A poster of “Guernica” was bursting from the wall, and the umpteenth Latin American rendition of “My Way” was booming from the record player. I was sharing a hand-carved table in a Cochabamba cantina with a cowboy from the Chapare, an anti-capitalist immigration officer, an anarchist surgeon, and a barbacoa-restaurateur. Now thrown into the urban mix, all boasted roots in Andean Native cultures, and all had been early supporters of the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) forged by Bolivia's first indigenous president in 500+ years, Evo Morales.
The conversation was fiery and, as is normal in the Andes, its topic was politics.
Despite this crowd‟s current claim to the middle-class, the agreement among them echoed a lasting truth of Bolivian culture: a tendency to view things from the perspective of the collective, rather than solely from one's perceived interests.
And indeed, this conversation echoed other charlas I'd had with campesinos, artisanos, taxi-trufi drivers, and union members – and I need to be straight with you: things are not going well for the government of Bolivia's indigenous leader. It was only a matter of filling in the details – and, in between gulps of Auténtico beer and Cuban mixed drinks, said details were pouring forth at the cantina.
Forked Tongue I: Madre Tierra
Out of one tine of what has become the Morales administration's two-sided tongue come blood-stirring proclamations like the president‟s empassioned grito “¡Planeta o Muerte!” at the 2010 Cancun climate change talks. Brilliant. Then there is the stark refusal to sign on to the watered-down agreement at said talks. And now comes the nation‟s new law proclaiming the rights of Madre Tierra – to some minds, a legal-philosophic leap that, a few decades ago, only traditional Native peoples, bioregionalists, and primitive-anarchists could imagine.
But, sorry to say, the other spine of the eco-fork must be given voice. The following is a list of some projections, plans, under-construction projects, and accomplishments of the administration:
the launch of genetically-modified agriculture into a countryside nearly free of GMO‟s;
two under-construction hydro-electric dams 300% bigger than the U.S.'s Hoover Dam at a cost of $13,000,000,000, slated to channel water to Brazil in exchange for monies to boost Bolivia's petro and plastic industries – this, in a country where many communities have no potable water and water-borne illnesses are rampant;
in a nation uncontaminated by nuclear radiation: plans for uranium mining and nuclear power plants, aided by Iran;
blankets of electromagnetic radiation in the form of Wi-Fi and WiMAX -- with the state telecommunications corporation bragging of 1350 new radiobases and more to come;
commodity-transporting super-highways bulldozing through Constitutionally-protected indigenous lands and nature reserves harboring thousands of rare plants and animals, including endangered species;
new oil excavations;
new gas excavations;
reinvigoration of the world-class silver mine at San Bartolomé/Potosí, constructed by the U.S.'s Coeur d'Alene Corporation (a business of the Schitsu umsh/Coeur d'Alene tribe of the Pacific Northwest -- not)
in partnership with Mitubishi, Sumitomo, South Korea, and Iran: lithium excavation and industrialization -- threatening leeching, leaks, emissions, and spills in the world-treasure salt flats; promising to deplete its fragile water supply; and endangering the world's only large-scale organic quinoa-growing region and Bolivia's own ace-in-the-hole for hearty economic trade;
Bolivia's own Made-in-China satellite, an expenditure of $295,000,000 in a country where, according to the United Nations Development Program, more than half live in poverty;
with the help of India, the construction of humankind's largest iron mine;
900 miles of pipeline slated to transport natural gas to Argentina; and
an explosion of airport, factory, and high-rise construction.
In other words: full-tilt, high-tech, colossal-scale, high-capital modernization -- on a Madre Tierra in which such expansion has already been shown to be The Problem.
Forked Tongue II: Democracy
Regarding governance, from one side of Bolivia's forked tongue is spoken the legal language of plurinationalismo. After centuries of dictatorships, neoliberal governments, and military juntas, the 2009 Morales-initiated Constitution legitimizes a form of decentralized federalism: a reinstatement of decision- making to local communities, whether defined by place, indigenous heritage, or worker identity.
