By Raphael Jeronimo Calderon
“Bolivia’s Evo Morales stands on the brink of a ruinous civil war in his attempts to refound the Andean nation as a socialist state” states British The Guardian (1). RIA Novosti, the Russian news agency, writes “Bolivia descends into chaos – Dead and wounded as a result of turmoils” (2). “8 dead during riots in Bolivia” covers the Austrian PR-Inside (3) and Qatari Al-Jazeera, as well as Spanish El Pais quoted Alfredo Rada, describing the events as “massacre” (4). Even UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon felt the need to comment on the present situation in Bolivia, stating that he is “deeply concerned about the violent clashes and the resulting loss of life in Bolivia, as well as the attempts to disrupt the nation’s economic infrastructure”(5).
German media outlets are not any less outspoken, as can be illustrated for example by the article of Die Tageszeitung asserting that history is repeating itself in Bolivia, comparing the present situation to what happened to Allende on 9-11 1973 (6). Tv and radio channel Die Deutsche Welle, titles “Bolivia faces a civil war” and adds in its lead “Far from being a crucial test – Bolivia is already divided: Morales governs but a part of the country. A single spark could set off a major conflagration – not only on a national scale, but also on an international scale” (7).
The international dimension of the present unrest in Bolivia and in particular the declaration of ambassador Philip Goldberg as persona non grata are also on the top of the news in the US, the New York Times commenting that “(t)he expulsion order signals a low point between Bolivia and the United States”and reminding that “(d)espite a recent deterioration of political relations, Washington remains one of the largest providers of development and antinarcotics aid to Bolivia and grants duty-free access to American markets for Bolivian textiles and other products”(8).
The Chinese news agency XinHua News puts the focus on an additional point omnipresent in the international media reporting on Bolivia, the economic implications of the political instability (in particular with regard to the gas exports to Brazil) (9), and coincides with the other international media outlets that “(c)ountries and regional groups in Latin America Thursday expressed support to Bolivian President Evo Morales amid violent actions to tumble his government” (10).
The Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung instead, reports “Bolivia is looking for a way out of the crisis” and puts emphasis on the talks between Alvaro García and Mario Cossío (11). In the same line of reasoning, Le Monde in France points at the “(u)nusual fact” that “the police has dispersed, in front of the presidential palace, the supporters of M. Morales that came to boo M. Cossio” (12) and the International Herald Tribune writes with reference to the government’s actuation “(t)he Aymara Indian and former coca growers’ union leader has so far hesitated to mobilize the military, fearing major bloodshed” (13).
During my stay in Bolivia, given my formation as political scientist in Geneva and Boston, I was asked quite regularly about the perception of Bolivia abroad. I used to answer that in general the media coverage of countries of the size, remoteness and economic (in)significance (to the USA/Europe) of Bolivia would only be worthy a short side note if an exceptional amount of cocaine was confiscated or the death toll of a natural catastrophe/social conflict surpassed 20 dead. While such a characterization of Bolivia’s international media coverage might stress the limits of what is still to be considered cynicism, it is/was not far from reality.
The big turnaround came with Evo Morales’ election in 2005 and his tour through Europe in early 2006 which suddenly granted Bolivia a bit more than just some minutes of fame in the spotlight. I remember an article in Le Monde where he was idealized (in the patronizing way typical for French journalists) as the reincarnation of Rousseau’s le bon sauvage, and Morales’ quotes (“We don’t want bosses, we want partners” & “After 500 years of exploitation, humiliation and suffering, …”) where all over the newspaper’s headlines. Simultaneously, the pictures of Morales shaking presidents’, prime ministers’, monarchs’ and other dignitaries’ hands while wearing his by now legendary striped sweater made even the front covers of the daily free newspapers read by millions of Europeans, winning him unbroken solidarity and sympathy. I remember even seeing sections of the indigenous ceremony in Tiwanaku possessing Morales as their leader on Switzerland’s main tv channel’s evening news and was told the same happened in many other countries too.
While the nationalization in 2006 provoked rather mixed feelings, recent news articles on Bolivia from all across the world attest that Morales’ government is still benefitting of ongoing support on a global scale. Common to all the news articles cited in the introduction of this text is an indirect blaming of the opposition for the dead and the conflicts. In general, the opposition is not presented in a very favourable light: Apart from the sabotage acts to a gas pipeline, Leopoldo Fernandez is mentioned to have admitted that he has lost control of the situation and his department (RIA Novosti), while Rubén Costas is quoted calling Evo Morales a “mass murderer” (Deutsche Welle) and blaming the government for the violence, naming the cause of the unrest the “craziness of the government’s power” (Le Monde).
With slight variances, all articles contradict such an interpretation of the events, identifying the rationale of the recent conflicts (either) in the upcoming vote on the new constitution (or) and the redistribution of the incomes generated by the gas resources (IDH). With regard to the vote they underline two major changes implied by the new constitution, the redistribution of land holdings and the possibility for Evo Morales to run for another presidential term. As for the redistribution of incomes, it is mentioned that those revenues where used to support the poor elderly.
