Death and Democracy

By Published On: January 12, 2007Categories: Social movements2 Comments on Death and Democracy

The TV advert showed smiling farmers walking along a new road with the Prefect of Cochabamba, Manfred Reyes Villa. “Cochabamba is going only one direction,” chirruped the advert, “towards progress.” The advert was grimly inappropriate, as it immediately followed graphic pictures of the corpses of a coca-farmer killed by a bullet and a young man by machetes in clashes between armed groups in Cochabamba.

The growing tension in Bolivia has been palpable in the last month, with rhetoric becoming more and more inflamed on both sides. I feared violence, but even so felt sick to the stomach seeing images of dead young men on television, and thinking of their families who would be grieving them. No political struggle feels worth the tears and gut-wrenching grief that those deaths would involve.   Sadly I fear it might not be the last deaths.

I was out in a village outside Cochabamba yesterday ignorant for most of the day whilst violence unfolded twelve kilometers away, but was in town today. The streets are deserted with most shops closed but occasionally you come across small groups of mainly men (but occasionally women) with sticks and bats in their hands. The atmosphere brimmed with tension and possible violence. The occasional explosions of dynamite and tear gas ricocheted in the distance.

The central square was crammed with groups of rural farmers and indigenous groups, people from the poorer districts of Cochabamba and groups of young people announcing their presence with banners. A large banner was struck out across the front of the building of the union organizations calling for the resignation of Manfred Reyes Villa. Men speaking from the balcony announced meetings of different social groups and warned people to stick together “as we have reports of fascist groups roaming around nearby.” They were clearly ready to resist any attacks.

The build-up to confrontations started at the end of December when
the Prefect Manfred Reyes Villa of Cochabamba called for a referendum
on autonomy and started to more vocally line himself with the Right in
four other departments, Santa Cruz, Beni, Tarija and Pando. This riled
social movements within the Department who had been behind an
overwhelming rejection of autonomy in July 2006. They started to
mobilize calling on Reyes Villa to resign, started blockades and in one
altercation parts of the Prefecture building were burnt down. 

This in turn riled other people, in particular the middle class and
those who voted for Manfred who felt their democratic rights were being
undermined by a bunch of MAS/Government-supported “thugs.”

On Wednesday, a group armed with poles called “Young People for
Democracy” marched in support of Manfred and warned that if farmers and
other groups calling for Manfred’s resignation did not leave the city
centre that they would be attacked and thrown out.

They were true to their word. Yesterday, several thousand armed with
baseball bats, sticks and even a few guns surged through police lines
and attacked a group of coca-growers with brutal violence. Those
demanding Manfred’s resignation then counter-attacked leading to bloody
clashes all over the city which the police were unable or unwilling to
stop. The two deaths were a result of the violence and the tension that
still grips the city.

Jim Shultz at the Democracy Centre
is doing a good job of recounting what is happening with view of some
of those involved, so instead I think I will draw out a few of the
factors that I think explain what is happening in Cochabamba and indeed
Bolivia right now. It is a very complex situation that can’t easily be
analysed in one article. Moreover much of what is driving the violence,
in particular the behind-the-scenes machinations and manipulations of
political leaders remains hidden.

Rumours are flying that are very
difficult to substantiate. People talk of behind-the-scenes US
Government involvement, that the Government had provoked the crisis to
oust one of their key opponents, that planeloads of young fascists from
the east of the country were coming to join the fight.  There are
probably elements of truth and lies in all of them.

Fight back of the right

When MAS won the elections almost a year ago with an unprecedented
majority, the Right were left in a state of shock. But the Right wasn’t
completely defeated, as they had two main sources of power: the Senate
where they had a majority of one and the Regions where the first ever
elections for Prefects saw 6 of the 9 prefectures returning right-wing
Prefects. In the last few months, they have used these bases to
mobilize increasingly successfully against MAS proposals, in particular
their demands for the Constituent Assembly.

The significance of Cochabamba is that it is in effect a swing state or
prefecture. It is home in the east of the province to the militant base
of the MAS government who mobilized to get more than 60% to vote
against autonomy, yet at the same time right-wing Manfred Reyes Villa
managed to win enough support to win the Prefecture. It is also
geographically in the centre of the country between the indigenous
MAS-dominated west of the country and the more mestizo (mixed) and
right-wing dominated East.

In the last few months, though, Reyes Villa allied himself ever more
closely with the right-wing East stating his support for independence
of Santa Cruz and calling for a referendum on autonomy. This riled the
social movements and in particular MAS’s base who felt they had to
stand up against his agenda. The fight against Manfred became in part a
fight for where the country should go.

Racism and two Bolivia’s

You can’t help but notice the difference between the make-up of the two
armed groups in Cochabamba. On one side you had mainly indigenous
farmers and people from the more impoverished communities of the city,
and on the other more mestizo (mixed race), lighter-skinned and middle
class residents. There were of course exceptions but the overall
picture was stark. Watching television and hearing shouts of “Kill the
Indian motherfuckers” showed that the attacks were certainly fuelled in
part by a strong and ongoing current of racism in Bolivia.

