Archive for January, 2009

So a friend who works in the City told me the other evening, anyway. Which means I shouldn’t have been quite so astonished at the Financial Times coverage of the referendum, which is both balanced and informative. (The coverage in the Morning Star, we’ve already established, is top-notch (-; )

Evo Morales, Bolivia’s popular leftwing president, has claimed his second big electoral victory in six months with the endorsement of a new constitution that he promised will pave the way for true equality for the country’s indigenous majority.

Initial results show 60 per cent of Bolivians voted in favour of the new charter, which puts a cap on the size of landholdings, extends state control over resources such as natural gas, removes Roman Catholicism as the state religion and introduces community justice and the election of judges.

Well, it’s almost 62% actually, but who’s splitting hairs? (Oh, right. Me.)

It even covers the distintegration of the existing opposition, in a cloud of arrests, foam-mouthed racism and recriminations. Sharp! The FT is the first foreign newspaper I’ve seen to acknowledge the fault lines in the opposition, never mind the wave of arrests and criminal prosecutions that followed the violent uprisings and attempted coup d’etat in September. But oh ho ho, what’s this we read?

Carlos Mesa, former Bolivian president, has pledged to form a new party to contest the elections.

“The radicalised opposition in Santa Cruz played to regionalism and racism,” he said. “Now with presidential elections in December we’re going to have a lot of people trying to figure out how to form a national opposition that can go after a piece of Morales’ base . . . they are likely to fall somewhere between Podemos and Morales [on the political spectrum].”

For which one might be tempted to read, ‘Carlos Mesa, respected historian and journalist but, let’s be honest, less than adequate at the Presidency when it was thrust into his hands, fancies another crack at power because he thinks he might be able to get it right this time’. One might be tempted. If one were uncharitably inclined.

Or one might be tempted to read more into it and start sniffing out the beginnings of the USA trying to establish an economic stranglehold a toehold in Bolivian government once more. I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions…

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Long ago in another part of the Internet, a naive young woman wrote a spoof prayer on her personal online journal in which she chummily entreated God to intervene and do away with George Bush, for the good of all humanity. According to her, shortly afterwards an FBI team showed up at her family home and questioned her and her mother in order to satisfy themselves that she wasn’t a risk to national security. No information has ever been released on whether they also carried out a bust at God’s house.

Compare that reaction to the news today that Facebook has almost lackadaisically agreed to close down a group called, ‘Global Collection for a Sharpshooter to Liquidate Evo Morales’. Charming. As far as I can tell, its 20-year-old creator hasn’t had the pleasure of talking to any law enforcement agency: dozens of international journalists, more like. Neither am I suggesting that he should be investigated, or punished with anything other than a swift slap upside the head from his mother for being such an idiot. But it should serve as a reminder of the depth of hatred, and the casual glorification of violence against the President and, more broadly, anyone of indigenous descent, which is taken for granted in private and public fora.

Here’s Otto’s breakdown of what happened. Go for the story, stay for the rest of the blog.

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Starry Starry Morning

funny pictures

Awesome! The new constitution has been approved in the referendum – as of the time of writing, the official count by the National Electoral Court gives the Yes vote 59.53%, with 69% of the vote counted. It’s enough to be decisive already, but as votes from remote rural areas are counted and included, the percentage of the Yes vote is almost certain to rise, as rural people are more likely to vote for the new constitution. Observers from the Organisation of American States affirmed that voting in the referendum was free, fair and characterised by ‘peacefulness and civic behaviour…without violence and with respect for the diversity of opinion”: Mercosur also praised the transparency of the process. You wouldn’t know it to hear the wounded howls of the opposition. But then who asks a group of people who claim that their privately-funded, mostly-illegal consultation exercise unrecognised by any international body counted as a legitimate referendum, their opinion on what a legitimate election looks like?

But apart from that source of jubilation – or stemming from it – the Morning Star ran the article that I wrote about it pretty much unedited. And it looks like I’m getting a review copy of Unresolved Tensions, Bolivia Past and Present, which I had been hankering after but couldn’t afford (although if you’ve got it, there are far worse ways to spend twenty quid). Today definitely makes up for all those dispiriting moments groaning in front of my computer screen at the carnival of ridicule and racism Bolivian politics can sometimes become. Anchitapuni kusikushani – today’s made me really happy.

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I wasn’t necessarily expecting approval, Telegraph, I mean, I know you better than that. A bit of distortion, a bit of pro-right wing slant, I thought I could handle it. But when you start out with an article that gets it mostly right, even with a hint of sympathy, it makes it all the more jarring when you drop three clangers in a row. You’ve disappointed me. In several places. I don’t feel I have much option but to point them out. I don’t want us to have to have this talk again, alright?

