"I don't go so far as to think that the only good Indians are the dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every ten are and I shouldn't like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth."
-----Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President of the U.S.
"We're here to change our history . . . We're taking over . . . ."
-----Evo Morales, first Indian president of Bolivia, 2006
Things have changed considerably in the century since Teddy Roosevelt's brand of Nordic supremacy unblushingly held center stage. These days Indians don't need to drop dead to establish their virtue; all they need do is stand submissively on the political sidelines while neo-liberalism picks their pockets and sells them their wallets.
Somehow Indians in Bolivia weren't supposed to mind two decades of neo-liberal policies promising the moon while delivering lower per capita incomes than they started off with. Or being the poorest country in South America but holding the second largest natural gas reserves in the hemisphere. Or having no access to heat, clean water, or medical care while a light-skinned elite enjoyed a Texas-sized luxury life at their expense. In other words, in the 21st century "good" Indians aren't cadavers, they're unprotesting victims of a savagely lopsided distribution of wealth. It's not massacre, it's just death on the installment plan.
Unfortunately for the elite that dominates the economy, submissive Indians are in short supply these days in Bolivia, which elected Evo Morales on the novel platform of reversing 500 years of colonialism and genocide against the indigenous majority. Infused with a gentle charisma and a refreshing ethical sensibility, Morales is apparently determined to see that the nearly six million Amerindian Aymara and Quechua (out of nine million total inhabitants) are treated with at least minimal justice for the first time ever. This in itself is more than enough to put the Pentagon and C.I.A. on red alert, but Morales also condemns the IMF-administered neo-liberalism that was hailed as the proverbial free market "miracle" until privatization of the water supply provoked uncontrolled rioting among those who couldn't afford the required ransom. Stubbornly adhering to World Bank orthodoxy, Washington's Bolivian client government insisted that "no subsidies should be given to ameliorate the increase in water tariffs." All users, including the poorest of the poor, had to pay full cost, which entailed a doubling of rates for many.
Not surprisingly, Morales' rise to power coincides with escalating popular resentments against such neo-liberal austerity. In 1989, Bolivia, a recipient of U.S. military aid, found that Washington was quite unconcerned when its president declared a state of emergency and jailed hundreds of union leaders and teachers who stood accused of threatening the government's anti-inflation policies with their wage demands. Since the denial of human rights did not involve an eclipse of investor privileges, no issue was made of them.
Then in the 1990s, Jeffrey Sachs, a leading Harvard economist, carried out what was regarded by experts as a highly successful program of aggressive privatization and "free trade" in Bolivia. The country had accumulated a huge debt under a series of brutal dictators who dished out the usual ugly repression to maintain their hold on power. Bolstered by its IMF prescriptions and Sachs as its star advisor, the West went in with a template of stabilizing the currency, increasing agro-exports, and slashing production for domestic needs and subsistence agriculture. It worked. Growth rates rose from negative numbers to between four and five percent annually, the currency stabilized, debt declined, and foreign investment more than doubled. Unfortunately, the dazzling statistics obscured an increase in poverty and malnutrition and the collapse of the educational system. Not to mention that what stabilized the economy was coca exports, not coffee, which made later complaints about Morales undermining Washington's "war on drugs" more than slightly hypocritical, if not outright farcical.
In fact, some specialists in Latin American economics estimated that coca accounted for two-thirds of Bolivia's much praised exports. Plenty of the money involved went to U.S. chemical companies that were exporting chemicals to Latin America far beyond its industrial needs - chemicals used in cocaine production. Drug processing requires ether and acetone, which are imported into Latin America, often in drums displaying U.S. corporate logos. The fact that U.S. companies were helping fuel an international drug epidemic didn't get much attention in the corporate media. It wasn't until Evo Morales assumed the presidency and defended the many uses of the coca leaf that do not eventuate in cocaine production that the media began to evince a tender sympathy for cocaine addicts.
As the era of wholesale privatization staggered to its ignominious end, Morales demanded President Sanchez de Lozada's resignation over the issue of allowing natural gas to enrich foreign corporations and domestic elites while the Indian majority suffered in abysmal poverty. Describing demonstrations against his government as an Indian uprising against white minority rule, Morales narrowly missed winning the presidency in 2002, when U.S. ambassador Manuel Rocha warned Bolivians that they shouldn't vote for him. But three years later, on the strength of rising indigenous, campesino, and other popular forces, Morales won 53.7% of the vote in an eight-candidate race, amassing the largest Bolivian electoral advantage in almost three decades while becoming the first indigenous president in the country's history. Roman Loayza, head of Morales's party, the Movement Towards Socialism, later summed up his program: "We want to finish off the neoliberal economic model."
