by by Margo Irvin

illustration by by Conrad Stern-Ascher

El Porvenir means 'the future.' It's also the forward-looking name of a Bolivian town where, on September 11, a group of more than 1,000 supporters of left-wing President Evo Morales set out toward Pando's capital city of Cobija. The marchers were about 20 miles from the city when they were ambushed by armed opposition forces. At least 18 people were killed, along with over 30 injured and upwards of 100 unaccounted for.

They had been headed towards a mass meeting to protest the increasingly extreme actions of right-wing groups in Bolivia's eastern lowland provinces of Santa Cruz, Beni, Tarija, Pando and Sucre. These five provinces are known as the media luna, or half moon, for the shape they make along Bolivia's eastern border. They possess most of the country's natural resources--natural gas, oil and farmland. Most of these resources are controlled by a small group of mainly white elites who are staunchly opposed to Morales' government. They also oppose the reforms proposed in a new national constitution: a bill of rights for indigenous people, land reform in a country where the wealthiest five percent own 80 percent of arable land, while the poorest 80 percent own just three percent, and equitable distribution of oil and gas revenues among all Bolivians, including the mainly indigenous western highlands, where the need for social services is greatest. The opposition claims that the new constitution ignores their interests and disregards their demands for greater autonomy from the central government.
Morales' presidency inspires strong opinion, from those who praise him for empowering Bolivia's indigenous majority to those who condemn his socialist tendencies and paint him as a would-be dictator. One of the most contentious issues is Morales' platform of land reform. In an email to the Independent, Tanya Kerssen, a correspondent at the Center for the Study of the Americas in Bolivia, wrote that Morales' policies respond to "centuries of oppression of indigenous peoples and a half-century of agrarian policies that, after a revolutionary land reform in the Andes in the 1950s, re-concentrated land and resources in the hands of a white elite in the lowlands." In the provinces of Beni and Santa Cruz, just 14 families own three million hectares of land. That's an area nearly 10 times the size of Rhode Island, in the hands of a small and disproportionately powerful group.
Morales' reforms come on a train of firsts. He is the first indigenous president of Bolivia, an Aymara Indian and former coca grower. In spite of his violent unpopularity among Bolivia's land-owning elites, Morales is the most popular president in the country's history. He was elected in 2005 with 53.7 percent of the vote, and in a recall election just two months ago, he reaffirmed his popular appeal, winning in a landslide with 67 percent and undercutting the opposition that had hoped to oust him. Even more significantly, his popularity surged in opposition territory. Forrest Hylton, a contributor to the North American Congress on Latin America, said that in the media luna states of Beni, Pando and Tarija "[Morales] won an additional 20 percent compared to 2005. In Pando, nearly half the population voted in favor of Morales. No Bolivian president has ever had such broad appeal across the nation."
Despite Morales' overwhelming popular support, the conflict between his progressive government and the landed elites in the eastern provinces broke into the open in early September. First, the opposition called for Morales' government to repeal a decision to use part of the hydrocarbon tax to fund pensions for all citizens over 60, but by the end of August, the media luna provinces were demanding complete autonomy from the central government. The National Democratic Council (Consejo Nacional Democrático, CONALDE), an organization of prefects and civic committees largely composed of wealthy landowners, launched a full-scale destabilization effort against Morales' government: blockading roads and shutting down airports, ransacking and occupying state offices, including the state television channel Televisión Boliviano and radio station Patria Nueva. Walls were graffitied with racial slurs directed at Morales. Low-income and mainly indigenous neighborhoods were terrorized and assaulted, largely by racist youth groups like the Cruceño Youth Movement (Unión Juvenil Cruceñista, UJC). The UJC is affiliated with the Pro-Santa Cruz Committee, a civic organization representing right-wing autonomist interests. Its members carry baseball bats and whips--which Bolivian paper La Prensa alleges they have used against indigenous people in poor communities on the outskirts of Santa Cruz.
Kerssen compared the situation in Bolivia to Apartheid or the US Civil rights movement. "There are deep class and race divisions in [Bolivia] that are the legacy of colonialism and neocolonialism," she wrote. "From the point of view of the social movements, Bolivia is on the brink of historic change that will finally bring equity and justice to the indigenous majority." A month ago, when Morales' government declared a state of emergency in Santa Cruz, it looked as though such change might be on the other side of a civil war. Instead, the tens of thousands of pro-Morales protestors demonstrating in the streets across Bolivia have been met not with another outbreak of violence, but with a dialogue in Congress, and the passage of a referendum paving the way to what Morales calls "the refounding of Bolivia."
