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A Real Clash of Civilizations

The presidency of Evo Morales marks the end of five centuries of a Bolivian-style apartheid.
 
 
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"Unfortunately, people that don't know Bolivia very much think that we are all just Indian people from the west side of the country ... poor people and very short people and Indian people. I'm from the other side of the country ... we are tall and we are white people and we know English, so all that misconception that Bolivia is only an "Andean" country, it's wrong. Bolivia has a lot to offer " -- Gabriela Oviedo, Bolivia's 2004 Miss Universe contestant

Bolivia has become ungovernable. A long and tortuous history has caught up with this poor Andean state, and it's not pretty. Since the Spanish discovered silver in 1545, the threads of her history have been consistent: Economic and political power has been concentrated in the hands of a small, white elite, and the country's fabulous natural wealth has been fed into foreign coffers while the indigenous majority labored, suffered and died in a domestic economy that is one of the hemisphere's great basket cases.

Something had to give. The election of Evo Morales, an Aymara "Indian," marked the end of five centuries of Bolivian-style Apartheid, a system of tiered citizenship based on ethnic and social cleavages rather than legal oppression.

Bolivia has become ungovernable; its institutions have failed and its citizens have created a new hybrid form of government, a combination of mob rule and democracy. Carlos Mesa, who was forced to resign in the wake of massive social unrest last fall, had been president for less than two years. He came in with great hope as a reformer. Observers said he passed over Bolivia's traditional elites and appointed indigenous rights activists to his cabinet. But that wasn't enough to soothe a populace with a new awareness of its power. His predecessor, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, served for just one year. Eighty people were killed in the riots that ended his presidency.

The mainstream analyses of Morales' election, while not wrong, have been largely ahistoric and have missed the big picture of what's going on in this tiny, landlocked country.

The stories note as a throwaway that Morales is the first Aymara Indian to head Bolivia, but that's not enough. In all of Latin America, Bolivia is the only country where a majority of the population is indigenous. Depending on what statistics you trust, 55 percent to 70 percent of Bolivians are Quechua or Aymara "Indians" and just 12 percent to 15 percent are "white" (the remainder are mestizos or "other").

Throughout Latin America, there's been a sea change in indigenous peoples' perception of how their identity fits into the larger social and political picture of their societies. Historically, the "white" ruling minority in Bolivia used the "creole-mestizo identity" to marginalize indigenous groups and keep them passive while they sweated and died in the country's notoriously dangerous tin mines.

By the early 1990s, that began to change. The traditional pro-labor parties had been crushed in the previous decade, the price of tin had bottomed out, and new social movements -- far more radical than those that preceded them -- started to gather around ethnicity, somewhat like the black identity movement in South Africa that gained strength in the 1970s. The indigenous majority began to see cultural identity through the lens of social and economic marginalization (and vice versa). It was a genie that, once out of its bottle, couldn't be contained.

And it's not enough to say that Bolivia is one more domino falling in the revolution against the neoliberal policies pushed in Washington and Geneva, although that's true. In Bolivia, like everywhere else, racial and ethnic stratification is tightly interwoven with economic class.

The fact is everyone running for office in Bolivia in recent years has been a foe of neoliberalism -- at least on the campaign trail. Of the 2002 campaign, Carolyn Shaw, a Latin American scholar, wrote: "The most distinguishing aspect of elections in Bolivia was that virtually all the candidates lashed out to attack neoliberal strategies." Even Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, who instituted the despised, IMF-dictated "El Plan de Todos"in the mid 1990s, renounced the "Washington Consensus." "I don't believe in neoliberalism, I believe in an open market economy," he said, somewhat enigmatically. "This stuff about the invisible hand, it just doesn't work that way."

And while all of Latin America is strewn with the wrecked promises of "development experts" from the U.S. and Europe, the pain brought by the Washington Consensus hasn't fallen equally on all Bolivians.

Bolivia was a laboratory for neoliberal economics throughout the 1980s and 1990s. The belt-tightening and deregulation brought some improvement to the country's macroeconomic picture. But during a period of increasing economic output in the 1990s, the poverty rate also grew significantly.

While about two-thirds of all Bolivians live below the poverty line, in the mostly indigenous Bolivian Highlands the rate is greater than 90 percent. Less than one in 10 dwellings in the Highlands have electricity; just 10 percent of the population has access to drinking water in or near their house.

And even that doesn't tell the story. Bolivia's seemingly constant and intractable social upheavals have to be viewed through a cultural lens that is alien to most observers in developed countries. For Bolivia's indigenous citizens, Pachamama -- or mother earth -- is sacred, and its high mountain passes are covered with shrines honoring her.

Everything is ultimately about the commoditization of Pachamama. So it's accurate to say that Bolivians rose up against plans to privatize the country's natural gas in 2003 or the local water systems in 1999, but the issue resonates not just economically. The international financial powers' assaults on Bolivia's sovereignty have deep cultural meanings that the Thomas Friedmans of the world can never begin to grasp. History has collided with The End of History in Bolivia -- it's Mother Earth against a flat earth.

It's all about the holiness of Pachamama. The "natives" began to get restless in earnest in 1996, when a new agrarian policy -- called "land reform" by its authors -- was enacted, enraging the population. Some background: in 1952, a peasant uprising brought down the military regime -- a particularly brutal one. Among other populist reforms, land was redistributed. Agricultural land that had been concentrated in the hands of a few, large absentee owners was given to the peasants who labored on it. "The land belongs to those who work it," said the new government of Victor Pas Estenssoro, who would later be overthrown by a CIA-supported military coup in 1964.

Some of those popular, 40-year-old land reforms were rolled back in 1996. Now, the land no longer belongs to those who work it, but to those who have deeds to it and pay modest taxes on it. By 2000, the top 7 percent of landowners owned almost nine-10ths of Bolivian land, and only a 20th of their holdings were being exploited. Most of the large landholders are members of Bolivia's "white" minority.

And while the majority is now in power for the first time since the Spaniards landed in 1538, the clash of civilizations continues. The Spanish civilizing mission may be relegated to history, but the push for economic orthodoxy continues. And unlike in South Africa, where truth and reconciliation commissions followed the end of minority rule, no such effort to heal Bolivia's deeply wounded polity exists.

The future is far from bright. As Daphne Eviatar recently wrote in The Nation , Bolivia's "right-wing movements, particularly those concentrated in Santa Cruz, Bolivia's wealthiest province, where the energy and agricultural export businesses are based, may well encourage" a civil conflict with the Morales government if he doesn't toe the line.

On the other side, despite being "one of them," Morales isn't going to get a free ride. His hands tied by corporate-designed "free-trade" deals and a load of debt, Evo Morales is caught between a rock and a very hard place.

None of this will appear in the New York Times . In the rush to portray Morales' election as one more case of little brown "wackos" -- to use John McCain's description of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez -- rebelling against the doctrine of more serious people in Washington, the focus will be on Morales' intransigence and his push to legalize coca production (an ancient herbal treatment among Bolivian peasants and an important part of their economy).

It will be interesting to see whose history -- and whose vision of the future -- will prevail.

Joshua Holland is an AlterNet staff writer.