Justice from the streets of Bolivia

Bolivia’s president of 15 months, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, was protesting to the last when he finally resigned last Friday after months of street protests. His resignation, he remarked sourly, was a blow for democracy in Bolivia and Latin America.

The president’s democratic credentials were not impeccable: he was elected, certainly, but with only 22% of the vote. By last week, he retained the loyalty of less than half of even the small minority who had actually voted for him. He presided over government forces that shot 50 demonstrators dead in the days leading up to his resignation.

Democracy, it is true, has had a pretty patchy run in Bolivia. In the 1950s one president abolished the army, only to be overthrown (with United States encouragement) shortly thereafter. Twenty years of military dictatorship finally reached its apogee in the early 1980s — after one spectacular episode when there were five presidents in a single day — with the coca-peddling General Luis Garcia Meza. At this point the US belatedly concluded that military dictatorships were not necessarily reliable allies.

Perhaps the fact that Bolivians have not been blessed with much in the way of sound government goes some way to explaining why, when they are exercised about an issue, they tend to take to the streets rather than write to their MP. Experience has taught them that the governments give them little that the people have not wrested by force and that when foreigners take an interest in Bolivia’s natural resources, fortunes are made by the few and the mass of Bolivians stay hungry.

It was like that under the Spanish, when tens of thousands of Quechua and Aymara died working the great silver mountain at Potosi to fund the Spanish empire. It was like that under the military dictatorships and now, they have discovered, it is like that under elected governments too.

The Spanish left them the tin, which Bolivians continued to mine under inhuman conditions. Sanchez de Lozada — the owner of Bolivia’s largest mining group — is one of a handful of Bolivians who benefited. For tens of thousands of miners, tin meant poverty and early death.

Living in one of the world’s most spectacular landscapes, at high altitude and mostly in dismal poverty, Bolivians learned to survive through solidarity and militancy. Two-thirds of the people live below the poverty line and one-third in absolute poverty. When the tin market collapsed in the 1980s, tens of thousands of unemployed miners turned to the cultivation of Bolivia’s other major export — coca leaf.

Now the government is implementing a US-financed coca-eradication programme that criminalises cultivation without offering any alternative. The methods are not pretty: violence and imprisonment are the penalties for non-cooperation; destitution is the reward for compliance.

The immediate trigger for the recent protests was a British-backed consortium’s plan to sell natural gas, of which Bolivia has a huge reserve, to the US and Mexico through Bolivia’s old enemy, Chile.

On the surface the protest seems irrational. Why should the poor of a poor country object to the money-spinning exploitation of that country’s natural resources? The answer lies both in the memory of Potosi and 15 years of the kind of free-market reforms that Sanchez de Losada had pioneered in his first term of office in the 1990s.

But like the poor of Honduras and Argentina, Peru and Ecuador, Bolivians have understood that it is they who pay the bill for privatisation, that the growth they were promised has stalled, that the country’s exports are worth less than they were before Bolivia signed up for globalisation and that the gap between their miserable standard of living and that of the tiny elite has widened.

They have understood that privatisation means higher prices for essential utilities, that however hard they work their children remain unschooled and that they live and die in poverty. They have learned, too, that when they protest, an elected government will shoot them, just as the dictatorships used to.

None of these lessons is likely to lead to a happy outcome for Bolivia. Just one percentage point behind Sanchez de Lozada in the elections 15 months ago was Evo Morales, the head of the national coca growers’ union. Given the country’s mood, he would probably win if an election were held tomorrow, an outcome that would precipitate an ugly confrontation with the US.

Recent reports claim that local leaders are forming armed factions to challenge the government and its armed forces, formulating the grievances of the poor into a powerfully nationalist, anti-foreign message.

Unless Bolivians can be convinced that democracy can be more than the rule of the same elites in the interests of the rich and the outsider — and that to be part of the world’s economy does not have to mean that your country is plundered — that message will take hold.

In the past century, Latin America lived through decades of bloodshed after legitimate demands for social justice were ignored. The signs on the streets of La Paz are that it could happen again. — Â

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