It was several weeks back that I wrote about the lively culture of political protest here in Bolivia. In recent months that has seemed somewhat eclipsed by major civil unrest which has sprouted across the globe from the Arab Spring to the Spanish sit-ins, Greek taxi and tollbooth uprisings, and now the summer of discontent in London, to name just a few. All of these manifestations need separate analysis and had different roots and different aims; but it is hard not to conclude that the twin domino effects of economic collapse and social uprisings which dominate the news these days are zigzags in the same globally-connected patterns.
In comparison Latin America has felt reasonably stable (reasonably; if Western news events didn’t dominate the media agenda you’d perhaps be hearing a lot more about the drug war carnage in Mexico, election-related violence in Colombia, social repression and evictions in Guatemala and Honduras, the failure to rehabilitate Haitian earthquake refugees, and the general appallingly high levels of poverty and violence that plague the continent…). In terms of mass protest the most notable Latin American example this year has been Chile. A proposed new major hydroelectric project in pristine Patagonian territory brought out one of the largest environmental protests in history earlier this year. More recently, in fact at the same time as young people were out on UK streets in violent and inchoate rebellion, a long-running student protest in Chile also reached boiling point as their government continues to refuse countenancing those young people’s (and teachers’ and parents’) highly-articulated demands for educational reform in Latin America’s most developed but also (funny this) most unequal country. As students battled with police wielding tear gas the pressure brought about by the widely-supported movement, part of a wider rejection of neoliberalism, has brought president Piñera’s poll ratings down to 26%.
And here in Bolivia the streets are getting busy again this week, though for a variety of reasons, and largely led by older constituencies. I’m in La Paz where in nearby El Alto the civic organisation FEJUVE, whose grassroots political leverage the government here has to reckon with, have this morning set fires in the streets and prevented traffic commuting between there and La Paz. They are demanding a government census in 2011 and the recalling of El Alto’s parliamentary representatives, amongst other things.
In Potosi meanwhile, in the south of the country, people are calling on Morales to build a new airport and cement factory. That differs somewhat from the aims of the most widely-reported and discussed of Bolivia’s current political demonstrations: the 500km march by indigenous communites from Trinidad in Beni department to the seat of government in La Paz is in opposition to the Villa Tunari – San Ignacio de Moxos highway which will rip through TIPNIS, an Amazonian nature reserve and one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. The march in opposition, which will reach La Paz in around a month, echoes the major indigeous march of 1990. A very different shade of government was in power then but the action succeeded in helping establish the principle of indigenous autonomous rights, something which was then enshrined in the 2009 Constitution inaugurated by Morales, but which many claim he is now flouting in favour of Brazilian patronage (Bolivia’s huge and powerful neighbour is providing much funding for the disputed road) and, some say, an infrastructure project which mainly favours coca-growers in the Chapare. Not only does the TIPNIS protest stand to test Morales’ relationship with a key sector of his indigenous support base (as well as sow divisions between them and those social movements in favour of the government’s plan), but it seems to be taking the shine off his international eco-credentials.
In closing, perhaps you’ll permit me a rather tangential meander to Cuba, that faded standard-bearer of revolutionary politics…Something that’s been particularly noticeable in the pile-up of major news events this year is how quickly the media and it’s Tweeting public moves on from Tunisia and Egypt to Fukushima to Libya to Hackgate to Somalia to Tottenham and Birmingham, occasionally casting a quick eye to the crumbling economic structures of the US and Europe. Battered by the waves of constant coverage, it has been good to take a step back with the more contemplative medium of cinema. In the grounds of the Simon Patiño palace in Cochabamba last week an open-air film festival was playing documentaries from Cuba’s EICTV film school. The quietude and aestheticism of ‘Nada con nadie’ and the building freneticism of ‘Episodos sinfonicos’ as it presented the grand themes of Cuban life captured in quotidian ceremonies allowed a pause for some beautifully cinematographed reflection. And if you want to see what happens to a city in the wake of boom of bust, just take a look at Detroit.