Bolivia: Latin America's Experiment in Grassroots Democracy

by Nancy Romer

I would like to thank Nicole Fabricant for helping me travel throughout Bolivia, interviewing over 30 activists in a range of political arenas. The access, information, and perspectives she provided made this paper possible. Thank you also to Gerardo Renique for offering me perspective and suggestions for readings and ideas.

  1. Raul Zibechi as quoted in Benjamin Dangl, The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2007).
  2. Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, Forrest Hylton, Pablo Mamani and Oscar Olivera, "Bolivia Today: Struggles over Decolonization and Collective Resources," presentations at New York University, September 10, 2007.
  3. Gerardo Renique, "Introduction to Lain America Today: The Revolt Against Neoliberalism," Socialism and Democracy, vol. 19, no. 3 (2005), pp. 1-11.
  4. David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006). Also see Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Metropolitan/Holt, 2007).
  5. Susan Spronk, "Roots of Resistance to Urban Water Privatization in Bolivia: The 'New Working Class,' the Crisis of Neoliberalism, and Public Services," Nov. 3, 2006, submitted to International Labor and Working Class History. Benjamin Kohl and Linda Farthing, Impasse in Bolivia: Neoliberal Hegemony and Popular Resistance (New York: Zed Books, 2006).
  6. Jeffrey Webber, "The Bolivia Left and Indigenous People Join in Struggle," Monthly Review, vol. 57, no. 4 (Sept. 2005), pp. 34-48.
  7. Adolfo Gilly. "Bolivia: A 21st Century Revolution," Socialism and Democracy, vol. 19, no. 3 (2005), pp. 41-54.
  8. Spronk, 2006. While the majority of indigenous people in Bolivia do not live in El Alto, El Alto represents the best organized and fullest political expression of indigenous power at this moment. Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, "Reclaiming the Nation: Roots of Rebellion," in Dispatches From Latin America: On the Frontlines Against Neoliberalism, ed. Vijay Prashad and Teo Ballve (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2006).
  9. Gilly, 2005, and Kathryn Hicks, anthropology doctoral candidate studying women's organizations with a focus on El Alto, personal communication, November, 2006.
  10. Gilly, 2005. Sian Lazar, "El Alto, Ciudad Rebelde: Organizational Bases for Revolt," Bulletin of Latin American Research, vol. 25, no. 2 (2006), pp. 183-199. Seventy-four percent of the population of El Alto describe themselves as Aymara and for many of them Aymara is their primary, and often, only language. Illiteracy rates are very high. The major organizations involved here are: Confederacíon Sindical Unica de los Trabajadores Campesinos de Bolivia-CSUTB (peasants union); Federacíon of Street Vendors/Small Traders ; Nacíonal Federacíon de Juntos Vecinales-FEJUVE (neighborhood Councils), Juntas Escolar-FEDEPAF (school councils of parents); Regional Workers Centers- COR; all interconnected locally and nationally. Indigenous women in their bowler hats, colorful shawls, flared skirts, and babies on their backs, sell all kinds of produce. The men work as vendors; they are likely, in more western dress, to sell llama meat and llama fetuses, and every imaginable dry good, hardware and appliance. They are not too happy with what the Europeans and gringos have brought them and do not disguise this sentiment.
  11. Xavier Albo, "El Alto: Mobilizing Block by Block," NACLA Report on the Americas, vol. 40, no. 4 (July/August 2007), pp. 34-38.
  12. Raul Zibechi, "Subaltern Echoes: Resistance and Politics 'Desde el Sotano,'" Socialism and Democracy, vol. 19, no. 3 (2005), pp. 13-39.
  13. Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, presentation, "Bolivia Today: Struggles Over Decolonization and Collective Resources," New York University, September 10, 2007. Linda Farthing, "Anniversary Interview with Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui," NACLA Report on the Americas, vol. 40, no. 4 (July/August 2007), pp. 4-9.
