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Bolivia Elects Latin America's First Indigenous President

American global justice activist Juliette Beck was in Cochabamba for Bolivia's historic election, and she sends this report on an event the new president-elect has dubbed "a victory for the global community."

Editors Note: Just days before Evo Morales is inaugurated, Bechtel Corp of San Francisco has signed an agreement with the Bolivian government to settle a potential lawsuit over the activist takeover of the country's water system.  For more detail visit the Democracy Center Blog from Bolivia.
See also "Bolivians Topple President "(YES! Winter 2004)

Evo Morales
Evo Morales, Bolivia's president-elect, will soon be South America's first indigenous president

The bright Andean sun woke me up early this morning.  Instantly, I felt something was different. I listened for the street sounds that usually greet me here in Cochabamba, but all I heard was the tick of a clock. 

Where was the noise?

Even at dawn there is usually a cacophony of honking and beeping, the rush of trufi (collective) taxis and painted buses carrying people to work or to the market. I listened again to the silence.

Finally it dawned on me. Today is Election Day.

After a boisterous and mud-slinging campaign season, the country has undergone a national sobriety check of sorts for the past two days. Alcohol sales and the usual Saturday night “festejando” (partying-till-you-drop) were prohibited. A friend stopped off at a supermarket to buy a bottle of wine and found the whole booze section cordoned off with yellow ribbon. Sunday – Election Day – promised to be more sanctimonious than usual.

For more detailed election coverage and analysis, the author recommends the following sources:

The Democracy Center blog

Narco News Bulletin

Andean Information Network


I am living at a friend's apartment next to one of the most important institutions in town – the electoral court. For weeks now on my way to Tai Chi at 6:30 am, I have greeted long lines of mainly indigenous Bolivians waiting to get their voter registration paperwork in order. I loved peering into the stoves and carts of the street vendors that have sprouted up to serve the waiting visitors. Fried eggs made to order, saltenas and empanadas, and freshly squeezed orange juice are always in the colorful mix. 

Lately, an information table has been set up to distribute posters and literature about one of the most popular demands emerging from Bolivian social movements – the constituent assembly. According to polls, over 75 percent of the population supports this initiative to bring Bolivia's diverse communities together to rewrite the constitution. For far too long, the rights of the indigenous majority have been marginalized. The constituent assembly is seen as a vehicle for building a more inclusive Bolivia.

Coming from the USA, where a successful election boasts a turnout of 40 percent of eligible voters and street protests are either largely ignored, or patronized by the media, Bolivia is a demonstration in what an engaged, robust democracy is all about. Voting is mandatory, and a turnout of more than 80 percent is expected in today's presidential and congressional elections. A groundswell of popular support may put Evo Morales, a charismatic Ayamara (indigenous) congressman known for his leadership of the movement of cocaleros (coca leaf farmers) in their fight against a U.S. funded “war on drugs,” in first place, but the new Congress will elect the president in January if no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the popular vote. For Evo to become president, his political party, Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) may have to strike a deal with more conservative parties, which could undermine MAS' agenda from the start and open up the party to attacks from the very social movements that allegedly brought it to power.

Despite the widespread involvement in today's elections and the excitement surrounded Evo's campaign (60,000 people showed up on Thursday in the rain to cheer him on here in the soccer stadium), few people that I've spoken to are expecting much change from traditional democratic avenues. With the U.S., foreign investors, and international financial institutions (IMF and World Bank) still holding the purse strings necessary to keep the country afloat (over 50 percent of the national budget comes from international aid and loans), the new president will already have his hands tied. But instead of feeling defeated by this stacked deck, the proud warrior spirit in this spunky country just gets bolder.

Here in Bolivia, the social movements are among the most powerful on earth. They've toppled two presidents in three years and are getting better organized by the day – among other things demanding that the wealth generated from the country's vast natural resources be used to end the crippling poverty that afflicts 64 percent of the population. “Nationalization” of the hydrocarbons might not be a pie-in-the-sky dream considering that a 2004 national referendum registered 90 percent of the population as supporting an effort to recover control of the gas resources. Even the “neo-liberal” (pro-free trade) presidential candidate Jorge “Tuto” Quiroga had to pay lip service to this initiative.

Meanwhile, transnational gas and oil companies are threatening to sue Bolivia in secret international trade courts if they implement reforms (including the recently passed hydrocarbon law) that cut too deeply into their profits.

But once again, Bolivians are responding with a calculated chess move of their own. The Salon Foundation recently filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of international investment agreements that permit foreign investors to use tribunals, or trade laws, outside of Bolivia's borders. Contrary to the belief of transnational corporations, nations have a right to sovereignty. When Bechtel launched their $25 million lawsuit against Bolivia  for the severing of their water privatization contract when Cochabambinos booted them out in April 2000, no one thought that Bolivia would stand a chance against this behemoth. But after a fierce campaign waged by global justice activists worldwide, Bechtel is now on the verge of dropping the suit, marking a potent victory for social movements around the world.

While many Bolivians hope that elections will bring change, they are not holding their breath. Instead, the social movements are getting even better organized to assert their demands regardless of who comes to power. On December 4th, the Cochabamba-based Coordinating Committee for the Defense of Water and Life, along with more than 40 organizations and cooperative associations from across the country, founded the National Coordinating Committee in Defense of Water and Basic Services. This nationwide Coordinadora plans to maintain a space independent of political parties where demands, proposals, and mobilizations can be advanced.  As water warrior Oscar Olivera recently said, real change will only happen when the public is mobilized to fight for their rights. Clearly, this is what the Coordinadora has in store.

The voting booths have closed and sadly, traffic has started up again. I enjoyed strolling about my neighborhood while people played soccer and rode bicycles in the street. On Sundays an ice cream truck in the form of a renovated VW van parks on the nearby plaza. Today I helped myself to a creamy pina colada cone before walking over to my local farmers market where a few families had managed to set up stands despite the ban on travel.  On my way back home, weighed down with bags of mangoes, papayas, potatoes, peas, and big fat carrots, I got caught in an afternoon downpour. But the sweet rains did little to dampen the winds of changing blowing through this beautiful valley and beyond.

The news is just in: EVO WON!  Not only did Evo Morales come in first place, he won by a landslide of over 51%, which means congress has no role in selecting the president. The people of Bolivia have spoken. Latin America will celebrate its first indigenous president after all. In his acceptance speech, Evo rejoiced, “This is a victory for the global community.”  With such a strong popular mandate for change, Evo and MAS have lots of hard, important work ahead of them. Hopefully the Bush Administration won't get in their way.


Juliette Beck is a volunteer organizer at the Democracy Center in Cochabamba, Bolivia.

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