Bolivia: Solidarity activists need to support revolutionary process; Rumble over jungle far from over

March from TIPNIS arrives in La Paz. Photo by Dario Kenner.

By Federico Fuentes

November 20, 2011 -- Green Left Weekly/Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- The recent march in Bolivia by some Indigenous organisations against the government’s proposed highway through the Isiboro Secure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS) has raised much debate among international solidarity activists. Such debates have occurred since the election of Bolivia's first Indigenous president, Evo Morales, in 2005 on the back of mass uprisings.

Overwhelmingly, solidarity activists uncritically supported the anti-highway march. Many argued that only social movements — not governments — can guarantee the success of the process of change.

However, such a viewpoint is not only simplistic; it can leave solidarity activists on the wrong side.

Kevin Young’s October 1 piece on Znet, “Bolivia Dilemmas: Turmoil, Transformation, and Solidarity”, tries to grapple with this issue by saying that “our first priority [as solidarity activists] must be to stop our governments, corporations and banks from seeking to control Bolivia’s destiny”.

Yet, as was the case with most articles written by solidarity activists, Young downplays the role of United States imperialism and argues the government was disingenuous in linking the protesters to it.

Others went further, denying any connection between the protesters and US imperialism.

The Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of the Bolivian East (CIDOB), the main organisation behind the march, has no such qualms. It boasted on its website that it received training programs from the US government aid agency USAID.

On the site, CIDOB president Adolfo Chavez, thanks the “information and training acquired via different programs financed by external collaborators, in this case USAID”.

Ignoring or denying clear evidence of US funding to such organisations is problematic. Attacking the Bolivian government for exposing this, as some did, disarms solidarity activists in their fight against imperialist intervention.

But biggest failure of the solidarity movement has been its silence on US and corporate responsibility for the conflict.

Overcoming underdevelopment

The TIPNIS dispute was not some romanticised, Avatar-like battle between Indigenous defenders of Mother Earth and a money-hungry government intent on destroying the environment.

Underpinning the conflict was the difficult question of how Bolivia can overcome centuries of colonialism and underdevelopment to provide its people with access to basic services while trying to respect the environment. The main culprits are not Bolivian; they are imperialist governments and their corporations.

We must demand they pay their ecological debt and transfer the necessary technology for sustainable development to countries such as Bolivia (demands that almost no solidarity activists raised). Until this occurs, activists in rich nations have no right to tell Bolivians what they can and cannot do to satisfy the basic needs of their people.

Otherwise, telling Bolivian people that they have no right to a highway or to extract gas to fund social programs (as some NGOs demanded), means telling Bolivians they have no right to develop their economy or fight poverty.


Imperialism aims to keep Third World countries subordinate to the interests of rich countries. This is one reason foreign NGOs and USAID are trying to undermine the Morales government's leading international role in opposing the grossly anti-environmental policies, such as the Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) scheme.

REDD uses poor nations for carbon offsets so corporations in rich countries can continue polluting. Support for REDD was one of the demands of the protest march.

Young says “our solidarity should be with grassroots revolutionaries, anti-imperialists and defenders of human rights, not with governments or parties”. But, as the TIPNIS case shows, when governments are trying to grapple with lifting their countries out of underdevelopment, the demands of social movements with competing sectoral interests may clash.

In fact, some of the most strident supporters of the highway were also the very same social movements that solidarity activists have supported in their struggles against neoliberal governments during the last decade.

In such scenarios, you can only choose between supporting some social movement demands by dismissing legitimate demands of others, as many did with the TIPNIS case.

Power

Lasting change can only come about when social movements begin to take power into their own hands when social movements become governments.

It is this objective that Bolivia's social movements set. They forged their own political instrument through struggle ― commonly known as the Movement Towards Socialism ― and won a government they see as their own.

Having gone from a position of “struggle from below” to taking government from the traditional elites as an instrument to achieve their goal of state power, these social movements have begun winning control over natural resources and enacted a new constitution.

Converting the constitution’s ideals into a new state power remains a task for the Bolivian revolution. But its success depends on the ability of “grassroots revolutionaries, anti-imperialists and defenders of human rights” ― operating within and without the existing state ― to struggle in a united way.

Our solidarity must be based on the existing revolutionary struggle in Bolivia, not a romanticised one we would prefer.

A permanent state of protests may be attractive for solidarity activists, but ultimately can only translate into a permanent state of demoralisation unless social movements can go beyond opposing capitalist governments and create their own state power.

Refusing to support the struggles as they exist illustrates a lack of confidence in the Bolivian masses to determine their own destiny. It also displays an arrogance on the part of those who, having failed to hold back imperialist governments at home, believe they know better than the Bolivians how to develop their process of change.

