Friday, March 13, 2009

Victor Cardenas, mob rule, and Evo

My friend Otto is mad at me. He has noticed that I have not commented on a recent happening in Bolivia, the politically motivated attack on the home of Victor Cardenas. I had been avoiding it, but I have also been avoiding a number of big stories, like corruption in YPFB, a CIA scandal, and the expulsion of a US diplomat. The reasons are two fold.

One, I have been preoccupied lately and an upcoming project will necessitate putting the blog on hold for two or three months.

Two, sometimes events happen when commentary requires more than polemics, a few turns of phrase, and genuinely requires nuanced thought. This is one of those. I don't know if you've noticed, we don't do a lot of that here and I don't think anonymous caustic blogs are always the best place for such discussions.

But Otto wants it, so I will give it my thoughts. This requires me commenting on Jim Shultz's blog and his take, he gives a basic run down and some useful quotes from various parties. I also typically don't do this because it will require that I express some of the differences I have with Shultz, part of why I don't typically link to his musings on this blog (not that he links to any other Bolivia blog anyways). Shultz neglects dimensions of the story and is lesser for it.

The home of Victor Cardenas, an opponent of Morales' political agenda, was invaded last week by members of the Aymara community of which he is apart. The home was vandalized and Cardenas' wife and children were present, they were physically forced from the home. The reprehensible and criminal act has been condemned by all corners of Bolivian politics.

Shultz portrays the act as irrational mob violence visited upon Cardenas, neglecting the motive of the mob in carrying out the attack. I believe motives are as important as violence to understanding a criminal act. If you want to understand why Cardenas' own Aymara community would so violently turn against him you need to know the following.

is a political traitor to the indigenous movement.

Cardenas began his political career as a militant Katarista, Aymara nationalists who wagged war, at times armed, against the Bolivian state for the recognition and establishment of indigenous rights. In the early 1990s Cardenas came to lead a faction of the movement which sought reconciliation by politically aligning themselves with the center-right. Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada made Cardenas his VP and put an indigenous face on his disastrous neoliberal policies, responsible for the decimation of rural peasant economies and communities from which Cardenas came. Originally hailed as a beacon of hope for Bolivia's indigenous, Cardenas proved just as corrupt and ineffectual as his neoliberal buddies to whose politics he has remained loyal. In 2002 and 2003 these politics were behind the draconian clamp down of protests in altiplano Aymara communities by the national military, resulting in murders at the hands of soldiers and eventually escalating into the 2003 Gas War which unseated Sanchez de Lozada. Cardenas continues to speak on behalf of Bolivia's indigenous while his neoliberal politics are roundly rejected by all major indigenous organizations, recently coming out strongly in opposition to the new constitution which dramatically expands indigenous rights.

The stupid and ultimately criminal occupation of Cardenas' home last week by his neighbors was clearly meant to protest Cardenas' personal enrichment at the expense of his neighbors, claiming they would expropriate the property and transform it into an elderly home. Community leaders noted the contempt Cardenas had shown towards deference to communal authority. This is more important than you think. If you are subjecting your understanding of Bolivia to ideal western concepts of individualism you have already failed. Do these things justify the attack? No. But it is important you understand, so let's move on.

Treatment of the attack in the Bolivian press has been sensationalist and politically motivated. Period. It hurts Evo to have his supporters be seen as thugs, so the hostile corporate press will exploit the incident to their full advantage. A clear double standard operates. When homes of Carlos Romero or Saul Avalos in Santa Cruz were fire bombed the events brought scant attention and barely made the front page. Cardenas has also used the occasion to exploit his wife's and children's suffering, using the media spot light the day after the attack to announce his Presidential campaign.

