Bolivia and Social Change

by Rev. Michael J. Gillgannon

Bolivia will have its national elections for President, Vice-President and Congress on December 6, 2009. President Evo Morales and his party are expected to get about 54% of the vote for a second term, about equal to his first term victory.  The party, the “Movement to Socialism”, is shooting for a clean sweep to get a majority vote in Congress to allow them to implement all their social change program, blocked  in their first term, by the opposition in the Senate.

Over 60% of the Bolivian people gave overwhelming approval to a new Constitution in 2009, whose changes need new congressional legislation. For instance, the new constitution says judges for the Supreme Court and lower courts are not now named for life but will be “pre-selected” by the Congress and then elected by a popular vote for six years. President Morales, an Aymara Indian and the first of his people to be president, sees social justice and legal justice, particularly for the majority indigenous peoples excluded for 500 years from Bolivian society, as his first priority. He has quite strongly made judicial reform part of his platform for governance.

Bolivia, like the rest of Latin America, is a country badly divided by race and class. There are 36 different ethnic groups, with their own language and cultures, over 60% of the population of almost 10 million people. President Morales was a union leader of the coca growers and built his following on the symbolic cultural status of coca and popular  opposition to the repressive strategies of the United States Drug administration for limiting coca production. Forcefully uprooting coca plants and the lives of the peasant coca growers has not controlled cocaine production in the Andes (Columbia is the largest producer, followed by Peru and Bolivia) but has led to much anti-American feeling. The irony for Americans who live in Bolivia or who visit here is the welcome they receive. America’s people are not confused by Bolivians with the failed policies of successive American Administrations.

Many different points of view are being given by different analysts about the Bolivian elections. And the reason is the variety of readings one has of Latin America in the 21st century. The eight opposition parties opposed to Mister Morales are all fragmented remnants of the urban elite oligarchies of the past (or a few dissident indigenous local leaders looking for a seat in Congress). They bought into neo-liberal free-market economics and politics which have failed all over the hemisphere. They have no alternative programs except opposition to the “racism” of the Indian President trying to end the oppressive and exclusive racism and classism of their elitist followers.

Obvious disagreements for President Morales and his critics are the new roles of the State vis-à-vis private and international investments in national development.

Globalization, its contents and discontents, are forcing profound reflection around the world about nation-states, natural resources and the common good of the people. Who owns the trees and rivers and soil and sub-soil of Mother Earth (the “Pacha-Mama” of the Andean people)? The new governments of the Andes are saying the people do. And the government is merely the servant and agent of the people. By a democratic vote the people approve of the government policies. So, in Bolivia’s case, the Morales government has nationalized what previous neo-liberal governments of the nineties had sold to international investment capital; mines, gas and petroleum, electric grids, telephone communications, railroads, every resource the country had.

This nationalization process in three years has brought huge returns to Bolivia (before the recent world depression caused by the industrialized nations).  The former terms of trade and submissive national royalty contracts giving international capital 80% of the profits on Bolivia’s national resources have been reversed. And even with the current depressed prices for raw resources the government has a huge cushion saved which it is redistributing to the poor and disenfranchised.

For the first time all pregnant women have pre-natal and post-natal care reducing infant and maternal mortality in a country which was the South American leader in both categories. All families with children in grammar school receive a student subsidy to keep the children in school. All golden-agers over 60 receive an annual bonus if they were not on social security, which most were not. Hunger and poverty still abound but Bolivia sees the light of national liberation at the end of the 500 year tunnel of colonial subservience.

The new government will take office in 2010 and the new Congress will have many detailed changes to make flowing from the new Constitution. There will be many social conflicts but Bolivia will be an interesting Latin American laboratory about democracy, culture and social justice. And all this as a secular, religiously neutral society which has eliminated the centuries old constitutional clause citing the Catholic Church as the cultural religion of the State.


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