(The constitution) proposes limiting land holding 12,400 acres, effectively stripping several eastern property barons of their main source of agricultural wealth.

There is a new limit to the size of landholdings. Correct. It is not retroactive. This was a huge concession to the opposition, made in order to get them to come to the dialogue table. Nobody is going to be stripped of the source of their agricultural wealth if they’ve already got it and if they’re not using indentured or forced labour to farm their lands. So steer clear of the human rights abuses, and you can keep your humiiilde terrenito of a mere 25,000 hectares. Nobody is going to touch it. Clear?

Thirty-six indigenous towns and groups would win the right to territory, language and “community” justice under the new basic law.

As may be inferred from the previous point, no-one is going to be confiscating much territory and handing it over to indigenous groups any time soon, so I don’t know what the ‘right to territory’ specifically refers to. But hey, who needs to refer to actual changes in the law when you can make a nice sweeping generalisation? Like saying a group has ‘a right to language’. Sounds nice. And I get it, I mean, I do, I’m really familiar with the pressures that cause indigenous people to stop speaking their language, but I don’t think this is really a constitional change per se. I’ll read the text more thoroughly and get back to you on that, though. I’m pretty sure the previous constitution had some rather unmistakable things to say about indigenous peoples’ right to speak their own language. What it didn’t have and this one does, was a requirement that civil servants and schoolteachers have a grasp of at least one native language. It was always an asymmetry in the bilingual education reforms that indigenous children were expected to be educated in Spanish and their own language, whereas kids in the city never had to learn any language but Spanish.

Now, for extra points, here’s the howling error:

It would also scrap the single-term limit for the president, allowing Mr Morales to stand for re-election. He has proposed early legislative and presidential polls in Dec if the new referendum passes.

Remember what I was saying not ten hours ago about attempts to play dog-whistle alarmist politics by mentioning term limits? The article already tells us sternly that (t)he opposition…fear that Mr Morales’ march towards a socialist state is taking their nation into the orbit of Venezuela’s fervently anti-US president, Hugo Chavez, and further away from economic efficiency, so that’s the obligatory Chavez mention out the way. Leaving Evo’s relationship with the Venezuelan loudmouth aside, what is this nonsense about abolishing a single-term limit? Telegraph, there is no single-term limit. You can run for president of Bolivia as many times as you want (just ask Manfred Reyes Villa), so long as you do it discontinuously – no consecutive terms. The new constitution, by restoring the pre-1994 two-term rule, is actually limiting how long the president can stay in office. For now 😉

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One of the major rallying-points for those campaigning for a No in this referendum has been religion. A rather minor change of phrasing in the new constitution shifts the relationship between the Catholic church and the state from one of official support to detachment. In the previous constitution (which now looks to have been voted out of existence), the Bolivian state ‘recognise(d) and sustain(ed) the apostolic Roman Catholic religion’, while guaranteeing the freedom to practice other faiths. In the new constitution, the state is declared independent of the church for the first time, while religious freedoms are guaranteed, including freedom of religious instruction. But don’t take my word for it, let’s ask Xavier Albó, Jesuit priest, anthropologist, national treasure and one-man publishing industry:


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Three years ago this weekend, Evo Morales was sworn in as President of Bolivia, having campaigned hard on a number of issues: nationalisation of natural resources, greater inclusion of indigenous peoples with official support for their languages and legal recognition for their systems of justice and landholding, agrarian reform, social justice and a roots-deep reform of the country’s consitution. Today, the Bolivian people vote again and decide how far the former are to be shored up by the latter, Constitutional reform. Does the Bolivian electorate support the current change in the country’s politics enough to alter its foundational legal document? Right now, early reports are indicating that yes it does.

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Alright, so it might not get you in a party mood for the weekend ahead, but if you’re in London you might be interested in tonight’s screening of ‘Child Miners’, followed by a Q&A session with the director, Rodrigo Vazquez. The film focuses on two young boys who are forced by family circumstances to earn a living as miners in Bolivia, during the dawning months of the Morales presidency. Another film by Vazquez, ‘Looking for the Revolution’ was screened on British TV last year, and I enjoyed it a lot: it was thoughtful and non-hyperbolic, and got inside the political dynamics of the MAS government as well as showing the sometimes difficult job done by grassroots leaders. Tonight’s event is at journalistic organisation the Frontline Club, and their blurb goes as follows:

‘Child Miners is a poignant observational documentary from acclaimed director Rodrigo Vazquez (Inside Hamas, Bolivia, Looking for the Revolution) that follows the plight of two young Bolivian tin miners. Jorge and Alex are two of 3,000 children working in Bolivia´s tin mines. This film follows their lives as they struggle to survive on less than one dollar a day while fighting against hunger and silicosis, the miners disease. It is set against the backdrop of the country’s newly elected indigenous president, Evo Morales, a man of principle who promises to improve the lives of ordinary Bolivians. The question is, will his promises ring true for the two young miners?

