Death and Democracy Nick Buxton reports from Cochabamba

January 12, 2007

The TV advert showed smiling farmers walking along a new road with the Prefect of Cochabamba, Manfred Reyes Villa. “Cochabamba is going only one direction,” chirruped the advert, “towards progress.” The advert was grimly inappropriate, as it immediately followed graphic pictures of the corpses of a coca-farmer killed by a bullet and a young man by machetes in clashes between armed groups in Cochabamba.

The growing tension in Bolivia has been palpable in the last month, with rhetoric becoming more and more inflamed on both sides. I feared violence, but even so felt sick to the stomach seeing images of dead young men on television, and thinking of their families who would be grieving them. No political struggle feels worth the tears and gut-wrenching grief that those deaths would involve. Sadly I fear it might not be the last deaths.

I was out in a village outside Cochabamba yesterday ignorant for most of the day whilst violence unfolded twelve kilometers away, but was in town today. The streets are deserted with most shops closed but occasionally you come across small groups of mainly men (but occasionally women) with sticks and bats in their hands. The atmosphere brimmed with tension and possible violence. The occasional explosions of dynamite and tear gas ricocheted in the distance.

The central square was crammed with groups of rural farmers and indigenous groups, people from the poorer districts of Cochabamba and groups of young people announcing their presence with banners. A large banner was struck out across the front of the building of the union organizations calling for the resignation of Manfred Reyes Villa. Men speaking from the balcony announced meetings of different social groups and warned people to stick together “as we have reports of fascist groups roaming around nearby.” They were clearly ready to resist any attacks.

The build-up to confrontations started at the end of December when the Prefect Manfred Reyes Villa of Cochabamba called for a referendum on autonomy and started to more vocally line himself with the Right in four other departments, Santa Cruz, Beni, Tarija and Pando. This riled social movements within the Department who had been behind an overwhelming rejection of autonomy in July 2006. They started to mobilize calling on Reyes Villa to resign, started blockades and in one altercation parts of the Prefecture building were burnt down.

This in turn riled other people, in particular the middle class and those who voted for Manfred who felt their democratic rights were being undermined by a bunch of MAS/Government-supported “thugs.”

On Wednesday, a group armed with poles called “Young People for Democracy” marched in support of Manfred and warned that if farmers and other groups calling for Manfred’s resignation did not leave the city centre that they would be attacked and thrown out.

They were true to their word. Yesterday, several thousand armed with baseball bats, sticks and even a few guns surged through police lines and attacked a group of coca-growers with brutal violence. Those demanding Manfred’s resignation then counter-attacked leading to bloody clashes all over the city which the police were unable or unwilling to stop. The two deaths were a result of the violence and the tension that still grips the city.

Jim Shultz at the Democracy Centre is doing a good job of recounting what is happening with view of some of those involved, so instead I think I will draw out a few of the factors that I think explain what is happening in Cochabamba and indeed Bolivia right now. It is a very complex situation that can’t easily be analysed in one article. Moreover much of what is driving the violence, in particular the behind-the-scenes machinations and manipulations of political leaders remains hidden.

Rumours are flying that are very difficult to substantiate. People talk of behind-the-scenes US Government involvement, that the Government had provoked the crisis to oust one of their key opponents, that planeloads of young fascists from the east of the country were coming to join the fight. There are probably elements of truth and lies in all of them.

Fight back of the right

When MAS won the elections almost a year ago with an unprecedented majority, the Right were left in a state of shock. But the Right wasn’t completely defeated, as they had two main sources of power: the Senate where they had a majority of one and the Regions where the first ever elections for Prefects saw 6 of the 9 prefectures returning right-wing Prefects. In the last few months, they have used these bases to mobilize increasingly successfully against MAS proposals, in particular their demands for the Constituent Assembly.

The significance of Cochabamba is that it is in effect a swing state or prefecture. It is home in the east of the province to the militant base of the MAS government who mobilized to get more than 60% to vote against autonomy, yet at the same time right-wing Manfred Reyes Villa managed to win enough support to win the Prefecture. It is also geographically in the centre of the country between the indigenous MAS-dominated west of the country and the more mestizo (mixed) and right-wing dominated East.

In the last few months, though, Reyes Villa allied himself ever more closely with the right-wing East stating his support for independence of Santa Cruz and calling for a referendum on autonomy. This riled the social movements and in particular MAS’s base who felt they had to stand up against his agenda. The fight against Manfred became in part a fight for where the country should go.

