Bolivia eyewitness: Pro-poor change transforming the country

Tyson Baird, Green Left Weekly

President Evo Morales and his party, Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), won a resounding victory last month. This gave the Morales administration a further five-year term to deepen the progress of the past nine years.

I was privileged to take part in a delegation to Bolivia via the New York-based Alberto Lovera Bolivarian Circle. The delegation travelled around the country learning from, and offering solidarity to, the exciting revolutionary processes taking place in Bolivia.

We met with a wide variety of political and social movements, with a particular focus on the issue of food sovereignty.

Since Morales was first elected in 2005, many important social gains have been achieved for Bolivians.

Poverty has been cut by 32%. Education and health care are now free and universal. Wages have risen. The elderly now receive pensions. This is just to name a few changes.

Most impressively, a sense of dignity and power has been returned to the indigenous majority. It was acutely evident that the people are actively shaping the future of the country. They are proud and emboldened by this fact.

Morales is the first indigenous person to become Bolivia's president, and is now set to become the longest serving Bolivian president.

Beyond the president, indigenous representation in power is significant. Examples include a parallel justice system allowing certain legal matters to be resolved at a local level via traditional means.

The acknowledgement of indigenous languages and culture, now taught at an indigenous university. The term “Plurinational State” that Bolivia has officially adopted is by no means a symbolic gesture.

Symbolically, but importantly, women are now seen wearing the traditional bowler hats and skirts while holding powerful government positions ― a huge turn around from previous administrations. “You are not welcome here dressed like that,” was the experience of a female leader upon first entering parliament in 2005.

The role of women in Bolivian politics and social movements is impressive and exciting. We met with various leaders who spoke with infectious passion and confidence.

This seems unique in an otherwise macho society. Today women make up over 50% of members of parliament.

Positions of power are now held by the poor. This allows them to decide on the most appropriate measures for development.

Creative and inclusive policies have been developed to assist the advancement of all of society.

Visiting coca farms in the tropical Chapare region, it was immediately evident that US government allegations that Bolivia is doing nothing about drug production are unfounded.

Coca is a plant traditionally used by Bolivia's indigenous people, for whom it is culturally significant. However, it can also be manufactured into cocaine, leading the US to push for its eradication.

Under the MAS government, coca production has been reduced. The farmers are legally allowed to grow a coca plot that is 40 square metres in size. This enables coca farmers to earn a living, but also encourages diversification of their crops and land use.

Coca leaves are then sold through the regulated Coca Federation to meet domestic needs.

Such regulations allow the poor farmers ― living in mud huts with modern technology often limited to a light bulb, a television and a mobile phone (hardly the requirements for drug manufacturing) ― to make a modest living.

This is a far cry from the complete failure of US-backed drug enforcement of the past, which in the name of the “war on drugs” removed poor farmers from their lands and led to significant bloodshed.

Under these restrictions, the government is able to prosecute those who grow coca outside of the established parameters, while allowing Bolivian farmers to legally produce a product that has been used for thousands of years in the region.

On Election day, October 12, the streets of the capital La Paz were transformed into a playground. Skateboards, bikes, football games and alfresco dining reclaimed the bitumen.

Electoral laws do not allow the sale of alcohol or the use of private cars on election day, giving the usually chaotic city a charming calm.

Early in the evening, thousands of sober MAS supporters flocked to the Presidential Palace in Murillo Square, singing and dancing.

At 9pm, Morales, flanked by Vice-President Alvaro Garcia Linera and other companeros, appeared on the balcony to address the faithful and claim a resounding victory with more than 60% of the vote.

The elections gave a formal endorsement to deepen the revolution for five more years. The band played and opportunistic vendors were selling beer before the fireworks had stopped.

In 1781, the Spanish dismembered Bolivian freedom fighter Tupac Katari in Murillo Square. His parting prophecy was: “They will only kill me, but I will return and it will be in the millions.”

There are now more than 1 million people on the mountains surrounding La Paz. They have returned and, once more, they have spoken.

The people have halted 500 years of imperial dominance. They can now catch the newly built government cable cars down into the city.

[Tyson Baird is a solidarity activist who lives in Adelaide.]

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