Fire in the Plains, Fire in the Mountains

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Presidents (from left) Nestor Kirchner (Argentina), Evo Morales (Bolivia), Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (Brazil) and Hugo Chavez (Venezuela) when they met in the Argentine city of Iguazu in May 2006. Photo: REUTERS

The Pink Tide brought Bolivia the continent’s first Indio President and a lot of socialist dreams. Excerpts from the first essay of a series on Latin America, by Aijaz Ahmad, published in the January 13, 2006, issue.

“I WOULD rather be an illiterate Indio than a North American billionaire,” said Che Guevara before he perished in the Andean foothills of Bolivia 38 years ago. Evo Morales, who won the Bolivian presidency by a landslide in the third week of December, is not exactly illiterate, even though the United States corporate media like to call him a high school dropout and a “narco-trade unionist”. But he is an “Indio” all right, indeed the first man of full-blooded indigenous origin to be elected President of any Latin American country by universal suffrage. “I am not only a follower of Chavez, but a follower of Castro and a follower of Che as well,” he exults immediately after his massive victory, but then introduces a note of caution: “This does not mean that I am going to implement their programmes here, because Bolivia is not Cuba.”

Bolivia is no stranger to either seismic political upheavals or revolutionary possibilities. Liberated from colonial rule and founded as a separate country in 1825, by Simon Bolivar, the legendary Latin American revolutionary hero of Venezuelan origin whose name is consecrated in the country’s name itself, Bolivia has known no fewer than 200 coups in its tortured history and came close to a workers’ revolution in the 1950s which failed but did open up the way for sweeping left-populist reforms. Both these legacies – the Bolivarian one of anti-colonial nationalism and continental resistance against North American domination, as well as that of the revolutionary populism of the 1950s and early 1960s – are palpable in today’s Bolivian political imagination. That alone gives Morales a certain affinity with Hugo Chavez, who of course refers to his own revolutionary programme as a “Bolivarian revolution” and has even renamed his country as a “Bolivarian Republic” and now speaks of working towards a “socialism of the 21st century”. Almost a decade before Chavez even uttered the word “socialism”, Morales had founded a party in Bolivia which he called a “Movement Toward Socialism” and he consciously invokes that Bolivarian vision when he says, “I respect Chavez because Chavez talks of one big Latin American nation.”

An anti-imperialist nationalist, a self-professed socialist as well as an authentic, full-blooded Indio, Evo Morales is in some ways a unique phenomenon. The son of coca farmers, he was raised in the lush but impoverished Altiplano region, where he himself worked as a coca farmer and llama herder before rising to prominence as the national leader of the coca-growers’ union. In 1995, he founded the MAS (Movimiento al Socialismo), a political party which brings together three different Bolivian, and indeed Latin American, political currents: the historic hatred of what is generally known in Latin America as “gringo imperialism”, a socialist inspiration which tends to erupt periodically in a variety of countries across the continent, and the explosive revolutionary politics of the indigenous peoples which is sweeping not only Bolivia but also Peru, Ecuador, Guatemala and even parts of Mexico.

Morales often introduces cautionary words but his essential message has been repeated a thousand times. Just before the elections, he gave an extensive interview to a Swedish journalist where he summarised his platform well. “We will nationalise the forests and the petroleum and natural gas reserves,” he said. “In several cases the management of the companies has been disastrous. To develop the country, we have to get rid of the colonial and neoliberal model. We want to tax the transnationals in a fair way, and redistribute the money to the small and medium-sized enterprises, where the job opportunities and ideas are. To get this on its way, we want to create a development bank. The properties of big land owners will have to be redistributed; we’ll respect the productive land, but the unproductive land must be handed out to landless peasants – this will start a true process of economic redistribution. We will ask for the total [forgiveness] of the debt, negotiating with the World Bank and the IMF [International Monetary Fund]. We are looking into the possibility of presenting a demand that Bolivia be compensated for genocide and 500 years of oppression and violations of human rights. It would be a historic thing to do, especially for an indigenous government.”