Racism and two Bolivia's

You can’t help but notice the difference between the make-up of the two armed groups in Cochabamba. On one side you had mainly indigenous farmers and people from the more impoverished communities of the city, and on the other more mestizo (mixed race), lighter-skinned and middle class residents. There were of course exceptions but the overall picture was stark. Watching television and hearing shouts of “Kill the Indian motherfuckers” showed that the attacks were certainly fuelled in part by a strong and ongoing current of racism in Bolivia.

Politics of the street

The Coordinadora de Agua, which led protests in Cochabamba in 2000 to reverse privatization of their water, issued a communiqué supporting protests to oust Manfred Reyes de Villa, saying that “all politics of change in Bolivia have come from the street.” It is certainly true that the major protests against privatization of Bolivia’s natural resources and against an unjust economic system were led by street protests. It even led to a new climate where an election of a popular MAS government, with an anti-neoliberal agenda, was possible.

As some protestors made clear, Reyes Villa might have been elected but had lost legitimacy by allying himself with repressive leaders from the past and by supporting an agenda of autonomy and the Right that had been rejected in popular votes against autonomy. Previous experience where popular rebellions had led to the ousting of several elected-Presidents and the end of unpopular policies mean that many people believe that social protests are the form of changing leaders who have lost the confidence of people and for confronting injustice – particularly when the media, economic and political powers are stacked against popular, working class and indigenous movements.

The difficulty for this “politics of the street,” which is so typical of Bolivia, is the new context. Firstly you have a Government formed in large part by social movements, whose role is now to govern and construct rather than protest. They are facing the challenge however of having electoral power but not necessarily economic or political power. They find many of their proposals, especially those that challenge the economic interests of Bolivia’s elite, consistently blocked and challenged.

In the struggle to pass a new land reform bill, the Government successfully combined with indigenous movements who had mobilized in large land marches to eventually pass the law. At the meeting announcing the new bill, many social movement leaders noted the importance of mobilization for achieving social change, and this may have prompted the Government at the very least to give implicit support (and in reality probably active support) to mobilizations against Manfred Reyes Villa.

Yet it looks like they didn’t consider the dangers of the fact that the Right is now using the politics of the street to defend their interests. Much of this is peaceful but there are also small groups who are prone to violence against people. This has been a growing phenomenon in the east of the country in Santa Cruz, where a young fascist group has been terrorizing indigenous and left-wing social movements in support of the aims of the elite for autonomy. Similar fascist groups have been forming in other parts of Bolivia, who can be easily inflamed into violence against perceived injustices.

Whereas politics of the street in 2000 saw a largely united Cochabamba population throw out an unpopular multinational water company. In 2006, it saw a population divided by class and race at each other’s throats with sticks, anger and fear.

Machismo and manipulation

When people end up in bloody confrontation against their fellow human beings, it is usually not the case that they either initiated the build-up to confrontation or will ever see benefits from any “supposed” victory. Clearly people were fired up for their own articulated reasons, but it is also likely that leaders and elites manipulated the situation to gain a political advantage.

It is difficult to know in this case who manipulated who, but it is very likely that Manfred was behind the group of young thugs who led the attack yesterday whilst MAS at the very least did not attempt to de-escalate tension by more vigorously calling on its bases to lower the tension.

Both groups found a ready army of volunteers that I have seen at other marches in Europe that have descended into violence. Young men fuelled by testosterone, frustration and the adrenaline of confrontation who surge into battle, this time, with fatal consequences.

What does democracy look like?

There is one word, you can be sure, will be mentioned whenever an opposition politician or leader opens his mouth nowadays: democracy. The MAS Government is said to be threatening “democracy” when it suggests laws of accountability for prefects, when it insists on votes by absolute majority, when social movements mobilize against elected prefects.

The Right powerfully argue, for example, that social movements have no right to insist on resignation of a Prefect who was elected by 54%. They also point to MAS attempts to control Congress and the Constituent Assembly to the exclusion of other views – an accusation that even those on the independent Left would vouch for. It also can’t be denied that a constitution passed by a simple majority (ie by MAS) in Bolivia’s current climate is unlikely to have any shelf-life unless it wins the consent of a large majority of Bolivians.

Yet it is noticeable that time and again, the recourse to the word “democracy” is used as a way of defending privilege and a legal and political system that has protected the interests of a rich few.

In indigenous communities, democracy is not a representative political system imported but a communal way of organizing lives. It has a purpose which is to advance the community beyond the interest of individuals. So when indigenous people voted for a new Government, democracy was more about delivering real and structural change that rebalanced not just political but economic power.

As indigenous groups have seen even limited proposals frustrated by the Right, they have started to mobilize as we have seen in Cochabamba. For them, though, they are not involved in an attack on democracy but a defense of it. For without real change in the conditions of lives for the majority of Bolivians, democracy is meaningless.

Reposted from Open Veins blog

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