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While sitting in the midst of the massive coca chew-in in Cochabamba’s central square, the overwhelming mass of people was cris-crossed by two types of vendors: sellers of cloths on which to dry coca leaves, and a ubiquitous Bolivian sight, the hawkers of copies of new laws recently passed by the Plurinational Legislative Assembly. The hot seller of the day was last year’s Law 045, the Law Against Racism and All Forms of Discrimination.
Bolivian laws are a widely circulated commodity. Newspapers, both broadsheet and tabloid, publish copies of both draft laws and their final versions as free supplements. Wednesday’s Los Tiempos had the draft statute of autonomy for Cochabamba Department stuck in alongside the sports and fashion sections. On the streets of downtown La Paz, Cochabamba, or Potosí, you can buy bound versions of all the major laws in Bolivia—the laws on criminal procedure, the labor code, and indigenous legal process, for instance—at all the main newsstands. Just by attending social movement conferences, I’ve accumulated three bound copies of the 2009 Constitution.
And that Constitution is surely the most cited text at Bolivian political rallies. You can count on the text of the constitution being referenced (though rarely directly quoted) when a series of political speakers lines up. Always referred by its formal name, the [New] Political Constitution of the State, it is a touchstone of legitimacy for protesters. It comes up as much as the so-called October Agenda, the combined political demands embodied in the 2003 Gas War, the first protests to topple a neoliberal government.
So, it was most surprising to read how America’s diplomats think about Bolivia’s political literacy, as revealed by the Wikileaks release of cables:
Although the opposition is making a mighty effort across the country to rally against the constitution, the forces of inertia seem to be conspiring against them, particularly in the form of a largely uneducated rural base in the Altiplano. Leading daily La Razon interviewed several community leaders from the Altiplano, and their supporters, and reported on January 18 that neither the leaders nor the supporters had read the Constitution. Instead, the repeated message was that rural communities would take their marching orders from the MAS, and vote for the constitution. … In the countryside, the number of those reading the constitution is much lower. Post suspects disinterest, blind faith in Evo Morales’ political project, and illiteracy, despite the Cuban literacy program, all play a role. (Cable 09LAPAZ96)
While the length of the new Constitution—literally hundreds of articles—no doubt limited the number of people who read it through, it’s clear that American diplomats have yet to clue in on Bolivia’s grassroots political culture. No one who has sat through a campesino rally, or the well-attended presentations on technical details of pensions or gas production, or who even sat with coca chewers ready and willing to buy the new anti-racism law, could look down so easily on alleged popular ignorance.
Last week, Bolivia hosted a conference of defense ministers from all the countries in the Americas. This became front-page news here mainly because of the speech by President Evo Morales and proposals put forward by Bolivia. It also seems to have attracted at least a little attention in the United States.
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates came to Bolivia with the public agenda of discouraging Bolivia-Iran economic cooperation. He was actually surprisingly diplomatic in his complaints, saying from the outset that Bolivia has the right to have relationships with whomever it chose, but cautioning that Iranian interest in Bolivia’s untapped uranium and joined Bolivia-Iran plans for civilian nuclear plants will be closely monitored.
During the summit, Evo’s opening speech criticized the United States’ history of intervention in Latin American democracies. He claimed that popular democracies are “three and one” in resisting attempted coups backed by the United States. The three are Venezuela (2002), Bolivia (2008), and Ecuador (2010); with the one being Honduras (2009). In fact, they are two inaccuracies in this score: the recent police revolt in Ecuador did not have any apparent American backing, as President Rafael Correa has said publicly; and Evo, like many other observers, leaves out Haiti (2004), the only case in which Americans had an on-the-ground role. The real score is a less optimistic two for the democracies, two for the United States-backed coups against them.
Nevertheless, what has gathered media attention is not Evo’s accuracy, but his audacity in making such a comment in front of a senior American official. The Heritage Foundation responded by saying that, “Morales demonstrated in his speech a quantity of venom, a lack of restraint, and complete disrespect for the U.S. that befits a bully and tyrant.” Heritage joins several right-wing congress members and urging more hostile relations between the United States and Bolivia.
It is difficult to imagine exactly what that would mean since the two countries have had not had ambassador-level relations since 2008, when Bolivia expelled the US ambassador for coordinating Bolivia’s right-wing opposition at a time when it was seizing and burning government buildings and taking over gas infrastructure. After the Obama election, both countries have expressed a desire for renewed relations and cooperation, but the Bolivian proposal for a treaty of mutual respect has languished inside the United States State Department. While in August of this year, the countries announced “90% agreement” on the treaty, there is then no action since. Now that members of the new Republican House majority are making angry noises about Bolivia, it will be even more difficult for the Obama administration to make headway on mending the relationship.
I’ve been meaning to write a bit of background about the US-Bolivian relationship, and the realistic and unrealistic fears of the Morales administration about US intervention. The threat is real; no one who pursues an independent policy as a Latin American president can ignore what happened to Salvador Allende (Chile, ousted by a US-backed coup in 1973); Maurice Bishop (Grenada, invaded by the US in 1983); and Jean-Bertrand Aristide (ousted by CIA-paid Army officials in 1991); and what nearly happened to Hugo Chavez in 2002. However, the rhetoric of foreign interference often gets carried over into domestic politics. A quick summary might be: Just because they are out to get you doesn’t mean you’re not paranoid; and, Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you. However, since nearly 1,300 documents on just what the US Embassy has been doing in Bolivia are being released by Wikileaks beginning this week, I’ll suspend judgment on just who is paranoid until I read the documents.