The multicoloured letters of the title above reflect the multi-faceted nature of Bolivia. And the new (proposed) flag at the top centre of the screen is an attempt to honour the fact that this country is made up of many distinctive groups and tribes and peoples, the tapestry of colour representing a varied and vibrant country of many different peoples. Indeed the official name of the country is now the 'Pluri-national State of Bolivia'. And all this has come about in the past few years since Evo Morales took over as President in 2005. The key to understanding Bolivia today is to see that he represents a new revolution regarding the leading of this country of many sub-groups. It is also important to understand a little of how Bolivia came to elect an indigenous President who is attempting to take the country in a direction very different to the self-centred approach followed by the scores of military dictatorships who went before.
There are many excellent sources of information on these topics which can be accessed via web-links or in book form. A summary will be helpful in illustrating a little of how Bolivia arrived at the position it occupies today in 2012.
A POTTED HISTORY OF THE PLURINATIONAL STATE OF BOLIVIA
In 1544 silver was discovered in Potosi. Mining began, fuelling the Spanish aristocracy; much went to China to pay for England's new addiction to tea. At the height of its splendour in the 17th century Potosi was one of the largest cities in the world and within a few years of the Spanish arrival many 1000s of indigenous workers were in the mines. The working conditions were extremely harsh, with poisonous mercury vapours contributing to the high mortality rate; the average length of a miner's active life underground at that time was less than a year and workers died in huge numbers. In the early 1600s the Spanish governors began importing African slaves to the mines to supplement the native workers - all due to Spain’s feverish desire for silver. In all an estimated 8 million African and indigenous workers died in the mines during Spain’s colonial reign. To this day there are Afro-Bolivians living in the west of the country, now fully integrated into Bolivian society, but whose origins there can be traced back to the slave-importations at the time of the silver mining.
The silver from Potosi's mines, the main one being sited in what is now known as Cerro Rico (the rich mountain), went abroad to benefit others. After 1800 the silver in the mines ran out, making tin the main product leading to a slow economic decline. Most of the tin also moved outside Bolivia. And this plundering has been going on ever since, countries using Bolivia for their own good, benefitting from its rich resources of available minerals. Currently Bolivian mines are considered as the third most productive world source of lithium, vital for modern micro-technology. And so the 'removal of Bolivia' continues as it exports its riches abroad. But now things are changing under Morales' presidency.
Whilst this makes economic sense to any country - a making use of its resources to (ultimately) benefit the local population - there are occasions where the situation is less rosy. Those occasions came to a head in the late 20th century with the three commodities that have characterised Bolivia in the world today - gas, water & coca.
GAS The eastern region of Bolivia (Santa Cruz) is rich in natural gas and for many years there were, under the corrupt military governments bent on lining their own pockets for decades, set in place arrangements with US companies to sell the gas to the United States at prices that benefitted the buyer more than the seller. Evo Morales has begun to weaken the economic links between the two countries, This is a risk, but one that he believes is worth taking, thus lessening the dependence of Bolivia on its northern neighbour and at the same time ensuring that more of the gas in made available to Bolivians; indeed most of the vehicles on Bolivian roads today are fuelled by natural gas from within Bolivia.
WATER The issue of water supplies and their costs came to a head in Cochabamba in 2000, when there was a popular - and violent - uprising against the exorbitant prices being charges by Bechtel, an American company to whom the then government of Bolivia had granted privatisation rights. This of course enabled the company to charge prices that reflected their desire to satisfy their share-holders and no doubt line the pockets of the directors too. Eventually the company withdrew and the new Morales government once more nationalised water supplies to the city.
COCA For over 4000 years coca has been grown in Bolivia and used by ther indigenous peoples for many purposes. It is only in the past century or so that it has acquired the reputation that now damages its name in the world - for there have been chemical processes developed that can manufacture cocaine with the raw ingredient being the coca leaf, grown particularly in Peru, Colombia - and Bolivia.
The history of the war on coca and the reasons why such crack-downs have been so badly mismanaged by external powers are excellently presented in a website (Democracy Center Blog) and the book Dignity and Defiance both written by Jim Schultz. The coca conflict is still running, but under Morales it seems that a solution is closer than in previous presidencies.
Click on the next page (Bolivia's history) for a potted resume of the past century or so. The key thing to realise is that Bolivia is (2010) still a developing country, but one which is moving at a fast rate towards genuine democracy where the people are given more power than before. Yes, there is still corruption; and as in almost any similar country - money talks. But overall, despite the huge bureaucracy that you find in all levels of government, the country has a new facet to life for ordinary people.... HOPE.
