I lived in Bolivia for about 9 months in 1991, in a small town near Vinto.
Vinto is the place where, a couple of week ago, a mob of thugs dragged the mayor, Patricia Arce, out of her office, cut all her hair off, drenched her in red paint and shoved her barefoot through the streets, before forcing her to kneel and sign a paper of resignation.
She remained defiant.
Her offense: support of President Evo Morales.
Vinto was much smaller when I was there, really just a village. The people planted corn and potatoes. The big employer was a shoe factory.
General Hugo Banzer was president at the time, and the fear was palpable. I worked for a while in a small clinic, and it seemed to me that the main purpose of the clinic was surveillance: put numbers on houses and identify the people living in each one. There was, however, a group of young people who would frequently slip into the community and give talks on indigenous
Andean culture, kallawaya healing practices, and the complexity and value of indigenous social and economic justice. This knowledge, like the cultures of North American tribes, had been suppressed in schools and the authoritarian structures of public life. Andean languages were not taught in schools or used in commerce. I surmised, then, that the aim of these educational visits was to raise indigenous morale, and from the rapt attention exhibited by the audience, it was effective.
The local Catholic church in Vinto was part of this educational movement. I listened to a sermon there once which I never forgot. The priest read from the Gospel: Matthew 20-28.
In this passage, a mother comes to Jesus, requesting that, when they reach the Kingdom, her sons might sit beside him, one on the right and one on the left.
The priest read this part of the passage. Then he turned to the congregation, and asked all the mothers how many had sons who worked in the shoe factory. Many hands went up. He then asked, how many of them would like their sons to become foremen? The hands went up again.
These women looked a lot like the recently mauled mayor of Vinto. Judging from their careworn faces, they could have put a foreman’s salary to good use.
The priest paused, and wondered out loud how a bench worker could become a foreman. A murmur ran through the congregation and then a woman volunteered that there were points given for obedience, deference to rank, for reporting others’ delinquencies, willingness to work overtime without pay. Discussion followed, and consensus that aggressive self-promotion gave results.
The priest thereupon read the Jesus’s response to the mother and to his disciples: Ye know that in this world they that are great exercise authority over the people, but it shall not be so among you .“Whosoever will be great among you, let him be your servant”.
This, of course, is a familiar message from the New Testament. The priest however used it to reflect on the tenacious urge humans have to compete, especially when they are driven by hunger and anxiety for the survival of their children. The same insecurities can drive poor people harshly, to awake the dormant but ever-present temptation to betray friends for money, advancement, or out of fear. He went from factory workers stepping on each other for promotion, to soldiers, schooled to obedience, being turned on their people.
He discussed another way, and it was here, for the first time, that I heard about the pre-Incan concept “sumac kawsay” which Evo Morales brought to prominence as “buen vivir”. The priest described a new way of living, in harmony with nature, in which individuals behave reverently towards other human beings and all creatures of Earth, centered on community life and mutual well-being, rather than individual acquisition.
I went back to Bolivia in 2010, this time for the Peoples’ Climate Summit, called by the first indigenous President, elected 4 years previously. Evo Morales had been shocked by the failure of the Copenhagen climate conference, with its pitifully inadequate goals and cynical lack of commitment. He invited all the people of the world to come to Cochabamba where they would confront climate catastrophe and make a meaningful plan.
The atmosphere was joyous. There was music, theater and dancing in the streets all day and all night. The wild generosity of the occasion activated instant friendships between participants. Although a volcanic eruption in Iceland had disrupted attendance from Europe and Africa, many people came from other countries. Bolivians were everywhere as buses were sent to bring people from the Andean villages surrounding Cochabamba. Free meals were served twice a day to the more than 33,000 people.
Seventeen issues relating to climate breakdown, such as justice/equality, war/militarization, free trade, food sovereignty, agribusiness, peasants’ rights, struggles against patriarchy, defense of indigenous peoples’ rights, migration, critique of the dominant Eurocentric/colonial patterns of knowledge, forest protection, resource extraction, and other topics, were delineated. The crowd divided into groups in the halls and theaters of Tiquipaya to debate them.
There was an eighteenth table which was not part of the project. Its members were critical of Morales’s projects in Bolivia: mining, logging, oil development. It accused the Morales regime of hypocrisy. Their presence did not destroy the ambient mood of exuberance however. Bolivia was the host. It was the second poorest country in the western hemisphere and was therefore tacitly afforded a little latitude to gain control of the means of production and raise the standards of living of its people.
