Shinahota, Altitude 240 meters above sea level, kilometer 182, Tropic of Cochabamba, Chapare.
At 5:30 a.m., a band marched through the sleepy streets of Shinahota, a small pueblo in the heart of the Chapare which up until Evo Morales' election on December 18, 2005, had been the scene of near constant confrontation between some of Bolivia's poorest farmers trying to eek out a living growing coca leaves and U.S. backed drug eradication forces. A man with a megaphone bellowed, “Everybody to the municipal plaza, time to greet the mandatorios!”
The stage was set. Giant, professionally made banners emblazoned with “Bolivia: A New History, Towards a Social and Cultural Revolution” and bright yellow balloons festooned the freshly painted city hall. Groups of cocaleros (coca farmers) began hanging up their handmade banners that read, “Evo, Fidel, Hugo: the Chapare welcomes you!”
Our contingent of ten “peace troops” had barely made the last bus leaving from Cochabamba the night before because we too were rushing to make leaflets to help our effort to collect petition signatures from the throngs of Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) supporters gathered at the event. We were a motley mix of Bolivians, activists from the United States, Italians and even a young lassie from Ireland.
Filing through the crowds of cocaleros that were arriving en masse from all corners of the Chapare, we were practically as visible as Hugo Chavez's entourage thanks to our bright red T-shirts. Only ours read, “So That We Never Forget our Historical Memory: Campaign to Close the School of the Americas.”
Dark, somber eyes stared at us from all around. These were salt-of-the-earth eyes: people that worked the land from dawn to dusk just to stay alive and feed their families. Taking a day off from their fields was likely a great sacrifice.
The pit in my stomach grew as I wondered how many of these hard working people had been tear gassed, harassed, beaten and possibly tortured by soldiers trained at the U.S. military's School of the Americas (SOA) in Fort Benning, Georgia. I sought solace in the idea that perhaps we were there to atone for my government's human rights' violating sins.
The tropical sun was fierce and by 10 am, our shirts were damp with sweat. At first, given the make-up of foreigners in our group and the sensitivity of the issue, we were hesitant to start collecting signatures without an announcement from the stage explaining why we were there. But people were curious and soon gathered around to hear our cause.
“We are part of an international movement organizing to close the SOA, or digamos, as we say, the School of Assassins. Dictators like Hugo Banzer were trained there in tactics to control, torture and even kill civilians. We are asking the Bolivian government to do what Hugo Chavez and other Latin American presidents have done and not send any more soldiers to the SOA.” And the punchline that I delivered with baited breath: “I am from the United States and we want to live in peace with Bolivians.”
The response was a breath of fresh air. One by one, we painstakingly collected over 1200 signatures over the course of eight long, hot hours. Many of the older campesinos signed readily, while others were more hesitant and wanted to carefully read the petition before adding their name to our list of supporters. I particularly liked talking to young couples, the would-be future recruits for military training, whose girlfriends listened attentively and then goaded their chicos to sign the petition. For the past decade, the women of the Chapare have organized steadfastly to stop the violence that rocked this now tranquil region.
Christmas in May
Back in the main circle of activity and under the scrutiny of a large international press corps, the masses were growing restless. Finally at two in the afternoon, four hours after their scheduled arrival, the dignitaries rolled in. Chavez had just flown into what Morales later humorously noted was now “an international airport built by the Americans (thanks to the so-called drug war) that today served to unite Venezuelans, Cubans and Bolivians in our fight against imperialism.”
These extranjeros (foreigners) were being given the red-carpet welcome. One local observer quipped, smiling, “The doors to all the Tropico are open and they've given Hugo the key.”
The “show” was brilliantly staged, even if the special guests had to sweat themselves silly to display Bolivian's rich cultural heritage. The two presidents and vice-president of Cuba, Carlos Lage, were proudly adorned in the heavy wool ponchos of Ayamaran dirigentes (leaders) and brightly woven chulos (caps), suitable for the cold Altiplano but smothering in the tropical heat.
With little more than a month to go before the July 2 vote for the more than 250 Constituent Assembly representatives, the event was a kick-off for the MAS election campaign, not to mention an opportunity for Chavez to deliver an expansive lesson in revolutionary history.
Some of the highlighted benefits for Bolivia include:
“Fidel is celebrating his eightieth birthday by chewing coca,” joked the popular Venezuelan leader. It felt like Christmas in the Chapare, with Chavez being the new Santa Claus. But the gifts were much more than toys.