But, from the other tine of the fork, we encounter the reality of unabashed state centralism and the unfortunate stringency of an If-You're-Not- With-Us-You‟re-Against-Us mentality. A blazing example of such top-down musculature is 2010‟s Christmas Gasolinazo: Decreto Supremo #748 in which Vice President Alvaro García Linera abruptly announced that gasoline and diesel prices had been unilaterally jacked up – by as much as 83%. (“Joy to the World” notwithstanding, the nationwide uprisings that followed – featuring burnings of photographs of Evo Morales -- rerouted the government‟s hurry to a slower pace of inflation.)
But the truth remains: ever since the threat from the right wing subsided following Morales' 2009 re-election by 62%, a chronic refusal to listen to the very social movements the president promised to obey has posed a disturbing blow to both descendants of the equalizing allyus of traditional Andean decision-making and modern-day adherents of participatory democracy. When indigenous groups protest the bulldozing of their lands for the construction of freeway corridors; when state workers call for increases in salaries against the reality of galloping food prices; when media workers fight for freedom of the press against regulations threatening license suspensions, state control of 20% of the media, and state ownership of all of it – the administration‟s reaction is knee-jerk. Whether by the president himself, the vice president, or other government officials, citizens questioning the government‟s dictates are received with neither concern for their suffering nor gratitude for their participation; they are bold-facedly dismissed as instruments of U.S. imperialism; dupes of the right wing; middle-class whiners; “enemigos del Estado”/”enemies of the State;” out of touch with reality; and/or (more details on this later) “salvajes”/”savages.” According to 2000 Water War leader Oscar Olivera, the government is promulgating a “smear and slander campaign” to promote “criminalization of opinion” and discredit former labor/social-movement allies whose support was, in large part, responsible for Morales‟ election to the presidency.
Meet the New Problems, Same as the Old Problems
At the same time, Bolivia is rife with chronic problems that, according to cantina-level opinion, the government has failed to address.
Corruption within government is an age-old theme. During the Morales administration, the most spectacular example occurred in February 2011: the U.S. arrest of the national jefe of police, former head of the Fuerza Especial de Lucha Contra el Narcotráfico/founder of the Centro de Inteligencia y Generación de Información, General René Sanabria Oropeza, when he was caught in the act of launching new cocaine routes to Miami. His accomplices included a mayor, a military colonel, and a captain. Another revelation of corruption, moreso perhaps for spiritual interest, was the June 2010 arrest of Valentín Mejillones, the amauta-priest who had led the purification ritual of Evo Morales' inauguration at Tiawanaku in 2006 – for hosting a cocaine purification factory in his El Alto home.
Too, while the Bolivian coca leaf has been sold for cocaine manufacture since Vietnam War days, the country is fast becoming a global fount of the deadly illegal drug, and this development also feeds popular discontent against the administration. In the tropical Chapare, Bolivia's most intensive region for coca growing for drug production, every family has a tale of relinquishing food crops to grow the more valuable product, giving up agriculture all together to
work in a lab, or loaning out a youth to play lookout at a staggeringly high salary of $200 a month.
According to satellite surveillance reported by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), since Morales launched his presidency, the number of hectares commandeered has expanded by fútbol fields: by 2008 as many as 28,000 hectares were ponying up some 130 tons of cocaine, whereas by 2010 the vice president divulged that el narcotráfico contributed $700,000,000 a year to the national economy – with
one out of every twenty citizens working for it.
In truth, the location of drug production is most often determined by international events like droughts, floods, inroads made by drug-war efforts, and inter-cartel politics – yet many Bolivians contend that Morales is to blame.
In 2008 he threw out the DEA; all the while, they contend, he was ignoring the expansion of cocaine production as he blithely touted the sacredness of the coca leaf and pushed for the right of cocaleros to expand their fields into national parks.