  14. Sian Lazar, "El Alto, Ciudad Rebelde: Organizational Bases for Revolt," Bulletin of Latin American Research, vol. 25, no. 2 (2006), pp. 183-199.
  15. After the natural disaster of hurricane Katrina and then the unnatural disaster of the U.S. government's abandonment of the poor black masses of the city, these very people began to organize in Survivor Councils, horizontally structured, community-based, and oriented toward direct action in opposition to the government. Their house gutting and rebuilding, extra-legal appropriations of previously closed public housing are examples of the sorts of organizing similar to that of El Alto. It is not surprising that the New Orleans Survivor Council activists are poor, black, and come from tight extended family cultures that were destroyed by government policies in service to capital interests. Even their alliances with immigrant (mostly Latino) workers through workers' centers, mirror the coalition of workers and indigenous peoples described here in Bolivia and in much of Latin America.
  16. Zibechi, 2005. "Communal councils" supported by Hugo Chavez in Venezuela are parallel structures that organize, propose and run needed services and projects on a neighborhood by neighborhood level; this prepares people for deep participation in the political life of the nation. Local "organic" leadership is developed in these formations and feeds the broadest movements for social and political change. As well, the structures and traditions in El Alto bear much similarity to those evidenced in Oaxaca, Mexico: both mostly indigenous communities that have developed alternative public services that are supported by traditional expectations of voluntary service; in Oaxaca, this expectation of service is called "tequio."
  17. Nancy Davies, The People Decide: Oaxaca's Popular Assembly, (Natick, MA: Narco News Books, 2007) and Anibal Quijano, "The Challenge of the "Indigenous Movement" in Latin America," Socialism and Democracy, vol. 19, no. 3 (2005), pp. 55-78. Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, Q & A, Brecht Forum, New York City, Nov. 11, 2007.
  18. Webber, 2005.
  19. Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, "Bolivia Today: Struggles over Decolonization and Collective Resources," presentations at New York University, September 10, 2007. Feminist and women's organizing is part of and alongside the male-dominated movements.
  20. Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, Oprimidos pero no vencidos: Luchas del campesinado aymara y qhechwa, 1900-1980. 4th Edition in Spanish (La Paz: Ediciones Yachaywasi, 2003). Gilly, 2005
  21. Albo, 2007.
  22. Rafael Puente, an ex-academic, coca grower, ex-deputy Minister of the Interior in the Morales government and now Evo's chief of popular education, personal interview, Cochabamba, Bolivia, November, 2007. Domatila Barrios De Chungara, Let Me Speak! Testimony of Domitila, a Woman of the Bolivian Mines (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1978). June Nash, We Eat the Mines and the Mines Eat Us. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979). James Dunkerly, Rebellion in the Veins: Political Struggle in Bolivia 1952-1982 (London: Verso Press, 1984). Kohl and Farthing, 2006.
  23. Leslie Gill, Teetering on the Rim: Global Restructuring, Daily Life, and the Armed Retreat of the Bolivian State (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000).
  24. Lourdes Benería, "Shifting the Risk: New Employment Patterns, Informalization and Women's Work," International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society, vol. 15 (2001), pp. 27-53.
  25. Spronk, 2006.
  26. Oscar Olivera, former shoe factory worker, union president, president of the Cochabamba central labor council, personal interview, November, 2006. See Oscar Olivera with Tom Lewis, Cochabamba! Water War in Bolivia (Cambridge, MA: South End, 2004).
  27. Vandana Shiva, Water Wars: Privatization, Pollution, and Profit (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2002). William Tabb, "Resource Wars", Monthly Review, vol. 59, no. 7 (2007), pp. 32-42. Benjamin Dangl (2007) refers to "The Price of Fire" or the cost of the natural resources and basic necessities of life, e.g., water, gas, land, jobs, fueling the Bolivian people's movement.
  28. Kohl and Farthing, 2006.
  29. Olivera and Lewis, 2005. The Coordinadora's structure and meetings were very much like the APPO--people's assembly in Oaxaca, Mexico--beginning in the summer and fall of 2006. Also see Davies, 2007.
