Monday, February 14, 2011

Uprisings in Bolivia

by Anna Mahjar-Barducci

A wave of violent protests is shaking Bolivia. Bolivian President Evo Morales had to abandon a public event celebrating Bolivia's 230th anniversary of Independence after being confronted by protestors angry over food shortages and price rises. Scheduled to talk in the mining city of Oruro, he and his team had to leave the city quickly to avoid miners tossing dynamite. Other protests had been organized in Bolivian cities over the shortage of sugar and other basic foodstuffs.

The presidency's spokesperson, Ivan Canelas, called the protesters' action "shameful provocation" and "tactless," considering they could have expressed their complaints at another time, not on the Independence Day. "There are moments to make your protests known," he said, "but why today?"

Unfortunately for Morales, it is not up to him to decide when protests take place. Popular uprisings in Tunisia and in Egypt have put rulers in Latin America on guard, Despite pressure from the opposition, Morales is trying to react with caution over the demonstrations, not to give any pretext for violent protests against his regime, even though Bolivia is experiencing a series of crisis that are the direct consequence of the populist policies of the Morales government.

Last month, Bolivia had to reverse fuel price rises that had been introduced only a week earlier. Due to heavy subsidies that the country's economy could no longer tolerate, prices had remained unchanged for six years; the fuel price hike provoked mass protests and a transport strike. Further, in response to a bakers' strike over the decision to stop fuel subsidies, the Bolivian army had begun selling bread.

Another cause of the economic mismanagement of the country is that Morales sees the "Imperialist enemy" everywhere. Following the example of his friend and mentor, Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, Morales considers Bolivia a country under siege by the "Yankees." This is the reason the military budget increased 64% during President Evo Morales five years in office. The increase is particularly worrying as spending on education has fallen consistently under Morales: it now represents just 3% of the government's expenditures.

While participating to the World Social Forum in Dakar a few days ago, Morales said, in regards to events in Tunisia and Egypt: "There must be awareness and a mobilization to put an end to capitalism and clear away invaders, neocolonialists and imperialists [...] I support the popular uprisings in Tunisia and in Egypt. These are signs of change."

But with his popularity plunging, Morales should probably not be too pleased about these changes. Some of the protests have even been headed by social movements that supported Morales when he first rose from being a radical peasant, a coca grower, to win election as Bolivia's first indigenous president, in 2005. Under his rule, however, Bolivia is rapidly becoming one of the poorest nation in Central and South America, despite its exceptional mineral riches, which range from oil to lithium deposits.

Morales's problem is that Bolivarian socialism is not delivering any of the benefits that he had promised. In addition, although Morales rose to power democratically, Bolivia is fast becoming a regime that violates basic human rights. During the riots over food shortages, people were asking Morales to step down. Even though it is unlikely he will accept the advice, should the malaise of the Bolivian people continue, the signs of change he welcomed for Tunisia and Egypt might sooner or later bring his regime to its close.

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Anna Mahjar-Barducci

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