October 09, 2009

Bonkers for Bolivia

by Jehanzeb A Khan

The ‘New Left’ of Latin America receives considerable public attention, and rightfully so; it reflects a breaking away from the ideological stranglehold of the age old regional nexus of big business, church and military (for further information watch Zorro).But too often the complexities of this movement are overshadowed and simplified under the grand antics of certain leaders in the movement. I am of course speaking of the big red himself ; Chavez. With public attention focused on him little homage is given to the complex differences of his allies in the continent, in particular; Bolivia.

On a surface level there are many similarities between Chavez and Morales’s governments. They both brandish a ‘21st century socialism’ involved with heavy social expenditure, limited nationalisation of key industries and calls for Latin American sovereignty, consolidated through constitutional amendments. In fact they both even have distinctive styles of dressing; Chavez with his bright red shirt (forming an easy bulls eye for US aerial raids) and Morales with his grandmum sweater. But there are core differences that result in very different political landscapes in the two countries.

Political life in Venezuela has never had sufficient community level organization with the two main parties the AD and COPEI having played catch with political power for twenty years. Hence Chavez managed to develop and maintain a tight hold on the reins of the peoples movement when he set up the Fifth Republic Movement (MVR) and absorbed many of the other fractionalized groups of the left. Bolivia though is a very different case where there is widespread grass roots organization across all sections of the working population, providing several vehicles for the peoples movement. Such groups were especially active in the lead up to Morales presidency, starting with the famous Cochabamba protests of 2000 where workers, indigenous peasants and students united to bite bullets for four months of successful resistance to the privatization of water resources in the province. Similar struggles took place in the attempted exploitation of natural gas reserves by MNCs and attempted eradication of the coca crop(which plays an important role in the culture of indigenous communities) as part of the US led ‘War on Drugs’.

It is these groups that continue to play a pivotal role in Morales’s power base and his consideration of this is reflected in areas of his domestic policy. For instance his constitutional reform package establishes the economy as a mix between market, state and communitarian; with cooperatives widespread in some key industries such as mining. Furthermore it contains provisions for giving indigenous Amymara groups(the majority ethnicity) autonomous regions where they can write their own statutes, allowing them to manage resources and commence their traditional forms of community justice. This is also reflected, albeit symbolically, by the fact that he continues to retain presidency of the coca growers union; the Cocalero. A contrast is present here with Chavezs extensions of the states powers, such as the International Labour Organisation (ILO) condemned monitoring of union elections.

While it is true that worker-employer relations have still not been altered in any fundamental way, credit must still be given to Morales for having moved forward the peoples movement in the face of a national bourgeoisie attempting to virtually secede in Santa Cruz, rapidly dropping prices for key exports and Washington huffing and puffing at the back door. And as new areas of class conflict rise to prominence in the public consciousness prospects of progress down this path in time to come do seem sunny, given the resilience and unity displayed by the working people of Bolivia. Leaving Morales to either ride the tiger or…get eaten by it?

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