Evo Morales is a patient man. After he was elected president of Bolivia in 2005, he set about in a peaceful and democratic way to liberate his country’s oppressed majority. That majority includes indigenous South American Indians, who make up over 55 percent of the population, plus a large proportion of the country’s mestizos, who constitute a total of 30 percent of the population. Morales himself is an Aymara Indian, the first indigenous president in the history of Bolivia. The remaining 15 percent of the population is as white as the faces you recently saw at the Republican National Convention. (Ethnic statistics courtesy of the CIA’s World Factbook.)
During the campaign, Morales and his Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) promised to distribute the country’s oil and natural gas revenue in a manner that would help the impoverished majority without sending the white minority into the poorhouse. He also wanted to institute land reform for the benefit of the landless peasantry. In a manner reminiscent of the Spanish latifundia, 5 percent of the producers owned 89 percent of the arable land. The poorest 80 percent owned a mere 3 percent of the land (Nidia Diaz, Granma, 12/7/2006).
In Bolivia, it’s quite common for a wealthy family to own 30,000 acres or more. In the departments of Santa Cruz and Beni, a mere 14 families own three million hectares of farmland (Diaz). One hectare equals 2.47 acres. You do the arithmetic. The mainstream press in the United States sometimes calls these people “farmers,” which I assume is meant as a joke. Anyone with that much land isn’t a farmer. He’s a landlord or a land baron or the lord of the manor. This type of land ownership is medieval. If I owned 30,000 acres of Illinois farmland, I’d sell it and buy Los Angeles.
The MAS proposed various other reforms as well, but these two alone sent the Bolivian oligarchy into a frenzy. It tried in every way to block land-reform bills in the legislature. It accused Morales of tyranny. It called him and his people racist names. It hired thugs to block the roads and intimidate indigenous people. In spite of all this, the government found ways to divert profits from oil and natural gas sales to fund its social programs for Bolivia’s impoverished majority. People learned to read and write. Hundreds of Cuban doctors appeared to mend their injuries, cure their diseases, and remove their cataracts. And they did all this at no charge.
Bolivia, it seemed, had friends in nearby countries—Cuba, Venezuela, Brazil, Ecuador, Argentina, and many more. But far away, beyond the Equator and the Gulf of Mexico, the North American Empire made fearful noises. Morales was a bad Indian. Free medical care was a violation of God’s laws. Poor people should not complain. Bolivia was messing with Adam Smith’s unseen hand. George II, Condi Rice, and Dickey Bird Cheney appointed Philip Goldberg as their ambassador to Bolivia. He would know what to do.
Finally, in his patient way, President Morales arranged a recall referendum. If the people didn’t like him, they could kick him out. About 53 percent of the voters had elected him, but maybe they didn’t like him anymore. The referendum took place in August 2008. The people arrived at the polls. And Morales received 67 percent of the votes.
Clearly, the empire and the oligarchy needed a new program. The five Bolivian departments that contained most of the oil, natural gas, good farmland, and white people had already said they wanted more autonomy from all the Indians who lived in the four departments in the Andes Mountains. President Morales said no to the autonomy idea. So Phil the ambassador went to see the prefects of the five lowland departments that had all the white faces. In his previous job, he had worked in Yugoslavia, where he learned how to tear a country apart.
The autonomy plan, AKA the secession plan, went into action. The prefects of the lowland departments turned loose their hired thugs, who torched a building containing the offices of an indigenous-rights group, seized airports and government buildings, and murdered at least 16 people. This was only a fraction of the damage done.
At first, President Morales sent only civil and military police to confront these criminals. He told the police to avoid using force. Morales is a patient man, but he soon learned that patience had lost its efficacy. He sent in regular army troops, and an uneasy peace quickly returned. Next, he told Phil Goldberg to pack his bags and never come back. He then immediately recalled Bolivia’s ambassador to the U.S.
One day later, Hugo Chávez expelled the U.S. ambassador and recalled the Venezuelan ambassador from Washington, D.C. Chávez also said he would not care to receive a new ambassador until the United States has “a government that respects the peoples and the governments of Latin America.” Chávez had already warned the U.S. that Venezuela would not allow the balkanization of Bolivia.
An announcement that the oligarchy and the Bush staff had not expected quickly followed. Speaking on behalf of President Lula of Brazil, foreign policy adviser Marco Aurelio Garcia said, “We won’t tolerate a rupture in the constitutional order of Bolivia.” Don’t be surprised if other Latin American countries respond in similar fashion.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Fourth Fleet, recently pulled from the mud off of Newport News, has been drifting here and there in the Caribbean like a flock of lost goslings. Admiral James Stavridis said that, despite reports to the contrary, “We have no intention whatsoever to have an aircraft carrier as part of the Fourth Fleet.” That statement, if true, is good news. For the first time in its long history, Bolivia may be happy that it’s a landlocked country.
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.