Like Chavez, Morales has a comprehensive vision that encompasses the whole of Latin America and recalls Bolivar’s famous declaration that “the name of our country is America”. In that same interview, he goes on to say, “There are many progressive leaders in Latin America right now; Presidents like Fidel and Chavez, but also Kirchner [in Argentina], Lula and Tabarez Vasquez [in Uruguay]. I have a vision of integration, like the European Union, with a single market and a single currency and with the corporations subordinate to the state…. If I become President Bolivia will support ALBA [Alternativa Bolivariana para las Américas], the alternative to FTAA [Free Trade Area of the Americas] that was launched by Venezuela.”

Aside from the explosive issues relating to indigenous rights and state control over the natural resources of water, gas and oil, the electoral programme of Evo Morales also promised political decentralisation, regional autonomy with solidarity and reciprocity, and strengthening of national unity based on cultural and regional diversity. Similarly, the programme includes a policy to fight corruption, with a proposed fortune investigation law to investigate private fortunes, especially of former Presidents and other former top officials in power in the last 20 years. The agrarian reform programme includes elimination of large estates and speculative possession of lands, while providing farmers with plots of land and granting property titles to indigenous peoples, farmers, and small property owners. It also offers legal security to farmers and finance for agricultural producers to recover properties currently in the hands of the bank, seized for debts.

In his congratulatory message to Morales, Chavez picked up these themes of indigenous rights, Latin American solidarity and the struggle against neoliberalism. Bolivians had to wait 500 years until they were finally able to have an Aymara Indian as President, he said, and added that this represents “a real and true historical vindication”. He then went on to say, “Without a doubt, Evo, our joy is also great: the Fatherland of Bolivar and of Sucre [liberation fighters of Latin America, Venezuelan and Bolivian by origin] begins its new and definitive battle for dignity and sovereignty, and the great family of peoples finds in your fatherland a new reason to affirm the cause of humanity and to negate the neoliberal fallacy of the end of history. It is time for the refounding of Bolivia: it is a new beginning for history.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. has been intimately involved in the military affairs of the Bolivian state since the revolutionary days of the 1950s and 1960s when it became obsessed with what it called “internal subversion” in Bolivia. Initial training programmes were conducted through U.S. surrogates in Argentina. By 1963, however, Bolivia had more graduates from the United States Army Special Warfare School at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, than any other country in Latin America, while direct military aid increased, in currency values of that time, from $100,000 in 1958 to $3.2 million in 1964. In 1962-63 alone, a total of 659 officers were trained at the School of the Americas while 20 of the 23 senior-most officers of the Bolivian army were brought there for extended visits. The killing of Che was the high point of their success, and these men and their subordinates, backed by U.S. agencies, destroyed the revolutionary and populist forces of Bolivia and imposed a brutal military dictatorship which paved the way for oligarchic rule and neoliberal regimes for the next two decades. Since then, the Bolivian army has been the creature of the U.S. At present, that U.S. stranglehold on the security apparatus of Bolivia is conducted under the name of “war on drugs” upon which “war on terrorism” has been grafted more recently.

Over the past four years, as popular uprisings engulfed Bolivia, the U.S. is said to have poured more than $150 million a year in military and “social” aid, largely in the name of containing drug trafficking, though the real amounts are likely to be much higher. The main focus in the so-called “war on drugs” is of course on Colombia, which shares a strategic border with Venezuela, but in Bolivia itself this “war” is conducted by about a dozen different agencies, all funded by the U.S., which go far and wide into Bolivian society to conduct this “war”. Even so, and in addition to all that, U.S. training and equipping of Bolivian military and police forces skyrocketed again from 2003 onwards, as the rise of Morales became imminent, just as it had escalated in the revolutionary days of 40 years ago. Bolivia again became, next to Colombia itself, the second largest Latin American recipient of U.S. military training, and the number of Bolivian personnel receiving such training went up from 531 in 2000 to 2,054 in 2003. Meanwhile, the U.S. has also been positioning weapons and personnel in neighbouring Paraguay. The point here is that the combination of this U.S.-trained army and the U.S.-aligned oligarchic power is quite formidable. Morales may be able to defeat them but the going shall be tough. In comparison to the ordeals ahead, the heady ride to power at the head of a historic people’s uprising may begin to feel like a mere picnic before tremors of an earthquake set in.

“Fidel is my friend,” Evo Morales says casually. Now is the time to take instruction from the grand old man of the Latin American revolution who lost his dearest comrade-in-arms, Che Guevara, to the revolution in Bolivia, the land which once had Bolivar as its President and is named after him. Morales has inherited a noble legacy.

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