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BOLIVIA
Indigenous parties in crisis
José Antonio Aruquipa
7/18/2003
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Caught between internal conflicts and yielding to the establishment.

Riding the wave of Bolivia’s worst crisis in 20 years, the two indigenous parties that shook the political scene last year by winning seats in Congress (LP, Aug. 12, 2002) now struggle with internal divisions and being steamrolled by ruling party politics.

Both the Movement to Socialism (MAS), founded in the Chapare region, a jungle area in the Cochabamba Department, in March 1995, and the Pachakuti Indigenous Movement (MIP), established in September 2000 in La Paz, marched under the banner of restoring indigenous rights during the June 2002 elections and achieved what analysts and news media called "historic" gains (LP, July15, 2002).

"For the first time, the indigenous voted for themselves when, previously, indigenous parties never got more than 3 percent of the vote," said political analyst Jimena Costa.

After a campaign to increase party ranks through campesino labor unions, MAS and coca-grower leader Evo Morales Ayma won second place in national elections, just behind staunch conservative Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, head of the National Revolutionary Movement (MNR).

Felipe Quispe, "el Mallku" (Aymara for condor), the leader of MIP (LP, April 23, 2001), came fifth in a list of 11 presidential hopefuls. MIP won more votes than older and better-financed parties such as the Solidarity Civic Union (UCS) and Nationalist Democratic Action (ADN), of former President Hugo Bánzer (1971-1978 and 1997-2001).

On Aug. 2, 2002, the day newly elected representatives were sworn in, the 35 MAS and six MIP legislators entered Congress in traditional dress. The indigenous representatives’ stated priorities included the just distribution of land, equity in the application of economic policies, respect for indigenous cultures and the approval of laws to benefit the regions that supported them, according to Félix Santos, MAS representative and second vice-president in the House of Deputies.

But almost a year later, while the promises of reform have been entered into Congress records, they have yet to become laws.

"We’ve suffered a setback after entering [Congress] with high hopes. We just haven’t been able to accomplish much," said MAS Representative Rosendo Copa, a Qaqachaca indigenous from the region north of Potosí, a department where eight out of ten people live in extreme poverty.

In all, MAS has 27 deputies and eight senators who, between them, according to Iván Morales, MAS representative, legal counsel and co-founder, reflect the social breakdown of the movement: 70 percent rural peasants, 20 percent labor leaders and 10 percent intellectuals.

Iván Morales also recognizes that his party has failed in Congress. He said that the events of February 12-13, when anti-government protests were put down by the military, leaving 29 dead (LP, Feb. 26 and June 4, 2003), made the MAS sit up and take a good look at itself.

"We saw that while we were just a step away from taking power, we were not ready to govern responsibly. We were in over our heads," he said.

MAS developed its guiding vision and program from within the Chapare coca-growers union. Later it took over municipal governments in the area and joined forces with grassroots organizations like the Bartolina Sisa Center for Campesino Women and sectors of the United Confederation of Bolivian Campesinos (CSUTCB).

Evo Morales Ayma, first and foremost leader of the coca-growers, began garnering the support of people with small bank debts, peasants without land and whoever else held a grudge against the government. His speeches focused on his opposition to issues like the sale of natural gas to the United States and Bolivia’s entry into the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).

But while Morales Ayma attempted to build himself an image as the nation’s popular, if unofficial, leader, his party’s representatives in Congress failed to advance their legislative agenda to win back the rights of the sectors that voted for MAS.

Inés Miranda, MAS representative from Santa Cruz, said that winning a seat in Congress was "a giant step forward" for her constituency, but admitted that in the chambers "only the rolling pin works." In other words, the government coalition majority gets what it wants and doesn’t take into account the observations or interventions of the opposition.

That was the reason behind the May 29-June 4 hunger strike by MAS and MIP legislators who demanded the inclusion of issues proposed by them in the extraordinary legislative sessions called by Sánchez de Lozada on May 29 to discuss 23 points agreed upon with his principal allies. Thanks to mediation by the Catholic Church, the legislators ended their strike after reaching an agreement that their issues would be addressed in August, at the beginning of the year’s second regular legislative session (LP, July 2, 2003).

According to Esther Balboa, former MIP vice-presidential candidate, one of the biggest obstacles to indigenous representatives’ legislative efficacy is the difference in deliberation styles that they’ve had to face.

"In their communities democracy is oral and each person’s word is respected, while in Congress the exercise of democracy uses written documents and one’s word and good faith don’t mean a thing," she said.

Despite the difficulties, Iván Morales said MAS continues to be a political alternative for overcoming social exclusion and acts as a bridge to bring the poor closer to power.

"As long as we’re the only viable option, the field is open," he said.

 

 


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