Gray Panthers of San Francisco
December 2006 Newsletter

Report on Bolivia
Submitted by a Gray Panthers Member
Recently Returned from Bolivia


Revolutions are part of Latin American history, but Bolivia’s current revolution is the first where a grass-roots party of the extremely poor, mostly indigenous population has won control of the government and is challenging the neo-liberal economic model.

Since the Spanish conquest, Bolivia has been a part of globalization but its role, to bankroll the Spanish empire for three centuries and provide a primary source of wealth for the capitalist development of Europe, left the country one of the poorest in the western hemisphere. Many feel that the U. S. and the IFIs (International Financial Institutions: World Bank, IMF, etc.) used Bolivians as a laboratory for their neo-liberal economic plans. Bolivia did everything asked of them but only got poorer.

Tired of providing the wealth for foreign development, in 2000 Bolivians in Cochabamba rose up and challenged the neo-liberal system over water privatization—a symbol of the ‘conformity’ demanded by the IFIs. Prices rose beyond the ability of the poor to pay. Bechtel refused to extend water pipes to some poor communities, took ownership of wells that had been drilled and paid for by individuals, set a fee based on profit not usage because the indigenous ‘didn’t use enough water’, and a law was passed that prohibited collection of rainwater on one’s own property.

As people gathered in the streets to demand the government cancel the contract privatizing water, the military was sent in to protect the World Bank’s vision. In the face of violence, the people continued to stand behind their demand that the government take back the water system and they won.

Indigenous social movements focus on an ancestral inclusive way of thinking focused on the community rather than individuality. This approach to decision-making has put thousands of people in the streets again and again to oppose the neo-liberal agenda for water, gas, coca leaves, and taxes by paralyzing the country with blockades and driving out two presidents. This rebellion was unstoppable even by bullets, tear gas, and death.

The coca struggle, driven by the U. S. not local government, is representative of all the struggles. Visiting the home and coca field of a woman labeled a ‘narcoterrorist,’ we found a passionate woman who spoke about the deep, deep cultural and spiritual significance of the coca leaf and how much it is a part of her identity. She was jailed, with her small children, for growing the leaf. We (I) witnessed the poverty this ‘narcoterrorist’ lives in and heard of recent deaths in this eradication effort.

In a region that lacks the roads and transportation system, an individual, walking out to market, can carry enough coca leaves on their back to get a little income but cannot carry enough oranges. To qualify for the alternative development program, farmers had to eradicate their entire coca crop to get orange seeds that would produce a crop in 8 years or a forestry project that would mature in 10-15 years—meanwhile leaving the family with no income.

Bolivians send this message” “Democracy is a ‘process’ and yes we will make mistakes and yes it is a major struggle, but we want to create our own paths to globalization without being dictated to by the U.S. and IFIs. If we the people of California had stood up to ENRON as the Bolivians stood up to Bechtel, we might not have incurred a multi-billion dollar energy debt for our children. Bolivarian solidarity could be the key for our own sovereignty and freedom.


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