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The Latin American Revolution (Part 5): In Bolivia, Under Morales, The Revolution is Indigenous

By Asad Ismi

Evo Morales, Bolivia’s indigenous President, started his second term in January by declaring colonialism dead in his country. Morales emphasized that he has attempted to “eradicate all vestiges of colonial repression and discrimination against Bolivia’s indigenous majority.” He certainly has, which is one reason why Morales was re-elected by a landslide in December 2009, with an impressive 67% of the vote. This was more than twice the vote obtained by his closest rival and makes him the most popular President in Bolivian history.

Inspired by the examples of President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Che Guevara and Fidel Castro in Cuba, Morales has launched an indigenous socialist revolution in his country. Sixty-two percent of Bolivia’s population of nine million is indigenous. This majority has long been kept in poverty and denied power, land, education, medical care, and even the use of its resources by a small white élite which has been a puppet of the U.S. government and multinational corporations. With two-thirds of its people destitute, Bolivia is the poorest country in South America.

Morales, a former coca farmer from a poor family, was initially elected in 2005 as the country’s first native President, with 53% of the vote. He is from the Aymara nation. In the 2009 election, Morales’s political party, known as Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), took two-thirds of the seats in the National Assembly. The result has destroyed three right-wing political parties that have shared the presidency between them for the last 20 years.

Morales is popular because his government has spent the last four years redistributing Bolivia’s wealth from its élite and multinational corporations to the country’s native majority. He has nationalized Bolivia’s oil and gas reserves, the second largest in Latin America. These resources were formerly controlled by foreign companies. As in Venezuela, Morales is also redistributing wealth through land reform and by expanding education and medical care.

In January 2009, the Morales government’s new constitution, which empowers the indigenous majority, was approved in a popular referendum. This is Latin America’s first indigenous constitution after 500 years of genocide during which 100 million natives were killed by European invaders. The survivors in Bolivia and other countries have been treated as subhuman. Morales highlighted the historic significance of the new constitution in his speech at the 2009 World Social Forum (held in Belem, Brazil), just days after the referendum:

“Sisters and brothers,” he said, “I want to let you all know that this Sunday past, in Bolivia, we have turned the page on neoliberalism and colonialism. Thanks in part to the social conscience of our people, we have placed a permanent block in our constitution that will prevent any future privatization of our natural resources as well as our social services. With this new state constitution, a product of 500 years of struggle, we have accomplished the full recognition of the rights of the indigenous and first peoples of Bolivia.”

Cynthia Cisneros is an indigenous journalist who worked for the Morales government. Her job was to travel throughout Bolivia explaining the new constitution to the people before it was voted on. Says Cisneros, “The reality which we have been facing for quite some time has been marked by a violence that was systemic. It was one of continued exclusion that failed to convey or address our true realities. The democratic revolution we are in the midst of is managing to give dignity back to a people who were tired of living with their heads bowed down. It is also demonstrating to our people for the very first time in our recent history that they can determine their own destiny.”

The Morales constitution decolonizes Bolivia by creating a “plurinational” state which gives equal rights to all of Bolivia’s 36 peoples and makes native nations sovereign or autonomous. Traditional methods of aboriginal government, community justice and healing are now officially recognized as being equal to current law and science. Indigenous communities can now apply their own justice, control resources that the central government supplies, and act to preserve their languages and customs.

Tomas Huanacu represents the National Council of Ayllus and Markas of Qullasuyu, or CONAMAQ, an important indigenous organization in Bolivia made up of the Aymara and Quechua nations. Ayllus are extended family communities; Markas cover a wider area, and Qullasuyu denotes the Bolivian highlands. Huanacu explained in a speech at the Belem World Social Forum:

“And where does this overriding right, this entitlement as indigenous peoples, come from? It stems from the understanding that we are the children of our Mother Nature, of our Pachamama. We need to turn away from that Western education model which domesticized us, which turned us into subordinates. We are stewards of these lands. We are the ones to whom the land belongs. Yet the invaders are the ones who live happy, they are the ones who are well fed. And they don’t even make up fifty percent of the world’s population. It is a mere five percent of humanity that controls us. We have to fight against this [injustice].”

Morales’s first significant step towards empowering native Bolivians was to ensure that they controlled their natural resources. On May 1, 2006, the President nationalized Bolivia’s oil and gas sector, which had been controlled by foreign multinational corporations. “The looting by the foreign companies has ended,” he declared. “The time has come, the awaited day, a historic day in which Bolivia re-takes absolute control of our natural resources.”