Decepción and Protest
Curiously, in Spanish, the word for “disappointment” is decepción -- a term that, to the English-speaking ear, does not merely name a feeling; it proposes a dynamic between outer influence and inner response.
In today's Bolivia my cantina conversation with a cowboy, a doctor, a government officer, and a barbaquoa owner was not an isolated event. In February 2011, popular decepción was measured in a Radio Fides poll in the barrios of La Paz that are normally a MAS stronghold. The result: a whopping 84% of respondents reported loss of confidence in their government, with 80% saying they‟d vote for replacement.
Also reflecting growing disappointment is the fact that today's Bolivia exists in a constant state of disruption due to non-stop and overlapping huelga- strikes, paro-stoppages, bloqueo-road blocks, and manifestacion-demonstrations that literally shut down the country. Such tactics fell off during the early, hope-for-the-best years of the Morales administration -- but by 2010-12 they had made a full-swing comeback.
They are marked by dedication to collective action, faith in decisions forged by leadership, and a willingness to fight to the death. Who can forget the daring of the campesinos and indígenas who shut down the city of Cochabamba in 2000 to expel the Bechtel Corporation for privatizing its municipal water supply? It was a time when many others throughout the world had been
kowtowed into obedience by the overarching legal/economic/military dominion of multinational corporations, the World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund, and World Bank -- and yet thousands in Bolivia poured into the streets bearing rocks, slings, and burning tires, hundreds were injured, nine died. And they won. Who could deny the sheer might of 2003‟s Gas War in El Alto in which displaced land-based people and urban workers arose to reject capitalist looting of Bolivia‟s natural gas? Some 60 activists were killed. And they won.
If viewed from a historical perspective, the outright pugnacity so characteristic of the Bolivian people reflects an ancient tradition: the Tinku battle wherein -- to court the spirits of fertility -- the men, women and children of neighboring altiplano communities punch and claw at each other in a ritual dance that leads to bloodshed, and sometimes a death. What ever the origin of the Andean fighting spirit, the tendency to defiant combat may be responsible, in large part, for the remarkable survival of Andean cultures after centuries of brutal oppression. And its contemporary applications – mass strikes, work stoppages, and road blocks -- were honed as political strategies to force demands during the military juntas and dictatorships, and later neoliberal governments, of the 1930-90s.
Take for example, from December 2009 through March of 2010, during the worst global-warming-induced storms -- when for months rain gushed as if being thrown from a bucket and floods washed over communities like rivers -- the taxi, trufi, and bus choferes and transportistas shut down what was left of the water-logged economy with paros, bloqueos, and manifestaciones in all the major cities of the country.
Earlier, in October 2010, as the government began to whittle away at guarantees for freedom of the press via La Ley Anti-Racismo y Toda Forma de Discriminación – ostensibly geared to outlaw racism and sexism, but also containing two articles initiating government control over press content -- the nation's periodistas hit the streets: carting coffins bearing microphones,
cameras, and reporter tablets; writing protest placards with their own blood; hanging like Christ figures from the balconies of buildings; collecting thousands of signatures; and appealing to international press associations.
El Heroísmo de los Indígenas
Unquestionably, though, the most historic of contemporary struggles was the TIPNIS march of 2011.
The government plan was to build high-tech super-highway corridors as legs of the Infraestructura Regional Suramericana; the purpose was to facilitate massive transport of commodities for profit-making in the global economy – with the Territorio Indígena y Parque Isiboro Sécure (TIPNIS) venue designed to convey petroleum from Brazil through Bolivia to Chile, as well as coca and any oil and gas that might be excavated in the tropical zone. The funder: Brazil, with whom the Morales administration had negotiated a plethora of industrial projects.
