One year on

By Published On: February 7, 2007Categories: Politics0 Comments on One year on

A year ago, I stood outside the ancient ruins of Tiwanaku craning to see Evo Morales standing in the doorway of the temple at his inauguration. I was surrounded by indigenous people, dressed to the full in striking clothes and robes, jubilantly waving indigenous flags (wiphalas) and the Bolivian tricolour. There was a huge buzz of occasion and a sense of history in the making.

Over a week ago, I went to hear Evo speak again, this time in the main square in La Paz, standing on a platform in front of a giant banner blazoned with the words "First year of the Democratic and Cultural Revolution". It was just as packed with a mixture of campesinos, party activists, and indigenous musicians but the air circulated with a sense of slightly worn determination rather than grand hopes. The fact that some musicians from Evo’s birthplace hadn’t been able to attend because of blockades in El Alto spoke of a much more complex political picture than a year ago.

I remember being full of hope last year at the change of Government.
The arrival of the first Indigenous President was clearly historic, but
I also knew many people, who I admired, who were entering Government
determined to make a difference. A year on, I still feel hope but I
also realise now how difficult it is to change countries with deep
structural inequalities and how parties or even movements are rarely
either equipped or organised in a way to be truly accountable to those who put them there.

But let’s start with the good news first. The Government delivered on its principle promises: Nationalisation of the gas and oil industry that has increased income three times, land reform that could see redistribution of up to a fifth of Bolivia’s land, and the start of a Constituent Assembly that will redesign the constitution. All of the measures can be reasonably criticised for not going far enough and the management of the Constituent Assembly has been poorly and unnecessarily badly handled. However there is no doubt that many in the Government have worked unsustainably long hours to deliver concrete results.

These are achievements trumpeted by the Government, and repeated by people I have talked to in La Paz in the last few weeks. Samuel Peredo, a builder in El Alto said "Evo has worked hard for us. His biggest sucess is delivering nationalisation." Erica, an indigenous woman in her pollera skirts who is currently unemployed agreed: "They are far better than previous governments who only governed for themselves."

But in some ways I am more inspired by the less tangible and the more personal. 

The hidden work of a vice-minister I know who has been gradually reducing the impositions of the international aid community who tie aid to meeting their objectives and using European staff rather than meeting Bolivian needs and priorities. The advocating by the Government of alternative visions of trade based on justice and solidarity under the Peoples Trade Agreements – What other government document can you imagine fundamentally questioning capitalism with the words: "We have to question a system which bases development on how much we consume."

The woman in Potosi who receives her certificate for literacy and to cheers says she will now go to school. The joy of landless workers chewing coca and celebrating inside the Presidential palace as a land reform law is passed. The indigenous campesino in Guaqui who says to me "When Evo became President, I became President too."

However it is also true that the Government has failed to resolve conflicts such as the tragic miner’s clashes in Huanuni and the bloody events earlier this month in Cochabamba. They have spoken with contradictory and conflicting voices at key moments. They have at times stumbled from crisis to crisis. They have inflamed regional opposition rather than found a language of inclusion. They wastefully let the chance of consensus in the Constituent Assembly slip leading to several months of heightened opposition that debilitated the Government. They have unnecessarily alienated middle class and mestizo (mixed race) Bolivians like my new flatmate who does not think she counts for the indigenous-led Government.

Some of the fault does not lie with the Government. They have clearly faced a fierce opposition at regional level and within the Senate and the Constituent Assembly from the Right who have gained increasing confidence. These parties controlled the country for decades and are not happy to see power slip. Moreover they are dominated by the economic elites who have benefited from
the last 20 years and who will resist any radical change in economic and political power relations. They are undoubtedly backed in different ways by outside governments such as the US. Confronting their interests, which justice demands, will inevitably lead to conflict.

On the other side the Government also faces the culmination of years of frustrated expectations from different social sectors who have all made their  demands overloading a government and creating the feeling of constant mini-crises.

Yet it is also clear that many of the seeds of disfunction lie with the Government, in particular its discoordination, over-emphasis on Evo Morales’s leadership and failure at times to find a language that could embrace many Bolivians who could support many reforms if they felt more included. Friends in Government say that good ideas are often not turned into practical projects, that too many decisions are held up waiting for approval at higher levels, and that major fights between various tendencies in MAS prevent important change. As just one example, proposals for "community justice" recognising indigenous forms of resolving issues of justice at community level has been viciously attacked by the more marxist-left in MAS who have called it "feudal" and "undermining of the State."

Much of this is rooted in how the MAS party is organised and was formed.  What is often forgotten is that the MAS party was formed as a political instrument by the coca-growers in the Chapare region of Bolivia when they were involved in resisting a low-intensity war led by US-backed forces in the "war on drugs." This created a unified coca-growers federation and a powerful social force but also hierarchical structures of power and a sense of being constantly under attack. Whilst they started as a "political instrument" of social movements rather than a party, the rigours of election also reinforced top-down leadership and minimised real participation and debate. By the time of elections in 2005, MAS had become a vehicle for a whole range of divergent groups, political currents and personalities whose main uniting force is the personality of Evo and the desire to end neo-liberalism.

So we enter the second year of Evo’s government knowing that the challenges of governing and delivering change remains as difficult as ever. The election of MAS and Evo marked an important change in the balance of power, and the reassertion of key elements in Bolivia’s political, economic and social life: the empowerment of indigenous identity, the recovery of the State and the sense of public and the necessity of redistribution. But it is still far from delivering a real revolution in terms of taking power, both economic and political, down to the majority of Bolivians who lost out in the last 20 years of "free market" reforms.

Leaving the march, I stopped to buy chocolate at one of the thousands of street stalls, that are a testament to the informal and insecure economy created by neoliberalism since 1985.  Graciela shrugged  when I asked her what she thought of the rally up the street still in earshot: "I don’t see any difference. I still have to work 16 hours a day outside on the street to survive. What kind of revolution is that?" It reminded me of how rhetoric and changes in national power still mean nothing unless it helps people like Graciela change their realities.


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