World in View: Whither Bolivia?

From the March-April 2011 issue of News & Letters:

World in View: Whither Bolivia?

It took five days of protests, but the social movements, which brought Evo Morales to power in 2006 forced his government to back off of a huge increase in the price of gasoline at the end of 2010. In El Alto, government offices were broken into and striking bus drivers stridently enforced their stop-work action against any drivers who sought to pick up passengers. In the countryside, coca growers blockaded a main highway.

After a series of meetings with leaders from the social movements and unions, Morales announced the cancellation of increases, saying he would “continue to govern by obeying the people.” The confrontation has exposed the challenges for the social movements in face of a Left government, which proclaims its desire for building socialism, but whose practices are not necessarily independent of neo-liberalism.

Oscar Olivera, a crucial leader of the Cochabamba “Water War” in 2000—a key thread in Bolivia’s revolutionary transformation—commented on the difficulties of the present moment:

“People could not understand that a government that claims to follow the demands of the people, that said it would always take actions in consultation with the public, had made decisions against them, which they now say had been studied with experts for seven months. The problem is that the measure resulted in an increase in the price of consumer goods such as milk, transport, bread, materials for construction, housing….

“In a very organized but independent way the people took to the streets to oppose this measure. But they didn’t just protest in the places with a tradition of popular rebellion such as the mining areas of Oruro and Potosi, it was all over the country. Even in Chapare, an Evo stronghold, villagers blocked roads. . . What this government has done is to weaken and fragment the social fabric that was built up in a very industrious, steady and dignified way since 2000….

“The government talks about the anti-racist law, but authoritarianism is evident, it is arrogant and it despises those who are not subordinate to MAS [Movement for Socialism, the government’s political party]….

“This situation has led to a period of reflection, discussion and a mobilization of the grass roots, and the people are becoming more informed. They have relied too much on the government, which has a lot of credibility. Some people believe that this government can be saved, that it will improve things. I hope that the government has the ability, generosity and humility to listen to the people, and recover this process, which is not owned by Evo or MAS, but rightfully belongs to the Bolivian people.” [Interview, Latin American Solidarity Centerhttp://www.lasc.ie/content/oscar-olivera-takes-stock-gasolinazo-bolivia-new-ways-doing-politics-and-economics-have-be-0]

–Eugene Walker

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