Lessons for the U.S. in Bolivia

LA PAZ, BOLIVIA — I’ve spent a lot of time in recent months pondering people power, both for my article on the fifth anniversary of the Iraq War and in preparing for my trip to Bolivia, where since 2000 popular movements and direct action have ousted two presidents, thwarted water and natural gas privatization efforts, and brought former coca grower Evo Morales and his MAS (Movement Toward Socialism) Party to power.

Here in Bolivia, where everyone down to the poor street vendors are organized into unions and federations, the people can shut down entire cities or critical infrastructure for weeks on end. Solving the myriad problems facing this poor country may still be difficult, particularly with Morales facing a U.S.-backed upper class in revolt over the new proposed constitution, but there is a sense of real empowerment here, of true democracy in action.

In the U.S., we seem to have forgotten that definition of democracy, instead content to define it as what we do in voting booths, choosing between the two parties every couple years, or bitching about the government in conversations or blog posts. Five years ago today, we saw an exception to that approach on the streets of San Francisco.

But what if we didn’t go home? What if it was like Cochabamba, Bolivia in 2000, or El Alto and other departments spilling into La Paz in 2003, and the people stayed in the streets, absorbed the police and military crackdown, and developed into a broad uprising that drew in the middle class and made governing the country — let alone launching an ill-advised war — an untenable position?

It’s tough to imagine that scenario in the U.S., isn’t it? But whereas President Bush has arrogantly condemned Bolivia for what he sees as “a breakdown in democracy,” I think there are important lessons that we gringos can learn from our Bolivian brothers and sisters. Here, with no power beyond direct action, they have fundamentally altered the course of their country. But we in the States, with all our wealth and power, have allowed our government to illegally run amuck in the world, causing irreparable harm. And I think that’s something we should all ponder today and in the months ahead.