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August 6, 2002

Narco News '02

The New Face of

Bolivia Appears

Congress Will Never

Be the Same as Before

By Luis Gómez

Fourth and Final Part of the Series...

Bolivia: The Power of the People

A little more than 20 years ago, a young indigenous farmer by the name of Evo Morales, a soccer fan and trumpet player, decided to work in a small union of coca growers of the Chapare region to defend their land and their right to live. Over the years, his natural astuteness and honesty turned him into the leader of his compañeros. They elected him to Congress and now he's a popular figure recognized all over the world. Last June 30th, the Bolivian people voted for him and brought him the doors of the Presidency of the Republic. Clearly, this has changed the face of a country where 80 percent of the people are of indigenous origin and poor, but where barely 200 families dominate power and wealth.

Three months of campaigning with the people, of hard work, done with few resources, have rendered fruit. Today the poor of Bolivia have 41 representatives in Congress and although they did not succeed in taking the presidency, this represents an historic victory that opens a new front of struggle for them. With authentic democracy as their principal weapon, they have achieved more strength for their voice now… they have defeated the political parties of the system, the wealthy and even the arrogant United States Ambassador, the Viceroy Manuel Rocha.

"We can be president"

At dawn last July 1st, many people began to smile: according to the vote count, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS, in its Spanish initials), Evo's party, grew to confront the parties of the system. The predictions and polls and the confidence of the traditional political leaders ended up in the garbage can. The aspirations of the people, tired of hunger and repression, began to sine like newly polished diamonds. A week later, this success was confirmed: The MAS came in second place in the elections and that immense surprise, according to the Constitution, left the option that its candidate could be elected president. "We can be president," said one coca-growers to an assembly… synthesizing the sentiment of being truly represented by Evo, that it really was possible to take power and regain the country.

In Bolivia, kind readers, the President is elected by Congress, with the votes of both houses (senators and house members). They can select between the candidates of the first and second place parties. This time it was about the powerful National Revolutionary Movement (MNR, in its Spanish initials) that ended up with 22.46% of the vote and the MAS that had 20.94 percent.

And as the panic grew among businessmen and the other parties, in the MAS there was happiness and calm. They waited patiently for the official results and then decided to fight. "Well, if we ran a campaign that said 'Evo, Presidente,' we will have to fight to make it happen," said Evo Morales in a meeting of his party's congressmen-elect.

On the others side, the parties of the system began negotiations to ally with each other and take the government together… It all began on the Fourth of July, during a party celebrating the independence of the United States, with the U.S. Embassy and Ambassador Manuel Rocha as hosts.

On that day the Viceroy met in his office with Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada (ex-president from 1993 to 1997 and presidential candidate of the MNR), with Jaime Paz Zamora (leader of the competing MIR party who came in fourth in the elections) and with the candidates of Nationalist Democratic Action (ADN, the party of the late ex-dicator Hugo Banzer) and the Civic Solidarity Union (UCS), these last to having barely five congressmen-elect each. Rocha told them that the four of them had to unite… there was not way they could permit Evo to become president.

Missing from this meeting was Manfred Reyes Villa of the New Republican Force (NFR), who had come in third. The ex soldier and ex mayor of Cochabamba was the most defeated: during the entire campaign he was sure he would win or, at least, come in second and fight in Congress to be elected… various days afterward he made his motives public: He did not want to support Sánchez de Lozada (and he didn't)… but he also said that the Viceroy Rocha had demanded that if he didn't vote for the MNR candidate, he "must not vote for Evo."

The Cuban Otto Reich, the Assistant Secretary of State for Hemispheric Affairs in Washington, confirmed this on July 11th. Reich said of the government of George Bush "it would be impossible" to help Bolivia (not that it helps much) if Evo was elected president. Facing all this, the presidential candidate of MAS remained clear. In an interview with CNN, consulted about the relations with the United States if he was elected president, Evo said that he wasn't thinking about breaking relations with the United States or any other government or international organism, that in all cases (with the gringos) relations would have to be replanted: "If they want respect, they must respect us," he said.

In any case, the MAS launched an invitation to all the parties. While the MNR, in spite of having "won" the elections continued being the party most repudiated by the people, it could not find allies, Evo tried to find the path to the Bolivian presidential seat. Each day, after attending to dozens of journalists who came from all over the world, the leaders of MAS spent their time working together to be prepared to govern or to fight from Congress and met with the other political forces in the country.

In the end, on July 25th, after various days of doubts and secret negotiations, the Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR, in Spanish) of Jaime Paz (an ex president who has been connected to narco-trafficking and a traitor to the causes of the people) decided to enter an alliance with the MNR. This decided everything. The most powerful party then had, with that, enough votes frozen to take power and govern the country for five years… but, still, it wasn't easy, because the forms of making politics that they grew accustomed to for so many years already don't work to decide Bolivia's destiny without consulting the people… and this was demonstrated by the long first session of Congress in which the new president was chosen.

"We lost the vote,

but not the battle."