  30. Oscar Olivera, "Bolivia Today: Struggles over Decolonization and Collective Resources," presentations at New York University, September 10, 2007.
  31. Spronk, 2006, p. 2.
  32. Lazar, 2006.
  33. Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, NYU, Sept. 10, 2007. This practice was heartily encouraged by bosses who wanted their miners and agricultural laborers to work long hours without having to take breaks. Coca leaf consumption was their form of coffee break without the break Also, coca was also the "secret" ingredient in the original formula for the now- disgraced and omnipresent Coca-Cola (Museo de Coca, La Paz, Bolivia).
  34. Federico Fuentes, "The Struggle for Bolivia's Future," Monthly Review, vol. 59, no. 3 (2007), pp. 95-109.
  35. Kohl and Farthing, 2006.
  36. Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, NYU, 2007.
  37. Martin Arostegui, "Bolivian farmers demand right to coca industry: 'If Coca-Cola can do it, why can't we?'" The Washington Times, April 12, 2007.
  38. Fuentes, 2007. Kohl and Farthing, 2006. Morales was elected with over 80 percent voter turn-out. Nicole Fabricant, "Localizing the Global: Exploring the Role of popular Education in the Landless Peasant Movement-Bolivia," Spencer Dissertation Fellowship Proposal, Dec. 6, 2006. .
  39. Roger Burbach, "Confrontation in Bolivia Over Agrarian Reform," Nov. 30, 2006.
  40. Dangl, 2007. Fabricant, 2006. Abdurazack Karriem, "Marching As to War: A letter from Brazil to South Africa About Landlessness, Agrarian Reform and social Movement Struggles Against Neoliberalism," Revista Nera, vol. 8, no. 6 (Jan/June 2005).
  41. Kevin Healy, Llamas, Weavings, and Organic Chocolate: Multicultural Grassroots Development in the Andes and Amazon of Bolivia (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001).
  42. Karin Monasterios, "Bolivian Women's Organizations in the MAS Era," NACLA: Report on the Americas, vol. 40, no. 2 (March/April 2007), pp. 33-37.
  43. Linda Farthing, "Anniversary Interview with Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui," NACLA: Reports on the Americas," vol. 40, no. 4 (July/August 2007), pp. 4-9.
  44. These governance bodies choose their own college presidents or rectors. Full time faculty have a 15 year tenure clock, heavy course loads and miserable salaries. A largely part-time adjunct faculty earns even less.
  45. Zibechi, 2005.
  46. Carlos Revillas and Marcos Antonio Grizonan Alarcon, personal interview, La Paz, Nov. 2006.
  47. Nancy Romer, "Initiative for Democratic Education in the Americas," Liberty Tree: Journal of the Democratic Revolution, fall, 2007, and Stanley Aronowitz, The Knowledge Factory: Dismantling the Corporate University, and Creating True Higher Learning, (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000). Jennifer Washburn, University Inc.: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education, (New York: Basic Books, 2005).
  48. Many student activists at San Andrés who live in El Alto, do their political work back home. Many assert that the education in the streets through the political movements was most profound and perhaps more important than anything going on in the classrooms. Revilla and Guzman, 2006..
  49. Student federations have democratically elected leaders mostly from a range of Trotskyist groups with mixed results (interviews with approximately 15 student activists from 4 different public universities across Bolivia, Nov. 2006).
  50. Rafael Puente, the cocalero turned cabinet member, reported that all these neoliberal attacks have yielded some corruption and resignation among many faculty and consequently the quality of instruction has plummeted with, of course, many exceptions. In the absence of a strong, political movement among faculty, corruption sets in.
  51. See www.idea.org, website of the Initiative for Democratic Education in the Americas.
  52. Bret Gustafson, "Spectacles of Autonomy and Crisis: Or, What Bulls and Beauty Queens have to do with Regionalism in Eastern Bolivia," Journal of Latin American Anthropology, vol. 11, no.2 (2006), pp. 349-377.