The picture drawn of Bolivia, if not implicitly, then explicitly, is one of a country where an elite of European descent is trying to sabotage the indigenous majority’s attempts to escape poverty (14): “The core of the conflict is the attempt of Morales to redistribute the wealth of the resource rich East and South in favour of the indigenous living in the Western highlands and suffering from century-long discrimination” (Swiss News Agency Swissinfo (15)). Conor Foley from The Guardian seems to put the whole matter in a nutshell “While Richard Gott (another well-respected and long-standing Guardian journalist) has rightly slammed the opposition groups as elitist, anti-democratic and in some cases overtly racist, it would be wrong to underestimate the threat that they potentially pose to Bolivia’s government or how damaging the latest stand-off could be to the country.“
Certainly, the selection of articles for this media overview has been strongly arbitrary and biased but is to the knowledge of the author nonetheless representative of a common global feeling about Bolivia, at least in Europe. You will always be able to find people/media outlets that will diverge in their view of the things but on the whole the opinion is that the Morales’ government is undertaking legitimate (see his democratic support) reforms that are being opposed by an affluent minority in illegitimate ways because they are afraid of losing their influence and wealth. Looking at the broad facts from abroad this seems to be the logical conclusion…
So, how come there are so many Bolivians that don’t appear to understand this? It seems to be so simple, isn’t it? Leave your thoughts below.
(*) Visiting Researcher, Institute for Advanced Development Studies, La Paz, Bolivia. The author happily receives comments at the following e-mail: email@example.com.
(2) “Bolivien versinkt im Chaos – Tote und Verletzte bei Unruhen” – Retrieved on 12.09.2008 from: http://de.rian.ru/world/20080912/116739897.html.
(3) “Acht Tote bei Unruhen in Bolivien” – Retrieved on 12.09.2008 from: http://www.pr-inside.com/de/acht-tote-bei-unruhen-in-bolivien-r803086.htm.
(4) Retrieved on 12.09.2008 from: http://english.aljazeera.net/news/americas/2008/09/200891203914538443.html & on 13.09.2008 from: http://www.elpais.com/articulo/internacional/Bolivia/declara/estado/sitio/provincia/Pando/elpepuint/20080913elpepuint_2/Tes.
(5) Retrieved on 12.09.2008 from: http://www.un.org/apps/sg/sgstats.asp?nid=3395.
(6) Retrieved on 12.09.2008 from: http://www.taz.de/1/debatte/kommentar/artikel/1/allende-in-den-anden/.
(7) “Bolivien droht ein Bürgerkrieg” & “Von Zerreißprobe keine Spur – Bolivien ist bereits gespalten: Morales regiert nur noch in einem Teil des Landes. Ein einziger Funke könnte einen Flächenbrand auslösen – nicht nur national, sondern auch international. “– Retrieved on 12.09.2008 from: http://www.deutsche-welle.de/dw/article/0,2144,3640974,00.html.
(8) Retrieved on 11.09.2008 from: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/11/world/americas/11bolivia.html
(9) Retrieved on 11.09.2008 from: http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2008-09/11/content_9920775.htm
(10) Retrieved on 12.09.2008 from: http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2008-09/12/content_9938615.htm
(11) “Bolivien sucht Ausweg aus der Krise” – Retrieved on 13.09.2008 from: http://www.nzz.ch/nachrichten/international/bolivien_sucht_ausweg_aus_der_krise__1.831016.html.
(12) “Fait inhabituel, la police a dispersé, devant le palais présidentiel, des partisans de M. Morales venus pour conspuer M. Cossio.” – Retrieved on 13.09.2008 from: http://www.lemonde.fr/ameriques/article/2008/09/13/bolivie-etat-de-siege-dans-le-nord-du-pays_1094846_3222.html#ens_id=1080276
(13) Retrieved on 12.09.2008 from: http://www.iht.com/articles/ap/2008/09/12/america/LA-Bolivia-US-Venezuela.php.
(14) “The struggle pits Bolivia’s poor indigenous majority against richer Bolivians of European origin. (…) They object to Mr Morales’ plans to give more power to the country’s indigenous and poor communities by carrying out land reform and redistributing gas revenues.” (The Guardian). “Mr. Morales, an Aymara Indian who is Bolivia’s first president to identify explicitly with his indigenous ancestry, vowed to press ahead with efforts to redistribute land and petroleum royalties from the moneyed elite in eastern lowlands to the country’s indigenous majority.” (New York Times). “a new constitution that would help him (Morales) centralize power, run for a second consecutive term and transfer fallow terrain to landless peasants from Bolivia’s poor indigenous majority.” (International Herald Tribune). “rewritten constitution, which would redistribute land and national revenues to give more to the indigenous population.” (Al-Jazeera). “The opposition-controlled provinces are demanding that the government return the money levied by hydrocarbons tax. The government used the tax revenue to aid the elderly people without stable incomes.” (XinHua News). “Das Geld fließt jetzt verstärkt in die ärmeren Regionen, um eine Mindestrente im ganzen Land zu garantieren. ” (Deutsche Welle). “Morales strebt eine Verfassungsreform an, die den armen Regionen des Landes mit indianischer Bevölkerungsmehrheit eine grössere Teilhabe an den Ressourcen des Landes sichern soll. Die reichen Regionen, in denen viele Nachfahren europäischer Einwanderer leben, wenden sich gegen die Pläne und fordern Autonomie.” (Neue Zürcher Zeitung).
(15) Kern des Konflikts ist der Versuch von Morales, den Wohlstand aus dem rohstoffreichen Osten und Süden zugunsten der vor allem im westlichen Hochland lebenden und seit Jahrhunderten benachteiligten Indios umzuverteilen.” – Retrieved on 12.09.2008 from:http://www.swissinfo.ch/ger/news/newsticker/Krise_in_Bolivien_fuehrt_zu_diplomatischem_Konflikt_mit_USA.html?siteSect=146