On Saturday, August 3rd, the work of the new Congress began: 157 members (27 senators and 130 house members) began the debates to select the president of Bolivia from between the neoliberal Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and the popular leader Evo Morales. And although everything pointed to an easy election due to the alliance between MIR and MNR, a task that they thought would take ten hours took 26: during a little more than a full day of debate, the traditional politicians were harshly criticized by the 35 congressmen of the MAS and the six of the Pachacuti Indigenous Movement (MIP) of Felipe Quispe.

Dressed in their traditional clothes and speaking Quechua, Aymara, Spanish and Chiquitano, the representatives of the people showed their people that they are of afraid of the wealthy in their Armani suits or their aristocratic manners.

The inaugural session was broadcast live by the public television station to the entire country. Taking advantage of the fact that their turns coincided with the primetime hours, the popular Congress members spent almost eight hours, from 4 p.m. to 11:30 p.m., to speak on behalf of their decision to support Evo Morales and the veteran journalist Antonio Peredo as President and Vice President respectively. And although they knew that this was not going to happen, they left it very clear in front of the public that they were going to fight to last moment, because the mission had been delivered to them by the voters.

Felipe Quispe, before beginning his speech, made a gift of coca leaves to the leaders of the Senate and House "so that you can begin the job with best wishes." It was a good idea, because chewing coca leaf helps one not to fall asleep. At three a.m. the president of the Senate, Mirtha Quevedo of the MNR, and the Speaker of the House, Guido Añez of MIR, reached for the coca and started chewing just like any other peasant farmer. But that was not all that El Mallku did: He also told them that he and his five compañeros of the MIP party were here representing the Aymara people and that they were going to fight to defend their interests: "And if you don't pay attention to us here, I will take a stone out from below my poncho and leave fight alongside my people in the streets."

In the same manner, Rosendo Copa, indigenous Qaqachaca (an Aymara tribe from the south of Bolivia) and a MAS congress member said, "If you don't respect us, we will blockade the Congress." This house member, in addition to being a leader in his community, has a peculiar history: Its people has an ancestral conflict with another, the Laime, over lands and territory. Every once and a while, both nations fight in hard battles that leave dozens of deaths. This year, in her region, Laimes and Qaqachas united and elected him as their candidate… and this union provided the victory. Copa, 32-years-old, dressed in traditional Qaqachaca clothes, spoke Spanish, Quechua and Aymara and that night his speech, which lasted a little more than 20 minutes, was made as he translated for himself speaking three languages. "You will have to translate our words so that everybody will understand," he told them. And later Rosendo, serene, ended his brilliant discourse saying, "We come to this place to work. We want the people's will to be complied with without fighting… but if they want, we will also go into battle."

And they spoke, one after another, with the same force... José Bailabla, Chiquitano (an ethnic group from the east of the country), and Filemón Escobar, the old mineworkers' leader, who also reminded that they were here to recuperate "our land and territory, the coca, the wealth of our natural resources, that the powerful stole from the original peoples." And the Aymara intellectual Estaban Silvestre, who in his language reminded all of who, in this country, sustains the truth from the farms, the artisan workshops and the small businesses. And Dionicio Núñez, the peasant farmer leader of Yungas, who, beyond explaining to the members of the traditional parties what the farmers need, warned them not to ignore the farmers, because now the people count with their voices and votes to, at least, not continue falling into the well of misery.

Alejo Véliz, a Quechua farmer and leader elected as a member of the NFR party, warned that the neoliberal economic model already was spent. This rival of Evo Morales, with whom he has had serious disputes, said openly and clearly that he had honor and would vote for him… and that's what he did.

At noon on Sunday, August 4th, the voting finally began. Each of the Congress members from the MAS used their right to three minutes to explain their vote. More than one said to the Congress that they would never vote for the true narco-traffickers, for the four tons of coca in an airplane (a reference to a well known and obscure case of narco-trafficking that involved various leaders of the MNR party in 1995). They would vote, they said, for an end to racism and with a clear conscience.

In the end, 155 members voted. The MNR obtained 84 votes, 26 votes for the NFR party were nullified and two members abstained. The MAS obtained 43 votes: 35 from its members, six from the MIP, one from the only Socialist Party congressman one from the aforementioned Alejo Véliz of the NFR. At almost 5 p.m., almost 26 hours after initiating the session, it was official: the new president is Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada.

When all was said and done, the MAS congressman Félix Santos, a farmer from Potosí and the second vice president of the House, said, "today we lost the vote, but we did not lose the battle. Before today there were barely four of us. Now we are 41 members of Congress with ideological and cultural ability. While Goni (Gonzalo Sánchez) had to ask us permission even to go to the bathroom, we didn't just bring protest to the Congress: we have proposals and we know how to play in this Congress… They have to understand that our expressions demonstrate that we have always been rebels because we were always repressed. Now they have to respect us because we demand it."

And with that, a chapter ends, but not history... The representatives of the people have five years to continue fighting in Congress, and on the horizon the first conflicts are already in sight (such as the sale of the largest natural gas reserves on the continent and the issue of the eradication of coca leaf). Stay tuned, kind readers: this new power, this new face, has only just begun to show its power.

Lea Ud. el Articulo en Español

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