Politics of the street

The Coordinadora de Agua, which led protests in Cochabamba in 2000 to
reverse privatization of their water, issued a communiqué supporting
protests to oust Manfred Reyes de Villa, saying that “all politics of
change in Bolivia have come from the street.” It is certainly true that
the major protests against privatization of Bolivia’s natural resources
and against an unjust economic system were led by street protests. It
even led to a new climate where an election of a popular MAS
government, with an anti-neoliberal agenda, was possible.

As some protestors made clear, Reyes Villa might have been elected but
had lost legitimacy by allying himself with repressive leaders from the
past and by supporting an agenda of autonomy and the Right that had
been rejected in popular votes against autonomy. Previous experience
where popular rebellions had led to the ousting of several
elected-Presidents and the end of unpopular policies mean that many
people believe that social protests are the form of changing leaders
who have lost the confidence of people and for confronting injustice –
particularly when the media, economic and political powers are stacked
against popular, working class and indigenous movements.

The difficulty for this “politics of the street,” which is so typical
of Bolivia, is the new context. Firstly you have a Government formed in
large part by social movements, whose role is now to govern and
construct rather than protest. They are facing the challenge however of
having electoral power but not necessarily economic or political power.
They find many of their proposals, especially those that challenge the
economic interests of Bolivia’s elite, consistently blocked and

In the struggle to pass a new land reform bill, the Government
successfully combined with indigenous movements who had mobilized in
large land marches to eventually pass the law. At the meeting
announcing the new bill, many social movement leaders noted the
importance of mobilization for achieving social change, and this may
have prompted the Government at the very least to give implicit support
(and in reality probably active support) to mobilizations against
Manfred Reyes Villa.

Yet it looks like they didn’t consider the dangers of the fact that the
Right is now using the politics of the street to defend their
interests. Much of this is peaceful but there are also small groups who
are prone to violence against people. This has been a growing
phenomenon in the east of the country in Santa Cruz, where a young
fascist group has been terrorizing indigenous and left-wing social
movements in support of the aims of the elite for autonomy. Similar
fascist groups have been forming in other parts of Bolivia, who can be
easily inflamed into violence against perceived injustices.

politics of the street in 2000 saw a largely united Cochabamba
population throw out an unpopular multinational water company. In 2006,
it saw a population divided by class and race at each other’s throats
with sticks, anger and fear.

Machismo and manipulation

When people end up in bloody confrontation against their fellow human
beings, it is usually not the case that they either initiated the
build-up to confrontation or will ever see benefits from any “supposed”
victory. Clearly people were fired up for their own articulated
reasons, but it is also likely that leaders and elites manipulated the
situation to gain a political advantage.

It is difficult to know in
this case who manipulated who, but it is very likely that Manfred was
behind the group of young thugs who led the attack yesterday whilst MAS
at the very least did not attempt to de-escalate tension by more
vigorously calling on its bases to lower the tension.

Both groups found a ready army of volunteers that I have seen at other
marches in Europe that have descended into violence. Young men fuelled
by testosterone, frustration and the adrenaline of confrontation who
surge into battle, this time, with fatal consequences.

What does democracy look like?

There is one word, you can be sure, will be mentioned whenever an
opposition politician or leader opens his mouth nowadays: democracy.
The MAS Government is said to be threatening “democracy” when it
suggests laws of accountability for prefects, when it insists on votes
by absolute majority, when social movements mobilize against elected

The Right powerfully argue, for example, that social movements have no
right to insist on resignation of a Prefect who was elected by 54%.
They also point to MAS attempts to control Congress and the Constituent
Assembly to the exclusion of other views – an accusation that even
those on the independent Left would vouch for. It also can’t be denied that a
constitution passed by a simple majority (ie by MAS) in Bolivia’s
current climate is unlikely to have any shelf-life unless it wins the
consent of a large majority of Bolivians.

Yet it is noticeable that time and again, the recourse to the word
“democracy” is used as a way of defending privilege and a legal and
political system that has protected the interests of a rich few.

In indigenous communities, democracy is not a representative political
system imported but a communal way of organizing lives. It has a
purpose which is to advance the community beyond the interest of
individuals. So when indigenous people voted for a new Government,
democracy was more about delivering real and structural change that
rebalanced not just political but economic power.

As indigenous groups
have seen even limited proposals frustrated by the Right, they have
started to mobilize as we have seen in Cochabamba. For them, though,
they are not involved in an attack on democracy but a defense of it.
For without real change in the conditions of lives for the majority of
Bolivians, democracy is meaningless. 