Even as the conflict in Bolivia threatened to boil over, then settled into an uneasy calm, and as it now embarks upon long-awaited social reforms, attention in the US has focused on faltering US-Bolivia relations. On September 12, the day after the massacre in Pando, Morales expelled US ambassador Philip Goldberg, accusing Goldberg of backing the right-wing opposition. It would hardly be the first time the US had supported a coup d'état in Latin America. In 1973, the CIA-backed a military junta that overthrew popularly elected, socialist Chilean President Salvador Allende. Morales' accusations that Ambassador Goldberg supported the autonomist groups can't be proven since the records of exactly to whom the US Agency for International Development (USAID) has been giving money are confidential.
Whether or not the American government provided aid to the autonomist governments, relations between Bolivia and the US have deteriorated considerably in the past month. Instead of offering an expression of support for Morales or calling for dialogue, the US State Department pulled an I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I stunt and expelled the Bolivian ambassador in Washington in apparent retaliation. Since then, the US has threatened to suspend trade benefits to Bolivia, ostensibly because Bolivia has failed to comply with US anti-drug policy.
However, even as the US was pulling all Peace Corps volunteers from Bolivia and putting the country on the narcotics blacklist, a new brand of regional diplomacy was taking shape in Latin America. Presidents of the nine Union of South American Nations UNASUR countries met for an emergency meeting in Chile on September 15 and passed a declaration supporting the sovereignty of Morales' government. During the meeting, UNASUR's pro-tempore president Michelle Bachelet, president of Chile, showed the visiting presidents around the government palace, including the room where Allende committed suicide during the military coup d'état of 1973. It seemed to be a statement: it's no longer 1973, and there now exists a legitimate organization of Latin American states ready to support the sovereignty of a president confronted by an insurrection from within his own country. As far as US influence in Latin America goes, the map has been ever-so-slightly redrawn.
After the killings in Pando and a month of upheaval that threatened to divide the country, Morales' supporters finally saw their calls for reform realized. The very day that a group of 100,000 marchers arrived at the capital of La Paz after a week-long march, Congress finally passed an agreement that will put Morales' proposed constitution to a popular vote on January 25. The marchers left on October 13 from Caracollo, some 150 miles from La Paz, and were led by Morales himself, although the president had to return to the capital for negotiations--"I am identified with the social movements, I remain a union leader, I would have liked to be marching all week, but I don't have time," Morales said in an interview with the Buenos Aires daily P√°gina/12.
The march put pressure on the Bolivian Congress to reach agreement, after weeks of stalled negotiations between the central government and right-wing autonomist opposition. For the past two weeks, little progress had been made; Morales' coalition couldn't quite swing the 105 votes needed to pass the referendum. The constitution that was finally hammered out in Congress offers a degree of autonomy to provinces, and tempers some of Morales' more ambitious reforms. Also, on Monday, Morales offered to refrain from seeking reelection, in return for support from the opposition. On Tuesday, as Morales' supporters made their way toward Congress, legislators reached the two-thirds majority needed to bring the constitution before the people.
Morales spoke to half a million Bolivians in the Plaza Murillo, La Paz's central square--which was off-limits to indigenous people until the 1950s. "Now we have made history," he said. "Honestly, I could go to the cemetery happy because now I have honored my duty to the Bolivian people."
Bolivians will vote on the new constitution on January 25. With Morales' unprecedented popularity, it will almost certainly pass. The right-wing opposition is resigned to the fact that Morales' reforms are taking hold: "This is not the constitution we would have wanted," Jorge Quiroga, an opposition party leader said, "But we're the opposition, and it's the best we can do from here."
Needless to say, the passage of the new constitution is not a magic solution to Bolivia's deeply ingrained racial and social divisions. But as Kerssen wrote to the Independent, "The hope is that the constitution...will allow for this kind of structural change--through more equitable distribution of resources, including oil and gas wealth and land. It is also, I think, about creating genuine democracy, transforming the neoliberal state into a state that serves and represents the people." In the middle of election season in the states, Morales' election and the popular success of his social reforms are a compelling reminder of just what it is that democracy can do, and where it starts: at the ballot-box.

MARGO IRVIN B'10.5 can cross another thing off her to-do list.