Anxiety and Optimism in the Dawn of a New Bolivia

The turnout in the Bolivian presidential election was high – around 80 percent – and included 82 year old Manual Cruz Quispe of El Alto, who was ill and poor, but determined to have his say. So he got his son push him to the polling station in a wheelbarrow and, seconds after casting his vote, Manuel passed away. His last act was to participate in a decisive call for change.

For the first time in Bolivia’s history, the winner secured more than 50 per cent of the vote. The scale of this victory for Evo Morales, the Movement Towards Socialism candidate, stunned observers. Evo himself spoke just before the poll of having a 15 point lead over his nearest rival. But on the day, he was a whopping 25 points ahead of Washington favorite Jorge ‘Tutu’ Quirogo, securing around 55 per cent of the vote. He is now guaranteed to become Bolivia’s first indigenous president and doesn’t need to do any deals with the other parties in Congress.

As a sign of his intent to break with the past, Evo has announced plans to have two presidential inaugural ceremonies in January: the traditional one in Congress and a new, mass public event in La Paz. But, despite his triumph, some of Evo’s critics within the social movements remain sceptical about his ability to meet high popular expectations.

For example, Oscar Oliviera, who played a key role in the famous and successful struggle against the privatization of Cochabamba’s water, pulled no punches when I met him recently. "Evo must give power back to the people and not govern over the people," he said. "If he governs over the people he will make a big mistake. He must give people the power to govern themselves. He has a choice: either establish a revolutionary process with the people, or else follow Lula, Kirchner and Vasquéz, who act as a cushion for neo-liberalism."

Oliviera said that Evo was the beneficiary of – but initially did not support – the mass protests of June and July, which forced President Carlos Mesa to resign and paved the way for last Sunday’s elections. A similar view was put to me by Abel Mamani, the El Alto residents groups leader.

Oliviera thought Evo is too ready to compromise with the establishment over the promised nationalization of the country´s gas and oil resources. "I’m not happy with Evo’s recent speech where he talks of responsible nationalization," he said. "This means the big gas and oil companies won’t be touched. But we need to recover the resources they have taken out of the country….It will be very difficult for him to govern the country in this neo-colonial, globalized world. For example, the Bolivian state relies on World Bank funds even to pay public salaries…If Evo doesn’t nationalize the gas, his government will last a short time. Gas will be the source of change, the means to change the country…We what we want is the cancellation of all the contracts and state control, involving all the social sectors, of the whole productive chain. Joseph Stiglitz, the American economist, has been quoted saying he thinks it is possible to change the contracts. The earnings are so high that companies won’t leave. It is a great business for them. The common people have already lost fear in their struggles against water privatisation, in defence of our gas, and so on. I hope that Evo will lose all fear and fight for the cancellation of the existing contracts."

Oliviera was equally dubious about the prospect of radical changes to the constitution.

"Evo wants a dialogue with everyone," he said, "but the danger is that the Constituent Assembly will lead to some reforms and not structural changes."

He was scathing of what he calls Evo’s ‘caudillo’ leadership style, arguing that this acts as a brake on autonomous mass activity and that a decentralised, collective leadership is needed.

"I don’t think Evo’s government can make the changes alone," he said. "I hope that the pressure of the people will oblige him to make them. He has to govern but obey the people."

Unsurprisingly, Gastón Cornejo Bascopé, the newly-elected MAS Senator for Cochabamba, was more optimistic. He seemed relaxed about the criticisms, saying that Oliviera and Mamani are "good leaders and not anarchists".

Bascopé said the new government will establish firm state control of the gas and oil industry. He though it will treat foreign gas and oil companies according to which of three categories they belong to.

Petrobas, the Brazilian state company, will get special treatment. "We propose to buy stocks so that we have more than 50 per cent control of the board of Petrobas in Bolivia. Evo has also talked to Lula about recovering control of two Petrobas refineries in Bolivia."

However, the Chaco oil company would be booted out of the country. "We know that it has smuggled gas to Chile," he said. "Even if they try to sue us they will have to go."

Of the other foreign companies, such as British Gas and Repsol, he said, "We will rescue our national ownership rights. They will have to operate on terms agreed with our national hydrocarbons company. We will fix the prices and control exports. We want to sell at international prices and not solidarity prices. We also want to restrict exports of gas and oil because they are non-renewable resources. More important than exporting, we want to industrialise. If these companies want to stay in the country, they can on condition they help us to industrialise."

Bascopé said there is an sound basis for concerns within the social movements about the Constituent Assembly: "Colombia and Peru had Constituent Assemblies and the situation is the same in those countries," he pointed out. "It was just a ‘makeover’ of previous constitutions. Those Assemblies were organised by the oligarchies. Ours must be participatory and representative of all the institutions of Bolivia and, most importantly, of all the different nationalities. Together we can found a different country."

Bascopé was adamant that the new Bolivian Government will not sign the Free Trade Agreement, despite huge US pressure to do so.

As a doctor this is an issue close to Bascopé’s heart. He said the agreement would, amongst other things, pave the way to wholesale bio-piracy.

"There are communities living in the forest of Chapare who over centuries have developed resistance to all sorts of diseases and we know scientists want to investigate this," he said.

Bascopé gave an example of how he had helped block a predatory attempt by the University of California to extract blood from 1,000 residents in an area outside Santa Cruz community with a high incidence of people with cataracts.

"They proposed to pay $5 to each donor and to make them sign a waiver renouncing the right to request any future treatment developed from the research or to any economic benefit. I said the research should be held here in Bolivia."

Bascopé also spoke of the new government’s strong, indigenous peasant roots: "According to Marx, the struggle of the workers and the urban poor would be critically important. Many Marxist intellectuals argued for a workers’ dictatorship. But nobody thought that, in the resistance this neo-liberal, globalised world, the campesinos would turn out to be the main actors."

He said this would provide the government with a sound ethical and ideological basis: "The core moral values of our indigenous societies coincide with Che Guevara’s concept of the ‘new socialist man’ and they could provide the bedrock for the new Bolivia."

By contrast, Oliviera thinks President Evo could de-mobilise the masses and so undo past achievements. "Now it will be more difficult for people to mobilise," he said. "If ‘Tutu’ was in power he would clearly be ‘the enemy’. If Evo fails, it will be a failure for the social movements. The gains of six years of struggles will be lost."

John Hunt is a journalist working from Bolivia.