The Man With the Plan in the Altiplano: Review of Kepa Artaraz’s Bolivia: Refounding The Nation

By | 11 June, 2012

Bolivia: Refounding The Nation by Kepa Artaraz is a thorough account of the democratic rise of MAS – Movimento al Socialismo – led by former cocalero Evo Morales, whom now governs Bolivia.

The paradox of wealthy poverty
In 1546, the Spanish started mining silver from Cerro Rico – a mountain that provides the backdrop to the city of Potosí, Bolivia. Today, around 60% of Potosi’s population live in abject poverty. A curious anomaly perhaps, when you consider that a stream of mineral wealth (silver and tin) has poured from this place uninterrupted for 466 years. Fortunes were made and lost but the two constants for the miners of Potosí were poverty and death. Mining of the Cerro Rico is said to have cost eight million lives.

A curious asymmetry
In 2009, Morales won 67% of the vote in the presidential election. Asymmetry is a haunting and paradoxical spectre in Bolivian political life as Artaraz explains. Extreme riches and extreme poverty; democratic elections which produce undemocratic results; legislation that produces no results; 36 indigenous nations – the majority – marginalised in their own country; neoliberal reforms sponsored by the IMF and World Bank which turn disaster into calamity; a countrywide rail network that’s defunct and never linked the major cities anyway and the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, who chides the country’s for its civil rights record but gives a “pass” to Colombia and Peru, which are indisputably worse.

Later Secretary of State Clinton would say: “Venezuela and Bolivia pursue policies which do not serve the interests of their people or the region.” Presidents Chavez and Morales with 62.8% and 67% of the popular vote, respectively, far outshine President Obama in the popularity stakes. He managed a mere 52.9%. The slight is deliberate and implicitly understood in South America – only our interests matter.

This is a country in a continent where logic spends a lot of time spinning on its head.

A tale more depressing
Artaraz’s narrative takes us at speed through recent Bolivian history and politics providing a guarded but hopeful appraisal of its future. It’s just 290 pages plus notes but it is an impressive effort at ordering and making sense of this sorry mess for the lay or academic reader. The style is easy and but for the odd quote like “transformative change” does not stray into the land that all but human development geographers have forgotten.

The start is the notional idea that the election of Evo Morales heralds something new. A potential if you like. The possibility of politics cast in a different mould bottom up as opposed to top down. Hooray! I hear everyone shout from the plaza mayor or its equivalent anywhere. Not a representative democracy, surely?

Bolivia evokes the equal and opposite
Artaraz cruises through the MNR, the original refounding of Bolivia in 1952, when most of the population were redesignated “peasants”; he passes briefly through the spent cartridge years, where by curious accident a devolved grassroots politics (1551: the Law of Popular Participation – 1994) came into being (which was to have unintended consequences for popular democracy later) before resurfacing with the developing world’s old friends – the dynamic duo of “colapso economico” – the IMF and World Bank.

Most of our policies are useless
Having emerged from over 30 years of military dictatorship in 1984, Bolivia was to endure first, incompetent state-ownership with galloping inflation, and then the full gamut of corrective remedies as outlined by neoliberal fantasy. A basket case meets a fire sale – everything had to go – and did. The utilities were sold off, the hydrocarbon industry went, the extractive industries, the railway network and LAB, the national carrier.

The invisible hand was put to work free from any visible constraints. Inflation came down along with wages, exchange rates, employment – everything found its own level – and lo – it was low. The only things that went up were prices and export revenues for the transnational corporations, soya and cattle producers in the lowlands. Meanwhile, Bolivia was importing gas and food. The fuses were set and they proceeded to go off one by one. First, the Banzer-Quiroga kleptocracy sold off water (2029: Law of drinking water and sanitary sewer systems) to Aguas del Tunari, a subsidiary of Bechtel-owned International Water in 1999. Even collected rainwater wasn’t exempt. The successor administration, headed by multimillionaire, Sánchez de Lozada, proceeded to sell off Bolivia’s family gas in 2003 (3058: Hydrocarbons Law). Then with the heat increasing, de Lozada “did a Miami”. He’s been “wanted” ever since but the US won’t extradite him.

An opinion poll in the same year found that only 4% of Bolivians had any faith in politicians or the political process. Ooh, the cynics.

The Morales of this tale
The resulting fallout from this – as Artaraz notes, provided the greatest asymmetrical twist in Bolivia’s history. From 2003 onwards, the marginalised, despised, poor, female, malnourished, cocaleros, miners, campesinos and the rest fashioned an agglomeration of popular democratic movements (found in the book’s glossary of abbreviations) which were organised on local lines into an electoral force. This force proved powerful enough to brush aside the corrupt self-serving oligarchs and their bought muscle to take over the country. Eventually, after delays, compromises, obstruction and dilution, the new constitution appeared. This could be considered a revolution but the oligarchs were a highly effective contributory factor in their own political demise. Evo Morales, who still leads the cocalero union, came into the limelight bearing notions such as suma qumaña (a collective notion of well-being), Pachamama (Mother Earth) and representative democracy (a familiar term) but often conspicuous by its absence.

On democracy – the jury is always out
Artaraz brings things up-to-date with the challenges to Morales’ political style, the views of dissenters, not least from his own ranks, and questions whether what we are seeing is a slow slide into party politics or a system which has the political wherewithal to challenge conventional notions of democracy not just in Bolivia but elsewhere. Of course, only time will tell. The 255-seat assembly – elected under the new constitution – has 88 women members and reflects 36 separate nations within the country. The plurinational complexion of this government is more reflective of the political entity “Bolivia”, than anything the previous racist and de facto apartheid system managed.

Artaraz’s descriptions of the workings of the National Development Plan point to some considerable successes. The introduction of various cash transfer schemes (bonos) to encourage attendance at schools and clinics; the provision of pensions for the elderly; the health and literacy campaigns (in which Morales has worked with Cuba under the auspices of ALBA – Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas) plus the collaboration of local support groups, women’s groups (Bartolina Sisa), NGOs and INGOs etc., have all been achieved despite myriad organisational difficulties (e.g. no ID papers).

Es la economia y la sociedad estupido
Bolivia’s IMF-World Bank plan managed growth at 3% – if it was lucky – the level of indebtedness was sky high and unemployment rampant. Morales’ strategy of owning strategic stakes in the country’s export earners has provided essential funding for various projects and an average growth rate of 4.5% (8% in 2008) and has significantly improved employment prospects and the level of indebtedness.

What this book does emphatically is kill the notion that anyone could possibly say: “Bolivia? It’s not as good as it used to be.” For an opinion like that, you’d have to go to Miami but not by American Airlines. As the author’s wife was told there: “As long as that Evo guy is alive, I don’t think American Airlines will be flying to Bolivia.”

“Leading while obeying” or party politics in all but name
How good it will be in the future depends – as Artaraz says – on how well the ruling MAS and Morales balance the need to develop and diversify the economy whilst staying true to their origins, the tenets of suma qumaña and Pachamama – and not least – to the hopes and dreams of the disparate and conflicting voices and interests who put them there. Then, of course, there’s Uncle Sam and the disruptive vested interests of the Santa Cruz posse.

Artaraz also draws attention in his conclusion on the development of solidarity between the members of ALBA and UNASUR (Union of Southern Nations) and what this may hold for future political and economic co-operation for Bolivia and in the region.

As everyone knows – and this books illustrates – democracy is only as good as the level and depth of engagement. It will be no different in Morales’ Bolivia.

Bolivia: Refounding The Nation is published by Pluto Press and available from the Pluto Press website, Amazon and other bookstores


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