Grassroots Activists Take Reins of Government
by Gretchen Gordon
The newly elected Bolivian president, Evo Morales, recently swore in the 16 ministers who will form his new government cabinet. For the first time in Bolivia’s 180-year history as an independent nation, the majority of those who now fill the highest governmental posts come from within indigenous and social movements.
During last year’s elections, one of the most common criticisms against Morales, an Aymara Indian who never studied past high school, was that, in contrast to his closest opponent, US-educated former president Jorge Quiroga, Morales lacked the experience and education befitting a presidential candidate. Now, as Morales formulates his government and begins the work of governing, criticisms of “inexperience” have resurfaced.
The Economist recently accused Morales’ cabinet choices of smacking of “radicalism,” stating that Bolivia’s new ministers “nearly all have as little experience of government as Mr. Morales…” (Jan. 26)
The perceived “inexperience” of Morales’ government, however, has a unique political significance here in the poorest and most indigenous country in South America, where positions of power have historically been reserved for a minority light-skinned criollo elite.
December’s stunning election victory for Morales is part of a larger political shift in the country, creating a new reality in which previously marginalized campesino, labor, indigenous, and other social movements are now finding themselves in power.
A “Cabinet of Change”
In the swearing-in ceremony for what Morales has dubbed his “cabinet of change,” Casimira Rodriguez takes the oath before a crowd of cameras. With two thick braids trailing down her back, Rodriguez stands in the shawl, lace shirt, and wide pleated skirt called a pollera, which since the 18th century have made up the traditional dress of indigenous women in much of Bolivia.
Rodriguez is Bolivia’s first Quechua Indian to serve as a government minister. Her experience, not just her appearance, is uniquely different from those who have stood here before her.
When Rodriguez was 14, she was taken from her rural village in Mizque and brought to the city of Cochabamba, with the promise that in exchange for her labor, she would be provided with the schooling and care her campesino parents could not afford. Instead, Rodríguez was held in servitude—forced to work long hours with no pay and regularly abused by her supposed employers—until she was finally rescued two years later.
Rodríguez’s experience is unfortunately not an uncommon one for many women in Bolivia, where historic racial and economic discrimination remains strong. Domestic work is almost exclusively relegated to Quechua and Aymara women forced for economic reasons to migrate from rural to urban areas.
Now, however, at just 39 years-old, Casimira Rodríguez is now Bolivia’s new Minister of Justice.
Breaking with History
The presence of people like Minister Rodriguez in Bolivia’s new government reflects the country’s recent political history. Spurred by 20 years of failed free-market policies (called neo-liberalism here), which have exacerbated economic and political discrimination, Morales’ campaign rode a wave of popular demand for profound structural changes, including nationalization of the country’s gas reserves and a restructuring of the state.
When it comes to creating a new government of Bolivians and for Bolivians, however, the territory is largely uncharted. Bolivia has a long history of governments which haven’t governed for the majority of Bolivians. It also has a history of governments which in many areas, didn’t govern at all.
Since colonial times, administration and policymaking in Bolivia has often been ceded to foreign interests. With the advent of the Washington Consensus neo-liberal economic model, those interests have taken a different shape over the last 20 years. Transnational petroleum corporations were handed Bolivia’s gas reserves on easy terms and now operate with almost no regulation. International financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund rewrote entire areas of Bolivian law to facilitate the privatization of the country’s strategic state industries. The US Embassy directs the priorities of Bolivia’s military forces and helped write the country’s expansive drug law, imposing the concept of guilty until proven innocent for those accused of drug-related crimes.
The impact of this 20-year cession of governance to foreign economic interests is clear. The Chilean company that bought the national railroad sold it for scrap. The US and French companies that took over municipal water systems in Cochabamba and La Paz raised water rates up to 200%. US-crafted drug policy has facilitated gross human rights violations by the military, in addition to the incarceration of 40% of those in Bolivia’s jails, the majority of whom have never been charged. While a handful of businessmen and politicians have enriched themselves, Bolivia as a whole has higher unemployment and a lower standard of living than 20 years before. The government income once generated by state industries now must be borrowed from international lenders, and the country’s resultant national debt is over a crippling $4.5 billion.
