February 20, 2007
NLG Delegation Reports on Bolivia
By Lawrence Mark Stern
On January 10, the day that we left Bolivia – and nearly a year after the inauguration of indigenous leader Evo Morales as president – the people of the city of Cochabamba erupted. The indigenous people of that town massed in the central plaza, threatening to take the town, trying to force out the governor of the department, who had allied himself with the right-wing factions opposing Morales. Like their counterparts across Bolivia over the past decade, the people of Cochabamba were struggling against the vestiges of the colonial power structure.
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Only a few days earlier, that same central square of Cochabamba had appeared to strolling members of our Lawyers Guild delegation to be a peaceful, sleepy place, with lunch-time eaters, a trio of kid musicians and dancers, shoe shine boys trying not to take no for an answer, and old Aymara women begging with the same intensity. Indeed, intensity was the only somewhat unsettling feeling in the plaza that afternoon, as some of the people in a small crowd listening to a political speech turned to stare at us hard. The intensity quickly broke, however, when one of us cheered them on, and laughter and expressions of goodwill flowed to us from the Bolivian people, whom we would come to know as generally warm, open, respectful, and, ironically, light hearted.
Car engine used to power a pump to supply water to a community-based water co-op in Cochabamba.
Credit: Judy Somberg
The delegation, composed of legal workers, lawyers, law students, and a scientist, had come to Bolivia to learn about the extraordinary success of Bolivia’s indigenous peoples, who have elected an indigenous president and majority in the legislature for the first time since the Spanish conquest. We were in Cochabamba on our first day in the country, where we met the local founders and leaders of a private water cooperative. In the absence of government-supplied water, they had dug a well and are now using a Nissan car engine to pump water to hundreds of families in the poor areas of the city. We also met Oscar Olivera, the leader of the "Water War" in 2000 that resulted in the expulsion of the foreign corporation with which the government had contracted to supply water at rates the poor could not afford.
These visits and a meeting with Jim Shultz of the Democracy Center, a careful observer of US policy in Bolivia, made absolutely vivid the familiar role of the United States as protector of its corporate interests and compliant governments in foreign countries, at the expense of the development of those countries.
During the next seven days, we managed to go to three other cities. In La Paz, we met with coca farmers who explained with pride that the coca plant has contributed to the health and stamina of the people of Bolivia; now, without apologies, Bolivians will seek to export coca leaves, as they also interdict there diversion into cocaine. Labor lawyers explained the complexities of adapting and changing old colonially imposed systems into a new social welfare order.
View of La Paz
Credit: Judy Somberg
We met with judges of the Supreme Court, government ministers, and advisors to the president. In some cases forthrightly, and in other cases with old-fashioned political side-stepping, they revealed to us the angry and seemingly unbridgeable divisions between the few powerful rich and the masses of the poor, and between various factions and interest groups within the indigenous peoples themselves. One of the leaders of Podemos, a political party of the wealthy elite who have run the country for the last 500 years, cast his constituents as the victims of a new dictatorship. We then heard from some of the family members of the 67 people shot and killed during a mass demonstration against the former right-wing government. The families and their lawyers described the Morales government's efforts to extradite the former president – now living in Maryland – for trial in Bolivia, and the resistance of the US State Department to those efforts so far.
Perhaps the most endearing and inspiring person we met was the Minster of Justice, Casimira Rodriguez, a Quechua woman who had been enslaved as a child. She explained her goal of extending the system of justice into the barrios closest to the people, to enable their immediate and ready access to a government that would hear and adjudicate complaints of injustice as they arise at the source. Her evident humility and sincere concern to make a socialist-humanist government work at the lowest levels close to the people moved us all. When we learned only weeks after our meeting that the new president had fired her, once again the lessons of history – about reality versus idealism in revolutionary movements – intruded on the hopes with which she had confidently left us. But it remained clear from our meeting with the law students who founded and now manage and protect the public university in El Alto (the sprawling indigenous city above La Paz) from political forces who would close it, that the people of Bolivia are now empowered by their experiences of mass organization and will not be contained.
Look for the delegation's complete report on this website – coming soon!
Meeting with leaders who fought for the establishment of a university in El Alto
Credit: Judy Somberg