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Bolivia's Indians confront globalization

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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, it 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 Oct. 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: 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.

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The way the advocates of globalization see it, the Indian movement would
discourage investment and the country will 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 peoples' roofs. Needless to say, "efficiency" means providing services
at the absolutely lowest cost possible and has resulted in prisons that are
seriously understaffed and would threaten service in remote areas including
telephone, postal and even electricity 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, would 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.