Director, Vazquez states:

“I filmed child miners Alex Choque and Jorge Mollinedo in December 2005, when Bolivia’s first indigenous President Evo Morales won the elections with the promise of transforming poor people’s lives. Evo promised to give miners a better life by re-nationalizing the industry.

Jorge’s father has contracted silicosis, the ‘miners’ disease’ and now is out of work, so Jorge had to increase his work load to keep bringing food to the house, thus increasing the chances of becoming ill like his father. Newly-arrived Cuban doctors sent by Evo’s government establish that Jorge has begun developing the “miner’s disease” and advised him to stop working immediately. But now more than ever, Jorge needs to keep working.”

The Frontline Club is at 13 Norfolk Place, W2 1QJ, and the film starts at 7pm. Entry is £8. See you there?

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Inauguration Week

Thousands assembled, tears were shed, beautiful words were spoken, history was made and a new era of hope and challenge arose before us. Yes, people of the Internet, this week the Karaspita blog was brought into the world weighing several megabytes, in rude health. Also, in the USA, a new president was sworn in, which made a lot of people very happy. But enough about him (for now), what are you doing here?

Well, I could start by telling _you_ what I’m doing here and why. I am a research student at the University of London and I have spent the last few years neck-deep in the study of Bolivia, specifically the politics of the place and the indigenous people who live there. I carried out PhD fieldwork in Cochabamba, arriving a month before the election of Evo Morales and leaving a year and a half later, and even in cold, colourless London Bolivia-geekery is my main occupation and recreation of choice. I read the Bolivian newspapers (itself an action requiring a hefty rightwing-bias-filter) and write digests of the news for a British audience, plus articles here and there (which I’m hoping to do more of).

‘Karaspita’ was the preferred swearword of one of my favourite informants when doing anthropology research, a peasant grandmother of formidable character. When exasperated, she would let fly a string of insults culminating in ‘karaspita, che!’ tutted with a shake of the head. It’s an expression of the same sentiment I feel when reading that, for example, the US State Department has called the government of Evo Morales ‘undemocratic’ just weeks after it was reinforced with a 67% vote of confidence from the general public in a referendum. Or when the BBC reports on rioting, sabotage and destruction of government installations in the East of the country and attaches a request for information by anyone on the scene, in the style of citizen journalism, ‘Are you looting any ministries in Santa Cruz today? We want your side of the story’. Karaspa is what I think, admiringly, when Bolivia’s league of disabled people stages a gruelling march on the capital over hundreds of mountainous miles, and once there sets about rioting and trying to storm Congress. Don’t mess with the disabled people of Bolivia! By discussing some of these stories in English, here, I hope to convey some of the enthusiasm I feel about this smashing wee country and the people who live there, and some of my exasperation at the reporting of it in the English-language press.

Hello to you if you’ve travelled over from Jonathan Jarrett’s mediaeval history blog. You’ll be after some more of those colourful pictures and descriptions of rural markets, religious ritual and indigenous language, amirite? Well, there’ll probably be a good dose of the anthropological, given that that’s my day job, but don’t get too turned off if you discover that what I write about here is primarily political. You see, in Bolivia at the moment, indigeneity and political practice inform each other in many ways, not least in a robust tradition of direct action. With a 65% indigenous population and 36 native languages spoken in national territory, how could ethnicity and culture ever be separable from national political discourse? And the fact is that local struggles over land, water and the continuation of tradition also feed into and are influenced by resistance to international forces which encourage casualised labour, privatised resources, lopsided concentration of wealth and power and crowbarring open the markets in vulnerable countries to dump subsidised products on them, while taking away trade preferences at the drop of a hat, or the expulsion of an ambassador. So when you get locally-grounded processes of resistance and social change which throw up challenges to the forces of global economic hegemony, how can you not be fascinated by them? My posts will probably feature more swearwords and fewer footnotes than Jonathan’s, and certainly less mediaeval history, but it’d be grand if you would stick around anyway.

Hello to other bloggers writing about Bolivia! Now, starting my own blog doesn’t mean I don’t think you’re all lovely, especially you. Otto at Inka Kola News and The Dude especially are jewels in my bookmarks folder for their, ahem, balanced analysis. It just seems a shame to spend this much time immersed in Bolivian political geekery and not be able to share it with you. Besides, I’ve yet to notice an English-language Bolivia blog coming out of the UK, perhaps for obvious reasons, but we do have stuff going on here too.

So anyway, k’aj! Salud, slainte mhath ma tha, welcome to all, please bear with me while I get links and so forth all put up and see you all later to start talking about this Sunday’s referendum.

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