Bolivia: Exploiting the TIPNIS Conflict

Source: NACLA Report on the Americas

Last week the protest against Bolivia’s TIPNIS highway reached Washington, D. C., with a small but boisterous demonstration of some 100 people in front of the White House. But upon closer examination, these folks seemed less concerned with protecting the TIPNIS national park and indigenous territory than with insultingand attacking President Evo Morales—as a dictator, an assassin, and a narco-trafficker, according to their signs. In addition to demanding a halt to “Evo’s cocaine highway,” the protesters called for Morales’ resignation and for swift UN and OAS intervention against MAS (Movement Towards Socialism) government officials for recent acts of police brutality against the TIPNIS marchers.

According to an observer, these protest leaders are well known in the Bolivian emigrant community, based in Virginia, as opponents of the MAS from Santa Cruz, stronghold of Bolivia’s conservative economic elite. The incident serves as a reminder of the extent to which reactionary and anti-government forces, both inside and outside Bolivia, are exploiting the TIPNIS conflict for their own political ends. As Morales has repeatedly emphasized, conservative groups that just a few years ago brought the country to the brink of a civil coup over their opposition to indigenous land rights are now “TIPNIStas,” ardently championing the cause of environmental protection and defending indigenous communities.

But Morales goes a step further, tarnishing the entire anti-highway movement as a partisan political protest in order to undermine its legitimate concerns. To an extent, he is exploiting the mixed messages that urban supporters of the TIPNIS march sometimes convey.

For example, at a recent student mobilization I witnessed in Cochabamba, my Bolivian friend—a disillusioned MAS supporter–was dismayed by the popular chant: “Evo decia/ que todo cambiaria/ mentira, mentira/ la misma porqueria!” (“Evo said/ everything would change/ lies, lies/ it’s the same bullshit!”) “But it’s not the same!” she protested. Student mobilization, Cochabamba. Credit: Ben Achtenberg She complained to the student leaders that this inflammatory rhetoric not only plays into the hands of the right, but strengthens the government’s ability to discredit the movement.

Slogans and right-wing opportunists aside, while the TIPNIS conflict—and especially, last week’s brutal repression of the marchers—has severely damaged Morales’ credibility, the growing anti-highway mobilization appears to be a movement that is not so much against the MAS government as it is for recovery of the “process of change.” As Kevin Young notes in a thoughtful ZSpace commentary, no major union or popular organization on the left has called for Morales’ resignation. Bolivian social movements have a sophisticated, and healthy, capacity to critique and defend the government at the same time.

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