The next day, while hiking through the lush green jungle of Carrasco National Park, our 26-year-old nature guide said, “Look at my eyes, can you see this scarring here on the left-one? It's from years of working in the coca fields and being tear-gassed while defending blockades during protests. I had the right eye operated on a few weeks ago by Cuban doctors working in Villa Tunari, and soon they will fix the next one.” The gift of sight had arrived.
Morales Squeezed in a Vice
The event was also a field day for right wing conservatives that are busy launching their attack against this new “axis of good.” True to his testy form, Chavez addressed his opponents head-on and warned Bolivians to be on guard against outside efforts to destabilize the country.
“Bush said he's worried about an erosion of democracy when really what is happening here is a rebirth of democracy. They are conspiring to detain your revolution. They tried to kick me out with a coup, an oil strike and other Washington-backed plots. I see a few soldiers and police in the audience; listen to me and you too might have the chance to become national heroes. If you get orders to overthrow your president, ignore them! That's what happened in Venezuela. The people brought me back even when Washington tried to kick me out!”
Ironically, even while conservative forces have become increasingly more vitriolic against Morales in light of this clear show of support from socialist leaders Chavez and Fidel Castro, the Bolivian president is also feeling the heat of criticism from a number of progressive movements within Bolivia. Many key indigenous leaders are irate that Morales and Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera agreed, under duress from the Right, to a Constituent Assembly process that favors established political parties to the exclusion of social movement leaders like Oscar Olivera.
Research organizations like the La Paz-based Study Center for Labor and Agrarian Development (CEDLA), which recently released a review of Morales first 100 days in office titled “Legitimizing the Neoliberal Order” have also criticized Morales' policy changes as mere window dressing that will do little to address the root causes of poverty and redistribute wealth. They view Morales recent presidential hydrocarbons decree as a political measure rather than a real plan for the nationalization of Bolivia's natural resources and doubt that the proposal will bring much needed additional income to the national treasury.
Despite the clamor from capitalist media outlets like the Wall Street Journal, many policy analysts see Morales as being overly cautious in his effort to not rock the boat of corporate interests that have been ripping off Bolivia's natural wealth and underpaying her workers for decades. He seems to be avoiding taking steps that might send investors fleeing and bring a storm of punitive and costly lawsuits down on Bolivia's head.
Navigating the Rules of Global Hegemony
Long time human rights activist Anna Laura Duran shed a different light on the historical significance of the show in the Chapare. “Evo Morales may have been elected president. But given the context of a globalized economy and over 20 years of neoliberal policies that dismantled the Bolivian state and transferred all our strategic national industries – telecommunications, airlines, hydrocarbons, mining, etc. – to transnational companies, Evo doesn't have economic power. Now we see that this economic model has been a complete disaster in Latin America, and we are beginning to take our first stabs at creating a new model, a new economy based in solidarity and cooperation.”
But the precursor to recapturing economic power is garnering political power. And in order for Morales to consolidate his political power, he has to confront the racist ideology that shackles even his most ardent supporters such as the cocaleros in the Chapare.
Duran recounted, “After 500 years of colonization, where indigenous people were thrown aside and not even allowed to enter the plazas of the towns they live in, and where we were told that only white, educated people could govern, Bolivian society needs to go through a process of transforming these discriminatory beliefs and practices. We have to show that indigenous people can govern, so that we can truly live as equals.”
“And we are trying to do this in a peaceful way that doesn't shed more blood. It will be a long process, it will be uniquely Bolivian, and we don't want a civil war of brothers fighting brothers. We don't want another Colombia here.”
“So you can criticize Morales for perhaps being too cautious, for going too slowly and for trying to maintain equilibrium, but I see him making reasonable steps and carefully trying to avoid violent confrontation. He is preparing the people and buying time for deeper changes based on a different logic. It is a long process, and it won't be resolved by the Constituent Assembly either. We are seeing previews of this change: a new Bolivia that is based in solidarity, community, equality and justice.”
“When I began working here in the Chapare years ago, I saw anguish in the eyes of the people. When we arrived yesterday, at first I saw distrust from over twenty years of being cheated and lied to. But when we left, I saw the first sparks of hope.”
A campesina from Santa Cruz holding a Bartolina Sisa banner and wearing a sash that read “Everyone Together, Lets Go to the Constituent Assembly” shared these hopeful sentiments as well. “We are all very happy…this is a revolution of unity for all of Bolivia.”