Democracy and Imperialism in Latin America

I finally got a chance to watch Rachel Boynton’s excellent documentary “Our Brand is Crisis“, a film I have been meaning to see since it came out sometime in 2006.  This one really set my wheels turning.

I don’t have too much to say about the first 2/3rds of the film, as this is the part that has been commented on and critiqued the most.  In it, James Carville and his cadre of political consultants help mold former Bolivian President and 2002 Presidential candidate Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada (“Goni”) into a winning politician.  Their Machiavellian take-down of the dreaded Manfred Reyes Villa is an all-too-familiar rehash of mudslinging politics a-la-United States of America.  It was, I must admit, astounding to see Goni pull off a victory with just 22% of the vote on election eve in June of 2002.  Carville and his cronies were jubilant.

Watching Goni on the campaign trail, it quickly became evident that here was a man who was only marginally Bolivian; at best, Goni comes off as a Spanish-speaking American-bred technocrat with a deep understanding of Bolivian power circles and a much more superficial comprehension of an ethnically complex Bolivian society.

For me, the film really got interesting when Goni took power.  Interestingly, his US-based political consultants, at least some of them, seem to have stayed behind as image groomers and pollsters.  In the latter-half of 2002, Bolivia was no longer the country Sanchez de Lozada had presided over less than a decade earlier.  The game had changed, radically.  The Carvillites had never seen a social movement of the type Evo Morales represented; in every sense of the word, they were treading on foreign ground.

The imagery that Boynton captured during the mass ground swell of public dissent is unforgettable: Morales in the street, surrounded by grassroots political activists, protesting Goni’s neoliberal policies; tear-gas and police brutality in response; Sanchez de Lozada, with the unmistakable look of fear in his eyes, sequestered in the Presidential palace, refusing to make a public appearance, instead addressing the Bolivian people via television announcements; huge torrents of people walking through the streets, burning and blockading in outright defiance of a political system that had completely unraveled under the crude mismanagement of corrupt, neoliberal technocracy; and, of course, the Carvillites, scared and confused, wringing their hands and warning Goni, supplicating him, practically begging him to make an appearance, to negotiate, to react.  Goni’s American political consultants seem almost bewildered by his inability to formulate socially progressive policies in response to the demands of the Bolivian public.

Something about Bolivia, and about Morales, finally clicked in my mind when I watched this film.  In 2002, Evo was a regional candidate, strong in Cochabamba and the rural areas, but much less so in urban areas and other geographic regions.  His meteoric rise was made possible by one simple and powerful act: he listened to the people.  Boynton’s documentary clearly demonstrates an important point: Evo Morales’ political platform was not the product of pollsters and political hackery, it was a result of his simple gesture to listen to the will of the people.

The protests in the street that began with Goni’s announcement of an increase in taxes on the poorest sector of society and ended with his ouster in October of 2003, were underwritten by several majoritarian demands on the government: no exporting gas through Chile, a constitutional assembly, no more capitalization (privatization) of public works, and a greater share of oil and gas revenues for Bolivian society.  On many of these points, gas through Chile, for example, bookish critics might argue the rationality, the economic returns, or the logistics of a such a decision; such arguments, however, are largely irrelevant.  Whether one agrees or not with the public’s opinion, it doesn’t matter.  Simply put, Bolivians didn’t want their gas to go through Chile, they still hated Chile for deep-seated historical reasons, and it was a humiliating slap in the face when this bitter political pill was forced down their throats.

A poignant moment in the film comes when Goni escapes to Washington DC, seated in the heart of the world’s empire, he reflects philosophically on his shortcomings as a second-term President, and, much like a freshly-minted college student, discusses his strategy for getting to know the streets of his new home.  The Carvillites were brought on to get Goni elected; their influence over his policies and his message seems to have evaporated after he took power, thus the hand-wringing and bewilderment during the meltdown.  Who was pulling the strings after that is anyone’s guess, but Goni’s choice of home after his exile makes a pretty compelling case in and of itself.

And this, I argue, is the most outright (but often overlooked) message of this film.  It’s unlikely that Goni was unaware of the simple demands of the Bolivian population.  Those demands were being shouted in the street day after bloody day.  He was unable to act because, at his core, he was an American puppet, and true democracy, it seems, is at odds with the interests of Empire.

This is why, Evo Morales, in implementing the will of the people is simultaneously forced to resort to populist haranguing of the American Empire.  This explains all of the posturing and bluster of Morales and his allies; it accounts for the theatrics of Hugo Chavez, the diplomatic meltdowns, the would-be coup d’etats, and the bellicose stance of imperial proxy states.  Say what you will about these two, Morales and Chavez both enjoy large majorities in Bolivia and Venezuela, respectively.  Simply put, they are popular because they have implemented the policies that their social movements have demanded of them.  And now, in comparison with the situation in 2003 at least, Bolivia enjoys a slight but delicate balance of social stability.

True, Bolivia remains a continual political drama.  Those of us who have lived in or visited La Paz know well enough that a day without protests is like a day without a sunset.  But these protests are smaller and isolated, conducted by special interest groups who are reacting to issues of the day: miners protesting falling commodity prices, used-clothes retailers organizing against a new import law, transport professionals demonstrating for higher fuel subsidies.  In essence, this is lobbying Bolivian style.

Reacting to the clear popular demands of Bolivian society, however, is at best a medium-term solution to what ails the country.  The Bolivian populace, like most people busy with the arduous task of day to day survival, do not have the time or the wherewithal to articulate a long-term vision and strategy for the countries future.  Clearly, they can be relied upon to react when they don’t like a particular policy agenda, but the country itself is still, in many ways, in a vacuum.  The Morales reforms may have laid the foundation for true democracy, but Morales himself has failed to articulate and implement a real vision of a prosperous and self-sufficient Bolivia.

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