Bolivia has what could be described as a lively political culture. I water the plants three times a week on the office balcony, and perhaps on half those occasions I can look down on a demonstration passing along our city centre street. Since I arrived these have been largely focussed around union-driven demands for bigger salary increases for public workers, including university teachers, and miners. Grassroots activism by social movements was key to the political context which removed presidents from office in 2003 and 2005 and led to the election of Evo Morales, himself a former union activist (as head of Bolivia’s coca growers).
Marches called by the major unions tend to be large and highly organised events, but there are myriad other issues being brought to the streets as well. A couple of weeks ago perhaps 150 women and children and a handful of men took a strategic route through the central area of Cochabamba, lying down and painting messages on the roads outside police and judiciary buildings to call attention to the woeful lack of justice for women who experience rape, assault and domestic violence. In a political culture very different from our own, protestors met in a plaza without a license and, when they were ready, simply stepped out into the road and brought the 9am traffic to an almost standstill. Police guards outside government buildings simply looked on while activists left body outlines and denunciations of their systemic failures painted on main streets outside their offices. Those marks hadn’t completely disappeared several days later.
We are living in times of increased protest action on city streets. Syrians must daily find renewed sources of courage to continue to confront the increasing violence of their government. Something of the Arab spring seems to have seeped across the Mediterranean to the main squares of Spanish cities.The rising tide of ‘Slutwalks’ indicates that indifference to sexual violence, both physical and otherwise, is not only a concern for women in developing nations.
In the Andean context – especially Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru – activism by indigenous-based social movements also forms a key feature of the political landscape. Until a week ago Peru was experiencing a major indigenous environmental protest opposed to the granting of silver mining concessions to Canadian company Bear Creek on the shores of Lake Titicaca. In fact Bolivia was also experiencing it since the 3-week blockade of the city of Puno extended to closing down the main border crossing between the two countries, trapping hundreds of Bolivian truck drivers and their produce en route. Despite the closure of an international border, the length and size of the protest, and the imminence of the Peruvian elections, the manifestation went barely-reported. I was especially aware of this since I was planning to cross the border and keeping a close eye on developments. In the end a halt was called last Tuesday, just as I was about to leave for Peru, while the elections took place. Initial counts of yesterday’s runoff vote seem to show another victory for Latin America’s ‘pink tide’, nationalist leftist candidate Ollanta Humala having won around 51% against Keiko Fujimori, whose father is currently serving a 25-year sentence for crimes he committed while president of Peru in the Nineties. Humala has promised to reinvest profits from Peru’s mining economy – a huge earner for the country – in improving the lives of the country’s poorest. Whether this will appease the protestors remains to be seen: they had promised to be back in Puno the middle of this week to continue pushing their demands that future mining concessions be refused.
Meanwhile I’ve crossed another border (notwithstanding a recent blockade of Cochabamba by taxi drivers demanding the right to increase fares) and am now in Ecuador, another member of the Boliviarian Alliance of the Americas, where an indigenous and international campaign has been going for nearly two decades against Chevron/Texaco for indescribable damage done to the country’s Amazon region during years of drilling for oil. Here President Correa has also pledged to increase the amount of profit from resource extraction that goes into social programs in what is another Latin American country with a largely impoverished population. The intersection of resource extraction economics, poverty, indigenous land rights and ecology, environmentalism, and governments claiming to reject neoliberalism and the injustices of their countries’ colonialist legacies makes for interesting times in much of the continent. Whether that be a blessing or a curse continues to be tested by their populations.
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