Oscar Olivera was head of the Cochabamba Factory Workers Union until recently and was one of the Coordinadora’s most visible leaders during the Water War. He and Evo Morales were comrades for years, but have parted ways a long time ago.
I interviewed him about the situation in Bolivia today.
Me : I wanted to speak with you because I know that you have a critical perspective on the government that comes from being involved in the struggles here for a long time.
So, my questions…
What do you think are the possibilities and dangers of the social movements working with the state and this MAS government?
Oscar : I think that in this process, in the current period which began in 2000,
one of the fundamental characteristics of the social movements in Bolivia has been their autonomy. Our social movements have not been subjected to any kind of traditional institutionalisation. Neither have they been under the command of any leader, political party, nor any economic interest. I believe that this is the motor which has driven the process here in Bolivia since the water war.
The movements are autonomous, they are horizontal, and they have established a kind of siege of the state, the traditional state. Demanding democracy, you could say, we have been associating in the streets, taking the paths that lie completely outside of the institutions. We obliged the institutions to respond to the demands of the people, of this Bolivian form of democracy which is participative, direct and autonomous.
I think that lasted until 2005.
Today we can say that a good part of the social movements are coopted in different ways ; jobs, whether they be positions high up in government administration or working as foot soldiers, and in fact that the government has created a kind of subordinate social space for them through this means. Another means of control is the National Council for the Process of Change – a so-called independent social organisation that distributes jobs and administrates the revolutionary process in Bolivia.
Until recently they have been able to dominate the discourse without resistance,
but the social movements and Morales’ own political base have risen up against him in the recent conflict over the petrol price rise.
I think now we can see that the Bolivian people are not going to accept in any way, with any government, any type of economic, political or ideological subordination, and that the people at the base (the working class), the whole of us, whose interests are the lowest priority for whatever government, we are going to recover our autonomy, we will recuperate and we will mobilize as we did before.
So, I believe that this is a good thing. I think that the people at the ground level of our society, although a lot of them support the process of change, a lot of them have hope in Evo Morales, a large part also have decided to recuperate their autonomy, which is good. I think December demonstrated that. The people are recovering their memory and a proportion of the people are recovering their capacity for autonomous action, which I think is great.
Me : I read your interview from January (1) and in this you said that the people could bring down this government, that the gasolinazo was a matter so serious that it could end the current MAS government. People must have a lot of confidence and power if they would be able to do this.
The dynamic between the social movements and the government, do you believe they have changed in the past year, in the time since the people’s climate summit?
Oliver: Definitely! I think in this country, in the whole country, every day there are mobilisations. Motivated by demands for places to live, basic services, water, market stalls, for improvements to our schools, salary increases, for sugar, for petrol.
I think the dynamic is very active. But what is more, I think that one of the characteristics here in Bolivia is that, since 2000, they have created thousands of spaces for the self-management of the people. The people are always discussing and taking decisions over their own problems. And that is good.
I think that this is a practice that the people have been cultivating and practicing. In a constant manner to be reflecting on their lives and acting, because if not, nothing will happen.
What I see as very dangerous is that the government, at some very serious moments,
does not have the capacity to make a presence as a state. For example in the conflict in Potosi, which lasted 9 or 10 years, with the involvement of all the Potosianos. Potosi is the most important social base that the government has. 82% of the people there supported MAS in the recall election. And the government in a series of serious confrontations, just walked away. (2)
They didn’t attend to it, they abandoned it.
And not just in Potosi. I think that there is a conduct of the government, which is
a mix of fear of the people and incapacity to solve the problems that they have.
And in some cases, we could say, they have worn away their support, leading to
One of the first cases of this was in October 2006, in the conflict with the miners of Oruro, in which 17 people died. (3) Then there was the Guarani in September 2006, then here in Cochabamba in early 2007, the 11th of January, resulting in 3 deaths, (4)
in Porvenir in Pando, and with all that happened in the Yungas. (5)
I think that there have been a series of conflicts in Bolivia, but, whether the conflicts were big or small, there is no presence of the state. The state isn’t there. As I told you, I believe it’s a mix of various things. In Potosi, it was that the government had a fear of the people there, an interminable fear.
