The international media does not often bother with Bolivia. There is no particular reason why it should. Its culture is mainly traditional and indigenous, and its latterday politics of a leftwing bent - what would a New York Times or Sky News hack find to interest himself there? Yet even the radical leftwing press seems reticent to assess Bolivia's current situation. The left's henchman is Hugo Chavez, who routinely attracts attention as much for his declamatory style, as for his revolutionary practice.
When the press does land in Bolivia, it is usually because of a riot of some kind. Headlines predict revolution or civil war within days, and their writers return home disappointed when their darkest predictions fail to materialise. It is rare to see coverage of a peaceful situation in Bolivia (though, to its credit, the BBC's coverage is often surprisingly good). It should not be surprising, therefore, that Bolivia is now in the news again.
Last week, President Evo Morales signed off Bolivia's new constitution. The constitution was the political side to Morales's campaign manifesto (the economic side was to nationalise the exploitation of Bolivia's sub-soil resources and redistribute their profits from the wealthy, non-domicile few, to the majority indiginous poor). Bolivia is a country of racism and corruption, and the constitution promises a better deal for its indigenous majority. It recognises all ethnic groups, and raises Indian people to a level of real citizenship for the first time. It also formally establishes that Bolivia's resources are owned by the people of the country, and not by an elite set of foreign corporations.
The development of the constitution has been dogged by political manoeuvring and violent protests. The right, represented principally by the opposition PODEMOS ("we can") party, opposes the new constitution for two, intuitive reasons. Firstly, because it is against the interests of business to nationalise resources and the industries which extract, refine and trade them. The wealthy capitalists of Bolivia are concentrated in the east of the country, and they are not keen to redistribute their wealth (which they see as their's by divine right) to Andean people. And secondly, there is a hefty slice of racism to contend with here as well. When I was in Santa Cruz earlier this year, I was invited to a party in one of the city's wealthy suburbs. The father of my friend was a corporate lawyer, and an opponent of Evo Morales. He would not talk to me about politics, but his daugher was not so shy. When I asked why she did not Morales, she replied that it was because he was not educated, and not European.
A few weeks back, the right-wing minority mobilised from the east to stage demonstrations in Sucre, the administrative capital. Their representatives vandalised the city and invaded a local prison, groundlessly setting free large numbers of criminals. On November 24th, four people died in in Sucre.
Winded by several years of increasingly vocal and confident social movements the Bolivian Right is fighting back through violence and political non-participation. Having abstained from the vote on the constitution, it cannot be accused of antagonism, but its suggestions that Morales and MAS have acted undemocratically have a hint of logic, however perverse. Now that the constitution has been passed, they are in a position to declare autonomy, which is what they have wanted to do since Morales threatened to cut off their oil and water profits back in 2005.
Four eastern provinces are expected to declare formal autonomy on Saturday. They will do so unilaterally, without any legal or democratic backing. Their ideology - retaining profits among the elite rather than distributing them amongst the poor - is also unashamedly undemocratic. While the Santa Cruz brigade purport to fight for democratic principles, it is difficult objectively to reach any other conclusion than that a moneyed minority are trying desperately to hold on to their financial sovereignty, and the rest of the country can go hang. Whether they will succeed remains to be seen.
From the Democracy Centre, based in Cochabamba:
Yesterday in Santa Cruz's Central Plaza a small mob of hunger strikers from the famous local "Youth for Democracy" physically attacked a 45-year-old ex-miner, René Vargas, after mistakenly identifying him (presumably by his skin color) as a MAS party activist. Screaming their favored chant of "Indian shit" the youth chased the man for blocks hitting and kicking him at all the opportunities they had, until several women intervened to stop them. Bolivia's Human Rights Ombudsman, Waldo Albarracín denounced the attack, "The country watched with indignation the images on television when a group of people, four or five youth, cowardly attacked another countrymen with similar rights as them, demonstrating a racist attitude against the victim."
Is there really anyone left in Bolivia willing to say with a straight face that race is not a central factor in this conflict?
Here and here.