New Day for Bolivia

New Day for Bolivia

The inauguration of Evo Morales as Bolivia’s first indigenous president opens a new era for Bolivia and a turning point for political, diplomactic and trade issues in the Americas.


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.

Ending ‘El Modelo’

Such are the practical problems confronting any radical movement that achieves political power. Evo Morales has yet to define where Bolivia will stand in the spectrum of new Latin American nationalisms, which range from Cuba and Venezuela, which so far oppose any free trade deals with the Americans, to the more reformist Brazil, Argentina and Chile, which see themselves as driving bargains for their domestic industries in a free-trade context. In part these differences reflect different economic realities–Cuba is under US embargo, while Venezuela is a source of oil–rather than ideology alone. But Morales has preached a “communitarian socialism based on the community, a socialism, let’s say, based on reciprocity and solidarity. And beyond that, respecting Mother Earth, the Pachamama. It is not possible within the [neo-liberal] model to convert Mother Earth to merchandise.”

When I interviewed Morales in 2004, he said the “struggle is not only in Bolivia, because el modelo [the neo-liberal model] fails especially for the poor,” adding that multinational domination “is not going to happen” because “it’s a clash between two cultures, the indigenous versus the US, sharing versus individualism.”

Morales’s vice president is Alvaro Garcia Linera, a former guerrilla leader, political prisoner, academic researcher and public commentator. He describes the Morales-MAS coalition as one on the “center-left.” Socialism, he says, is not possible in a Bolivia where a proletariat is “numerically in a minority and politically non-existent,” and where the economy has imploded into family and community structures, “which have been the framework within which the social movements have arisen.” Linera favors an “Andean capitalism,” which will build a “strong state” to transfer the surplus of the nationalized hydrocarbon industry to “encourage the setting up of forms of self-organization, of self-management and of commercial development that is really Andean and Amazonian.” In other words, modern economic development would be embedded in, or allied with, the traditional communal structures of the indigenous people, instead of replacing those structures with vertical forms of control.

In an interview with Monthly Review before the election, Morales described socialism as “something much deeper” than the class-based model, founded on the indigenous values. It is likely that Bolivia will contribute to this indigenous framework to the ongoing debate over a Latin American alternative to neo-liberalism. That suggests that he will avoid surrendering to the free-trade model Washington demands. Instead, he is proposing a “constituent assembly” that will transfer even greater power to communities excluded by the colonial Bolivian state. He has said “a new integration is possible,” borrowing from the global justice movement’s refrain that “another world is possible.” >

There is another factor in the equation, a North American one, often ignored by the analysts. “We need support in the United States, not only about our image but especially about these trade agreements,” Pablo Solon said. There is so far only a fledgling network of Bolivian solidarity activists, compared with the US movements during the Central American wars of the 1979s and ’80s. And despite remarkable but unheralded work by fair trade activists like Citizens Trade Watch in the US, demonstrations and lobbying have so far only dented, but not prevented, Congressional acquiesence in the US Administration’s drive to assure corporate property rights over labor and environmental standards. When I interviewed him two years ago, Morales said he sided with “the many movements in the United States struggling against neo-liberalism, and we must struggle together.”

In sum, a far stronger alliance between Latin American and North American social movements, based on a common anti-corporate, pro-indigenous, pro-democracy agenda, might become a crucial factor in expanding the possibilities of what leaders like Evo Morales feel able to achieve. Twenty years after Bolivia was plunged into chaos by US-imposed privatizations, there is an incipient rethinking of free trade in US establishment circles. For example, Newsweek reported in January that a “new consensus” is developing that “trade is not enough to end poverty” and that “what’s needed is more government intervention in economies, not less. Call it a new New Deal, and get ready to hear much more about it in 2006.”

But there is little sign of this welcome development in the US approach to the new Bolivia. It is likely that multinational oil companies will accept greater sharing of their wealth, and the transfer of controls over industrialization, to Bolivians. But that is because their profit margins are in the range of 30 percent, according to a corporate attorney I talked to who had fifteen years’ experience in Bolivia. But a World Bank official I interviewed repeated the official dogma that development depends on unfettered private foreign investment. Her key suggestion for Evo Morales was that Bolivia’s street vendors–about 70 percent of Bolivians are employed in the “informal sector,” selling Fresca and toothpaste on the streets–should be licensed and registers so they can be taxed. It is a trickle-up policy sure to be resisted.

Indigenous Icon

Whatever Evo Morales decides on the immediate question of textiles, it would be premature to categorize the Bolivian revolution as over, or to dismiss it as merely “neoliberalism with an Indian face.” But this is the thrust of some on the Left, as in the recent Democracy Now! interview with James Petras, a longtime expert on the region, who says that Morales is only a social democratic reformer Washington can live with. Petras may be right that the new Bolivia will seek to avoid the kind of confrontation with the United States exemplified by oil-rich Venezuela, but such criticism underestimates the moral and political importance of the Bolivian revolution for the indigenous poor. What Petras may be underplaying is the large, radical left indigenous movement in Bolivia–such as the movment led by Felipe Quispe–that is evaluating his every policy move. The “Indian question” has rarely been an emphasis of the left, but it still remains the central question in Bolivia, in the Andes, in Chiapas, and much of Latin America.

Few whites or mestizos understand this as well as Linares, whose life has been devoted to what he calls the “decolonization of the state” so that indigenous people will govern, ending a fault line that has existed between society and the state in Bolivia for 180 years. “Fifteen years ago, we thought that it could come about through an armed uprising of the communities. Today, we think it is an objective that we can attain through a great electoral triumph.” He calls for a new dialogue between “indigenism” and a Marxism which only perceived the Indians as reactionary or the dependent clients of humanitarian non-governmental organizations.

Nothing illustrates the profound importance of this shift more than the inaugural ceremonies over the past weekend. Since Linares was sworn in as vice president first, it became his duty to place the presidential sash over the shoulders of Morales. In a moment that millions watched on television, Morales visibly shed a tear, buckled slightly, then embraced his friend and became Bolivia’s first indigenous president. Not only had the indigenous majority voted for him, but also at least one-third of the white or mestizo privileged classes, an outcome that ended centuries of brutal discrimination and marginalization.

Even more important was the ceremony on Saturday, when indigenous spiritual leaders inaugurated Evo Morales in their own way, at the pre-Inca ruins known as Tiwanaku, on the remote altiplano near Lake Titikaka. There, as 30,000 or more waited and witnessed, Aymara leaders changed Evo’s clothes into native ones, removed his shoes so that he would stand on Pachamama (Mother Earth), and gave him a walking stick decorated in gold and silver, representing the transfer of authority for the first time in five centuries.

There the world watched the rising of another kind of power, one more cultural than political, that of a postmodern Indian icon. Garbed in a red ceremonial robe and holding the staff of power, Evo Morales stood in a portal cut from a single block of stone ten feet high, eleven feet wide, estimated to weigh ten tons. Like the ancient portals at Newgrange in Ireland or Maya sites in Central America, the stone portal was designed to receive the rays of the sun at the equinoxes, a reminder of pre-Inca science and cosmology.

The image flooded the world, over the heads of the technicians of power and stenographers in the media, a visceral reminder that another globalization is possible, and that the “Indian question” is not over, not for the United States, not for Western culture, not for the progressive left, but only beginning again.

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