By John Williams
The last few weeks have not been easy for Bolivian President Evo Morales.
Morales has had to contend with violent protests urging him to follow up on promises of land reform and nationalization of resources, paired with calls from states threatening to secede if he does.
Morales was swept into office in January 2006 as the first indigenous leader of Bolivia since colonization, but this year he faces opposition to attempts at drafting a new constitution that would give more power to the indigenous people of Bolivia.
Oil-rich eastern states, including the regions of Cochabamba and Santa Cruz, attempted to pass referendums declaring themselves autonomous of the national government. This action has prompted recent protests across Cochabamba, which has a significant indigenous population.
Monica Q., who asked that her last name not be released, is a 19-year-old student in Bolivia and a principal organizer of the protests with the organization La Chispa (The Spark).
“The Bolivian people do not want autonomies. They want bread, land, and jobs,” Monica told City on a Hill Press (CHP) in a phone interview. “We are organizing to show our support for the Morales government against the right.”
She helped organize the Jan. 8 protest where she estimates tens of thousands of Bolivians occupied the capitol of the department of Cochabamba. The protests continued for three days until they ended in violence.
Eric Fromme, a UC Santa Cruz alumnus who recently returned from Bolivia, described the violence.
“The protests were generally peaceful until a youth group opposed to the protestors broke through a police line and began attacking the crowd with baseball bats and lead pipes,” Fromme said. “Theâ€¦ fighting left two protestors dead and hundreds wounded.”
The attacking group, Youth For Democracy, supports proposed moves to autonomy.
In response to this violence, the governor of the Department of Cochabamba, Manfred Villa Reyes, fled to Santa Cruz – a region known for its conservative politics and huge oil reserves.
With protests beginning across the country, Vice President Alvaro Garcia decided that it was time for the government to intervene.
“The government respects the legally existing authorities. We will give the governor military protection to return to Cochabamba,” Garcia said to reporters.
Monica Q. viewed the attempts to calm protestors with harsh criticsm.
“The government is not comprehending the situation very well. The people of Cochabamba are opposed to the policies of Villa Reyes, and as such he has no authority here,” Monica said.
Monica sees this action as one of a number of Morales’ failures to support a true peoples’ democracy.
Jake Salcone, a UCSC student who recently returned from Bolivia where he studied sustainable development, saw things differently.
“I think the Morales government has done a great job balancing the country,” Salcone said.
“It’s not an easy job at all. The rich, land-owning families in the east are backed by huge companies like Monsanto; the wealthiest 10 percent of the population owns 90 percent of the land, while many in the other 90 percent [of the people] are looking for violent revolution.”
Daniella M., another protest organizer with the organization La Chispa, is optimistic that Morales will be the saving link from the horrors of poverty that currently confront the majority of Bolivians, a hope shared by many in the Bolivian community.
“Life is still very hard, but we have made great strides toward the future with the election of President Morales,” she said. “He will lead us as we continue on our journey.”