The promises of foreign-imposed economic and political policies have proven to be far removed from the reality experienced by the majority of Bolivians. In response, citizens have taken to the streets in repeated mass protests over the past three years. Hundreds of civilians have been killed or wounded by subsequent government violence, and two successive presidents have been removed from office.
What the country has called for, across class and ethnic lines, is a major change—a government of Bolivians, for Bolivians—what Morales calls “the nationalization of the government.”
The challenge before Bolivia’s new government is by no means a small one. The task of implementing profound structural changes and attempting to step outside of current global economic norms, in what remains a greatly divided and highly indebted country, will not be easy.
But, ironically, Bolivia’s new “inexperienced” government has a few things in its favor.
Elected with an almost 2-1 majority—the first majority popular vote and the highest voter turnout in Bolivian history—Morales’ popular mandate for change is unprecedented. His outsider cabinet picks reflect that mandate, drawing their experience from within the social movements and affiliated academic circles which for decades have been struggling to create a more just economic and political system.
Andres Soliz Rada, the new Minister of Hydrocarbons is a lawyer, journalist, ex-parliamentarian and longtime nationalization advocate. Walter Villarroel, the new Minister of Mining, is a leader of a miners’ cooperative. Nila Heredia, the new Minister of Health, is a longtime public health worker and social advocate exiled by the Banzer dictatorship in the ’70s. Abel Mamani, the new Minister of Water, led efforts in 2004 to reverse the privatization of La Paz’s water system. Justice Minister Rodriguez was elected secretary general of the Confederation of Women Domestic Workers of Latin America and the Caribbean, and was responsible for the creation and adoption of national legislation which for the first time afforded rights to Bolivia’s over 132,000 domestic workers.
As Morales stands before his new cabinet in his now famous attire of a striped sweater, in lieu of the western-style business suit of his predecessors, he describes the mandate of the new government. “This is the first cabinet of change, chosen to fulfill changes in democracy against the neo-liberal model, and to resolve the structural and social problems in the
Can it Work?
On inauguration day in a hotel bar in La Paz, bartender David Garzon listens to Morales’ first national address as president. He gaffs, both pleased and shocked as Morales announces a 50% pay cut for the presidency and urges congress to implement the same.
I ask him what he thinks of the new president’s discourse. “It’s great,” he says emphatically, “better than other past presidents.”
When asked why, he replies, “He’s suffered and so he understands the country.”
In the short weeks since the election, Morales has used his victory shrewdly. Even before taking office, Morales embarked on an four-continent tour yielding various agreements of international support, including debt forgiveness from Spain, literacy programs from Cuba, commercial agreements with China, technical assistance on oil and gas development from Brazil, and a soy for diesel agreement with Venezuela.
A recent public opinion poll by Apoyo Opinion y Mercado indicates that Morales’ post-election popularity has increased to 74%.
I ask Garzon if he thinks Morales and his government, with their limited experience, can succeed in making the profound changes the country is expecting.
“Yes,” he says. “He can because he has the backing of the people.”
As Rodriguez explains it, “To administer justice well you don’t need to be a lawyer.”
Of course, Bolivia’s new government isn’t immune from criticism. Even some social movements have protested ministers’ political stances. Bolivia’s new government has been and will continue to be challenged on its politics and strategies and, in the end, whether it is able and willing to deliver on what it has promised.
Morales’ decision to choose a government that doesn’t look like past governments, however, is intentional and strategic. For the first time, the government looks like the people. And in Bolivia, where the state has suffered a growing crisis of legitimacy, this credibility of a popular government carries more weight than mere technical credentials.
For many Bolivians, seeing on television the image of Casimira Rodriguez, an ex-domestic worker in her braids and pollera, being sworn in as a government minister, is like seeing themselves.
In a country where the vast majority has historically lived in exclusion and oppression, that is an entirely new experience.
It may just be the experience Bolivia needs.
Gretchen Gordon is a writer on Latin America and globalization. She lives in Cochabamba, Bolivia and can be reached at Graciela@riseup.net
This story originally appeared in Upside Down World, Feb. 21
See also our last feature on Bolivia:
“Bolivia: A Coming Trial by Fire?” by Ben Dangl, WW4 REPORT #118
Reprinted by WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, March 1, 2006
Reprinting permissible with attribution