By Roger Burbach, New America Media
Latin America has seen presidents with indigenous blood elected before, leaders who have failed their Indian constituents. But Evo Morales’ rise to president is buttressed by ongoing, massive social upheavals and popular mobilizations centered in Cochabamba and Chapare.
COCHABAMBA, Bolivia – Jan 23, 2006 – The inauguration of Evo Morales as the first president of Bolivia of indigenous origins marks a watershed in the history of the Americas. The “caras,” whites and mestizos who have dominated Bolivia for centuries, are being replaced by an Indian who represents the country’s true majority.
But will Morales be able to truly empower Bolivia’s Indians to improve their social and economic lot? In countries like Peru, Ecuador and Mexico, history is replete with betrayal by national leaders with Indian blood, as well as by presidents placed in office by Indian movements.
Morales’ inauguration, however, appears to mark a dramatic change.
Morales’ presidency is the result of an ongoing massive social upheaval that has profoundly shaken the country. Bolivia may be a poor nation, but it has some of the richest popular mobilizations witnessed in Latin America over the past decade or more.
Evo Morales made his home for many years here in Cochabamba, Bolivia’s third largest city with just under a million inhabitants. On Jan. 19 he had an informal gathering at his humble home before departing for La Paz to take up residence at the presidential palace. He spoke emotionally of his sense of loss at leaving Cochabamba, saying, “I hope to return every month to be in touch.” Those present, he said, “will need to tell me if I am fulfilling my commitment to help the most needy.”
Much has been made of the uprising of the poor communities in Los Altos on the plateau above La Paz that shook the foundations of Bolivia’s entrenched political system. In October 2003 protesters descended on the capital to oust President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, and then in June 2005, his successor Carlos Mesa. As part of the accord that installed the head of the Supreme Court as interim-president, general elections were called for December 2005, leading to Evo Morales’ triumph.
But it is in Cochabamba and the adjacent semi-tropical province of Chipare that one finds the true roots of the popular struggle that lifted Evo Morales to the country’s presidency. It is here that the Movement for Socialism, Morales’ political party, was founded.
Like many others of Indian origin, Evo migrated to the Chapare as a young man from the Bolivian highlands as many of the tin mines were closed and labor unions disbanded in the name of modernizing the country’s mining industry. The growing of coca plants in Chapare became the primary economic activity of the immigrants. Clearing unoccupied lands, the new peasants formed a network of local unions, or syndicates, grouped together in seven federations. In 1989, the highly personable and self-effacing Morales became president of the seven federations of coca growers, or “cocaleros.”
From the late 1990s onwards, the cocaleros have fought an intense war against the U.S.-sponsored “coca zero” program in Chapare. Intended to uproot and destroy all coca plants, the United States militarized the region, setting up four military bases while training and advising special Bolivian battalions. According to Pedro Rocha, a small coca grower interviewed while tending his plants, “nothing was sacred. Our homes were invaded and even burnt, our belonging were stolen or tossed into the fields and many of us were beaten and arrested.” Subsistence crops along with coca plants, Rocha said, were trampled and destroyed.
The cocaleros, led by Morales, organized massive resistance to the eradication program, reaching out to other national unions and to international human rights organizations. Roads were blockaded in the Chapare for more than a month at a time as the local unions rotated their members, women and men, day and night, to stop all traffic through the center of the country.
As the war was unfolding in Chapare, the city of Cochabamba erupted with massive demonstrations in 1999-2000 against Bechtel, the U.S. corporation that led a consortium of companies that had taken control of the city’s water supply as part of the privatization of public utilities occurring throughout Bolivia. The citizens won the “water war,” forcing Bechtel out, and doubtlessly helping inspire the people of Los Altos to move on the very seat of government in La Paz. The subsequent change in presidents also boomeranged in Chapare, as a weakened President Mesa was forced to negotiate a truce with the cocaleros in late 2004, allowing each family to grow one-sixth of a hectare of coca plants.
The militancy of Cochabamba and Chapare is palatable as Evo Morales takes over the presidency. As farmer Pedro Rocha declares, “Bolivia’s presidents have all had their special military guards. We will be Evo Morales’ special guards, ready to rise up, making sure that no one dares to touch him so he can change our country.”
Morales in his inaugural address on Sunday, Jan. 22, echoed the struggles of the people of Chapare and Cochabamba: “We cannot privatize public needs like water. We are fighting for our water rights, for our right to plant coca, for control over our national resources.” He added: “we need to end the radicalism of neo-liberalism, not the radicalism of our unions and our movements.”
Paraphrasing Morales discussion of the mission of the Movement for Socialism that brought him to office, he said: “Socialism does not come from a small group of leaders; it comes from a fight, from a communal struggle. Socialism is an original mandate. It means social justice, the participation of all.”
PNS contributor Roger Burbach is currently traveling in South America. In Chile, the Spanish edition is being released of his book, “The Pinochet Affair: State Terrorism and Global Justice.”