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Morales awaits verdict on his revolution

When Che Guevara decided to export Cuba’s revolution to South America he chose Bolivia, a country where poverty and inequality were so extreme that the oppressed would surely rally to his banner. He was wrong. The rebellion flopped and the guerrilla was captured and executed in 1967.

Four decades later the eastern lowlands of Alto Parapeti, where Guevara plotted his doomed campaign, have not changed much. The lush landscape of corn and cattle is still owned by a handful of rich landowners and the rickety huts that house their labourers are still occupied by impoverished indigenous families.

« All my life I’ve been here and at the end of it I have nothing and have nowhere else to go, » said Teresa Barrio, 65, a half-blind grandmother. She had lost five of seven children to disease and had no pesos in the pockets of her ragged skirt.

« It is a land lost to God, » said one United Nations official, who requested anonymity because of political sensitivity.

But now there is supposed to be a new revolution sweeping Bolivia. Evo Morales, the Andean nation’s first indigenous president, took power three years ago promising radical but peaceful socialist policies to finish what his hero Guevara had barely started.

This weekend the new revolution faces a crucial test when Bolivians vote in a recall referendum on whether to confirm or eject the president and elected regional governors. If Morales loses he must resign and call an election. If he wins he will claim a fresh mandate to « refound » South America’s poorest country.

Morales’s ambitious project is struggling. The plight of Barrio and other Guarani Indians in Alto Parapeti shows just how little has changed for the peasants who support him.

Many are illiterate and have little or no access to healthcare, electricity or running water. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, part of the pan-regional Organisation of American States (OAS), said in June that the conditions were akin to slavery. « They live in extreme poverty and are subjected to punishments including lashings. »

Despite the historic landslide in his 2005 election Morales has struggled to deliver change. Like Guevara, he has made some tactical blunders, polarised the country and encountered fierce resistance.

The relatively prosperous eastern lowlands have rebuffed land reform and other government policies, saying they are ruinous and autocratic. Landowners have blocked government inspection teams, sometimes violently. Four departments recently voted for autonomy in unofficial referendums, a bold challenge to the central government based in La Paz.

This week protesters besieged an airport and clashed with police, leaving two dead and forcing Morales to call off a summit with the presidents of Venezuela and Argentina, Hugo Chávez and Cristina Kirchner.

Security concerns obliged Morales to hold Wednesday’s independence day celebrations in his power base of La Paz rather than the opposition-run city of Sucre, underlining that much of the country has become unsafe for him.

The president accused « small and privileged groups » of blocking change. « These groups do not want equality ... They do not respect the identity and diversity of our people. »

The head of OAS, José Miguel Insulza, said he was « deeply concerned » about the political violence and appealed to all sides to allow Sunday’s referendum to go ahead peacefully.

With the country so polarised the centrepiece of Morale’s agenda, a new constitution, has stalled. Sunday’s recall referendum is his high-stakes effort to regain momentum.

The coca farmer-turned president is expected to survive since to eject him opponents must garner more votes than he won in 2005 when he gained 53.7%. Opinion polls suggest his popularity has only dipped slightly.

A huge sign in El Alto - Bolivia’s de facto indigenous capital - captured the mood of his supporters : « Evo as you never abandoned the people, the people will never abandon you. Vote yes ».

If several opposition governors are ousted the president could revive his push for a new constitution. « This referendum is going to clearly show the support for President Evo Morales, » said Alfredo Rada, the minister for government. « The ratification of his mandate will set on stone the fact that Bolivia is on the right track, that it is undergoing a transformation. »

In fact even if Morales wins the deadlock is likely to continue since the most important opposition governors, their confidence boosted by the recent autonomy votes, are tipped to hold on to their jobs.

« If [the president] is not revoked on Sunday he should respect our will of autonomy, and we will then try to respect his authority, » said Carlos Dabdoud, an opposition leader in Santa Cruz province.

By championing indigenous rights over those of mixed-race heritage Morales had forfeited the support of half the country, he said. « We cannot back this so-called process of change as this is not a change for all Bolivians. »

Analysts express alarm that the polarisation had paralysed the political process and corrupted institutions, with civil servants, the courts, the police and army sucked into taking sides.

With little prospect of compromise, or either side scoring a knockout victory, many government supporters are digging in for a long battle of attrition, a far cry from the heady early days when Morales spoke of overturning 500 years of colonialism.

« We have to back this government because it is defending the rights of the indigenous peoples ... but it has been acting very slowly, » said José Amangay, a Guarani leader.

Les opinions exprimées et les arguments avancés dans cet article demeurent l'entière responsabilité de l'auteur-e et ne reflètent pas nécessairement ceux du CETRI.