The tables together produced a document which was read to the world in a stadium in Cochabamba. The preamble is as follows:
“We, the peoples and nations of Mother Earth, considering that we are all part of Mother Earth, an indivisible, living community of interrelated and interdependent beings with a common destiny;
gratefully acknowledging that Mother Earth is the source of life, nourishment and learning and provides everything we need to live well;
recognizing that the capitalist system and all forms of depredation, exploitation, abuse and contamination have caused great destruction, degradation and disruption of Mother Earth, putting life as we know it today at risk through phenomena such as climate change;
convinced that in an interdependent living community it is not possible to recognize the rights of only human beings without causing an imbalance within Mother Earth;
affirming that to guarantee human rights it is necessary to recognize and defend the rights of Mother Earth and all beings in her and that there are existing cultures, practices and laws that do so;
conscious of the urgency of taking decisive, collective action to transform structures and systems that cause climate change and other threats to Mother Earth,
proclaim this Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth, and call on the General Assembly of the United Nation to adopt it, as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations of the world, and to the end that every individual and institution takes responsibility for promoting through teaching, education, and consciousness raising, respect for the rights recognized in this Declaration, and ensure through prompt and progressive measures and mechanisms, national and international, their universal and effective recognition and observance among all peoples and States in the world.”
Morales presided over Bolivia for fourteen years. While he was in power he enshrined the “Rights of Mother Earth” in the Bolivian Constitution. The President of Ecuador did the same in his country and the document was brought to the United Nations for ratification. If this were his only accomplishment as president, he should be acclaimed, and his name put forward for international prizes, for raising into the political realm a world view which offers hope to Earth and its inhabitants, one which could guide us through the crisis we are facing this century.
The international media, however enthusiastic about the coup, has not been able to deny the Morales regime’s astounding success in lifting the Bolivian people out of poverty. One of his most recent concerns was negotiating with Chile for a sea port lost in a 19th century war, leaving Bolivia landlocked. Evo’s dedication to his nation’s prosperity should be unconditionally celebrated.
He had to walk the perilous tightrope of meeting his peoples’ urgent needs by expropriating, and then employing, Bolivia’s vast natural resources, and at the same time protecting Mother Earth, about which his Summit had been so eloquent. He had to maintain this balance in the shadow of Santa Cruz’s elite, in oil-rich eastern Bolivia, who wanted the old fascist oligarchy back. He could not relax his guard with respect to the United States’s relentless intention to get rid of him.
Evo addressed the world crisis in his speech at the United Nations this September:
“Transnational companies control food, water, renewable resources, weapons, technology and our personal data. They intend to commercialize everything, to accumulate more capital. The world is being controlled by a global oligarchy, only a handful of billionaires define the political and economic destiny of humanity. 26 people have the same wealth as 3.8 billion people. That is unfair, that is immoral, that is inadmissible. The underlying problem lies in the model of production, of consumerism, in the ownership of natural resources and the unequal distribution of wealth. Let’s say it very clearly: the root of the problem is in the capitalist system.”
Marcelo Ebrard , Mexico’s foreign minister, gave the details of Morales’s precarious escape from Bolivia, where there was every possibility he could have ended like Muammar Qaddafi. Refusal to allow passage of the Mexican airliner through their airspaces came from country after country and at the highest levels. It is probable that they all received sharp admonitory calls from Washington, where there was support for the coup as a triumph for democracy from virtually one and all. Evo’s overthrow had been planned for a long time in Washington, and millions of dollars lubricated his betrayal.
The new President, Jeanine Anez, flanked by generals, flaunts her long blonde hair as she presides over her predominantly indigenous nation. She refers to these subjects as “Satanic” and wants to exile them to the chaco.
To indigenous Bolivians, she must look like the familiar character seen in the famous Carnaval of Oruro. This three-day ancient event has been disguised as a religious procession since the seventeenth century, but the metaphorical characters which dance through the streets to the mournful music of brass bands come from the slavery and oppression of the brutal colonial occupier. Jeanine Anez must remind the people of China Supay, omnipresent in the ranks of dancers. She is the wife of the devil: glamorous, cold, bejeweled, with European features, a frozen smile, an imperious, piercing stare, and, most importantly, fair skin.
Evo left the country out of fear for his people. The ordeal of Patricia Arce must have broken his heart. It was important to save his own life. His betrayers, including Commander in Chief General Williams Kaliman, fled to the United States. Many had been trained at WHINSEC (School of the Americas). It is reported that they received a million dollars apiece for their deed.
It is not over. In the Chapare, Evo’s old stomping ground, indigenous people and their supporters are regrouping. The appalling changes in Bolivia’s policies which occurred instantly after the coup must have wakened the country to the peace, pride and progress they have lost. The blatant racism of this particular outrage will incite other nations to overcome their pathological fear of the United States, and call it what it is.
The fascist takeover stands for exploitation, planetary death and totalitarian nightmare.
Evo stands for the Rights of Mother Earth, and the and humbling but only way out of our climate dilemma.
It cannot be over.