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Guest column Stephen Taranto: Bolivia has a long history of speaking truth to power

  • In this photo provided by the Agencia Boliviana de Informacion, Bolivian President Evo Morales speaks from the presidential hangar in El Alto, Bolivia, Sunday, Nov. 10. Enzo De Luca/Agencia Boliviana de Informacion via AP

Published: 12/2/2019 1:40:32 PM

Current events in Bolivia and other Latin American countries are momentous and possibly history-making, but also worrisome and increasingly violent. It is important to consider the historical context and complexity of the situation on the ground before taking a position.

In the case of Bolivia, much of the reporting by international media outlets and social justice grassroots organizations alike are describing the ongoing protests and violence as occurring between two distinct groups — pro-Morales indigenous groups and neo-liberal, urban, light-skinned elites. This description fits a binary model that is as common as it is simplistic.

Digging just a bit deeper, however, one finds that Bolivia’s indigenous groups and mestizo populations hold a diversity of positions on Morales, his presidency, his resignation and the current, precarious situation in the country as the interim government stumbles toward new elections.

Placing Bolivians into two camps disavows and disrespects their great diversity of opinions and notions of how their democracy should function and how their leaders should be held accountable.

While it is understandable that allies of Bolivia’s social movements would want to express their opposition to the repression of Morales supporters, they often misrepresent what is happening by reducing the conflicts to “indigenous versus non-indigenous” and “peasant social movements versus urban elites.”

In fact, in Bolivia many indigenous peoples and communities are deeply dissatisfied with and in several instances have been repressed themselves by Morales and his Movement toward Socialism (MAS) party and both rural and urban voters, whether indigenous or not, have repeatedly voted against them.

The voices of indigenous and mestizo popular leaders who oppose Morales have been largely absent from major news reports on the Bolivia crisis. This silencing risks fortifying the position of backward forces who aim to position themselves as the only alternative to Morales and the MAS party.

There is no doubt that there are powerful inside and outside interests in Bolivia’s vast mineral, forest and ecological wealth, and it remains to be seen the extent to which those interests have played a role in the current situation. However, there is also no doubt that the Morales administration held an open-door policy for multinational mining, agriculture and timber interests with other countries, China in particular, as did most administrations prior to his own.

And while it is true that some of the benefits of those activities have been more equitably distributed among Bolivians, it can not be said that continued dependence on environmentally and socially harmful extractive industries has taken the country toward socialism of any variety.

Bolivia has a long history of speaking truth to power, whether that power be held by Spanish colonists, hacienda patrons, water, mineral, oil and gas hungry multi-nationals or leaders who, despite whatever good they have done, have outstayed their welcome. Evo Morales falls into the latter category and while he made important contributions to the growth of Bolivia’s inclusive democracy and economy he also made big mistakes.

The people asked him to leave when a clear majority (51.3%) voted against a 2016 referendum that would have allowed him to run for a fourth term, contradicting his own constitution. He ignored that vote and conducted an election this year where fraud — verified not only by the OAS but also by independent international and local groups — caused Bolivians from many parts of the country and society to revolt, showing themselves and the world that their democracy is theirs and not their leaders. We would be wise to take note and follow suit when our own leaders go astray.

Stephen Taranto is an ecologist and Andeanist and has worked in Bolivia since 2003. He currently resides in Florence with his Bolivian-American family.

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