Bolivia Stands Strong Against Economic Globalization

Sunday 2 February 2003, by Melanie TAKEFMAN


Under the threat of hemispheric free trade, Bolivia, South America’s poorest country, is resisting foreign dominance. With little economic clout, Bolivians rely on non-violence and the solidarity of the working classes to counter globalization.

Straddling the Andes and the Amazon Basin, Bolivia is rich in natural resources. However, its economy is dependent on exportation and political decisions reflect this subservience.

At the FTAA summit in Ecuador last October, 34 national trade ministers resolved to reduce tariffs and agricultural subsidies. Poorer countries, like Bolivia, have long opposed U.S. tariffs, which makes exporting to that country nearly impossible, while their own minimal protectionism is life support to their economies.

Patricia Ugalde is the communications officer at Mujeres en Acción, a non-profit organization which trains female entrepreneurs. The free market, she said, "has undermined any effort we have made to assist women with low incomes in their entrepreneurial endeavours." A small sausage producer recently collapsed because cheaper, illegal Argentinian imports flooded the Bolivian market. "The same happened with several brands of homemade jam," Ugalde said. "The quality was much better but they could not compete with those prices."

Ugalde asserted that supporting small businesses is one way to resist the deficiencies of a globalized market. She added that the public must be educated and subsequently mobilized in protest. Anti-globalization activists are also calling for a national referendum to determine Bolivia’s participation in the FTAA.

Drug trade

The drug trade in Bolivia epitomizes the struggle against capitalism. Coca has been used to relieve hunger and altitude sickness for 1 500 years. Yet since the 1960s, when Bolivia started producing cocaine for North American consumption, the U.S. government has vehemently opposed coca cultivation.

With the "Dignity Plan" of the 1990s, the U.S. and Bolivian governments introduced alternative crops to the coca-rich Chapare region. The plan also allows cocaleros (coca farmers) in the Yungas region to farm for traditional and medicinal purposes.

In 2002, the U.S. allocated $29 million for assistance in legal crop production as well as roads and scholarships - if coca disappears. However, at its lowest price, coca is twice as profitable as pineapples and up to five times as profitable as macadamia nuts, two alternative crops.

Since the inception of the Dignity Plan, an "Expeditionary Task Force" of Bolivian military reservists has besieged the Chapare. From Christmas 2002 to January 22nd, seven people were killed in clashes between cocaleros and the military.

On January 13th, the cocaleros, led by Evo Morales of the MAS (Socialist Movement) party, erected roadblocks, demanding an end to coca eradication and Bolivia’s withdrawal from the FTAA. President Goni Sanchez de Lozada refused to negotiate until the blockades were removed.

Days before the 2002 elections, U.S. Ambassador Manuel Rocha announced that if the public elected Morales as president, the U.S. would embargo Bolivian gas and textiles and cut funding of development projects.
In response to Rocha’s comments, Morales said "if they [the U.S. government] want respect, they must respect us. That means no more conditions, plans or programs.We will not be isolated."

Rocha’s rhetoric was Morales’s best publicity stunt. MAS received 20.9 percent of the popular vote in the June 30th elections, second to Nationalist Revolutionary Movement’s 22.5 percent.

Gilberto Valencia, a Canadian who has worked for several Bolivian social organizations, said that Morales’s success was a blow to U.S. hegemony. However, "it seems pretty obvious that the government could not stop, even if it wanted to, the forceful eradication campaign which is at the core of U.S.-Bolivian relations and the U.S. war on drugs."

Decline of big business
In 2000, a general strike forced the Bolivian government to break its contract with the Bechtel Corporation, a San Francisco-based company that took over the public water system in the city of Cochabamba. Water prices increased up to 300 percent.

Subsequently, Bechtel sued Bolivia for repayment of the $25 million lost in the investment, via a branch of the World Bank. A humanitarian coalition from 41 countries contested the suit and in July 2002 the city of San Francisco ordered Bechtel to recant the claim. The coalition affirmed that with $25 million, Bolivia could hire 3 000 rural doctors, 12 000 teachers and give 125 000 families access to public water. Nevertheless, Bechtel’s suit is underway.

Another victory against corporate domination was the closure of all McDonald’s restaurants this November. Bolivians had mixed reactions: many people lost their job as a consequence. An editorialist in the Boliviapress newsletter called McDonald’s a "foreign spine in the cultural body of our country," adding that most ingredients were imports - including potatoes, the staple of Bolivian agriculture.

Evo Morales’s vision of a united hemispheric resistance may soon become reality: "Bolivia has always had its natural resources. But they have robbed us and have made us poor," he said. "The World Bank’s solution led to confrontation [...] Sooner or later, the whole world will join the battle against globalization."

Melanie Takefman, special collaboration

The author recently came back from Bolivia where she worked with a local NGO.

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