Bolivia: 500 years of oppression, two years of change

Rachel Evans, La Paz, January 24

Celebrations of the two year anniversary of the coming to power of left-wing President Evo Morales — Bolivia’s first ever indigenous president, elected on the back of mass movements to overturn neocolonialism — occurred in La Paz on January 22.
In typical Bolivian style, big rallies blocked the streets, fireworks rang through the air and workers and campesinos (peasants) met to plan the next steps ahead for Bolivia´s democratic revolution being led by its indigenous majority.

The largest rally — of up to 15,000 workers — was led by the Bolivian Workers’ Central (COB). Workers chanted against the “media luna” (half moon) governments — four departments (states) in Bolivia’s east that contain much of Bolivia’s natural wealth.

These departments, controlled by the wealthy, white oligarchy that has traditionally governed the nation, are planning referendums to declare “autonomy” in order to protect the oligarchy’s privileges from moves by the Morales government to redistribute land and wealth to the impoverished majority.

The right-wing opposition, backed by the oligarchy and the US government, is also campaigning against the draft constitution drawn up by an elected constituent assembly, to be put to a national referendum, that respects the rights and culture of the indigenous peoples for the first time and ensures state control over Bolivia’s natural resources.

However, the COB demonstration also protested against the Morales government, demanding a guaranteed basic salary for all Bolivians — extending the US$26 per month pension recently introduced by the government for those over 60 with no fixed, regular income. The government has also provided the same amount to each child enrolled in primary school, benefiting over 1.3 million children.

Under Morales, 83% of gas and petrol resources have been nationalised. Money earned by the state through nationalisations has paid for the pension and stipend to school children.

A rally of 2000 indigenous campesinos from the surrounding areas wove its way past the COB rally, into the centre of La Paz’s morning bustle. In contrast, the campesinos expressed their support for Morales.

The campesinos then met to talk about their collectives, agricultural production and the new constitution. The “agrarian revolution” launched by Morales has so far transferred 10,000 hectares of idle land to poor, landless peasants organised into collectives. An amendment to the draft constitution, which will be put to a referendum at the same time, would outlaw any individual holdings over 10,000 hectares, allowing idle land of large landowners to be confiscated and redistributed.

In the late afternoon 1000 health and education workers rallied through La Paz to Plaza Murillo, where Congress meets. Traditional drum rhythms kept time to the chant “Evo, hermano, el pueblo estan contigo” (“Evo, brother, the people are with you”).

A government-distributed leaflet reported that a national program to combat illiteracy, with Cuban support, has taught nearly 500,000 people to read and write. Assisted by Cuban doctors, a program is being implemented that aims to provide free health care to all Bolivians. Mission Miracle, a program run by the Cuban and Venezuelan governments to provide free operations to restore eyesight, has helped 215,000 people.

Poverty is shockingly apparent in La Paz. Indigenous women and children sleep in the streets. Running water is a privilege. Houses stand half built, precariously withstanding rain and wind with sticks from trees. To combat homelessness, the government has so far built 9000 homes in rural and urban areas.

The day ended with Morales giving a five-hour speech detailing the last two years and charting the way ahead. Morales said he will accelerate the structural transformation and the “decolonisation” of the state with the help of a newly-established “national commission for change”.

One of its first measures will be the expropriation of lands controlled by large ranch owners who have enslaved indigenous people in the Chaco region. As unbelievable as it sounds, to even speak to an indigenous campesino in the region, you must ask permission from their boss.

Morales said in his speech: “This revolution is a peaceful, democratic, cultural and indigenous one. The Bolivian people have taken up the challenge of decolonisation and therefore foreign nations will never again be able to impose their will.”

Republished from Green Left Weekly

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