On June 26, speaking to the National Association of Elected and Appointed Latino Officials in Washington, DC, John Kerry laid out a hardline against Latin America’s grassroots social movements, telling the assembled officials that “we can’t sit by and watch as mob violence drives a president from office, like what happened in Bolivia or Argentina.”
Four days later, in an op-ed in the Miami Herald, he reiterated his position that the Bush administration hasn’t been foreceful enough in defending U.S. economic interests in Latin America, writing that “In Bolivia, Bush encouraged the election of a pro-market, pro-U.S. president and did nothing to help the country when riots shook the capital and the president was forced to flee.”
The “mob violence” that drove Bolivan President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada from power last fall was a largely nonviolent campaign of strikes, road blockades, and street protests organized by labor unions, coca growers, and indigenous people to prevent Sanchez de Lozada from selling off the nation’s natural gas reserves to foreign corporations.
Bolivia is the poorest country in Latin America, and sustainable, locally directed development of the country’s natural gas fields may be the last, best hope for the country’s indigenous majority to lift itself out of poverty. But Sanchez de Lozada, under pressure from the U.S., wanted to sell off the gas rights in order to pay off the country’s debts to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank–debts which date back to the military dictatorship of Gen. Hugo Banzer, and which were incurred without the consent of the rural poor who for the most part never saw the benefit of the “development projects” driven by the international fiananciers. Kerry is right that there was violence in Bolivia last fall–but it mostly came from the military and the police who attacked unarmed demonstrators with tear gas, batons, and live ammunition.
The U.S. sent additional military advisors to try to help Sanchez de Lozada quell the insurrection during his last days in power. Human Rights Watch confirms that at least 59 people were killed by security forces during the demonstrations last fall, and most Bolivian human rights groups say that the actual number is much, much higher. In La Paz, some police units did reportedly side with the demonstrators and open fire on the military.
Not surprisingly, while some campesinos have been arrested and tortured on flimsy or fabricated evidence in connection with vague charges of inciting violence against the military, the government hasn’t even begun to investigate most of the cases of police and military violence against unarmed protesters. Refering to the “mob violence” that drove Sanchez de Lozada from power, is a little like rewriting the history of the U.S. civil rights movement to talk about the violence that ensued when a throng of civil rights protesters defied the legal orders given by police officers under the command of the democratically elected mayor of Selma, Alabama. It’s a classic case of blaming the victim and obscuring the truth. Kerry could learn a lot about democracy from the Bolivian “mobs.”
In a talk at the School for Authentic Journalism in Cochabamba, Oscar Olivera, who helped to coordinate successful campaigns against gas privatization and water privatization, spoke of how a truly democratic leader must remain in touch with and accountable to the people. Quite a contrast to John Kerry who has spurned his party’s traditional progressive base and who never even considered meeting with the demonstrators outside the Democratic National Convention. But Olivera and the popular movements he represents have an even more important lesson for the U.S. left.
In recent months, a part of the Bolivian left, led by Evo Morales of the Movement Toward Socialism party, has renounced street protests and road blockades and tried to earn a seat at the table in La Paz by playing by the rules of electoral politics. Morales and his supporters have taken to demonizing Olivera and others who believe in grassroots, participatory democracy, alternately accusing them of being unrealistic and of having sold out the movement.
For his part, Olivera has remained focused on the strategic and philosophical differences between the two tendencies. Speaking at the School for Authentic Journalism, he said “Today in Bolivia there are two currents within the social movements. The first current is a reformist current looking for changes within the political structure. Others in the social movements are going toward the transformation of political political and economic systems that aren’t working. I think the concept of power is important. Some movements and leaders seem to think that power is in the parliament and the office of the president. And some think that, as in the water war and the coca war and the gas war, power comes from below.”
To liberals who believe that incremental change can bring about a more humane and responsive government, Olivera says: “If you have a blind government and a dead government that doesn’t listen to the people, victory can come much faster, History has placed us in a decisive moment for the social movements, and we have no choice but to keep on working for the power of the people.”
We would do well to heed his advice.
SEAN DONAHUE is a poet and freelance journalist based in Lawrence, MA. He wrote the chapter on Ran Beers, Kerry’s top foreign policy advisor, for CounterPunch’s new book on the 2004 elections, Dime’s Worth of Difference. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org