Real democracy is coming soon to a country near you
By Bill Conroy
Online Journal Guest Writer
August 20, 2004—I recently traveled to the land where Che Guevara’s ghost still breathes with the people. I was a guest of the Narco News School of Authentic Journalism, a gathering of more than 60 journalists from around the globe. The journalists—representing radio, film, Internet and print media—had come to the school in Bolivia in early August to explore strategies for advancing credible media coverage of the war on drugs and democracy movements in the Americas.
I came as a green gringo, who spoke only English, to this school where Spanish, Portuguese and my native tongue all were in play, constantly, with interpreters building the communication bridges for all present. The school was host to a slew of prominent Bolivians, including community activists, professors, political leaders, farmers, workers, writers and musicians.
We convened in the Bolivian Andes, in Cochabamba, the country’s third largest city, behind La Paz and Santa Cruz. However, at one point, the entire entourage of journalists was transported by bus eastward over the peaks of the Andes to the Chapare region, where the Amazon jungle begins to snake its way into the mountains.
During the bus ride, several of us discussed the brutal murder of the mayor of a municipality called Ayo Ayo, which is located in northwestern Bolivia near La Paz. The mayor, Benjamín Altamirano, was killed in Ayo Ayo this past June by a mob; his body was burned, dragged through the streets and hung on display.
On the bus, we passed a local newspaper around that detailed the carnage. Someone said the mayor was a real crook who preyed on the people, and that such things have happened to such people before in Bolivia, that the mayor’s fate at the hands of a mob was in keeping with an ancient form of Aymara Indian justice in this neck of the Andes.
About a week later, after we had returned from the Chapare, the state authorities accused Gabriel Pinto, a leader of the Bolivian land-reform movement MST, of orchestrating the murder. The facts supporting the charges, in my view, are paper-thin. The populist leader was not even in Ayo Ayo at the time the mob killed the mayor, according to his defense attorneys. The charges were brought only days before Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was to face a divisive Aug. 15 recall referendum, a vote pitting shanty-dwelling Chavez backers against well-heeled Chavez haters.
It seemed to me that the state authorities were trying to keep the lid on something; locking up Pinto might keep part of the Bolivian people’s movement without a center, maybe. Admittedly, I was still a rookie gringo trying to grasp the intricate nuances of this complex culture—where politics have been layered and textured over the course of centuries, like intricate masonry. Still, I sensed the pending recall vote in Venezuelan was having an energizing effect on popular movements throughout Latin America, so I suspected the status quo power elite in Bolivia were trying to make sure, at least in part, that matters of conscience didn’t spread their way.
But if that’s the case, they are ultimately fighting a losing battle. The people’s movement in this part of Latin America, from everything I experienced, is in the zone—and time will tell how big that zone becomes with Chavez’ recent, convincing victory over the neoliberal forces seeking to expel him from office. This is a movement rooted in real bottom-up participatory democracy and struggle—in which the people understand that the price of victory is not only measured in rhetoric, but, unfortunately, at times, in blood.
That reality became crystal clear during the course of the recent Chavez recall referendum, when, as reported by multiple media outlets, a group of individuals on motorbikes opened fire on a crowd standing in line to vote in a poor district near Caracas. (Remember, Chavez’ base of support is among the poor.) In the wake of the spray of bullets, some 10 people were wounded and at least one left dead. Likewise, in Bolivia in 2003, about 100 people lost their lives and hundreds more were wounded while participating in widespread protests over what was viewed by the masses as the raping of the nation’s natural gas reserves.
After some 10 days in Cochabamba, participating in the Narco News School of Authentic Journalism, I had finally started to get used to the thin mountain air in the Andes. More importantly, I had spent days breathing in another culture, one that is experiencing democracy in a more vital way than I have seen play out in the canned elections we experience in the United States.
In Bolivia, it seems to me, the stakes of the game are very real, very much in front of the people. In my short time in this country in the heart of South America, I heard about the struggle to change the country from the bottom up. Although divided at times over strategy, labor and farmers are unified in their quest to return control of the nation’s natural resources to the people in an effort to foster job creation, enhance living conditions and ensure a brighter future for Bolivia.
Their opposition is lined up along the usual private property lines. Those who feed off the private-sector exploitation of the country’s resources want to maintain the status quo.
But unlike in the United States, where labor and farmers have been marginalized, in Bolivia they represent powerful and growing sources of political power. Their movements—speared on through social warriors like labor leader Oscar Olivera and national Congressman Evo Morales—are using the tools of democracy and community action to reset the table of the status quo.
Their demands are not unreasonable. Is it too much to ask that the resources of their nation be used to benefit all the people of the country? Is it unreasonable to expect that what is produced with the hands of the worker and farmer should not be taken from them without just compensation?
In the United States, we offer the people a small portion of social justice in the form of Social Security and Medicare. We facilitate transportation through the building of public roads; we ensure a future for our children through a public education system. The price for these social goods is not cheap, and we are all expected to pay.
Why then are Bolivians questioned about their desire to provide for that same public good through the use of resources that were not produced by any corporation? What company put the natural gas in the ground, who would have that formula, that machinery? Surely we can all agree that no one owns what no one creates—or is that the crux of the world’s problems?
It seems everyone outside of Bolivia has a solution for the country’s woes. Eradicate coca and plant pineapples, continue the private exploitation of the nation’s natural resources, militarize the nation’s roadways and jungles. Why should we think these formulas would work here when the people, through their own democratic institutions, are saying otherwise? The millions of dollars flowing into Bolivia from the United States to prop up unpopular programs for the benefit of the status quo should not be sold to us as being in the interest of the Bolivian people.
If we really believe in democracy, in a land where the power flows from the people, not the economic interests of a few, then we have to allow that process to work. Call it nationalization, call it socialism, call it a revolution, but don’t call it an enemy of the people.
In the case of Bolivia, the people—through a growing social movement rooted in the labor of the people—are asking for nothing more from what I can see. They want to control the destiny of their own country and believe the seeds of that destiny—the natural resources that their native land has been blessed with—must be in the hands of the people.
With that control, countries like Bolivia and Venezuela and all the rising nations of the Americas can begin to provide for the common welfare, to rebuild their economies and begin the process of dismantling the internationally funded military machine that threatens the very essence of real democracy.
This is what I saw in Bolivia, in this nation in the mountains, in this place somewhere in America, in an ancient land whose people have the same dreams and hopes for their future as do any people in this world. All they want, I believe, is that Bolivia be allowed to be a Bolivia for all of its people.
Bill Conroy is a journalist and author of the book “Borderline Security: A Chronicle of Reprisal, Cronyism and Corruption in the U.S. Customs Service,” which was recently published online by Narco News. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
2004, Online Journal