The highway was slated to pierce straight through what French naturalist Alcides d'Orbigny had, in the 18th century, called “the most beautiful jungle in the world.” The eco-reserve is homeland to the Yurakarés, Moxeños, and Chimanes; boasts over 60 communities, some of them hunter-gatherers still practicing their traditional lifeways; and is home to thousands of precious plants and animals, including eleven endangered species and subspecies of orchids only now being identified. The 2009 Constitution -- written and passed by the Morales administration -- guarantees the legal rights of Native communities to sovereign decision regarding use of their lands and touts the rights of the natural world.
When it became clear, though, that indigenous groups would protest the highway on grounds of sovereignty rights, ecological preservation, and cultural survival, President Morales lashed out, accusing them of being in cahoots with the U.S. Embassy – with the ultimate motivation of toppling the Bolivian government. He then dragged out a remarkable claim for a government touting itself as sensitive to indigenous needs: he called the protesters “salvajes.”
Contradictorily, it was also claimed that they were not even true indígenas, that they had long since been contaminated by the ingress of progress. Subsequent allegations included that they were receiving financial support from NGO's (a peculiar disqualification as Morales had come to power with the aid of NGO's) and that they were dupes of the right wing, in particular of former dictator “Goni” Sánchez de Lozada. Then, mustering words more to the point, Morales
announced: “Quieran o no quieran, vamos a construir la carretera”/Like it or not, we‟re going to construct the highway.
The march began on 15 August 2011. Some 700 Native people set out to walk the 375 miles to La Paz in an effort that echoed the 1990 La Marcha por Territorio y Dignidad. That march had been undertaken by hunter-gatherers of the jungle lowlands who were in danger of losing their ancestral territories to encroaching landowners, ranchers, and loggers -- and it was a success: presidential decrees were passed restoring lands to Native groups, marking the exact terrain of reserves, preventing logging – and renewing pride to tribes whose stature had long been forgotten. This time around, in 2011, the stated purpose of the march was to bring attention to the planned highway‟s ecological/cultural/sovereignty threat to the eco-reserve -- and demand that the government respect its own laws regarding Native sovereignty.
A complexity of the situation quickly inserted itself: the increasing ingress into the territory of coca-growing settlers, many of them former miners displaced by degradation of the product and economic devaluation of precious metals. The Morales administration was willing and able to manipulate this ready constituency to its advantage; the cocaleros, or colonos, are among Evo Morales' most loyal constituents. He himself remains president of their national cocalero syndicate. The government's official support of the coca industry has led to increasing numbers of traditional family growers – who, by Bolivian law, are legal -- to move into the TIPNIS wilderness, slash and burn the jungle, and throw up new villages, towns, and farms. The Office of the United Nations against Drugs and Crime also claims Morales' enthusiasm for coca has opened the way for an invasion into the TIPNIS by illegal narco growers, as well as the transition of legal farmers into those that serve the fast-growing trafficking industry. These newcomers not only offer up a pro-MAS block for Morales to position against the Moxeños, Yukarés, and Chimares; they favor the highway so that they can transport their product to market.
On 11 September, a dynamite-bearing assembly of cocalero-campesinos blockaded the marchers' route near San Ignacio de Moxos. With clubs in hand, they ran mob-like at the marchers and broke the windows of their support vehicles. Four hundred police were called in to stand between the colonos and the indígenas to “prevent violence.” The contrast between the state's military -- with their machine guns, high-tech SWAT shields, helicopters, aluminum
batons, and steel-toe boots -- and the TIPNIS guards in tee shirts and flip-flops, wielding hand-hewn bows and arrows, was a thing to behold.
It was at this point, too, that local stores were closed and incoming transport of food and water halted. The marchers became desperate as their people became ill; already two babies had died. We on the outside became desperate too; ongoing support campaigns to send in water, food, clothing, and medicines were stymied.
An astounding event then took place. The date was 24 September.
