Waiting in La Paz - Evo’s Request for Reelection

Jean Friedman-Rudovsky, May 29, 2007

La Paz - In March of this year, with just over a year in office, Bolivian President Evo Morales announced his intention to cut short his own term. He began calling for 2008 elections to replace the 2010 scheduled vote: the newly written constitution (which a 255 delegate assembly is projected to finish in August) should be accompanied by newly elected political leaders and Morales deserves a chance to lead again, says the ruling party.

It is said here that the poor and indigenous majority have waited 500 years for one of their own to hold power. Ascending to the presidency on a wave of protests starting in the 90’s, indigenous llama-herder turned coca-farmer Evo (as he is universally known here) was to be, for many, the gift worth waiting for.

From India to Argentina, waiting is an omnipresent part of life in developing countries. Bolivia is no exception. In La Paz, blocks-long lines to enter the municipal notary’s office or a micro-credit loan center twist and turn throughout the city on any given day. Visitors from the U.S. and Europe often comment, with frustration, that delay is Bolivia’s only sure thing.

What makes waiting here unique, is that here patience has become political strategy.

There’s waiting as sabotage. In the country home to South America’s second largest natural gas reserves, fuel shortages are frequent because energy agreements have always prioritized export over supplying internal demand.

So when the gas goes scarce, groups of up to 200 men and women sit perched atop yellow empty steel gas canisters waiting for police escorted re-supply trucks to make their delivery. But instead of lining up on the sidewalk, people plant themselves in major intersections. The message is simple: Not enough gas for me to cook for my family? Well, then I’ll wait right in the middle of the street so that you understand what it means to have your daily life disrupted.

There’s waiting as governance, like in the Andean highlands where local decision-making is still consensus based. Indigenous Aymara villagers will wait for months for their leaders to come to a consensual agreement about where a road should be built or how much money ought to be allocated for a school’s repair. To a westernized mind, it’s inefficient politics. But to the Aymara, majority vote seems illogical. “Why would we make decisions through a process that could leave almost one half of our community in total opposition to the result?” an Aymara elder once asked me.

That’s not to say that Bolivians aren’t quick to act; they are, especially when there’s clear urgency, like in October 2003. After months of proposed tax hikes and gas export schemes, then-President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada fell victim to Bolivians’ decision be patient no longer. “Goni must go,” the people said and after 4 weeks of rapidly planned protest, go he did.

This combination of waiting and action ushered Evo onto the world stage. And he is hoping his nation’s penchant for patience can help him stay there.

Like any good politician, Evo knows that his constituency wants results and quick. So within his first 100 days in office, he halved all government salaries (including his own), initiated a massive literacy program, and nationalized the gas and oil sector.

But the most destitute have seen little tangible change in their lives since December 2005. Bolivians continue to wait for Evo to fulfill his central promise: namely, to obliterate the economic and power inequality created by half a millennium of rule by outsiders (and their descendents).

With this objective still far off, Evo wants re-election badly. Give me more time—starting from the enactment of the new constitution that includes your indigenous voices—to turn this country around, he’s now pleading near and far.

While the result of the Constitutional Assembly remains in doubt (the delegates spent the first five months arguing over procedural rules and have not yet agreed on a single article), that fact that the MAS (Movement Towards Socialism) is lobbying hard for Evo’s reelection privileges is not. And, if given the chance it’s likely that Bolivians will give their President an extension, re-electing him in 2008, and maybe in 2013 too. But how long before their patience runs out? And if Evo has not fulfilled the expectations by then, what will happen to the gift worth waiting for?

I couldn’t say. We’ll just have to wait and see.

First published by Ukhampacha

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