The current fixation on Morales is wrong headed. Ultimate responsibility rests with those community leaders who participated in and facilitated these acts. This was not a case of Evo's government engaging in political intimidation of opponents. The decision to occupy Cardenas home was made at a local level and ultimate responsibility belongs at the local level. Bolivia does not need or want Evo to simply fill in the traditional paternal role of a criollo President in brown skin, passing out favor and punishment to indigenous communities based on "good behavior". Democracy demands deliberative community process and responsibility, so don't ask Evo to act otherwise. In my opinion, Evo has fulfilled his role as President and source of moral guidance for the indigenous movement in denouncing the acts while recognizing the legitimate frustrations and anger motivating them. Further mitigating actions belong to the justice system.

Shultz takes exception to Evo's recognition of Cardenas as a traitor to the indigenous movement. I disagree with Schultz. Legitimating grievances does not legitimize violence, repeat does not. Shultz's equivocation of recognizing grievances as condoning violence is unsophisticated for a man with such extensive knowledge of lived experience in Bolivia and frankly child-like.

Bolivia's indigenous communities have no reason to tolerate Cardenas' pretensions to speak on their behalf and they should not. He ought to be marginalized as a fraud and scam.

Shultz passing of judgement while offering little to no context or nuance plays directly into the sensationalist and colonialist game of elite interests behind the Bolivian corporate press, of dividing Bolivia's indigenous politics into "good Indians" and "bad Indians", frightening middle class Bolivians with the prospect of a coming Indian Revenge should the savages be given to much power (not speak of the racial fears present in the western press). The degree to which Shultz has unwittingly placed himself in poor company can be seen in the safe-harbor his discourse has offered for genuine racists and hatemongers trolling his comment section.

Otto on the other hand has given us a very insightful and constructive analogy to think through. Otto reminds us of the violence visited upon Nazis after the liberation of concentration camps by their former captives, principally Jews. Jewish grievances were certain and legitimate and the summary justice executed debatable, however in the fifty years since we have witnessed the memory of Nazi crimes exploited by ideologues and monsters to perpetuate blind self-victimization and outright genocide, as most recently witnessed in Gaza. Certainly we do not want the same fate for Bolivia. Like 20th century Jewish politics, one cannot intelligently pass judgment or enlighten opinion without first accounting specific grievances, in their context. Such neglect often plays to malevolent intent.

The Jewish analogy also brings us to another important question concerning the incident. Does the attack, as suggested at Gringo Tambo, evoke a "worrisome trend" in Bolivian politics of violent intimidation of political opponents, making the analogy of Morales to Mugabe less hyperbolic? No. If other incidents like this were to occur, yes. Of course we know that the opposite is not true, MAS politicians have routinely been the subject of physical assault. That said, the government's rejection of the attack is important to setting a necessary precedent, before a trend emerges. If Morales wanted to exploit the vicitimization of indigenous peoples in Bolivia to suppress political opponents, frankly, far worse would have already been visited upon Cardanes, Costas, Marinkovic, and the rest.

It really is important not to be flip in one's assessment of this incident. For instance, while delivering an insightful point about democracy in Bolivia Otto uses patronizing and racist language, clearly not the intent. He calls Bolivia's democracy "still in its infancy", "primitive", and in a "childish phase". Otto's intent was not to call Bolivians a bunch of child-like Indians, in need of proper guidance to grow into a mature democracy like the United States (where apparently the Bill of Rights has not existed for the past eight years). Otto was attempting to make the more nuanced point that a population so long oppressed often does not have the ready civic mechanisms at hand to justly express its rule.

"Mob rule" is not a useful term here. "Mob rule" is so often denounced in Bolivia and interchangeable with so many kinds of collective action as to be meaningless. Usually it means denouncing the democratic right of Bolivians to take to the streets and hold a corrupt politician to publicly account. Here the "mob" desired similar ends but acted in a fashion more like the corporatism of their former masters. The incident points to the challenges of constructing what is referred to as "communitarian democracy" in Bolivia from not only external neocolonialist threats but also the internal legacies of colonial rule, patterns of rule whose exercisers are as equally treasonous to the creation of a culture of life as Cardenas.