On the other hand, I think that there isn’t capacity to manage, there is no capacity to solve the problems. And for this reason they stay away and then afterwards they’re scared to go back there.
The government is directing confrontations, at times between sectors. Because the strikes are not against transnationals, nor are they against petrol companies.
Many of the mobilisations are between comrades. Miners of the state against miners organized in co-operatives. In Porvenir there were indigenous people against people organized by the federation of campesinos…
I would say that the enemies are few, the dangers are internal. Past partners. What I think is very dangerous, is when whatever government discredits the social movements which are not controlled by them, saying that they are mobilized by the right or are in some way in the service of the right wing. Or it is a mobilisation that is aimed at disrupting the process of change, and to me that seems very, very dangerous.
Me : Is there repression now? Can critics of the government speak without fear for the consequences? Is it true that there is no violent repression of this kind now? And are there other consequences if you are publicly critical of the government?
Oscar : There is not repression of that kind, we could say, like there was in the past, with people who would arrest you, imprison you, torture you…
I think there is not so much of this, even though the government, well, I would say, they are not using these methods against the social struggles from below.
But yes, there is a kind of criminalisation of opinion, with whatever edict economic or political. There has been a criminalisation of certain acts like, for example, with the ex-mayor of La Paz, the governor of Tarija (6) and who knows what else.
So, I think that on a level, there is a kind of political persecution, totally legal, perhaps, but they inflict a kind of revenge for your criticism of the government.
I think that, underneath, what the government is doing is to establish in a manner that is very subtle, very delicate, very underground, I would say, a process of discrediting based in slander, sowing seeds of mistrust in your independence in the eyes of the movement.
This is not an open policy of the government, this apparatus for discrediting. So, for me, this is more dangerous, because you never have the opportunity to defend yourself in public. And because it is at the brink of criminalisation.
I think this is their policy.
Me : Yes, thanks. My next question is… climate change. How do you think it will change the situation here in Cochabamba and in Bolivia? Is it an imminent threat or something for the future?
Oscar : I believe it is an issue that is urgent and current. The fact of the crisis unleashed in the Andes, the fact that the water of Lake Titicaca is in a process of drying out inexorably.
Here, the sources of water in Cochabamba, problems of organization which are impeding us from bringing water to key zones.
And I would say that, although Bolivia does not contribute substantially to the effects of climate change, and the policies, it will affect us regardless. The policies of our government, which continues under totally capitalist norms, extractivist models of production, say petroleum extraction, which contributes to pollution of water, community water sources…
This extractivist model is being carried out strictly under capitalist norms. So, we have construction of dams and roads in areas of the Amazon.
I think there is a rhetoric of this government, a discourse, which has nothing to do with what is really going on here. So, this is worrying. But, it is interesting that, the good part of all that is happening with climate change, because it has it’s effects directly on the population, through the extreme floods of this year for example, I think it is making people reflect on many things. I think that there is a process of reflection, of discussion over models of development. I think the people are asking, where are we going?
I think that’s good, but I hope it won’t be too late.
Me : It’s interesting that there is this difference between reality and rhetoric. It’s like that everywhere, but Bolivia, seen from the UK or internationally, appears to some people like it might be a different kind of state. The rhetoric and the positions they take can be strong, but the reality is something else, do you agree?
Oscar : The rhetoric has nothing to do with the reality.
I think, what is happening in Bolivia is not only new for our country, it’s also new for many places in the world, which looks at Bolivia as a new model, which is a real possibility, and if it is not going to function it will be a big frustration.
In my opinion those that govern us now, Morales and company are not understanding
very well this historic role or responsibility for other peoples and other countries.
Me : Yes, sure. Because many people in the UK who are involved in movements against climate change, and other movements too, hope that Bolivia can be a different kind of country, but, it’s different in some ways, and in others it’s more of the same. Do you agree?
Oliver : I think that in Bolivia, it’s a bit…that the positions, the principles, clearly don’t influence in a substantial way the life of the poulation. What is happening, it’s a kind of cooptation of identity.
The values, the culture, the indigenous past. This revalorisation of our indigenous heritage, it is very important, that people feel curious about their origins, their language. I would say that this is the best part of the process of change.
But the impact which it has on the lived reality of the population, and on the possibility to emulate this new model of construction in other places…
I believe it is just talk.