Such developments show that Latin America is falling out of the U.S. orbit of control. For the first time Indians are entering the political arena, and in substantial numbers. This may have effects on the large indigenous populations in Ecuador and Peru, which are also large energy producers. Some groups in Latin America, eager to recover their natural resources from foreign control, are even calling for an Indian nation. Some of them don't want their resources to be developed at all, preferring to maintain their own traditions and culture, rather than allow their resources to be siphoned off to subsidize traffic jams in the U.S. Naturally, such developments are a big threat to U.S. elites, who have no intention of seeing the "American Dream" curtailed by a bunch of upstart Indians who somehow got it into their heads that democracy means majority rule.
The problem for the business class, however, is that Morales may be just the curl on an indigenous tidal wave. Arriving in power with a 74% approval rating - unprecedented in Bolivian history - he promised to return the natural resources of the country to the people via nationalization of the energy sector. After delivering on the promise four months later, Mitofsky International found his approval rating had risen to 81%. Meanwhile, his party, the Movement Towards Socialism, holds 60% of the seats in the Bolivian Constituent Assembly while his supporters are eager to see him stay in power 50 years or more. On the other hand, hardly anyone expects good to come of U.S. influence in the region. According to a 2005 poll, 61% of Latin Americans have little or no confidence in the U.S..
Upon assuming office, Morales quickly attracted attention with his distinct approach to governance. He met world leaders dressed in jeans and a striped jumper ("Majorities never wear ties," he says), banned corruption, and cut his salary in half, so he could hire more teachers (he makes the equivalent of $1,875 a month - George Bush makes over $33,000.) Foreign diplomats in La Paz confirmed that he was that most oxymoronic of oxymorons: an honest, incorruptible politician. Who can ever forgive him?
Morales's arrival on the scene poses a direct threat to the U.S.'s "drug war." He will not bow to Washington's demands for oversight over Bolivia's army and domestic policies, which the U.S. seeks as part of its soaring ambitions for "full spectrum dominance," nor will he ban the coca leaf, which has played a central role in indigenous culture for millenia. While opposing cocaine for the world's addicts, he says he cannot reject the coca leaf, or at least not until the U.S. agrees to bulldoze its tobacco fields in order to save the vastly more numerous cigarette addicts from lung cancer. Such insolence.
While the U.S. has established a Department of "Homeland" Security that is rapidly converting the Constitution to a museum piece, Morales has established something akin to a Department of Decolonization to make institutional racism obsolete. He has also established a water ministry to provide clean water to millions of Bolivians who don't have it, arguing that the water privatization that took place in the mid-90s was not constitutional, since the contracts with the water companies were never approved by the Bolivian congress.
In May, 2006 Morales nationalized Bolivia's natural gas, requiring some 25 natural gas companies to renegotiate their contracts within six months or face expulsion. The new decree called for them to sell at least 51% of their holdings to the Bolivian state, but still allowed them to make a profit. Nevertheless, Morales was condemned for his "dictatorial" and "authoritarian" attacks on "democracy." Some democracy. Citing the prestigious Financial Times of London, M.I.T. professor Noam Chomsky reports that nationalization was supported by 95% of Bolivians. But serving this overwhelming majority is mere demagoguery, while fulfilling the greedy dreams of a 5% investor minority is "democracy." Perhaps this is why Morales says that "capitalism is the worst enemy of humanity."
That same year Morales also carried out an agrarian reform, which allowed for the redistribution of idle lands in order to correct a grossly lopsided distribution that favored a few dozen super-rich families at the expense of the impoverished majority. Under the new law the Bolivian government can seize unused and unproductive land from private landowners and give it to poor farmers and indigenous communities, so long as it first pays them just compensation.
In May 2007 the Morales government announced it would withdraw from the World Bank's International Center for the Settlement of Investment Disputes, since it is a vehicle for U.S. and European corporations to undermine efforts by Third World countries to nationalize their natural resources and public services like water. During his talks, Morales calls on the international community to join "an ongoing global campaign against this type of investor rule."
This kind of stance makes relations with the U.S. touch and go, and Washington refuses to grant visas to Morales's cabinet members. In September, 2007 Morales complained of mistreatment when he arrived in New York for the meeting of the General Assembly of the United Nations. U.S. Ambassador to Bolivia Philip Goldberg mocked his call for the UN to be transferred to another host country, saying he wouldn't be surprised if Bolivia also wanted to change "the site of Disney." Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca, who, like Morales, is an Aymara, responded that what Goldberg said "is an offense to the country," and also to the "campesino and indigenous movement of the continent," and reflects "a racist attitude." "We hope that the Ambassador retracts these declarations of his," said Choquehuanca, who also declared that Goldberg was "not a valid partner for us." According to Univision, the largest Spanish language T.V. network in the U.S., prior to the remarks about the U.N. and Disney, there had not been a single month without friction, polemics, denunciations and mutual accusations between the two governments since Morales took power in January 2006.
