The struggle to build the new Bolivia

Bolivia’s struggle for self-determination naturally brings it into conflict with the United States. But real problems of development remain to be solved. Susan Jappie reports.

Never far below the surface, tensions between Bolivia and the United States re-emerged at a recent regional conference. President Evo Morales accused Washington of backing coup attempts in Venezuela, Bolivia and most recently in Ecuador.

Morales said US policies to combat drugs and terrorism were pretexts for "intervention" in the region. US Defence Secretary and former CIA head Robert Gates was in the audience but did not respond in public. Morales’ attack came after Gates had warned about the dangers of doing business with Iran.  

Bolivian Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera
Bolivian Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera

But behind the rhetoric, Bolivia’s determined but still difficult struggle to develop itself remains a great challenge to the Morales’ government. The nature of the challenges was brought out by vice president Alvaro Garcia Linera when he spoke at the London School of Economics recently.

Linera gave an account of the political and economic changes in Bolivia since 2005 when Morales was elected as the first indigenous president in the Americas. He reviewed the legacy of colonialism, capitalism and neo-liberalism in shaping the inequalities and tensions within the country, before the popular uprising of both urban and rural poor.

They had seen the gap between their expectations and reality widen when the promises of the “trickle down effect” from globalisation failed to reach them.

Linera emphasised the uniqueness of Bolivia’s revolution, as it stemmed from the organisation and demands of the indigenous people who make up 62% of the population. They were then joined by left-wing intellectuals and trade unionists.

He himself comes from a white middle-class background and studied mathematics at a Mexican university. But on his return to Bolivia he was imprisoned and tortured for his involvement in radical politics. He then took the study of social sciences before becoming an advisor to Morales.

Linera brought together a combination of mathematical and sociological understanding of social structures and change and detailed statistical evidence to support his argument about the rapid and far-reaching changes implemented by Bolivia’s pluri-national state in the five years since Morales came to power.

Bolivia is one of the smallest and poorest countries in Latin America, which being land-locked and mountainous, was traditionally a peasant-based agricultural economy. But in the last century, mining became a key export as well as textiles and food crops from the fertile tropical eastern region.

Between 1950 and 1980, the big mining companies and railways built to export the produce were taken over by the state. A quarter of the workers formed trade unions but the rest had no collective representation or rights.

During the period of globalisation, from the 1980s onwards, public utilities were privatised, including telecom, energy and airlines. Most of the railways were left to decay and many of the less lucrative tin mines closed.

With deregulation, oil, gas and lithium were extracted for export by private companies, with three-quarters of all profits going to the corporations and the rest to the state. Much of this revenue was used by the military dictatorship to buy up land rather than being invested in development projects.

But it was when the water utilities were up for privatisation in 2000 that the indigenous people organised three revolutions and created the Popular Front which led to the election of Morales. The government has policies to re-distribute the country’s resources and build up the existing communities around a central welfare state.

It has selectively re-nationalised gas, oil, transport and refining, with some private-public partnerships built in for oil exploration. Much of the profit from the natural resources has been reclaimed to rebuild social services. Water, lighting and telecommunications are seen as indispensable human rights.

The marketing of food stocks are regulated and a development bank set up to encourage small producers. Money is provided to most families with young children and given as rewards for attending school! Pensions are given to all elderly people and especially to ex-mine workers who receive their pensions years earlier than others.

The community organisation of small farmers as Campesinos, based on family and artisans is seen as a tradition which has suited the country for hundreds of years and will continue to do so.

This is one of the three strands of development set out by the state, which recognises the importance of bottom-up local structures, drawing on indigenous wisdom, while the state acts as regulator of industry, micro-corporations and welfare.

The role of trade unions is important, but seen as secondary to the healing of the bitter legacy of colonialism. This is why Morales is viewed as such a deep symbol of the new Bolivia.

25 November 2010

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