Of course teasing out the dimensions of such problems goes way beyond Morales. Questions of democracy, rulers-ruled, and community will still be with us after Morales is long gone. You won't find quick answers or solutions (besides one's own moral self-satisfaction) to these questions in sensationalist headlines, trite denunciations of "mob rule", or a white man lecturing Indians on proper self-governance. It certainly goes beyond the discussion I have given you here.


Bina said...

Bravo, and well said. Best explanation I've seen so far.

BTW, apropos the Jewish analogy: The reason Jewish revenge-seeking wasn't tolerated after WWII was because the Allies had taken the job of punishing the Nazis on themselves. The real reason: they wanted the worst butchers to remain unpunished in order to train their own covert operatives in torture and interrogations, not to mention terrorism--which was later applied to LatAm and yes, BOLIVIA. (Sick, but true. Remember the "Fiancés of Death" from the cocaine wars of the dictatorship era? They got a little technical help from the boyz in the swastikas. The same ones the UJC kiddies pay tribute to today in their Nazimobiles. It just keeps going round and round and round...)

anderson said...

Nice piece, Duderino. Excellent, really.

Otto Rock said...

I wasn't mad at you, dude. I was jumping the gun a bit by "being disappointed at the silence" as i know you have another life and don't blog every day. But no way was i mad.

Please accept my apologies for presumptuous.

Anyway, you nailed it here. This is one helluva essay.

Otto Rock said...

Yeah, about this:

"....Otto uses patronizing and racist language, clearly not the intent. He calls Bolivia's democracy "still in its infancy", "primitive", and in a "childish phase"...."

You correctly summized that it was a more nuanced point being made, but I will say that i chose those words very carefully when writing that sentence. In fact i changed the words a couple of times.

The idea was to make a point by using polemic, so yes it WAS the intent. The word "primitive" in particular had me debating with myself for while, as it's one of the most denegrating words in the polite mouth and quite hateful, really.

But it was chosen deliberately, be in no doubt. I wasn't being polite and you're smart enough to understand why. Using these words normally reserved for the hatemongers is not a choice made lightly chez Otto (a house that has impeccable altiplano culture credentials, it should be pointed out).

Anonymous said...

Well this was bound to happen. The issue however is not that Cardenas is an opponent of Morales.

Cardenas in fact served as VP for Goni, a fugitive from Bolivian law. His own role in the massacre of his fellow citizens, and the traitorous policies of the former administrations is unclear, but he was close enough to Goni to be there and do nothing.

It's amazing he didn't meet a worse fate before really, and it's a testament to Bolivia's constitutional path that not all Bolivians are convinced is the right one. Morales is a moderate compared to many in the social movements who are far more radical.

Add to that, that he is the lowest of the low, a traitor to his own people who sold them out for personal gain. I'm sure he has been sticking it to his neighbors for a long time before this incident.

And colonized people have a long experience with traitors who have brought down whole civilizations before with their little betrayals.

Nolan said...

Well said. While I agree with Otto's point I read through the comments posted on Schultz' blog and was horrified at the level of racism and political opportunism. To be honest I oppose the violence against Cardenas' family on practical grounds, as it was never going to accomplish anything but give the opposition an excuse to blame this on the government. His family might be innocent but Cardenas himself is not a man I have sympathy before, the fact that he immediately used this for political purposes shows just what kind of man he is.

corvad said...

