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 Bolivia: Processes of ChangeThe plurinational voices of Bolivia

Sue Jappie praises a complex study of the country that broke the mould

Since Evo Morales’ election as  Bolivian president in 2005 as the first indigenous president, new actors have entered the political stage. His presidency has broken the domination of the ruling elite, while also raising expectations that are difficult to fulfil.

John Crabtree and Ann Chaplin’s meticulous account of the inspiring processes of change in this small but complex part of Latin America shows the contradictory nature of one of Latin America’s most extraordinary movements and the background to Morales himself.

This book, recently launched at Bolivar Hall, is based on research in 2012 by these English academics who have a extensive knowledge of Bolivia and all its peoples. Based on a series of interviews with 160 Bolivians from various regions and backgrounds, it sets out how the processes of change have affected them.

Crabtree and Chaplin document the difficulties as well as successes of putting into practise the ambitious changes outlined in the New Constitution, drawn up and approved by a referendum after Morales’ re-election in 2009, and the relationship between the grass-roots social movements and MAS government interests.

They investigate the varying geographical regions of the country to illustrate the specific problems and potential of each and highlight the general themes of Bolivia’s political evolution and socio-economic development. A key factor is Morales’ MAS (Movement for Socialism) government’s rejection of neo-liberal policies of the IMF and the World Bank who tried to privatise water and commodify all raw materials for exploitation by Foreign Direct Investment.

This was a fundamental challenge to the USA’s right to eradicate the production of coca, which has deep traditional roots in indigenous culture and was central to Morales’ rise to power. Under the rule of MAS, many of Bolivia’s raw materials have been turned into commodity exports to keep the profits for its own people. The decision to hold the World Peoples Assembly on Climate Change at Cochabamba in 2010 was a courageous effort to break the logjam of the Cophenhagen climate summit. The aim to “protect the rights of Mother Earth and all her Peoples”.

The authors show how Bolivia’s history of strong social movements has helped Morales come to power and continue to hold his government accountable to the people. As early as 1952, peasants and unionised miners overthrew a military regime deposing three ‘tin barons’ who formed an oligarchy controlling the country’s mineral wealth. Then the peasants in the ‘bread-basket’ area around Cochabamba, took control of the land where they had worked as serfs, using the indigenous concept of ‘ayllu’ or communitarian agriculture to challenge this feudal/colonial land-ownership.

The Aymara coca farmers in the Alti-Plano developed the indigenous Katarista movement, and with the migration following the closure of mines and youth moving to urban areas, these local social movements spread across the country. One of the most well-known social movements happened when a transnational corporation tried to privatise the water in the Cochabamba area and the co-ordinated actions of the people caused a reversal of this Structural Adjustment Policy. This is one of several examples covered of how the anger against neo-liberal policies has helped to keep Bolivia independent.

So rather than Morales leading a revolution, the authors see his presidency as a progression from these previous grass-roots actions. He represents the indigenous majority of his country and has ensured their rights to participate actively in decision making. The fact that there are so many different traditional cultures in Bolivia has led him to call it a ‘pluri-national state’. Representing all of them equally is a huge challenge. There have also been conflicts of interest between the peasants and indigenous people over the approach to land-holding, as the latter do not believe in ‘owning’ land, but rather ‘caring for it’ as a community, and Morales has only managed to resolve these issues to a certain extent. Other areas of disagreement have arisen between the unionised mine workers and the co-operative sector.

This complex country has very different areas, each of which is described as interesting individual case studies, which you will have to read about to gain the rich insights into all the processes of change in this ground-breaking book.

6 August 2013

Bolivia: Processes of Change by John Crabtree and Ann Chaplin, Zed Books, £14.95

  • Cochabamba’s water wars are brought to life in Gael García Bernal’s extraordinary film: Even the Rain

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