When Canciller David Choquehuanca arrived at the blockade -- by all accounts to make a display of government concern – indigenous women took the Canciller hostage. I am an observer of the details of human behavior, and it did not escape me that the women had provided him with what may have been the only bottle of drinking water within kilometers. He clutched it with sweaty hands, his face craggy from fright, as reportedly there had been mention that they were going to make him march to La Paz, which would have amounted to a month of athleticism. In the end, his presence allowed the entire group to pass through both police blockade and cocalero pack – and they let him go.
President Morales was out of the country when the next event unfolded. On Sunday 25 September, the police attacked the encampment of marchers. Bursting in with tear gas, they chased down fleeing indígenas, sometimes five officers in full riot gear against a single boy in cotton shorts; with their night sticks they beat them on their backs, chests, and heads; they bound their arms, legs, and mouths with duct tape making it almost impossible to breathe;
they dragged some 700 dirigente-leaders, women, children, and ancianos to waiting trucks and hauled them away to unknown locations. It was claimed that one child died in the violence.
Throughout the struggle, the government had at will blocked media access from areas it considered sensitive, yet, for this, we on the outside had access to non-stop visuals, with television stations running the shocking images over and over again. For hours Bolivia was subdued by shock, you could hear a pin drop on the avenues -- and then the popular response burst forth. All over, including at the Bolivian embassy in New York where Morales had been presenting at the United Nations, people took to the streets. And the venting allowed for pent-up emotions to flow into the public vocabulary. “Ya no tiene máscara indígena”/Morales can no longer wear his mask of so-called indigenous support, proclaimed Native social analyst Fernando Untoja. Long-time activist Rafael Quispe trotted out the as-yet unspoken words: “dictadura”/dictatorship. Oscar Olivera proclaimed it to be “la monarquía de Evo Morales”/the monarchy of Evo Morales, while ex-Masista Alex Contreras termed the actions “métodos del fascismo”/methods of fascism.
Astoundingly, one marcher was quoted in La Prensa, “La represión nos fortaleció”/The repression strengthened us. On 19 October what had started, two months before, as a march of some 700 determined Native people had now swelled to 3000. After two months of treking/camping, treking/camping; after the sweltering heat of the tropics and the driving sleet of the mountains; after bearing inadequate shoes, too thin jackets, foot sores, injuries, dehydration, diarrhea, and exhaustion; after enduring disregard and insults spouting from the mouths of government officials: after the official withholding of water and food; and then having endured violent repression – the TIPNIS marchers rounded the last crag before the descent into the capital city.
What lay below, they insist, was unexpected.
The streets of La Paz were teeming with supporters from every hamlet and municipality in Bolivia! Red flags were blowing in the wind. Green flags. Yellow flags. Wiphala flags. Workers. Taxi drivers. Housekeepers. University students. Mothers with babies. Union leaders. Theater groups. Indigenous groups boasting traditional dress, flutes, and drums. Former government officials who had left the MAS party. The press. International support teams.
Trumpets blared. Flutes sang. Mariachi bands blasted accordion music. Placards proclaimed: “TIPNIS=VIDA, EVO=MUERTE” and “¡TIPNIS SOMOS TODOS!” People rushed to meet the marchers, hugged them, kissed them on the lips. Men and women were sobbing in the streets! Whole schools had been liberated to play a role in history, and uniformed children were waving flags, holding up their drawings of tropical flowers, and cheering. Along the
boulevards the welcomers flanked the marchers like an envelope of protection from potential police action; in some parts the shield extended five times thicker than the march itself.
It was the largest gathering of humanity in the history of Bolivia.
It was the largest gathering of humanity in the history of Bolivia.
Evo Morales had escaped for the day to the MAS stronghold town of Quillacollo, but he did have to make an appearance. One can only imagine his feelings as he stepped out of the palace in the Plaza Murillo to face his self- created adversaries. Carting a hand-held loud speaker, Morales' face was welded into something of a static smile, and he announced, “Entendemos perfectamente el pedido de U.S.tedes ... lo que U.S.tedes han pedido he mandado al Congreso para que el camino no pase por el parque nacional Isiboro Sécure”/We understand your demand perfectly ... I have now mandated to Congress that
the road will not cut through the national park.
