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Mohawk: Bolivia's Indians Confront Globalization

In 1781 Andean Indians laid siege to La Paz, the capital of Bolivia, for 109 days. The white people were reduced, it is said, to eating shoe leather and rats. A Spanish army rescued the colonists and captured the leader, Tupak Kateri. His was a gruesome execution (tied to four horses, drawn and quartered), but he left his tormentors with a prophecy: "I will return," he said, "and I will be millions." It is a prophecy that is echoing in the mountains these days, and it has the attention of the United States. Bolivia is the poorest country in South America, and the Indians are the poorest people in Bolivia. For three years there has been political turmoil there (some call it insurrection, a term which has a connotation that agitation for political change lacks legitimacy), and the movement has frustrated multinational corporations, challenged the American behemoth's designs for globalization, and nearly elected an openly Indian president. Had it been successful in the latter endeavor, he would have been the first Indian president of any country in the Western Hemisphere since Benito Juarez in Mexico in 1858.

The current movement began with the Zapatistas in 1994 (also directed against globalization) and was echoed in movements in Ecuador, Guatemala, and especially in Bolivia. Bolivia is special. About 1.5 million Indians live in autonomous villages—places over which the government has little or no control. Their movement is evolving in an unusual way. Most movements for change idealize a past and try to rebuild a version of it. Many see their movement as postmodern, where modernity is defined as the arrival of Columbus, the conquest, the subjugation, slavery, racism, and all the negatives that define Indian life since 1492. They speak of going past all that to a new day, and in Bolivia Indians lead the anti-corporate, anti-globalism effort. In 2002, Indians led a revolt against privatization, a key piece of globalization policy, when the Bechtel Corporation tried to gain a monopoly over all the water in Cochabamba, Bolivia's third-largest city. Bechtel tried to charge so much for the water that it threatened to bankrupt the people of the city. Demonstrators forced Bechtel out and reinstated the public ownership of the water system.

In 2003, following U.S. desires, the Bolivian government sold rights to natural gas which was then headed to the market for Mexican and U.S. consumers. On October 12, the 511-year anniversary of the landing of Columbus, Bolivian soldiers attacked Indian peasants in the Andean city of El Alto, the largest Indian city in Latin America. Hundreds were wounded and 65 died, but it sparked a nationwide movement of peasants, Indians, and workers that culminated in the siege of La Paz and forced President Gonzales Sanchez de Lozado to flee to Miami. (The President had impeccable globalization credentials; he was a mining executive trained at the University of Chicago in free-market economics.)

Indian movements have shaken the status quo in Latin America. The Mapuche Indians are part of a major political resistance to timber companies in southern Chile, and in Ecuador Indian demonstrations against oppressive prices toppled the government in 2000. Critics of the Indian movements, such as the Wall Street Journal, speak with alarm about an Indian movement which wants to do away with the nation-state of Bolivia and return to the days when Indian nations ruled the land under traditional laws. Proponents of that way of thinking say that in those times, there were no rich or poor, and no acquiescence to exploitation. Bolivia is a mountain country with cities in very cold areas. It also has enormous natural gas resources. American companies see the problem as how to get the gas out of Bolivia to someplace friendlier, like Chile, where it could be liquefied and sent to markets in the north. They would like to accomplish this with as little interference from Bolivia's Indians as possible.

The way the advocates of globalization see it, the Indian movement would discourage investment and the country would become even poorer. The Indians in opposition to globalization are called radicals and other names because of their opposition. They point out that they benefit little from privatization of their natural resources and suffer much from the imposition of economic policies from the North. Since then the new president, Carlos Mesa, has promised to hold a referendum on how the gas can be developed. Plans are being made for a new constitutional convention which may give Indians more political power.

The most extreme advocates of unrestrained globalization believe in the privatization of everything, and they are intent on exporting this idea to the world. Such people believe there should be no public ownership of anything. Under their plans, postal services, social services, prisons, public transportation, parks, roads, utilities, water works and everything governments have been known to own should be sold off in the name of "efficiency." At Cochabamba, Bechtel laid claim even to the water that ran off people's roofs. Needless to say, "efficiency" means providing services at the absolutely lowest cost possible, which has resulted in prisons that are seriously understaffed and would threaten services including telephone, postal and even electricity in remote areas because corporations would cease functioning whenever they were not making money. In the United States, corporations long ago acquired the status of "persons" under the law, but they are not people. Given the standard of behavior they exhibit, if they were persons they would be diagnosed as sociopathic because they exhibit no sense of responsibility to society. Ask Bolivians about this.

Bolivians have written letters to Iraq with stories of the struggle against Bechtel. Iraq is to be the U.S poster child for privatization, and under occupation its laws were changed to permit foreigners to own practically everything. It is illegal under international law for an occupying power to transfer the assets of an occupied nation, and this may be a reason for the early transfer of "sovereignty." The Baathists were a socialist political party and the government provided free food and a wide range of benefits to the population and owned a wide range of assets. Iraqi oil, when it is flowing as the Bush administration hopes, will provide a revenue stream that could pay for a whole range of corporate services, from water to transportation to electricity to education and more.

That's what was, and is, missing in poor countries like Bolivia: a revenue stream to enrich the corporations. In Bolivia, the problem was getting blood from a stone. In Iraq, the problem is winning the hearts and minds while bleeding the people through corporate billing for everything of value while keeping them from having anything to say about it.

John C. Mohawk, Ph.D., columnist for Indian Country Today, is an author and professor in the Center for the Americas at the State University of New York at Buffalo.



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