Mistakes are made in any struggle. But such mistakes should not be used to try and pit one side against another. We should have confidence that these internal conflicts can be resolved by the social movements themselves.

 

Bolivia: Rumble over jungle far from over

By Federico Fuentes

November 20, 2011 -- Despite the government reaching an agreement with Indigenous protesters on all 16 demands raised on their 10-week march onto the capital, La Paz, the underlying differences are far from resolved.

On October 24, Bolivia’s Plurinational Legislative Assembly approved a new law banning the building of any highway through the Isiboro Secure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS).

Many groups supported the highway, which would have connected the departments of Beni and Cochabamba, and provide poor rural communities with greater access to markets and basic services.

However, it was opposed by 20 of the 64 Indigenous communities in TIPNIS. It became the central rallying point of the march led by the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of the Bolivian East (CIDOB). The march gained a lot of sympathy, particularly among urban middle-class sectors, after police meted out brutal repression against protesters on September 24.

Bolivia's President Evo Morales immediately denied giving orders to repress the protest. Apologising for the terrible event, Morales ordered a full investigation into the police attack.

Nevertheless, some important mobilisations in solidarity with the marchers were held in the days afterwards.

In response, government supporters took to the streets on October 12. Hundreds of thousands of Indigenous peoples, campesinos (peasants), miners and neighbourhood activists from El Alto flooded the capital.

Having reached La Paz on October 19, march leaders sat down with Morales and government ministers for two days to reach agreement on their demands. These demands ranged from opposition to the highway to land reform and the right of Indigenous peoples to receive funds in return for converting forests within their traditional lands into carbon offsets.

It did not take long for the dispute to reignite, this time over the word “untouchable”, which was inserted into the TIPNIS law at the request of march leaders.

According to the government, the term “untouchable” required the immediate expulsion of all logging and tourism companies operating within TIPNIS, in some cases illegally.

However, march leaders who opposed the highway defended the industrial-scale logging within TIPNIS. This includes two logging companies who operate more than 70,000 hectares within the national park and have signed 20-year contracts with local communities. The government denounced the presence of a tourist resort within TIPNIS, equipped with two private airstrips to fly foreigners willing to pay US$7600 to visit the park.

Of this money, only $200 remains with local communities that have signed the contract with the foreign company.

Wealth

Rather than defending some kind of romanticised “communitarianism”, much of the motivation behind the march was an attempt by community leaders to defend their control over natural resources as a means to access wealth.

The same is true of many of those groups that have demanded the law be overturned and the highway go ahead. Campesinos and coca growers see the highway as an opportunity to gain access to land for cultivation.

These differences underpin the divergent views regarding the new land law being proposed by campesino groups, but opposed by groups such as CIDOB.

The CIDOB advocates large tracts of land be handed over to Indigenous communities as protected areas. Campesino groups are demanding more land be distributed to campesino families.

These differences have led to a split in the Unity Pact, which united the five main campesino and Indigenous organisations despite longstanding differences.

This is perhaps the most important division to have opened up within the Morales government’s support base. But is far from being the only one.

The TIPNIS march served as a pretext for opposition parties based among the urban middle classes to break down government support in these sectors.

Right-wing campaign

On October 16, Bolivians took part in a historic vote to elect judges to the Constitutional Tribunal, the Agro-environmental Tribunal and Magistrates Council.

The corporate media used exit poll figures to announce that most had nullified their votes as opposition parties had called for. But the final result showed a different picture.

As votes from rural areas began to be counted, the supposed crushing victory for null votes was whittled away. The final results showed valid and null votes tying at 42%.

The opposition tried to turn the vote into a referendum on Morales.

Despite attempts to portray the null vote as a “progressive” protest vote against Morales, the results clearly showed that opposition to the election of judges was strongest in the right-wing controlled departments of the east and in the urban middle and upper class sectors.

In rural and poor urban areas, such as El Alto, valid votes overwhelming won out.

The null votes came from the same middle-class sectors that came out onto the streets of La Paz in support of the Indigenous march, and who spat out racist epitaphs against Morales and indigenous government supporters when they marched through the capital.

Meanwhile, territorial conflicts between various departments and local councils scrambling for resources and access to central government funding continue to provide headaches for the government.

Morales called a national summit for December to bring together the country’s social movements to collectively come up with a new “national agenda”.

The likelihood, however, of achieving consensus for a national development plan among competing social organisations, all with their own sectoral interests and who have seen that it is possible to twist the government’s arm by protesting, will no doubt be a difficult task.

[Federico Fuentes edits Bolivia Rising.]

From GLW issue 904

 

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