  1. Julian January 15, 2007 at 3:46 pm - Reply

    Like you I am very sad to see violence no matter exactly who threw the first stone etc.
    While I enjoy your analysis, but while my sympathies are politically more on the left, I am not sure I agree with the way you paint the left and the right, the ones who have nothing and the other side who are fighting not to relinquish what they have. I just do not recognise the image you suggest of the middle classes from the people I know. The problem is that really the kind of changes that MAS want to make only come about by evolution/democratic process over a long period of time. I think you need to address this aspect: are you supporting some sort of revolution? Have Cuba and Venezuela really provided the answers? I worry because I have family in Bolivia, because I want to live there, because I abhor seeing people live in poverty, but I would rather a political environment that reflects more Argentina or Brazil. I realise they do not have the same indigenous issue, but I do not want to take the chance that Bolivia will move towards a dictatorship and much more violence. Last August we went out for dinner with a couple who are good friends of Marioly – the guy is the son of a famous (white) MAS Senator, I was very worried as he was advocating rupture and violence as a political tool – it seemed especially incronguous as he is a doctor and I took it with a pinch of salt that he was just trying to provoke. Plus I cannot see how the country can progress if it loses the relatively few skilled and educated people that it has got. I do not see anyone I know, who let’s face it are mainly middle class (apart from the people I met during my work), wanting to leave the country but they will try if it gets more violent. I’ve added a link to an interesting article from La Razon, you may know the author. You can post my comments and your reply on the blog if you feel appropriate!

  2. Nick Buxton January 15, 2007 at 3:48 pm - Reply

    I guess I might have a different perspective because the people I am always talking to are campesino and indigenous organisers and activists on the left. But when I am describing those who are protecting their interests, I am not talking about all middle class people. I think the majority of people in Bolivia of all classes saw what happened in Cochabamba and were deeply saddened. And I am sure that a good current of middle class opinion is not racist or against change and genuinely worried that MAS is becoming more authoritarian. Meanwhile there are many campesinos who are not involved politically at all.
    But I think the people at the heart of this conflict – both the social movements that led the fight for social justice in the last few years and the right supported by a business and media elite – are creating a climate that affects everyone. I have friends in Santa Cruz in particular who describe virulent racist climate led by some middle and upper class elites who are constantly telling lies about the government, bullying people with alternative views and in her opinion (she is a campesina leader) leading to impoverished people talking about taking up arms. To give a flavour of that same current in Cochabamba, I enclose a testimony sent to me below. In all of this I think we can’t ignore the media that constantly favours the right, continually attacks Evo and MAS, interprets all actions in a framework of Evo authoritarianism and gives very little space for alternative views to be heard.
    In terms of what I want. Well I am not a Masista and don’t hold up Venezuela and Cuba as models (even though I don’t demonise them either as I have seen very positive change in Venezuela as a result of Chavez). But I do believe in radical change. It is easy for us, who have what we need, to say change needs to be evolutionary, but when people have been exploited and deprived of a nation’s wealth for a long time than i think justice demands an immediate radical response. So it doesn’t surprise me, even if I don’t agree with it, if that either gets expressed in frustrated and clumsy attempts to undermine right wing leaders by Government blocked in their attempts to make change or in angry confrontations by campesinos. It has after all been done before, in Bolivia in 1952, in a much more radical way when votes were suddenly given to indigenous people, petrol companies confiscated, and land in the west of the country redistributed.
    For me democracy is the solution, but not a liberal democracy of the State (that defends privilege) or a manipulated party democracy of MAS (or Tony Blair’s labour party for that matter) but local democracy that makes both political and economic power accountable to people. That means control of companies as well as politicians. I believe it has to reject a development model that is unsustainable in the North, and needs to reclaim some of the wisdom of community life inherent in indigenous cultures. I also believe this revolution has to be non-violent because violence has its own dynamic and creates divisions and permits a form of authoritarian politics that benefits no-one.
    I believe personally that MAS has aggravated a bad situation and is trying a politics of confrontation that could be extremely dangerous, but I also see that in the context of consistent attempts to undermine all their attempts at delivering a mandate to change the country. After all, this Government is hardly very radical – justice demanded a redistribution of land of all the huge landlords but MAS has only committed to redistributing land not used for production; justice also could have meant that Bolivia confiscated petrol companies but instead it renegotiated contracts. I also have friends in the Government who I think are doing an excellent job in a very difficult situation and have a commitment to all Bolivians that is extraordinary. So a lot of the confrontation seems on the surface to be unnecessary.
    But I also think it is important therefore to point to the bigger picture of power beneath these fights – where a small minority in Bolivia dominated economic and political power for decades. In 2001, Bolivia actually temporarily overtook Brazil as the most unequal society in Latin America. This causes huge social dislocation, is the reason why Bolivia has been wracked by protests since 2000 and led to the emergence of views such as you heard from the MAS Senator’s son. The election of Evo didn’t change the reality on the ground – and protests and tragedies come in my view mainly from that underlying reality. (Interesting your mention of Brazil because of course there the tensions are not occuring in the same political sphere but erupting into uncontrollable gang warfare and street violence in cities like Sao Paolo).

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