  53. The word "kolla" is used as a racist epithet. "Kollas" in contrast with "Cambas," a more endearing term, from Santa Cruz.. Gustafson, 2006. Simon Romero, "In Bolivia's Affluent East, Anger at Morales Is Growing," New York Times, Dec. 26, 2006. Dangl, 2007.
  54. Oscar Olivera, Cornell School of Industrial and Labor, Presentation, September 14, 2007.
  55. Nicole Fabricant, personal email communication, January 21, 2007.
  56. Evo's explanation was that it was against the constitution for the government to allow this action and, in addition; he claimed that the airline was corrupt and that he didn't want to "nationalize corruption." Oscar Olivera, Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations, Sept. 14, 2007. These "law-abiding" policies were foreshadowed in the initially conciliatory role the MAS played prior to the ouster of President Mesa in 2005. MAS often looked for a "legal" solution over a movement or revolutionary one, some would say to their credit, others to their detriment (Dangl, 2007). For example, in Cochabamba the legacy of the Water Wars yielded a public water system run by a cooperative people's body; but underfunding has prevented the water system from expanding into poor communities with desperate need and it has exacerbated conflicts between the people and those who are employed by the water system who are relatively better paid than the average worker in Cochabamba. (Olivera, Cornell, 2007).
  57. Spronk, 2006.
  58. Puente, 2006.
  59. Fuentes, 2007.
  60. April Howard and Benjamin Dangl, "Tin War in Bolivia: Conflict Between Miners Leaves 17 Dead," Upside Down World, Oct. 10. 2006.
  61. Despite the fact that Linera had been in a guerrilla organization, Tupac Katari, and suffered torture in government jails, some see the return of "whites" to lead government offices as a regression with Linera leading the way. (Pablo Mamani, NYU, 2007).
  62. Pablo Mamani, "Political Change in Bolivia," Q & A at Brecht Forum, NYC, Sept. 11, 2007
  63. Mark Weisbrot and Luis Sandoval, "Bolivia's Challenges," Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR).
  64. Dangl, 2007.
  65. Evo's Oct. 1, 2007 visit to NYC for the UN General Assembly gave him the opportunity to speak in several large public venues, including two major TV shows, Jon Stewart's The Daily Show and Amy Goodman's Democracy Now. His performances were quite brilliant and well-received but of course did not reveal the many difficulties and perhaps missteps of his administration. Also see Evo Morales, "Let's Respect Our Mother Earth," letter to the member representatives of the United Nations, Sept. 26, 2007.
  66. Pablo Mamani, NYU, 2007.
  67. Roger Burbach, "Confrontation in Bolivia Over Agrarian Reform," Nov. 30, 2006. Since the beginning of 2007, incidents have occurred with cocaleros vis-á-vis the US coca eradication program. The right wing governor of Cochabamba sent in the police to break up the demonstrations of the cocaleros and the cocaleros, in turn, called for the resignation of their governor. The governor fled to Santa Cruz to the open arms of the right.
  68. Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, Q & A, Brecht Forum, NYC, September 11, 2007.
  69. Greg Grandin, Empire's Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism, (New York: Holt, 2007). John Perkins, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2004). It should also be noted that Bolivia was part of the successful drive to win UN approval of the Declaration of Rights of the Indigenous, September, 2007.
  70. Greg Grandin, "Chavez: 'Galbraithiano'," The Nation, Oct. 15, 2007.
  71. This is very important because in a nation like Bolivia with a left wing government, the people still only have access to corporate right wing media that undermines the socialist project of the government. As well, Evo has announced that Bolivia is quickly phasing out of the School of the Americas (SOA), the paramilitary training arm in Latin America of the US government. Also see Noam Chomsky, "Latin America Declares Independence," International Herald Tribune, Oct. 3, 2006.
  72. Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui and Oscar Olivera, "Political Change in Bolivia," Brecht Forum, NYC, September 11, 2007.