In April 2010 Evo Morales called together over 35000 people from 140+ countries to debate aspects of climate change from the bottom up. It gave voice to the many groups who felt that the UN Conference in Copenhagen had let the world down. Whether there will be any long-term action as a result of the conference only the future knows, but at least Morales was enabling the powerless and the 'unheard' to be given a voice on the world stage. After all, if the official meeting in Copenhagen notoriously failed to get binding agreements and commitments from the world's rich, then who is to say that the ordinary people of the planet couldn't do better? They might well carry a message of hope and a demand that filters upwards to the powers-that-be. More and more one feels that world leaders (with one or two exceptions) are interested more in their own kudos and survival than in the good of their people. Let us hope that events such as Cochabamba 2010 will happen more and more and bring light into the darkness that modern politics - with its unending focus on that nebulous thing called 'growth' - has created.
In the light of the generally accepted failure of the UN Copenhagen Conference in 2009, it is to be hoped that this Cochabamba conference will help to alert other powers to bring about action far earlier than later at the UN Climate Change Conference in Cancun, Mexico, Mexico in December 2010. Morales hopes to set up a corresponding People's Conference again.
Update (13.12.10) - the Cancun Conference achieved far more than world leaders predicted. Click here for a report. __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
The political history of Bolivia : a Bolivian’s viewpoint
This is a country of many cultures – Quechua, Aymara, Mestizos, tribal groups etc, and as such is more difficult to hold together, for all groups have different needs.
In most South American countries the mestizos ['whites'] hold the top jobs. This was the case in Bolivia in the final decades of the 20th century, but in recent years there has been a significant movement away from this situation.
These have always been distinguished by a discrimination against the campesinos (the native, indigenous peoples) and a favouring of the elite. Leaders from 1952 comprised the following:
--Hugo Banzer (a very right wing president) : under his leadership money bought jobs and position. --Victor Paz Estenssoro founded the MNR (Nationalist Revolutionary Movement) and his first presidency (1952-56) was a ruthless government in which the police and the military had absolute power. Paz could not run for a second term so Hernán Siles was elected, serving as President from 1956 until 1960. There followed the second and third Paz Estenssoro governments, 1960-64. In 1964, the MNR government was overthrown in a military coup and Paz was exiled. --From then until 1966, there followed a quick succession of 5 military governments none of which lasted more than 8 months - and then 19 further short-lived military juntas to October 1982. From 1982 came the rise of Nationalist movements, including a further presidency of Paz Estenssoro. --Gonzalo Sanchez – President 1993-1997 --Hugo Banzer (again) returned as President in 1997 with 22% of the votes; he formed a coalition and oversaw the ruthless coca eradication programme in the east and the Yungas. He died of cancer in 2001. --Gonzalo Sanchez once again became President in 2002, but in terms of votes only just ahead of Evo Morales, who had edged out Manfred Reyes Villa. Sanchez resigned in October 2003 as a result of the ‘gas wars’ and subsequent demonstrations. --Carlos Mesa took over and in March 2004 he announced that his government would hold a series of rallies around the country, and at its embassies abroad, demanding that Chile return to Bolivia a stretch of sea-coast that the country lost in 1884 after the end of the War of the Pacific. Chile has traditionally refused to negotiate on the issue, but Mesa nonetheless made this policy a central point of his administration in order to gain popular support. He was forced out in 2005 by the continuing conflict over gas exports to Mexico and US.
In the elections of December 2005 Evo Morales was elected President. Today there is more equality, fairness and justice where there had been none before. The reason for this change is simply that Morales is one with the poor, coming from a coca-growing peasant background and being hailed as the first indigenous president of a S American country. Even right-wingers are permitted to speak out against the current MAS (Movement for Socialist Change) government; in the past one criticised the government at the risk of death, but now people are actually interested in politics (compare that with the UK!) because they feel that their voice counts and that they are being heard. Of course, nothing always runs smoothly in life and Morales has lost some of his core support in his bid tom hold together the demands of a diverse population.. In particular there has been tension in 2011-12 regarding the building of a road through indigenous tribal land to access resources within the northern rain-forest. He has had to change his mind, responding to those favourite Bolivian means of protest - marching or blockading key roads....or both.
Nevertheless under this present government there has been a gradual uniting of the oppressed, giving more power to the people movement, of which Morales had become leader. He was head of a coca-growing union in his early career and unions are a big force in Bolivia even today. One of their rallying cries is “we are going to have our representatives in senior positions”. In essence the right-wingers made mistakes; they thought Evo Morales would never be a serious contender.
They were wrong.
One man might have done earlier what Evo has done now – and in fact probably paved the way for Morales' support. Marcelo Quiroga was a noted writer, dramatist, journalist, social commentator, university professor and socialist political leader. He was credited with attempts to bring Hugo Banzer to justice and from his congressional seat led the effort to bring Banzer to trial on charges of massive human rights violations and economic mismanage-ment. This may have cost him his life, for Quiroga was brutally abducted and subsequently assassinated during the early hours of the July 17, 1980, possibly under the orders of the US.