Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Tearing at Bolivia until it breaks

You'll have seen the Bolivian Santa Cruz autonomy referendum in the news.

Politically Bolivia is divided between those areas that are dominated by indigenous peoples and those that are dominated by the whites, from whom the ruling elite has always been drawn. The East of the country is governed by the right wing Podemos (irritatingly represented as red on this map) and the West by MAS (the Movement Towards Socialism). Santa Cruz is firmly in the East of the country.

When Morales won the Presidential election two years ago it was both a shock to the elites and a relief. It meant an end to constant unrest as one after the other the people overthrew their Presidents until an election was called and Bolivia had its first first democratically elected indigenous leader. But having Morales as President meant making concessions to address the historic racism and economic injustices of Bolivian society.

Yes, enough reforms to keep the people quiet - but don't start making the whites pay their fair share of taxes or allow the "Indians" to feel they are somehow equal with their betters. It's been a painful process for the elites and one they have not taken with good grace. This is what lies at the heart of the autonomy rebellion.

Breaking away from their poor neighbours would mean avoiding having to fund social programs, health care, education programs and for the first time child benefit and the "dignity" pension for all those over sixty has been introduced. These are genuine shifts towards the poor, aimed at improving the lives of the most disenfranchised and impoverished of Bolivia's people.

This means the elites' wealth is at stake - despite the fact that a court ruled the referendum to be unconstitutional and illegal they pressed ahead with it - indigenous people and all those on the left rightly boycotted this sham. It's not a surprise that the result was a "yes" as hardly anyone seems to have taken part, Evo Morales has dismissed the vote as a charade.

The right, supported by the regional government, are determined to stall the progressive reforms that the Morales' government has been making - and to be honest they are succeeding. Land reform is currently impossible in the Podemos dominated areas of the country - the areas that most need it, with just handful of families owning the majority of fertile land. Those families are desperate to hold onto their wealth and will stop at nothing to do so, even forming fascist gangs, the Union Juvenil CruceƱa who have publicly pasted up lists of MAS activists' names and have been involved in physical attacks not just on party members but anyone who looks like an uppity "Indian" (although they aren't from India you will not be surprised to learn).

They hope to spread protests and violence to other areas.

In Cochabamba on the other hand there has been an absolutely vast demonstration in favour of a "united Bolivia" or "one Bolivia for all". There are mass movements that will not be willing to take these moves lying down.

Who are the rich to take away their pensions? Who are the rich to threaten the social advances that they themselves had denied Bolivians for so long? The people are more than aware that a return to power of the ruling elites would lead to a wave of reaction such as they have seen too many times before.

What the new President of Paraguay said of his country equally applies to Bolivia; "In Paraguay there are only thieves and the victims of thieves."


Jack Ray said...

have they heard on the turnout of the Santa Cruz referendum yet?

Jim Jay said...

Granma has a set of confusing figures here but it looks like the turnout was more than 50% of registered voters (which is higher than I thought at first)

Good article at the New Statesman

Jack Ray said...

looks like turnout of 61%, and Granma is counting the abstentions as being pro-government (which with the rest of the nos was more than half the electorate). Plus the accusations of electoral fraud and separatist violence (which seems likely given the groups involved and the unconstitutional nature of the referendum), then there's clearly not much of a majority for separatism.

Though I can't help think that the number of working class Crucenos that are siding with the elite has got to in part a product of Morales'/much of the rest of the Bolivian's left's identity politics...

Jim Jay said...

And of course they need more than 50% for a change of this magnitude - I can remember whether it's 2/3rds, 3/4s or 80% but it's a big number.

Personally I think the fact that lots of working class people in SC are siding with the elites is to do with the strength of the right in these areas and the historic hold of racism rather than any weaknesses of the left.

i'd hesistate personally before describing the Bolivian struggle for the rights of indigenous people as identity politics as it is a combative and so far effective force at combatting racism at every level of Bolivian life.

Jim Jay said...

In other words its a collective response whilst I associate (perhaps wrongly) identity politics with individualism.

Jack Ray said...

well, I don't want to overstate this (I'm actually sitting next to an Aymara flag as I write) and I wouldn't claim necessarily to be any great expert. But clearly there's only so many rich-landowning oligarchs in Santa Cruz (Bolivia has the smallest middle class in LatAm) and persuading the poor there that their interests don't lie with people who share their material circumstances doesn't just come from a sense of white supremacy (undoubtedly some of it), but also from the notion that the government/reform movement is primarily one of indigenous people and only tangentially about class/poverty.

Jim Jay said...

Well there is a lot of working class and middle class support for this movement - absolutely - and even strikes have been part of their arsenal (which shows why we should not simply support all strikes before we know what's going on) but racism is very deep - much deeper than here.

I also think it's not necessarily correct to say they share the same material circumstances. They often live in different places and often live in different conditions. I think to gloss over the economic and political inequality (actually gloss over is probably too strong a word, forgive me) is dangerous.

I don't think we should think about racism there in the same way as we might think about it here. It isn't just bigotry - its a deeply ingrained way of life upon which Bolivian society has been built.

There are white revolutionaries, often of the dogmatic paper selling kind - and I'll accept they have not done well in combatting racism - Morales and the social movements have been extra ordinarily successful and I think we could learn a lot from them - even if they can be a bit anarchist for my tastes :)