Oil and gas are Bolivia’s biggest export revenue earners. The Centre for International Policy in Washington, D.C. described the nationalization in these words: “In a single sweep of the pen, Bolivian President Evo Morales has rearranged the continent’s entire geopolitical map”.

Morales also nationalized mining companies and the biggest telecommunications company, and has moved to nationalize electricity companies. All three sectors had been dominated by foreign multinationals, whom Morales has blamed for Bolivia’s poverty, accusing them of having plundered the country’s mineral and energy riches. In the oil and gas sector, a major effect of the nationalization was a fivefold increase in revenue for the government.

Morales made clear his opposition to capitalism in his speech at the Belem World Social Forum, when he said: “The world is being shaken by many crises: of finances, energy, climate, food, and institutions. But all of these crises are part of one big crisis that is being experienced by the capitalist system. If we, the peoples of the world, are not able to bury capitalism, this same capitalism will bury our planet.”

Sabina Gonzalez is from the province of Tarija in Bolivia and works with the Tarija Housing and Tenants Federation. I spoke to her at the Belem World Social Forum. As she put it, “Through the nationalization of our industries, most importantly in the hydrocarbon sector as well as other resources previously under the control of multinationals, we have seen more development. Before, they used to say that this [nationalization] could not be done and would not work. But we are gaining back our sovereignty [as individuals] and in the same manner we are giving our nation back its sovereignty.”

Morales has used the increased revenues generated by nationalization to give the people free health care and education. “When speaking about the democratic revolution that Bolivia is undergoing,” said Gonzalez, “let’s first address the issue of health care. We have witnessed a change, a revolutionary change, in terms of the new policies that our President has implemented, especially that which concerns the redistribution of revenue produced from resources such as hydrocarbons among the various municipalities in the country so that these can be invested in health care and education programs.”

The provision of public health care and education has reduced Bolivia’s infant mortality rate from 54 per 1,000 babies to 50, and wiped out illiteracy. Both achievements have been attained with the help of Cuban doctors and teachers. Before Morales came to power, Bolivia had the highest illiteracy rate in South America, at 45%. This has been eradicated in only four years. The government has built 545 health care facilities, performed free vision operations for 425,000 people, constructed 269 school buildings, and increased teachers’ salaries by 30%.

Rosemary Irusta is of indigenous descent from Bolivia. She works with the non-governmental organization Habitat for Women, which is active throughout Bolivia and Latin America. I spoke to her at the Belem World Social Forum. According to her, “With regards to health care, there have been coordinated efforts with Cuba involving teams of Cuban doctors that have provided services to the most remote areas in the country. These are places where our own doctors had refused to work in the past… These [Cuban] doctors continue to deliver high-quality services to our people with human warmth and great care.

“Our education system has also improved. Bigger schools have been built. The number of openings has increased so more [students] can enroll. There is also a literacy campaign in place that also succeeds with the support of Cuban experts. So now we say ‘Zero illiteracy in Bolivia!’ This is the truth: this campaign to improve our education is happening in all provinces and most remote areas in our country.”

Additionally, since 2006, the Morales government has launched several programs for the poorest Bolivians. These include payments to poor families to increase school enrollment for children, universal public pensions to reduce poverty among the elderly, and payments to mothers to expand care for them and their babies before and after the women give birth.

Despite its wealth of natural resources, Bolivia has long been the poorest country in Latin America. A crucial reason for this has been the theft of land from the native people by the white élite. Bolivia has one of the most unequal land ownership patterns in the world, with two-thirds of the land being owned by 1% of the population. Indigenous people control less than 10% of the land. In Eastern Bolivia, 62 million acres of agricultural land is managed by only a hundred families, while the remaining 12 million acres are shared by two million families.

The Morales government’s new constitution calls for the expropriation of large landholdings and for the redistribution of land amongst those who produce for the benefit of society. Land-holdings have been limited to 12,400 acres, or 5,000 hectares. The government has redistributed 26 million hectares of land to 98,454 families.

Along with the indigenous majority, the Morales government has also empowered another majority that is just as important: that of women. Half of Morales’s cabinet is made up of women. “The government of Evo Morales,” Rosemary Irusta explained, “has strongly helped empower women. Many of them have been placed in positions of influence. At this moment, we have a woman in charge of the ministry of justice. She is also an indigenous person who lacks a title or training as a lawyer, but certainly makes up for it with her extensive knowledge of human rights. She is also assisted by trained legal counsel. This nomination, we believe, was very important since it showed that both women and indigenous people are capable of taking on these roles even though we have lacked access to formal education.”

