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Bolivia's indigenous peoples force new course for their country

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The tens of thousands of Bolivian Indian protesters were going home this weekend. It took near to 70 killed by jittery police and army troops, but through demonstrations and civil disobedience they had brought down a head of state. It was the indigenous - los indios - who had done this, in Bolivia, the most American Indian of all the countries of the Western Hemisphere.

Something very large happened in that land-locked Andean and Amazonian country of 8.5 million in the past month. The mass of Indian people, 70 percent and more of the population, but severely marginalized and impoverished after centuries of continued dispossession, declared that they had had enough. Demonstrations started against a plan to privatize and export natural gas through a $5 billion pipeline to be built by a multinational consortium. As with water, timber and other natural resources being targeted these days, the full privatization of natural gas promised nothing for the regular people of the country. The mobilization grew huge quickly to represent a nationalist sentiment that globalization costs too much to the poor people.

President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada fled to the United States on Oct. 17, after troops under his orders killed 65 people and wounded countless others holding demonstrations. After nearly two centuries of rule by elite politicians unaware or untouched by the reality of their indigenous counterparts, the Bolivian Indian mass is on the move. The common people in largely non-violent demonstrations brought down a government, presided over the installation of the vice president as new head of state and forced upon him a mandate to include more Indians in cabinet-level positions to address the issues of the poor. A cabinet level Department of Ethnic Affairs, headed by an Indian professional, was instituted. The events, which saw the evacuation of dozens of foreign personnel and clear lack of understanding by the U.S. embassy, rocked the Andean region and could be harbinger of much more to come.

A new and yet ancient form of nationalism is emerging in Latin America. It is coming from the grassroots and it has a very essential Indian component. In Bolivia, it has deep roots, dating back to the Aymara people's resistance to the Inca Empire, even before the brutal and rapacious Spanish colony. On the Indian side, it has to do with the dream of the land, with the thought that the hard-working people of the land must have access and in some way benefit from the common natural resources of their country. There is severe deprivation and economic misery in Latin America today, and it is growing worse. What the First World chooses now to call "globalization" is nothing new. Globalization as currently applied appears simply to accelerate extractive colonial tentacles that have forever disempowered and impoverished the local populations throughout the region.

The indigenous campesino base communities of the Andes and the forest peoples of the Amazon region - now united nationally - have long subsisted on domestic production and achieved a form of self-sufficiency that saw the sustenance of a large and varied food supply. Strong production by local farmers and country markets supplied this secondary economy that in past decades provided food at moderate local costs and protected folks against severe deprivation. But this is no longer the case; local production of food is severely under duress throughout the region. The intense new round of globalization "that same old system" has severely impacted agriculture, so that once locally strong economies are destroyed to make way for export crops that leave little behind. Hunger follows this formula and the poor people, with the emergence into leadership of the Indian community bases, are fed up.

An uprising thus topples a government and the lesson is: people can not live in misery forever. Another lesson: There has to be a better, more humane path to the development of humanity. It may be perhaps true that people in the streets this past month in Bolivia might not know the intricacies of natural gas exporting, or of global money markets, as one upper class Bolivian economist crowed on NPR. But what is clear is that the people do know that they are getting ripped off and are willing to die to provoke a change in their social condition. The causes of misery in the region go beyond a thriving illegal drug industry, official corruption, high foreign debt and poverty. There is a history of rapacious dispossession that permeates it all. The problem of a small wealthy elite as the only ones who benefit from economic deals persists and is ever more obvious.

Evo Morales, one of two Indian opposition congressmen who led the mass movement, agreed to support the new government. Morales is the spokesman for the Bolivian coca leaf farmers who narrowly lost the last presidential election. Another main voice is indigenous leader Felipe Quispe, who promised new mobilizations within three months if the new government does not address the severe problems of Bolivia's peasant and working population. Through his Pachakuti Indigenous Movement, Quispe is a leading proponent of Aymara nationalism. Morales, a Quechua, holds the base of support for Bolivia's other major Indian people in his Movement to Socialism. They have forged a sometimes tense but growing national unity with the lowland Amazonian communities and with the trade unions of the country. And they are intent in holding the guiding hand as Bolivia regroups and moves forward.

Beyond the manipulations of traditional left-right political parties guided by Western ideas and largely controlled by non-Indian leaders, a new wind of Indian activism is afoot in Latin America. Perhaps Bolivia is the perfect example, but as similar conditions continue to worsen in Ecuador, Chile, Peru, Guatemala and Mexico, indigenous movements grow stronger.

The industrialized world must offer a better deal to the struggling peoples of the world. Severe deprivation creates chaos and resistance that when repressed, can turn to revolt and disallow governments from governing. It is time for a just social contract, which has always been the only basis for social harmony and prosperity.