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” as they are called, the whites and mestizos who have dominated Bolivia for centuries, are being replaced by an Indian who represents the county’s true majority.
Perhaps the most important ceremony in Bolivia this week occurred the day before Morales formal inauguration as president when over 50,000 Indians from Bolivia and around the Americas assembled in the ruins of the ancient Indian city of Tiwanaku. There the “Power of the Original Mandate” was conferred on Morales.
But will Morales be able to truly liberate the Indians of Bolivia, to empower them to take control of their lives, 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.
Evo Morales’ inauguration however appears to mark a dramatic change. His 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.
On my trip to Bolivia this week I consciously avoided La Paz, partially in hopes of not being trampled in my wheel chair with my fractured ankle as thousands of visitors, reporters and foreign dignitaries took to the narrow streets of the capital. I instead came to Cochabamba, Bolivia’s third largest city with just under a million inhabitants. It is here that Evo Morales made his home for many years. On Thursday he had an informal gathering at his humble abode 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,” adding, “people here will need to tell me if I am fulfilling my commitment to help the most needy in the country.”
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 the entrenched political system of the country. In October, 2003 they 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 Chipare 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 Chipare became the primary economic activity of the immigrants. Clearing unoccupied lands, the new peasants brought with them their rich indigenous communal and union traditions. They 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” as they are called.
From the late 1990s onwards, the cocaleros have fought an intense war against the US sponsored “coca zero” program in Chipare. Intended to uproot and destroy all coca plants, the US militarized the region, setting up four military bases while training and advising special Bolivian battalions. As a small coca grower, Pedro Rocha, told me while tending his plants, “nothing was sacred, our homes were invaded and even burnt, our belonging were stolen or tossed into the fields, many of us were beaten and arrested, and our subsistence crops along with our coca plants were trampled and destroyed.”
The cocaleros lead 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 Chipare 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 Chipare, the city of Cochabamba erupted with massive demonstrations in 1999-2000 against Bechtel, the US corporation 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 giving heart to the rest of Bolivia, 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 Chipare, 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 an hectare of coca plants.
The militancy of Cochabamba and Chipare is palatable as Evo Morales takes over the presidency. As 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, taking control of our natural resources and ending the privileges of the rich.”
Morales in his inaugural address on Sunday, January 22, echoed the struggles of the people of Chipare 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.”
ROGER BURBACH is director of the Center for the Study of the Americas (CENSA) and a Visiting Scholar at the Institute of International Studies, University of California, Berkeley. He is co- author with Jim Tarbell of “Imperial Overstretch: George W. Bush and the Hubris of Empire,” He released late last year “The Pinochet Affair: State Terrorism and Global Justice.”