Sep 30

Eyes open, mouth closed: Bolivia’s history of fear and silence

by in Bolivia

The five members of the Comite Civico, in Potosí, Bolivia asked that their photos not appear in this media | by brandon c janes iv

The five members of the Comite Civico in Potosí, Bolivia asked that their photos not appear in this media | by brandon c janes iv

A wise editor once told me, “Names make news.” Without names you have no sources, and without sources you have no story.

This story has no named sources, because there are not many people in Potosí – the poorest region of the poorest country in South America – who are willing to put their name next to an opinion about the government.

Even the editor of the local newspaper, El Potosí, refused to be a source in my articles.

However, that Bolivians do not feel safe speaking publicly about their government, reveals more about this country than any source ever would.

“Bolivia is going through a lot of changes, and it is a delicate time. That is why people do not want to talk,” the editor of El Potosí said.

Nom de guerre

President Evo Morales, who is up for reelection in 2014, currently has no legitimate opposition. His party, the Movimiento al Socialismo (Movement towards Socialism) or MAS party,” also controls the Bolivian Congress.

On Friday, I met with an old Potosino man to learn the history of the country’s fear of retaliation – which is based in a long history of violence, corruption and secrecy. After more than two hours of explaining what he called Morales’ “democratic dictatorship,” he said he could only gave me his nom de guerre, “Juan,” out of fear for his family.

Juan lived through Bolivia’s civil war in 1949, the Bolivian revolution in 1952, the nationalization of the mining industry in 1952 and the military dictatorship which began in 1971. He told me about the many violent shifts in government, false imprisonment of community leaders and scores of murders in Potosí, which is the birthplace of South America’s mining industry.

President Morales, who began his political life as a leader of the cocaleros, or the coco growers union, maintains his political strength though connection with the peasants who work their fields in rural areas of Bolivia, Juan said.

“They say he is one of the country people, that’s why we can’t talk bad about him,” Juan said. “The farmers will load up in their dump trucks, come to the city and strike.”

The street out side the Comité Cívico de Potosí, a private, non-partasin group that organizes demonstrations to push the agendas of local citizens | photo by brandon c janes iv

The street outside the Comité Cívico de Potosí, a private, non-partisan group that organizes demonstrations to push the agendas of local citizens | photo by brandon c janes iv

The public soapbox: Comité Cívico

In Potosí, there is one place where citizens feel the freedom to express their opinions about their government: the Comité Cívico, an elected assembly which organizes strikes and road blocks to push the agenda of the local community.

I attended one of their town hall meetings on Wednesday in a large Spanish colonial house, on the steep hill below Cerro Rico, Potosí’s famous silver and tin mine.

It was a rowdy night and the meeting was standing room only.

The agenda comprised strictly local issues, a new concrete factory coming to town and a highway to the airport, which was taking too long and costing too much money. Cell phones rang constantly and cigarette smoke made it hard at times to see the dais.

After the announcements were made, the citizens were given a turn to address the group.

Speaking about the concrete factory, one man said, “We need to have a position before the government, companeros, right now, we need to present them with these conditions and ensure that they meet them, companeros.”

Dramatic speeches from these men, many of them politicians in training, went on for hours. After it was all over, we filed out of the committee chamber and onto the steep cobblestone streets of Potosí, where I spoke with some of the community leaders, representatives of the university, transportation cooperatives, the hospital and other city entities.

The group’s unity is what gives it its power, one man said. The ability to shut the city down if the committee’s needs are not met.

Civic committees – which are found in most major Bolivian cities – have no political persuasion and often do not function unless the committee president is popular among all entities.

At last, the city of Potosí seemed ready to go on the record about their government. But even these men, who had been so outspoken against their government moments before, were not willing to give me their names for fear of violent retaliation.

Learning from recent history

Historically protests organized by civic committees or labor unions have played key roles in the dramatic shifts in politics in Bolivia.

In 2003, a proposal by the capitalist Bolivian president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada to export natural gas reserves to U.S. through a port in Chile led to violent protests in the city of El Alto, just outside of La Paz.

More than 60 people died in the unrest – which involved armed conflicts between protesters and police. The protests, led by Morales (then just a cocalero organizer), laid the foundations for reforms in Bolivia’s government today – the nationalization of major industries, such as hydrocarbon and petroleum, and anti-U.S. coca eradication policies.

After allegations that he issued brutal force against his own citizens, Lozada resigned his presidency and fled the country on a commercial flight to the U.S. Lozada’s exile in the U.S. remains a thorn in the side of international relations between the U.S. and Bolivia.

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