By Alvin Finkel
We hear little of Bolivia in the Western press. But as I was able to witness this past November, this small land-locked South American country is engaged in a unique revolution that embodies a new 21st century vision of socialism quite at odds with its 20th century counterpart. The latter tended to be centralist, modernist, materialist, and hierarchical, egalitarian in impact but not in governance.
By contrast, the Bolivian model is decentralized, rooted in indigenous experiences, spiritual, and egalitarian both in governance & impact. Local community circles of all the people replace the Politbureaus and Central Committees of the last century. Evo Morales, who is an Aymara (there are two large indigenous cultures in Bolivia, Aymara & Quechua, and along with some smaller indigenous groupings, they form the majority of the Bolivian population) and a former farm union leader, was elected the president in 2005 of this country which, since colonial times, has been governed by Spanish-origin individuals, usually military leaders from the aristocracy.
His Movimiento al Socialismo (the letters form the Spanish word, “More,” and express the workers’ and peasants’ point of view that they have been denied their fair share of the nation’s wealth) has nationalized telecommunications and much of the oil industry, and improved social programs. It has renamed the country El Estado Plurinacional de Bolivia, devolved a great deal of power to local communities, and given the Indigenous languages the same footing as Spanish in the nation’s business.
It should be noted that all of this is vigorously opposed by the descendants of those who enslaved the Bolivian people five centuries ago, forcing them to work in unspeakable conditions in the silver mines and on the encomiendas.
The bourgeois media operates without censorship and six of the seven national dailies are hostile to the government to the point where nothing the governments, or unions of workers and campesinos do, gets real coverage within their pages. Yet they have undertaken a hypocritical international campaign complaining that the elected government is a dictatorship that is suppressing them.
The workers & campesinos are mobilized to fight the efforts of the bourgeoisie to paralyze their government. On two days in a row in La Paz, we saw the biggest demonstrations that we have seen in our lives: over 100,000 people, mostly women in their traditional Indigenous costumes.
The first called on the government to complete the nationalization of the oil industry and to also put the sugar industry under state ownership to reduce the cost of living. The second was a protest against the Archbishop of Cochabamba, a recent arrival from Italy, who repeated the CIA line for the benefit of an appreciate media, that the cocaleros–the coca growers–, including four year olds, are all part of the international cocaine smuggling trade. But coca and cocaine are different.
Andean peoples in pre-colonial times cultivated coca leaves and incorporated the coca into their religious ceremonies and daily social rituals. This mild stimulant continues to be used by Aboriginal peoples in the Andean countries and indeed most non-Aboriginals also drink mate de coca as an herbal tea.
Coca is also used in Coca Cola. But, like most harmful substances, cocaine combines a natural substance, in this case, coca, with various chemicals. Coca growers have no way of knowing which buyers of their product want it for its natural properties and which are connected to the cocaine trade.
The American government has pressured the Andean governments to suppress the growing of coca altogether. They have all refused but the Americans have singled out Bolivia for denunciations (rather than Peru, with its neo-liberal government, for example) mainly because they oppose Bolivia’s embrace of socialism.
The Roman Catholic Church has always played an ambivalent role in Latin America. Its leadership has, in most periods, been closely tied with the economic elites who exploited the indigenous peoples. It has used force to convert people from beliefs that their ancestors held for millennia to Catholicism.
But a section of the Church at various times has taken to heart Christ’s defense of the poor & challenged efforts to strip the indigenous peoples of their traditional lands and beliefs. Reactionaries within the church in Bolivia have always opposed the cultivation of the coca because it provides a link to the pre-Christian period in the country.
Much can be said about this fascinating country. However, what was clear to me during my visit, is this; Bolivians are on a long social justice journey. As evolving experiment, I believe Bolivia offers a model of a humanitarian society that merits the observation and the defence of its ideals by progressives everywhere.
About the Author: a resident of Edmonton, Alberta, Alvin Finkel is a professor of History at Athabasca University, and the co-chair of the Alberta Democratic Renewal Project http://www.drproject.ca