Way of conflict

By Published On: September 10, 2007Categories: Politics0 Comments on Way of conflict

Solon mural

The caller onto the La Paz radio programme had an over-the-top american accent. "Hey I am yamando de los Estados Unidos and I want to get hold of that great luchadoor you have….yeah the one that punched that other Congresista.  Yeah we want him for our next Rambo movie." It was my second day back. A spoof comedy show was happily milking the week’s main news event which involved a fistfight between various parliamentarians that even appeared as a story in the Guardian.

Unfortunately the fight seemed to reflect much bigger tensions bubbling under the surface. While I had been away, a huge struggle had surged apparently out of nowhere about where the Capital of Bolivia should be.

I remember being in Sucre when the Right parties introduced the issue into the assembly suggesting all the powers be moved to Sucre (currently the Supreme Court is in Sucre with the Legislature and Executive in La Paz). It was clearly a spoiling tactic and I didn’t think it would work. I talked to various peoples in Sucre who said we don’t want the capital, that just means we will suffer all the protests. But in my almost two months away, the demand had gathered growing momentum and opposition with a march of more than a million people in La Paz, a hunger strike in Sucre and attacks on assembly members which had stopped the work of the Constituent assembly.

Then in my first week back, a partial strike was held across six out of Bolivia’s nine departments to call for the capital to be in Sucre. During the strike, small fascist-inclinated groups were responsible for acts of violence against those who didn’t want to observe the strike. MAS in response promised that it would mobilise 100,000 people to Sucre to defend the constituent assembly and the "revolution." They openly accused the US of funding and fomenting the protests.  The International Crisis Group (ICG) in a report said "Bolivia is moving dangerously toward renewed confrontation and violence" and suggested all players take a series of steps towards dialogue and building consensus.

Polarisation as I have felt before seemed to be reaching fever pitch. Then just as suddenly yesterday the tension dissipated and talks of compromises filled the airwaves.  It is not the first time I have seen this. Bolivia seems to have a knack for heading towards cliffs and stepping back. Which has got me thinking. Has the ICG got it right when it suggests building dialogue and consensus will resolve things? Or is Bolivia’s way of conflicts, confrontations and partial resolutions perhaps both indicative of deeper historical and cultural currents and perhaps the only way for change to happen?

Much of what the International Crisis Group writes seems very reasonable and sensible saying that all parties should allow more participation, concentrate on building consensus and dialogue rather than mobilisation on the streets, and disarm violent groups from both sides. It rightly points out the errors on both sides that have at times exacerbated tensions and paralysed movement in fundamental areas like land reform and the constituent assembly. The report even says that without diffusing tension, Evo risks "ultimately, the failure of his project of near-revolutionary change."

I can vouch from various middle-class friends that some of the Government’s rhetoric and actions has ended the initial sympathy that he had won in the aftermath of the election. My instinct says that any fundamental change built on polarisation is unlikely to be lasting if it is not built from a broad national consensus. I certainly don’t want to see any repeats of the ugly confrontations in Cochabamba in January 2007 that left three people dead and laid bare a pernicious racism that is engrained in Bolivia.

Yet I can’t help feeling that the ICG Report is based on some serious misunderstandings about Bolivia. The first is its assumption that sincere attempts at dialogue rather than resorting to the street is the only proper way to effect change. This seems to ignore much of the evidence both from Bolivia’s history and from recent past where taking to the streets is seen as essential for effecting change.

Cochabamba’s Coordinadora which led protests in 2000 which de-privatised water says as much in its statements where it argues that "change has only ever happened via the street." Kicking out the US company Bechtel wasn’t even in the first demands made by the Coordinadora but the momentum of successful street protest succeeded in getting them expelled. Does anyone imagine a dialogue at the early stages with mayoral authorities would have achieved the same thing? It is clear that many Bolivians certainly don’t believe that change happens that way as can be seen by the constant cycle of blockades, hunger strikes and mobilisations that take place somewhere in Bolivia almost every week.

James Dunkerley, a UK English professor in a recent lecture made an interesting point that when conflict and mobilisation is so constantly evident perhaps it is time not to see it as abnormal but the norm. Meaning that dialogue and consensus are the abnormal or at least just the concluding points after civil forces have flexed their muscles on the streets.

The difference of course now is that it is the Right which is mainly leading the street protests. Whilst these actions have only received partial support, it is also clear that MAS so far has found it much harder to mobilise its own constituency. A mass rally called by the Government for Sucre today which turned out only tens of thousands rather than hundreds of thousands seems indicative that it is easier to mobilise people against a policy than in favour of a Government. Yet from talking to a few social movement representatives at the weekend, it is clear that if they really felt the Government was under threat that there would be huge mobilisations to defend it.

The second blind spot in the ICG report is its assumption that both the Government and its Opposition are equally balanced parties and that the conflict is one of ideas rather than power. It reminds me of the tendency of the media and western governments to see occupied Palestinians as equal in power to Israeli government occupiers and to demand they both equally share the responsibility to make peace.

This type of flawed thinking of course this hides the reality of the last seven years which have seen a growing resistance and consciousness in opposition to the politicians and elites that have ruled the country for many decades. It hides the fact that MAS emerged as a movement of those excluded from power for centuries on a platform of transforming social and economic relations which meant challenging the power of the rich elites – even if the reality is that their programme has hardly done this.

There is a strange silence in the ICG report that many of the regional opposition leaders were the primary beneficiaries of neoliberal policies and significant political leaders in the last 20 years. There is also no mention that they retain the economic power in the country and are understandably threatened by even the moderate policies such as land reform or indigenous autonomy that could threaten this. Are we meant to think it is just a coincidence that the leading spokesperson against the Government, Branko Marinkovic is a leading businessmen with considerable land in the east of Bolivia?

A proper analysis of power and history would suggest that the mobilisation and divisions within the Constituent Assembly and around issues such as the Capital are largely (although obviously not entirely) motivated by the Right to create confusion and to undermine the Bolivian government. It was reported yesterday that Bolivian intelligence had uncovered a plot which looked to use Sucre, other regional issues and further confrontations to push Bolivia to a situation where Evo Morales would have to resign. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time: the overthrow of Allende in Chile or Thomas Sankara in Burkina Faso were both facilitated by months of instability caused by the opposition.

In Bolivia, there are certainly plenty of fissures that the Right can choose from. Calling for the capital to be in Sucre was obvious as it plunges deep into the department’s consciousness dating back to the Federal War in 1898-9 which saw Sucre defeated by La Paz which became the de facto if not legal capital of Bolivia. MAS and Morales also seem quite capable of errors (such as their initial opposition to departmental autonomy) that help fuel protests and chaos. Their determination to control things through the Party and the overdominance of Evo Morales in all their actions has been strong enough to give some bite to those who profess to stand up for "democracy" whatever their dubious motives.

The question will be who in the mobilisations, standoffs and eventual resolutions will come out top. I am sure that MAS will have to make concessions as it has done before on voting in the Assembly, but I also believe that the general force of public opinion and demand for change represented in their election victory will give them the upper hand. Whether it goes far enough or becomes tangible enough for its bases in the movements remains to be seen.

So despite the latest blow-out returning to semi-tranquility I believe we can expect to see a return again before too long to conflicts and confrontations that will involve taking to the streets or even fisticuffs in Parliament. My suggestion is that this way of conflict (and I sincerely hope without violence) may actually be the only way this can happen however contradictory and messy it may be on the way.

As the famous slave rebel Frederick Douglass once said in 1857:  "Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation…want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightening. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters…. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will."


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