Bolivia rising: Social movements and recent political change

What would happen if one day the indigenous peoples of Canada formed a political party and won a general election, and Canada were to have an indigenous prime minister? And what if this new government turned away from selling off the country’s natural resources to the highest foreign bidders – oil, gas, water, forest and mining wealth – and instead adopted a set of values in our international relations which placed at the forefront such goals as the eradication of poverty, protection of the environment, fair trade, and respect for indigenous peoples and their lands?

Well, just such an event has come to pass in Bolivia, with the election in December 2005 of Evo Morales, a coca leaf farmer and the country’s first indigenous president, who won with a majority of 54 per cent – unheard of in Bolivian history.

Left: Evo Morales

An account of what led to this historic election and the deep-rooted origins of the Morales victory was presented to a Glendon audience by Alberto Camacho, one of Bolivia’s leading trade unionists, an adviser to Morales, and an indigenous person himself from the city of Cochabamba. Camacho presented his lecture to a capacity crowd in Glendon’s Senate Chamber on Oct. 23.

Camacho recounted the difficult life of Bolivians in the 1990s and early 2000s under a series of oligarchic regimes dedicated to the privatization of the country’s natural resources. However, when a Spanish company associated with the Bechtel Corporation attempted to privatize Cochabamba’s water in 2000, people took to the streets in protest, forcing the government to back down. Morales, active in organizing the coca leaf industry, emerged as leader of the popular resistance and formed the political party, the Movement Towards Socialism, which won the 2005 elections. On May 1, 2006, the new government nationalized important sectors of the economy in order to redistribute the country’s wealth and power. There are also significant language policy changes under way, with the naming of the indigenous languages, Aymara and Quechua, as official languages in place of Spanish.

His trip to Canada was sponsored by the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, with the goal of increasing Canadians’ understanding of the Bolivian situation by speaking to trade unionists, university groups concerned with Latin America, and youth.

He was especially pleased with the excellent student turnout at Glendon and said that he would take back the Glendon Spanish-language poster of his talk, which he said he would show to President Morales as an illustration of Canadian interest in current developments in Bolivia.