Conflict coming in Bolivia?

map of Bolivia

Joe Hartley, who speaks and reads Spanish fluently, says trouble is coming in Bolivia. He’s a long-time friend and astute student of history, even if he is allergic to socialism.

Keep your ear tuned for news from Bolivia. I expect to see a lot of violence there within the next few months. Morales is, unhappily but unsurprisingly, reverting to the type of thuggish populist behavior which characterizes so much of poor South America, but the parts of the country that are expanding economically are in a position to push back. I don’t think it will be as ugly as Iraq, but Bolivian history is not pretty, and Morales doesn’t seem to have what it takes to be a transcendent figure, however popular he may be in the US of A.

And the US trying to kill Chavez of Venezuela in a coup attempt wasn’t thuggish? Your position seems the typically liberal one that bemoans exploitation but opposes any real action to end it. After a long history of colonial exploitation Bolivia now has a leader who wants to right historic wrongs, and that’s a good thing.

Cochabamba elected a governor who was not a member of MAS (Movimiento al Socialismo). The MAS folks don’t like him because, well, he’s not a supporter of MAS. Folks from outside of the Cochabamba department have descended on the city demanding that he resign, and are trying to cut all road links to and from Cochabamba to force his resignation, which is creating not only battles between the police and the demonstrators, but between the demonstrators and locals, particularly the local middle class. There’s no indication that the governor is unpopular in Cochabamba, but Morales comes from a cocalera community in the department and apparently considers it a personal affront that the locals elected a governor who isn’t a member of MAS. (Socialism of whatever stripe in South America, alas, has no tradition of democratic form, from Francia in Paraguay on.)

Ahem, Chavez of Venezuela has been elected democratically a number of times, which is more than can be said for George Bush.

The Morales government as far as I can tell is doing nothing to break the blockade. How effective it will be remains to be seen, but it’s certainly not an example of democracy in action.

Cochabamba has a history of direct street action, as witness their successful fight against water privatization in 2000. So maybe that’s what’s happening now, another uprising, and quite possibly for just cause too.

The real problem with Bolivia is that most of the people are in the altiplano (the Andine, western part of the country) where there are few resources. Historically the east has been unpopulated, but it’s grown enormously in the past 20 years since the soil is rich and the Brazilians have railroads that can export soy and other agricultural products. As a result, the eastern provinces and Cochabamba are growing faster and becoming richer than the Andine west, which continues to have a rentier mentality, as many of the Bolivian newspapers point out, oriented exclusively toward the extraction of raw materials (gas, tin, and silver) rather than agriculture or sustainable industry, or even tourism (an interesting eco-tourism in the barren areas of southwestern Perú, not far from where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid are reported to have been killed.)

Thus, the rentier class of Bolivia, plundering as fast as they can, is allied with neocon globalization forces against their own people and the people are fighting back. Karl Marx would understand exactly what is happening and indeed, a class analysis of the situation, something almost entirely absent in US political discussion, makes what might be murky considerably more understandable.