Evo Morales

Glen Argan: Bolivian turmoil a cause for concern

  • November 27, 2019

For nearly 500 years, Bolivia has been a cheap source of natural resources for colonial powers. Every time some mineral is mined to extinction, a new metal is discovered to be extracted at bargain basement prices. During the 16th century, silver was the hot commodity and Potosi was one of the richest cities in the Americas. Today, the Potosi region is the poorest section of the poorest country on the American continent.

The eastern city of Santa Cruz is now home to gas companies and the economic elite of European descent. Tiny Bolivia is Latin America’s second largest producer of natural gas. The new metal of choice is lithium of which Bolivia has 50 to 70 per cent of the world’s supply. Lithium is used in mobile phones, electric batteries and other products which may help build a global green economy. The only thing certain is that the poor of Bolivia, 62 per cent of whom are of Indigenous descent, will not derive lasting benefits from the extraction.

Any doubt about that was eliminated by the Nov. 10 coup d’etat which drove the country’s leftist president, Evo Morales, from power. The coup was ostensibly required by Morales’ ongoing efforts to remain Bolivia’s leader.

From this distance, it is hard to know what took place in the country’s Oct. 20 elections. The Organization of American States claimed massive corruption invalidated the election. Yet, one can be forgiven for looking with a jaundiced eye upon any OAS investigation of a leftist leader. The OAS has forever been an instrument of U.S. imperialism in the region.

Still, Morales undermined his own credibility by twice changing the constitution which limited the Bolivian president to holding office for two terms. On the most recent occasion, a referendum narrowly rejected his plan to run for a fourth term, but the country’s Supreme Court, composed of Morales’ appointees, ruled that he had a human right to run for office.

One would think that Morales, as leader of the country’s largest political party, would have nurtured potential leaders to take his place after his two terms were up. But, not so. Now that Morales is in exile, his MAS party says it will run younger candidates in the promised presidential election.

The country, at this writing, is in turmoil with hundreds of thousands of Morales’ supporters demonstrating against the interim government of Jeanine Añez. The interim nature of her government did not stop Añez from replacing the military command and giving security forces immunity from prosecution if they gunned down anti-government protesters. Dozens have been shot to death and hundreds injured in the violent repression since she issued that edict. Journalists who might have documented human rights abuses have also been threatened.

Añez’s original cabinet was composed almost entirely of prominent Santa Cruz business people and no one of Indigenous descent. The cabinet makeup seemed to reflect her provocative view, once expressed in a tweet, that “I dream of a Bolivia free of satanic Indigenous influences. The city is not for ‘Indians’; they should go to the highlands or the swamps!” Following an international outcry, Añez managed to appoint one Indigenous member to her cabinet.

Despite Morales’ faults, the country made significant progress during his nearly 14 years in power. Poverty was cut in half as was infant mortality. Illiteracy was sharply reduced and the chronic malnourishment of children decreased from 27 per cent to 16 per cent. By the time Morales was ousted, Bolivia had the fastest growing economy in South America.

Indigenous people gained a respected place in Bolivian society, a place now threatened by the repression and overt racism of the self-appointed interim government. That violent repression and racism is the calling card of a Catholic who waves a giant Bible as her moral authority is a scandal that should be denounced by churches both in Bolivia and abroad.

Añez’s party only won four per cent of the vote in the October elections while Morales’ MAS party still holds a significant majority in the country’s Senate. Despite the imbalance, Añez is threatening to ban MAS from running in the elections which will choose a new government. Democracy and civil liberties are not a genuine concern of her government. 

When the lithium exports begin in earnest, who will ask which groups derive the greatest benefits? By then, the world’s attention will have shifted away from tiny, poor Bolivia.

(Argan visited Bolivia two years ago as part of a Development and Peace solidarity tour.)

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