definitely insightful counterpoint to Jim's entry. I am, however, interested in the use of the word "traitor" with respect to Cardenas, although I concur with the intended significance associated with the term. Here's the basic problem -- when speaking of a betrayed indigenous set of causes, one assumes a singularity that isn't necessarily or always the case. Up until the 1970s, indigenous interests were politically ruptured from national labor interests in Bolivia through the military-campesino pact, whereby rural campesinos received forms of patronage from military dictatorships in exchange for political support of regimes that were decidedly more repressive against a labor force (also largely indigenous, but whose livelihoods were more dependent upon international political-economic configurations than subsistence and cash-crop agriculture of the altiplano) associated with extractive export industries. Were indigenous leaders associated with that pact traitors to the indigenous cause, or did they reflect fundamental differences in evolving political-economic interests? With respect to Cardenas, Goni certainly used him as a way to re-conscript indigenous politics in the construction of a national-neoliberal hegemonic configuration. We like to think of that process as fundamentally oppressive because, well, it's true, but the construction of consent to the new regime also involved new forms of concessions that paved the way for increased participation in the state by indigenous groups. In the 1990s, perhaps the most significant change allowed for increased national indigenous representation through political decentralization, and Cardenas was clearly associated with these reforms.

This is NOT to exonerate Cardenas, nor to exculpate the neocoloniality of neoliberalism. It's just that by posing a single individual as a traitor, one invests that individual with the characteristics of underlying system dynamics, and draws attention away from what needs to be done. Certainly, as an agent of power, Cardenas should be exposed. But as we all seem to be aware, the attack on his house and family actually plays into the interests of the system.

Bina said...

Looks like an interesting twist has arisen in this case:

ABI story

Don't expect to hear much about it from anywhere else, though. Remember, they're not doing "democratic process" stories, they're doing "Evo is the Andean Mugabe!!!11eleven!!!" stories.

memoria historica said...

i'm late to read this, but a good read it has been. I agree with your broad point that this is a very complex and nuanced issue, and as my comments on the BFB explain, the roots of this go back hundreds of years and are the historical responsibility of our incompetent elites who didn't create an effective process of social integration years ago.

but I think "mob rule" is definitely the appropriate term. we have a Constitution which takes into account indigenous autonomies, at the level of Omasuyos, or the Aymara Altiplano, or Sankajahuira, as those Bolivians will wish and design themselves, but a LAW is necessary first, to implement and interpret the Constitution.

Besides that, the communal organizations of Omasuyos have no authority over private citizens or their property. They should have egged, toilet papered, and graffitied the house instead.

I appreciate your long view of this, but would your or any other Gringo's point of view be influenced if it was one of your family's middle class homes up North which were endangered, and not this theoretical discussion?

El Duderino said...

Your points are well taken. My attempt was to move discussion towards an appreciation of "system dynamics", the various legacies behind the incident, multi-culti included, with emphasis on the "system dynamics" of the current period rather than just a dissection of Cardenas' political corpse. I also think it is important not to confuse the actions and successes of Bolivia's indigenous sectors in overcoming neoliberalism with Cardenas' actions, not that I think you have done so- just making the point.

memoria historica,
I criticized the use of "mob rule" due to its common English discursive meaning, associating the "mob" with irrational action- not to diminish the importance of legal process.

In terms of hypothetically reversing the incident for a gringo perspective, I do not think the question of "my middle class family" would be most accurate. I nor my family are public political figures. I hope this is not too much of a stretch, but I think it would be more accurate to ask how we would feel if the same were done to the home of George Bush or Dick Cheney. I do agree that gringos should be self-reflective before commenting on an incident like this one.

memoria historica said...

thanks for the clarification. yes, thats probably a better comparison, though I'm generally interested in the implications of our revolutionary process as regards to private and collective property of any kind, but clearly these incidents do seem confined to public figures on all ends of the game.

Nick said...

Great piece of analysis, Duderino, and one I agree that is missing from the Democracy Center's blog. I have been suspicious of anyone's use of the word 'mob' since I read about a mob committing random acts of violence in riots in Brixton, London. When I visited I heard stories of systematic police violence, and saw that rather than random acts, the buildings that had been targeted were very specifically chosen: all had stories of exploitation, poor wages, racist managers etc etc. What is missing from all of the analysis is someone who actually bothered to talk to the campesinos to hear their story and what Cardenas may have done over many years to have led to this incident.