The Bolivian oligarchy has initiated its plan to balkanize the country. Traditionally, the oligarchy controlled the oil, natural gas, and the best farmland in Bolivia; and, for the most part, it has never indicated a desire to share the wealth with the nation’s indigenous majority. That majority, 60 percent of the population, lives primarily in the Andean highlands of western Bolivia, although in recent decades, the Indians of those areas have begun moving down to the cities in search of jobs.
With their diseases, their firepower, and their greed, the Euro-Americans have enjoyed their country’s wealth since the founding of Bolivia, and the Indians think it’s about time for a more-equitable division of the proceeds. They’ve been waiting half a millennium, and their patience has begun to drift off somewhere over the Andes, from whence it is unlikely to return.
Evo Morales is an Aymara Indian. In 2005, he became the first indigenous president in Bolivia’s history, collecting 54 percent of the vote. He inherited a land-locked and underdeveloped country, the poorest in South America. But the provinces of the eastern lowlands are blessed with large reserves of oil and natural gas. They also possess good farmland, although much of it lies unused by its wealthy owners.
The richest province of the lowlands is Santa Cruz. The light-skinned elite of Santa Cruz has benefited from the prosperity generated by the sale of oil and natural gas to foreign petroleum companies, and it fears any real or imagined threat to that prosperity. Bolivia has a population of over 9.2 million people, and about 2 million of them live in Santa Cruz, where the Euro-Americans greatly outnumber the Indians.
Since his election in 2005, President Morales has begun implementing a plan that he thinks will improve the lives of the poor while ensuring the well-being of everyone. In 2006, he nationalized Bolivia’s oil and natural gas reserves. This amounted, for the most part, to negotiating a larger financial return to the country from various foreign oil companies. Although some members of the oligarchy predicted doom, the opposite occurred. The portion of oil and gas revenue in Bolivia’s GDP grew from 5 percent in 2004 to 13.3 percent in 2006. (New York Times, September 18, 2007)
Suddenly, President Morales’s political party, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), became a great success story. Investors began putting up new apartment buildings in the capital city of La Paz. Someone erected a new Cineplex. The members of the president’s cabinet argued about whether to spend some of the country’s $4 billion in foreign currency reserves. (They decided to hold on to it for the present. These socialists are so conservative.)
Simultaneously, the state’s social programs went into overdrive. Teachers from Cuba arrived to teach the poor people how to read and write. Cuban doctors arrived to heal their ailments. New construction created new jobs. And the nation began planning to redistribute unused farmland to the indigenous majority. To fund additional social programs, the government recently announced plans to nationalize four more energy companies and Entel, Bolivia’s major telecommunications company.
And all this has taken place peacefully, lawfully, and democratically. No one has evicted the rich from their mansions or ordered them to hand over their expensive toys. Who could complain about all this peace and love? No one, of course, but the North American empire. Who else?
On December 14, 2007, the Washington Post led the frightened reactionaries out of the starting gate. In one of its hysterical editorials, the Post shrieked that Morales wanted to make himself “president-for-life.” Both he and President Rafael Correa of Ecuador were planning “constitutional coups.” And Morales, with his “radical proposals,” was about to start a civil war.
There’s nothing like peaceful change to bring on a mountain of criticism. The Post and the Bolivian oligarchy didn’t like Morales’s brand of success. The oligarchy didn’t want to help the poor. It wanted to continue helping itself. And George Bush wanted to help them continue to let the good times roll.
Bush had already revealed his plans in 2006 by appointing Philip Goldberg as the U.S. ambassador to the unfortunate people of Bolivia. Philip Goldberg, in case it slipped your mind, previously worked for the U.S. State Department in Yugoslavia during Bill Clinton’s administration. We won’t need anyone in Yugoslavia anytime soon, because Goldberg energetically helped pull the country apart. Then he stepped out onto the veranda and watched the U.S. Air Force blow the hell out of anyone who might choose to object.
What do you suppose Goldberg plans to do next? Was it an accident that, on May 4, Santa Cruz held its referendum to empower its oligarchy to seek “autonomy” for its juicy province? The elites of three other wealthy lowland provinces—Tarija, Pando, and Beni—have already indicated their interest in acquiring autonomy, too. Autonomy looks like the latest craze. It may soon reach Utah.
U.S.-funded rightwing groups are already handing out propaganda by the bale in Bolivia. And there are persistent reports that Colombian paramilitary squads are conducting training operations in the four lowland provinces. On May 5, Fidel Castro reminded us in his Reflection for that day that the U.S. Fourth Fleet, mothballed since 1950, is now getting spiffed up to patrol the waters around Central and South America. “[I]s interventionist purposes do not need to be demonstrated,” he wrote. (Granma, May 5, 2008)
Bolivia has a long tradition in which military coups have occurred to solve domestic political disputes. Eduardo Dimas recently pointed out at Progresso Weekly that the present military high command was not trained in the United States and has demonstrated an unwillingness to conduct a coup every afternoon. A recent plot failed to gain the support of the officer corps.
It will come as no surprise that President Morales declared the Santa Cruz referendum to be entirely illegal and of no official substance. Nonetheless, he has also said that he welcomes a vote of confidence by the whole country, which will take place within the next 90 days.
Despite the fraudulent nature of the autonomy vote in Santa Cruz, on the night of May 4, I found myself searching for news about the event. The pro-Morales residents had announced a boycott, so I had no doubts regarding the outcome. I just wondered what else might have happened.
If you live in the United States, it’s more difficult to find late-night news from Bolivia than it is to find an honest voting machine in Florida. I eventually found someone awake at Al Jazerra. After she read a report about the vote in Santa Cruz, an announcer switched to a story about the Red Ponchos, an ancient military group among the indigenous peoples of the Andes. They include tens of thousands of warriors, and they have promised a fight to the death if anyone attacks Evo Morales.
The Red Ponchos possess rifles and ammunition. I hope they never have to use them. Opposing forces would have the best weapons the empire could give them. Who knows what might happen?
I believe in peaceful change. So does Evo Morales. So did Salvador Allende, the president of Chile during the Nixon administration. Allende had weapons available for the workers who elected him, but he had resisted the impulse to distribute those weapons. By contrast, Gen. Augusto Pinochet had soldiers, weapons, and Henry Kissinger.
Salvador Allende died defending his country from the forces of darkness and greed. He believed that the military would not violate Chile’s long history of civilian rule. What might have happened if he could have called in his own Red Ponchos?
PATRICK IRELAN is a retired high-school teacher. He is the author of A Firefly in the Night (Ice Cube Press) and Central Standard: A Time, a Place, a Family (University of Iowa Press). You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.