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Beyond Populism: Decolonizing the Economy
Nationalization of Natural Gas in Bolivia
by WALTER MIGNOLO

Evo Morales recently read the "Supreme Decree" in which the nationalization of natural gas was announced. The rumor that this was about to happen had already spread in Bolivia. The decree starts by considering that "in historical struggles, the people have conquered and paid with their blood, the right to return our natural resources and our wealth in natural gas to the hands of the nation and to be utilized to the benefit of the country."

According to current polls Evo Morales has 80% approval, but the U.S. is concerned about a government that is not following the path of democracy. George Bush had a similar approval rate after 9/11 and although there were concerns in other parts of the world, the official discourse in the US linked popular approval of the government with democracy and not with populism. What are the relations between democracy and popular approval of the presidential mandate?

The international press reported the substantial concern of the industrial sector after President Morales announced the nationalization. The New York Times quoted Adriano Pires, director of the Brazilian Center for Infrastructure Studies, who said:

"Governments in the region see energy as a commodity they can use to push populist agendas … From a political point of view, it’s a powerful issue to manipulate, but from an Industrial point of view, it can do real harm" (05/02/06, A5).

Pires’ statement is half true. He assumes that nationalization of natural gas is just a political move and he assumes that the industrial sector has no political interests. Furthermore, he assumes that industrialization in itself is good for all and that there will be no economic benefits for the majority of the Bolivian population.

One can surmise that Pires would do whatever is possible to benefit the industrial sector, and leave other institutions to fight poverty. Pires’ concern is not the well being of human beings, but the increase in productivity.

The industrial sector and the government of industrial countries are not considering the possibility that the nationalization of natural gas in Bolivia could be a way to fight poverty. Regaining the autonomy that was taken away by the privatization of natural resources under the government of Gonzálo Sánchez de Losada may not be going back to the national populism of the 70′s in Latin America, but moving forward to a new way of doing politics and economy (the de-colonial way, as it is being conceptualized in Bolivia).

It is time perhaps to start questioning the idea that industrialization and technology paves the way to democracy and that democratic projects that are different from those of the private sector are authoritarian populism. The news and official reports regularly inform that while worldwide wealth and productivity increases, poverty climbs as well.

We, readers and audience of popular media, are daily invited to think that there is only one way to go: to increase productivity, to spread technology and to allow people to vote. Democracy is at the end of this road. When people vote in a surprising majority for a project (like that of Evo Morales, Hugo Chávez or Hamas), that is not following the predicted path, democracy in danger is debated and the authoritarian use of force is considered as a measure to re-establish democracy. That makes you think that democracy means to be in agreement with the concept of democracy defended by those who have the control of money and the control of authority. That profile makes us believe that indeed people who do not believe in capitalism and that suffer the consequences of globalization, are wrong in their feeling and in their struggle for liberation of imperial global designs.

The strengthening of the State that we are witnessing around the world (from Vladimir Putin in Russia to Mahmoud Amhadinejad in Iran; from Hugo Chávez to Evo Morales) is a response to the danger of a private sector, as Joseph Stiglitz has analyzed in the case of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and also of the end of the ten years of privatization in Argentina under Carlos Ménem.

If President Bush and Osama Bin Laden have been a portrait of a struggle of fundamentalisms, we can conclude that today Bolivia provides an example of the struggle between the danger of the private sector that Antonio Pires mentions and the danger of national populism. Neither offers a way to the future.

But, in the last analysis, Evo Morales may be doing something different: not a move toward revamping national populism in Latin America, as the vox populi has it, but moving in a different direction: the de-colonization of the State and the de-colonization of the economy. Which means, working toward a political theory that is not contained in John Locke and in a political economy that is beyond Adam Smith and Karl Marx.

WALTER MIGNOLO is the William H. Wannamaker Professor of Literature and Romance Studies at Duke University. His books include: The Idea of Latin America, The Darker Side of the Renaissance: Literacy, Territoriality and Colonization and Local Histories/Global Designs: Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges and Border Thinking. He can be reached at: wmignolo@acpub.duke.edu