Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Morales, the Lincoln of the Andes

Did I not predict this?

In my very first substantial post on this blog, I predicted that liberal democracy in Bolivia would prove an unstable thing. And the events of the last few days are proving me right. Bolivia is not in civil war- yet. But it is inching closer every day. Over 30 people were killed over the weekend, mostly pro-Morales peasant activists in the opposition-ruled eastern province of Pando. Airports, highways, and public facilities have been occupied and burned by opposition protesters. The governor of Pando has been arrested on charges of genocide, as it is alleged that he engineered the violent protests which left 30 dead. The right wing opposition, for its part, has declared that it won't compromise until Evo Morales scuttles his plans to call a referendum on the new constitution. (This constitution would be an explicitly socialist one, which would aim to place more of the economy in the hands of workers' and peasants' cooperatives, nationalize land and some industries, and generally move society in the direction of socialist values and common ownership.)

Perhaps these yahoos forgot that Evo Morales, just last month, won 67% of the popular vote in a national referendum. Or more likely, it doesn't matter to them- and maybe it shouldn't. This is just more proof that the liberal order which took root in one South American country after another in the 1980s, is a thing built on sand. Political liberalism works only in a society where people don't care very much about the outcome of political struggle- or to put it more precisely, where people prefer to keep the peace, and to maintain general political freedom for all, even at the cost of seeing their political opponents in power. It works well in the US, but not so well in some other places. In a country like Bolivia, what stands out most saliently to me is that the two sides- call them rich and poor, lowlander and highlander, Indian and white, socialist and capitalist, nationalist and globalizer, or what you will- have absolutely nothing to say to each other. They share very little in common, and their visions of a good society are diametrically opposed. One looks at modern United States and sees a paradise, the other sees a nightmare: and vice versa for the 'theocratic socialism' of the old Inca Empire. Morales and his enemies differ not over means, but over ends, and it is looking increasingly likely that they will only be able to communicate at the barrel of a gun.

This isn't an ideal situation of course. Civil war- all war, for that matter, is a painful and excruciating thing for individuals and societies; it results in mothers losing their children, children losing their parents, women losing their husbands, men losing their brothers, and in the modern age above all most of its casualties are always civilians. But as bad as war is, there are worse things for a society than a just war or a just revolution, just as there are worse things for an individual person than physical pain or even death.

The Bolivian peasantry and workers are among the poorest and most exploited in Latin America, which in itself is the most unequal region of the world, although the U.S. is giving it a run for its money these days. Some 65% of Bolivians live below the poverty line: 25% of children are seriously malnourished, and 28% lack access to clean drinking water. Less than 700 farms own half the land in Bolivia, and 0.63 percent of farmers own 66% of arable land: land ownership in Bolivia may be the most unequal in the world outside Chile. The Inter-American Human Rights commission, a generally fairly conservative body, has said that on many ranches, Guarani Indians are working in conditions of near-slavery.

The referendum scheduled for December would ask the people to set a cap on the amount of land that any landowner could own. It would set the maximum at between 5,000 and 10,000 hectares. That's a hell of a lot of land! Only 5000 Bolivians own more than 15,000 acres which suggests to you how few people would be the targets of land redistribution efforts. That measure would be both beneficial and highly necessary- nay, long overdue.

But that's precisely why the right wing oligarchs in Santa Cruz and Pando oppose them. They don't want a fairer, juster society, they want to hang on to their privileges, and continue to pursue their own greed and self-interest, even while Bolivian children are dying of hunger, poverty and despair. Let me rephrase that. Not only do they want to hang on to their bloated wealth, they want to expand it, by further dismantling what remains of the Commons. Some 400,000 hectares in communally-owned Guarani areas, in the last decade, have been transferred to foreign owners, and even more to Bolivian capitalists- resulting in deforestation, soil erosion, water pollution, and the demise of local fisheries. All the while, the Indians of Bolivia who have never had an easy life, have sunk even further into destitution.

This is why Bolivia had its revolution in 1952, and again in 1969, and it was why they had a peaceful revolution again in 2005. Even Torres, the general who hounded Che Guevara to death, knew in his heart that Bolivia was a savagely unequal place where the rich lived in luxury and the poor in destitution- a mere two years after killing Guevara, he fulfilled Guevara's dream by overthrowing the government in the name of a (short-lives) socialism. The ones in 1952 and '69 failed because the oligarchy proved too strong for them. But you can only oppress a people long enough until they realize they have nothing to lose. How much longer will the Bolivian revolution remain peaceful? I hope and pray that it will- but equally, I hope and pray that the Morales government does not underestimate the evil that still rules over the hearts of many of its opponents in the oligarchy, and that it never values peace above justice.

Hear the words of the enemies of the Morales Revolution. Mauricio Roca, vice president of the Eastern Agricultural Chamber, swears that he will defend his vast estates against any attempt to redistribute land- even at the cost of his life and the lives of his children. This man is willing to value his right to exploit other people's labor and to monopolize land while others starve- even over his own life. How do you respond to someone like that? This is the voice of someone who has truly lost all sense of proportion. It's not even selfish (how can it be selfish to risk one's own life)- it's in a word, diabolic. It is the worship of greed, and money, for their own sakes, not even for the sake of what you can get out of them- it is the love of money more than life itself. It reminds me of Tolstoy's short story about the man who sold his soul to the devil for a piece of land, and who exerted himself so hard to snag the biggest plot of land he could, that he died in the attempt. And as Tolstoy points out, at the end of it all a plot six feet wide by six feet deep was all he needed, and all he got.

And let's not go into the opposition governors who are trying to bully Morales, elected with 67% of the vote, into jettisoning a referendum that the country needs and wants. Let's not go into how they have destroyed public infrastructure, killed 30 civilians, assassinated peasant activists, and shamelessly used lies and propaganda to get their way. They remind me, to be frank, of the Confederates in the American Civil War. Just like the Confederates, they use the rhetoric of autonomy and secession to try and preserve an unjust social order- oligarchic capitalism where land and wealth are concentrated in a few men's hands. I do not want a war, and I hope that Bolivia can avoid it. But if the fox must face the hounds at last, if there is no more room for compromise, if the right wing oligarchs make the decision that they would rather accept war than accept the loss of their ill-gotten wealth, then I hope and pray that Morales does not shy away from the hard path, any more than Lincoln did. If Bolivia's revolution does turn violent, and if war, violent revolution and repression are inevitable, then we should never forget on whose head the responsibility lies. Posterity will remember that it was the oligarchs themselves who brought Bolivia into crisis, who courted secession and subversion, and who ended up bringing the storm of civil war down on their own heads.

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