The Social Summit in Sucre in September 2007 pointed up a showdown between the indigenous majority and Bolivian commercial elites. The summit established various principles that the new Bolivian Magna Carta should protect, among them that racism for linguistic, ethnic or cultural reasons be punished as a "grave crime against society and the state," and that all public officials learn an indigenous language. It also spoke of taxing great private fortunes, expropriation without compensation of large estates, re-election and revocation of terms in office, election of judicial authorities, recognition of indigenous justice, and the elimination of the (light-skinned-majority) Senate in order to have a legislative power with only one branch.
Morales' opposition in Sucre, violently resisting the indigenous-dominated Constituent Assembly, took over all the major public buildings using dynamite and Molotov cocktails, demanding the resignation of "the shitty Indian Morales." Parts of the city were in flames as the members of the Assembly fled the castle where the body was meeting, and soon rioting mobs controlled the city, leading to the deaths of three people and injuries to hundreds. This was the prelude to right wing and business interests in Santa Cruz declaring their autonomy from La Paz.
The traditional U.S.-sponsored coup d'etat may not be capable of coming to their rescue. Honoring Che Guevara on the fortieth anniversary of his death on October 8, Morales declared that Bolivia's new Constitution would not permit the installation of U.S. military bases, and he requested that the rest of Latin America impose a similar ban. Inflaming his enemies further, he declared the same month that a retirement pension equal to the minimum wage would be granted to all Bolivians, to be paid out of a special hydrocarbon fund. This was Communist heresy to Morales's wealthy opposition in four eastern provinces, who see no reason to have their privileges reduced to provide old age security for all. Theirs is a particularly stingy attitude, since conditions in Bolivia don't permit much lingering on the public dole: Bolivian miners die in their mid-forties.
These elites boycotted passage of a new Constitution aiming at strengthening indigenous rights in early December 2007. A national referendum will be needed to determine whether the Constitution is to take effect. The four eastern provinces have declared their autonomy from the Bolivian government, demanding local authority over natural gas royalties, agricultural policies, and police forces. Officials in La Paz characterize these efforts as racist moves to resist attempts to redistribute the wealth to the country's poor. Morales describes them as flatly illegal. In response, the pro-business groups assert that the real racism is against the non-indigenous and that Morales's policies are driving away private investment from Bolivia. The four provinces have "thriving export-oriented agricultural and energy industries" according to the New York Times. However, the issue is not their dynamism, but their narrowly distributed gains and the ongoing destruction of indigenous cultures.
Is a new day dawning in Bolivia? Only time will tell, but for now consider MAS (Movement Towards Socialism) Senator Gaston Conejo Bacope's description of the December 14 celebration of the new Bolivian constitution:
"The doors of the National Palace were opened to the people, musical bands, and native groups. President Evo and Vice-President Alvaro, the constitutionalists, the leaders of the Armed Forces, and the ministers, all danced, danced cheerfully inside the Great Hall. In a playful, childlike circle, to the strains of folk songs and Indian flutes, drums and whistles, the commanders of the three Armed Forces, the civic security police, and assembly members, danced hand in hand with indigenous women in beautiful native attire; female ministers and deputies danced with men representing 36 different communities and nationalities. The true people of the country - soldiers and Indians, the racially mixed and the middle class, intellectuals and workers, unpretentious society members and humble peasants, patriots of all stripes - danced joyfully together, celebrating the political and legislative change that Bolivia has begun."
If this is not yet a new day, at least it's a new crowd, and an authentic diversity in the halls of power. That is certainly worth celebrating.
Happy New Year.
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"Bolivian President Evo Morales on Indigenous Rights, Climate Change, Iraq, Establishing Relations with Iran, Che Guevara's Legacy and More," Democracy Now Online, September 26, 2007
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"La gira mundial de Evo Morales," Univision En Linea, 10 de enero de 2006
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"Evo, el Mandela latinoamericano," Prensa En Linea, December 22, 2007
Amy Chua, "World on Fire - How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability," Anchor Books, 2003 (See Chapter 2)
Noam Chomsky, "What We Say Goes - Conversations on U.S. Power in a Changing World," Metropolitan Books, 2007, pp. 5-6, 47, 81-2
Noam Chomsky, "Deterring Democracy," Hill and Wang, 1991, p. 117
Noam Chomsky, "Interventions," City Lights, 2007, p. 199
Noam Chomsky, "Keeping the Rabble in Line," Common Courage Press, 1994, pp. 50-2
Noam Chomsky, "Rogue States - The Rule of Force in World Affairs," South End Press, 2000, pp. 77-8
--------Michael K. Smith is the author of "The Madness of King George (illustrations by Matt Wuerker) and "Portraits of Empire," with Common Courage Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org