Bolivia sometimes seems like a world stage for the Theater of the Absurd, and to describe this quality award-winning novelist Claudio Ferrufino has written: “Bolivia carga la distinción de bizarría absoluta en tal sentido”/Bolivia carries the distinction of absolute bizarreness at every turn. No sooner had Congress fast-tracked La Ley de Protección de Territorio Indígena y Parque Nacional Isiboro Sécure than – what ho, forked tongue? -- officials within the halls of governance were announcing that the park was up for grabs. The 11 November Los Tiempos headline read: “Canciller: Gobierno no supo entender demanda indígena”/ Canciller: Government didn't understand the demands of the Natives. And in an act that infused a surrealist touch to this topsy-turvy back-tracking, President Morales appeared at a traditional dance alongside tribes in favor of the highway, festooned in lowland ritual regalia, complete with white woven dress, draping seed necklaces, and three-foot feathers protruding from a head dress around his skull! To continue the stage performance: the next day, in an act resembling the U.S. embargo against Cuba, the government suspended the licenses of all businesses, many of them Native-run, that operate within the park.
Two days later, the headline in Los Tiempos announced to public disorientation that Morales was now saying that the highway through the TIPNIS “es historia”/is history. Granted the reader couldn't immediately decipher if these words meant that there would be no highway or if the highway was now a historical certainty, reading further revealed that the administration had indeed waffled – but now the decision was set: the TIPNIS super-corridor would never cut through the eco-reserve of the heroic Yurakarés, Moxeños, and Chimanes.*
The Clutches of “Guernica”
I understand that this information about Bolivia‟s indigenous government may be difficult to take in. In a world laden with tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis, volcanoes, earthquakes, fires, and technological disasters; wars over land, oil, and water; the unfolding of Peak Oil and, frankly, of what scholar Richard Heinberg calls Peak Everything; a refurbishing of nuclear technologies; swathes of electromagnetic radiation from consumer and military installations; increasing corporate power; decreasing social liberties; out-of-hand control by drug cartels; cancer epidemics; mass addictions; and growing social chaos – in this world, hope is a precious thing.
As Arab-American scholar Edward Said has noted, no one in this world has escaped the impacts of imperialist conquest, and as Western Shoshone spiritual leader/sovereignty activist Corbin Harvey has chanted, “We Are All Wounded, We Are All Healing.” Yet, if we acknowledge that a better -- and perhaps evolutionally built-in way of being human -- is possible, we might also grasp that the conflicts, contradictions, and conundrum created by centuries of ripping people from land and community have become archetypal to the human
Yes, ours is a world writhing in the clutches of “Guernica,” in which too many people are dancing to “My Way” and too many governments speak with forked tongue. In such a world, the social movements of Bolivia and the TIPNIS indígenas, in particular, offer us a reminder of what is possible.
* As we say in baseball, “It's Not Over 'Til It's Over,” and indeed the TIPNIS controversy is not over. As of January 2012, pro-highway marches undertaken by some Natives, colonos, and cocaleros have taken place, verbally supported by the Morales administration, and contradictory to the legal definition of sovereignty, the government has challenged Native autonomy again by asserting control over what businesses, including extractive industries, may operate within the park. In February the government passed a new law nullifying the no-highway law passed just months before; this new law allows for the highway to be built. A march to protect the TIPNIS and its communities has been launched, this time with all tribal members, Bolivians, and international brigades invited to join in.
(A shorter version of this article, called “Decepción in Bolivia,” was originally published in CounterPunch, www.counterpunch.org, 10-12 June 2011; parts of it appeared in “The Repression Strengthened Us,” CounterPunch, 30 December, 2011–1 January, 2012.)
Foto: Chellis Glendinnig