Death and Democracy Nick Buxton reports from
The TV advert showed smiling farmers walking along a new road with the Prefect of Cochabamba, Manfred Reyes Villa. “
The growing tension in
I was out in a village outside
The central square was crammed with groups of rural farmers and indigenous groups, people from the poorer districts of
The build-up to confrontations started at the end of December when the Prefect Manfred Reyes Villa of
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
In the last few months, though, Reyes Villa allied himself ever more closely with the right-wing East stating his support for independence of
Racism and two Bolivia's
You can’t help but notice the difference between the make-up of the two armed groups in
Politics of the street
The Coordinadora de Agua, which led protests in
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
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
Whereas politics of the street in 2000 saw a largely united
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
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
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
Reposted from Open Veins blog