Juana Carvagal and her husband Marcelo decided to stay safely indoors when they heard the crackling of gunfire on the streets of El Alto, the huge township which sprawls, 4,500 feet high, across mountains overlooking the Bolivian capital, La Paz. But when Marcelo went to shut a window, an army bullet sliced through his chest and buried itself in their bedroom wall. Marcelo was one of 60 people killed in October 2003 when President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada tried to crush opposition to his plan to export the country’s gas to California.
Yet people power prevailed and he fled to the USA. Juana and other relatives of victims of Bolivia’s ‘gas war’ are demanding that ‘Goni’ be extradited from his safe haven and brought to justice. Their anguish forms part of the turbulent background to the historic presidential elections taking place in Bolivia on Sunday, December 18.
Waves of street protests and blockades have challenged US-inspired neo-liberal policies: reversing water privatization and income tax rises, checking the give-away of the country’s gas and oil resources to foreign companies (including British Gas and BP) and chasing two presidents from office in as many years. Now there is hope of change amongst many of Bolivia´s impoverished and mostly indigenous majority because Evo Morales, the candidate of the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), is ahead in all the opinion polls and looks set to win. He could then become Latin America’s first indigenous president.
The two leading presidential candidates reflect Bolivia’s deep political divide. Front-runner Evo Morales is an indigenous Aymaran who joined thousands of unemployed tin miners in the 1980s migrating from the highlands to make new lives in Chapare as cocaleros – cultivators of the coca leaf. Evo – as everyone calls him – became president of the national federation of cocaleros and opposed the US-led ‘war on drugs’, declaring that ‘coca is not cocaine’. He is proud of his education ‘in the university of hunger and misery’.
By contrast, the main establishment candidate Jorge ‘Tutu’ Quiroga was briefly president in 2001/2 when scores of cocaleros were killed by the army. He is also a former IBM executive and was educated in George W. Bush’s home state of Texas, where he met his wife ‘Ginger’.
‘Ahora es cuando’ – ‘now is the time’ – is MAS’s main campaign slogan. It was also a rallying cry of the African National Congress in the run-up to South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994. I am told this is coincidental, but Alvero Garcia Linera, the MAS vice-presidential candidate, has compared the centuries of discrimination and repression suffered by Bolivia’s indigenous majority to the plight of black people under apartheid.
Evo predicted the death of neo-liberalism in Bolivia at an exuberant rally in La Paz this week. A diverse crowd filled the Plaza Villarroel, including thousands of indigenous chola women in traditional dress, some with blue MAS baseball caps perched on their bowler hats. ‘He is like us and not a white man’ says Elvira, braving the night chill with four of her children. ‘I want Evo to change everything that is wrong with this country’.
Manuel Morales Dávila is a socialist septuagenarian who was jailed many times and forced into exile. Now he is back as the MAS candidate for the Prefectura (mayoralty) of La Paz. He is unsure of winning but predicts a landslide victory for Evo, leading to ‘a revolution within democracy, a revolution without blood although blood has been shed in the process’.
‘The main goal is to convene a Constituent Assembly’ he says. ‘For the first time this will enable the real participation of indigenous people who make up 70 per cent or more of the population. This will mean a total change in the Bolivian nation where up to now only 20 per cent have been represented. A new inclusive constitution will be created, enabling a new form of government.
‘There will be fundamental changes, especially in relation to the ownership of the hydrocarbons (gas and oil). We will once again own and administer these resources through a state company. Foreign companies will have to operate under Bolivian law or they can leave the country’.
‘Venezuela and Bolivia are different realities’ is his answer to my question about MAS’s continental perspective. ‘But the United States is scared that there could be three governments pursuing independent policies for their countries – Venezuela, Cuba and Bolivia’.
Gaston Conejo Bascape, an urbane doctor and MAS’s candidate in Cochabamba for the Senate, thinks that foreign gas and oil companies would be compliant because, while Bolivia is the second poorest country in Latin America, it has the second largest gas reserves and ‘the business is so good’.
‘We are proposing a state property right and the right of the state to fix prices’, he says. ‘The government has allowed gas to be sold at rock-bottom ‘solidarity’ prices to neighboring companies. Then Argentina does the processing and sells it at international prices. We don’t know how much the foreign companies are really earning and we want to do an audit to find out. We want to talk to these companies about the industrialization of gas so that we can produce a host of products such as electricity, fertilizer, petrochemicals and plastics’.
Enthusiasm for Evo is not universal in poorer areas of the country, and particularly amongst leaders of grassroots social movements. Abel Mamani was elected general secretary of FEJUVE, the federation of neighborhood councils in El Alto, by a congress of 600 delegates. This reflects a collectivist tradition brought to El Alto by Aymaran migrants. FEJUVE played a big role in protests last May and June which forced President Carlos Mesa to resign and paved the way for this weekend’s elections. A poster in its Spartan offices declares: ‘El Alto de pie, nunca de rodilla’ – ‘El Alto on its feet, never on its knees’.
Abel thinks Evo will win but not get the minimum 50-per-cent-plus-one votes he needs to be guaranteed the presidency. This would mean either staying out of office or reaching an agreement with one of the other parties in Bolivia’s Congress. Abel says Evo will probably do a deal with a party which has supported neo-liberalism. ‘We are warning people not to have too high expectations’ he says. ‘If Evo becomes president we will give his government three months to start to change things. We don’t expect firm results but things must start to change or we will respond. This will be a good opportunity to find out whether Evo really represents the people.’
This three months probation is not unreasonable, says Hector Ramirez, coordinator of the MAS vice-presidential campaign and the son of a legendary trade union leader. ‘These people have suffered many years of poverty and injustice. These movements must have hope that things are starting to change. For example, we will need to implement shock measures in relation to the hydrocarbons very quickly. The benefits won’t be seen for a while but we must give a sign of intent to the people. Bolivia needs very deep changes and our first five years in office will be a period of initial transformation’.
About Sunday’s vote, Hector says: ‘It will be difficult to get more than 50 per cent but we have hope. We are not yet thinking about any deals but are concentrating on getting enough votes to secure legitimacy’.
Bolivia’s senior military commanders met Evo this week and pledged to serve him loyally if he becomes president.
Back in El Alto, Juana sobs as she explains that her husband was a building worker who supported their six children and many grandchildren. After he died, Juana went in a grieving rage to the blockade on the road to La Paz and slapped one of the protest leaders across the face. ‘At first I thought they were to blame’, she says, ‘but now I know that they were fighting for our resources. I know that Goni must go to jail and I will keep fighting until he does’.
Nestor Salinas, secretary of the justice campaign, lost his older brother David who was playing football when the army sprayed death around El Alto. He doesn’t care about the election so long as the new head of state applies more pressure for Goni’s extradition. He says: ‘He must go to jail as a warning to future presidents’.
For more information about the Asociación de Familiares Caidos por la Defensa del Gas (Association of the Families of the Fallen in the Defence of Gas) email: firstname.lastname@example.org
John Hunt is a journalist working in Bolivia. Photo from ElPotosi.net