Sabina Gonzalez adds: “We see more women occupying positions as ministers, as prefectoral delegates; we see more women working in the ministries and the vice-ministries. And they are part of the decision-making process; they are not tokens, but make decisions; they have power. This is what we have witnessed. This is very important. We women are protagonists in this revolution. We have seen and facilitated, we have initiated and participated, and I believe we form a vital part of this revolutionary process.”

The success of the Bolivian revolution is a major defeat for U.S. imperialism, which has kept Bolivia poor and oppressed for decades. Bolivia has long been dominated by the United States, which has imposed on it brutal military dictatorships led by mass murderers, cocaine traffickers, and even Nazis. The U.S has treated Bolivia with such horrific contempt that it placed a notorious Nazi as a senior security assistant to two Bolivian dictatorships that Washington put in power. The Nazi was SS officer Klaus Barbie, a genocidal monster who was involved in the killing of more than a million people in the Second World War. For his slaughtering skills, Barbie was recruited by U.S. intelligence after the war and brought to Bolivia to help suppress revolutionary movements.

Barbie was a close security adviser to and longtime friend of General Hugo Banzer, who took over Bolivia after a bloody military coup in 1970. Barbie helped plan the coup and for this was made an honorary colonel. The Banzer coup was known for its extreme violence, which included the killing of more than 3,000 leftists and union organizers, the suppression of tin miners, and the shutdown of universities.

An even more violent coup, also planned by Barbie, took place in 1980, and was led by General Garcia Meza. This time, Barbie was made head of Bolivia’s internal security forces. The regime gathered thousands of opposition leaders in the capital La Paz’s soccer stadium and shot them en masse, dumping their bodies in nearby rivers. This military takeover became known as the cocaine coup because General Garcia Meza made Bolivia the world’s leading supplier of cocaine. The Bolivian generals made $2 billion from the cocaine trade in 1981 alone.

U.S.-imposed Bolivian military dictatorships were followed by 20 years of neoliberal governments, also controlled from Washington, which lasted from 1985 until Morales’s election in 2005. These governments looted Bolivia’s resources in league with multinational companies, and impoverished its population. When Morales came to power, the U.S. tried to overthrow him by using its ambassador, Phillip Goldberg, to foment a violent secessionist movement in the eastern provinces of Santa Cruz, Pando, Beni, and Tarija.

Morales reacted by expelling the U.S. ambassador and jailing the governor of Pando for killing 15 peasants. Morales has also kicked out the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Agency for International Development. These moves have been popular among Bolivians such as Sabina Gonzalez and Rosemary Irusta.

“Our people’s liberation is of great importance,” says Gonzalez. “We see that people in Bolivia and the rest of Latin America are losing their fear of that monster we know as the United States. We are making them respect our rights as nations, and we should make note that, if our President is not happy with the actions taken by foreign ambassadors assigned to Bolivia, he would ask them to leave. The same goes for certain organizations that were asked to withdraw from the province of Chapare. They have to learn to show us respect.”

According to Irusta, “Gaining back our freedom from the imperialist powers has been very important, not only for our country, but also for the rest of Latin America. The right-wing has suffered a great shock to its economy, that sector they used to control; we the masses welcome this shock despite years of conditioning. They always gave us the crumbs; they locked us in a constant state of debt. So we spent more than we made, which in turn kept us begging for whatever little money they would dispense, when in reality their wealth was made from the resources that belonged to all of us.

“The imperialists signed agreements and treaties with previous governments; they took advantage of us then, but now they are no longer able to do so. We are humbly proud of our President, who has made us recognize that no one has the right to own anyone else, and that U.S. imperialism needs to understand that people are human beings and not objects.”

The Bolivian victory over U.S. imperialism, so far, has been especially inspired by Che Guevara, Latin America’s most famous revolutionary. Guevara was killed in Bolivia in October 1967 by the U.S.-directed military. He had come to start the Latin American Revolution. In 2009, President Morales spoke at a tribute to the legendary guerilla hero, calling him “invincible in his ideals.” Morales added: “And in all this history, after so many years, Che inspires us to continue fighting, changing not only Bolivia, but all of Latin America and, better, the world.”


Published in the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Monitor, April 2010

Asad Ismi is the CCPA Monitor’s international affairs correspondent. He is author of the radio documentary The Latin American Revolution ahich has been aired on 40 radio stations in the U.S., Canada and Europe reaching about 33 million people. He is also author of the anthology with the same title which can be ordered from the CCPA. This article is the fifth in a series on the Latin American Revolution. Special thanks to Susy Alvarez for translation of the four interviews and two speeches cited in this article.