeletal faces, and of Don Quixote being tortured, looked down from the walls. Solon, whose brother was murdered during military rule, was contemplating the new relationship between Bolivian social movements and the new government they had been pivotal in electing. The State Department reportedly already was moving to force Bolivia into an Andean Free Trade Agreement (AFTA, as in NAFTA or CAFTA) that would lock Morales's new government into subordination to the multinationals. US Undersecretary of State for Western Hemispheric Affairs Thomas Shannon was signaling privately that while Washington might be open to "dialogue" on the issues of hydrocarbons and coca planting, the issue of free trade itself was non-negotiable.
The Cost of Free Trade
In its effort to head off Morales, the US is allied with Bolivian businessman Marcos Iberkleid, the descendant of Jewish immigrants from Poland, and owner of a textile consortium known as Ametex (America Textil SA). Previous US-dominated Bolivian governments have envisioned Ametex, which employs 4,500 workers, as the motor of a textile-based exports strategy. For Iberkleid, this requires winning an extension on tariff preferences for textile exports to the US, currently due to expire at the end of this year. The US says that it will favor the extension only if Bolivia signs off on an overall free trade agreement.
One graphic example of how free trade pacts work is that the US plans to assert a right to patent plants and animals under intellectual property rights provisions. "It's against Andean policies and traditions," Solon almost shouts. Further, US drug companies and agricultural interests will seek to extend their patent rights from twenty to twenty-seven years. And Bolivia will have to surrender its judicial sovereignty over trade disputes, declared in Article 135 of its Constitution, to closed-door AFTA arbitration panels dominated by corporate property interests.
Enter Iberkleid, the Bolivian point man for the free-trade agenda. His credit rating was a "D" on December 30, according to the Fitch Ratings Index. He desperately seeks to keep filling the orders of his principal corporate client, Polo Ralph Lauren. The US embassy in La Paz has opened its doors three times to welcome Iberkleid's workers in their campaign in support of AFTA. By contrast, when Bolivian citizens petition the embassy for the Bolivian government's own request to extradite former President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada from Miami to prosecute him for the deaths of dozens of demonstrators in 2004, they get only as far as the security blockades at the embassy gate.
Iberkleid brandishes a threat that Morales fears--the possibility that Ametex workers will protest or, worst of all, begin a hunger strike on the streets of El Alto, demanding their jobs be saved. In an ominous sign of Morales's potential direction, on Day One the new president appointed the union leader at Iberkleid's plant as the Minister of Labor.
Working conditions at Iberkleid's factory, while not technically those of a typical maquiladora, are still based on the competitive advantage of offering the cheapest possible labor, says La Paz economist Tom Kruze.
"We have failed in the public debate to break the false belief that we have to export or die, " says Kruze, who specializes in labor economics. Fabric and clothing exports to the US represent only $35 million in total. "That's all, with this one man, Marcos Iberkleid, controlling 75 percent of them," says Pablo Solon. Hardly the basis for an economic miracle, Solon and Kruze also question Bolivia's future as a textile exporter when quotas are lifted on Chinese manufacturers in 2008. Any immediate benefits in extending US preferences for Iberkleid will be at the sacrifice of Bolivian sovereignty under a free trade agreement.
Evo Morales knows all this. "You are right, but there is huge pressure," he has told his friend Pablo Solon.
Solon hopes that Evo will denounce the US pressure as blackmail. But to illustrate the new president's vacillation, Solon swerves his hands back and forth. "They are trying in the next thirty days to convert Evo into a Lula," complained Pablo, referring to Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's acceptance of international financial rules after years of campaigning against the "neo-liberal" agenda. As recently as November 2005, Morales returned from an Argentina summit to declare his opposition to free trade agreements, for either the Andes or Latin America. But in his inaugural remarks in La Paz, the new president declared only that he would "analyze" the agreement, an equivocation that adds to Solon's worries.