The people of Bolivia are rising and provide us with hope
Author: Matt Kennard
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 03/19/2010
There’s a game I’ve been playing recently. Any time I read the news and get
depressed about the parlous state of our world, I type “Bolivia” into Google
news and wait for the results. It’s really all you need to brighten up your
In the last month things such as this have popped up: Bolivian
women spearhead Morales revolution, which describes the decision by Bolivia’s
president, Evo Morales, to stock half his new cabinet with women, nearly half
of them indigenous. More recently there was this: Bolivian
president donates half pay to victims, which detailed Morales and his vice
president Alvaro García’s decision to donate half their March salaries to help
the victims of the Haiti and Chile earthquakes.
What is happening in Bolivia now – and has been
since MAS, or Movimiento al Socalismo, came to power in 2005 – is truly
inspiring. There has been a lot of talk about how the left is dead and Francis
Fukayama’s “End of History”
means we all have to accept that a global economic system that creates obscene
inequalities and mass starvation is the highest stage of social and economic
organisation our species can attain.
That might be true for an academic at
Johns Hopkins, but for everyone else looking to the future and something to
fight for, I ask them to kindly divert their gaze to Bolivia. It is the closest
thing we have to real democratic socialism: a government, but more importantly
a grassroots movement, committed to economic and gender equality, anti-racism,
free speech and every other ideal the left should hold dear.
In December last year MAS won their second five-year term with 67% of the
public vote, more than double the percentage won by their nearest opponent, Manfred Reyes
Villa. The re-election of an incumbent was particularly exceptional in
Bolivia. A country often dismissed by regional experts as “ungovernable” due to
its bloody history of military coups and mass public protests, it has seen only
a handful of presidents complete their terms in office. The FT now calls
Morales “one of Latin America’s most popular leaders”.
Morales’s landslide victory was a clear sign of public support for the
present administration and the extensive social reforms they have implemented.
On coming to power in 2005, Morales pledged to see through a “democratic
revolution” in an attempt to alleviate poverty in Bolivia, the poorest country
in South America. The democratic revolution had its genesis in 2000 in what
were called the “water wars“, centred in the city of Cochabamba. The
water industry had just been privatised with the help of the neoliberal
government and the IMF and was run now by the US corporation Bechtel.
Prices soared and police were even instructed to arrest people collecting
rainwater to bypass the new prices. The indigenous community was up in arms and
Bechtel was forced out by the local communities. The indigenous movement, which
is based around small micro-democratic communities, went on to blockade La Paz.
The government shot dead a score of protesters in
2005, before the presidential incumbent was forced out and fled to Miami.
When Morales was elected he became the country’s first indigenous president
and his party embarked on a programme of “decolonising the state”. For Latin
America, the election of an indigenous leader had the same poignancy as Barack
Obama’s election in the US.
Throughout his mandate Morales has determinedly pursued a programme of
social change, including the part-nationalisation of the country’s energy
resources and a surge in social spending that has focused on conditional cash
transfers (whereby payments have been made to poor families on the condition
that they send their children to school.) These measures have seen Bolivia
record a fiscal surplus for the first time in 30 years; the country has been
predicted a higher growth rate this year than anywhere else in the Americas;
and poverty levels have dropped continually since MAS came to power. Even the
head of the IMF’s western hemisphere countries unit has praised the Morales
government for what he referred to as its “very responsible” macroeconomic
The backbone of Morales’s reform programme was the creation of a new
Bolivian constitution, which was ratified by a public referendum in 2009.
Morales has signalled that he will make the implementation of the new
constitution his main legislative priority at the start of his second term. In
a country that is often compared to apartheid South Africa, as the stark
divisions of poverty and inequality are marked along racial lines, this
constitution represents Bolivia’s Freedom Charter.
The texture of the modern Bolivian revolution is different to that of Hugo
Chávez’s Venezuela. It is a much more bottom-up revolution, and Morales is kept
on a tight leash by the democratic movement that was behind his rise to power
in a way Chávez isn’t. As you look to our election battle between a Labour
government that has been in power for 13 years and allowed inequality to worsen
and a Conservative cabinet full of reactionary Old Etonians, it’s easy to
despair. But when you do, look to Bolivia. The future lies in that small
landlocked Latin American country of 9 million people.
Bio: Matt Kennard graduated from University of Leeds in the UK.
Since then he has completed a Masters in Journalism from Columbia University in
New York City, where he lives now. He has written for the Guardian, Chicago
Tribune, Newsday, New Statesman, amongst others.