Monday, December 19, 2005

From The Streets of Cochabamba, Bolivia

Fireworks and dancing in the streets erupted last night in Cochabamba as Evo Morales won the presidency of Bolivia by over 50%.The election was a historic first in two ways--it was the first time any presidential candidate in Bolivia won an abolute majority, and it was the first time an indigenous candidate gained the presidency of this predominately indigenous country.
The fireworks, dancing and shouts of EVO EVO EVO came after an eerie day of stillness here in Cochabamba, where rain fell on streets that were largely deserted, escept for occasionaly bicyclists and families returning from their walk to the polls. Cars are forbidden on election day, so the streets literally belonged to the people.

I had been told that Cochabamba was Evo's territory, so I expected to hear a lot of support for Evo on the day before the election. Cochabamba was where, just a few years ago, people took to the streets and successfully blocked the privatization of water by Bechtel after it insisted on enormous hikes in water rates, and asked residents to install meters on their own backyard wells.

But surprisingly, out of a random series of interviews with ten people on the streets of Cochabamba, I only found one who showed any real enthusiasm for Evo. Many of the others showed fear, suspicion, doubt, skepticism, and despair. "All the politicians are the same," several people told me. "They're all corrupt. Nothing will really change."

One couple, undecided until the last minute ,said, "We found ourselves between a rock and a hard place. If we voted for Evo, Bolivia would collapse economically because the US and foreign investors will pull out. But if we voted for Tuto ( Evo's main rival) , Evo's party would create road blockades.¨"

When I asked people why I wasn't finding more support for Evo in Cochabamba, they told me it was because Evo's base was largely the campesinos. City people, they said, were more affected by the road blockades and less supportive of Evo.

So maybe I asked the wrong ten people. I should have gone to the smaller villages in the coca-producing Chapare, where Morales´base is.

Here, I've been hearing a lot of paranoia, mainly from the middle class. Some Bolivians of European ancestry tell me point blank that they are afraid of the vengeance of ¨"The Indians" after 500 years of oppression. One man told me he was afraid of losing his three houses. Another man told me that the US and Chile, Bolivia's age old enemy, were waiting to destroy Bolivia. An indigenous man told me he thought Evo was making a mistake by being too strident, that his government would fail and everyone would say "You see, those Indians don't know how to run the country."

"We have 500 years of fear here," another woman said, it's in our ancestry, in our bones. It's going to take a while for things to change."

But with a clear majority mandate for the 46 year old Aymara candidate who herded llamas as a boy, Bolivia has clearly stated it's ready for a change. Evo Morales has his work cut out for him. The more radical organizations in El Alto have given him three months to nationalize the country's resources, the US has already begun its meddling (for an excellent investigation of this see Reed Lindsay´s piece for NACLA) and the right will undoubtedly continue to spread rumors of Bolivia's impending economic collapse, despite Joseph Stieglitz assurances to the contrary.
Evo has promises to keep--nationalize the country´s resources, help create a constitutional assembly that will rewrite the country´s constitution, giving Bolivia's indigenous peoples more representation, and create a state that is genuinely intercultural, ending 500 years of neocolonialism.

It's not going to be easy. But in La Paz, people have told me that Evo as an individual is not really that important--that this change that is happening is genuinely the will of the Bolivian people, and it is up to the people of Bolivia to make sure Evo follows through on his promises. With or without fear.