Sunday, August 15, 2010

Potosí and contrapalabra

Protests in Potosí, photo ABI

Following two weeks of protest and road blocks in the southern Bolivian department of Potosí, analysis of this complex political event have multiplied to the point of obscurity and utter confusion.  Even  veteran authoritative observers are falling into traps. So, I want to clarify one point.

What are these protests about?

Well, a lot of things. From roads, to airports, to political boundries, and mining investments. But to help clarify the significance of all of these demands, it would be helpful to ask what specifically triggered the start of these protests?

In contrast to what the usually authoritative Andean Information Network and Federico Fuentes put forward, the Potosí roadblocks did not begin with demands for regional development projects, or a dispute over the political boundry between Potosí and Oruro. The protests began in reaction to the passage of an anti-contraband law, designed to crack down on the prolific traffic in contraband goods through Potosí and Oruro. The sectors that raised protest against this law were the wealthly civic sectors that run the illegal trade and will lose money from its limit, the contrabandistas. 

That is to say, the spark of these protests was not all that different from a few months ago when taxi drivers went on strike to protest the passage of an anti-drunk driving law. A sector demanding it be allowed to continue outright harmful and illegal behavior.

However, such a demand is not politically sustainable over time. So, additional demands and grievences have been added continously over the weeks in order to both build regional support for the roadblocks and wear out the government, to make an impossible demand viable.

In the poorest region of Bolivia striking up legitimate grievences is not difficult, especially in contrast to the immense mineral wealth of the region. However, the civic sectors leading the strike ran into another problem in this regard. The government's willingness to negotiate these additional legitimate demands. So, they have placed impossible symbolic demands on the negotiation.

First, they were unwilling to travel to La Paz to meet and negotiate and when the Morales' government offered to change venue to Sucre, they demanded that negotiations could only take place if Morales showed up in person, as opposed to his ministers (at the same moment Morales was scheduled to travel abroad). 

The Andean Information Network has discounted the Morales' claim of rightwing elite sectors behind the protest as well as comparison to the regionalist Capitalia protests in Sucre in 2007 citing the broad based regional demands and local MAS politicians apart of the protests. However, both characeristics were apart of the Capitalia protests- with initial local MAS politician support and negotiations over airports, development projects ect. Niether negates the character of original intent or lead actors.

As with the regionalist Capitalia movement, the contradictions born of elite civic demands and legitimate popular grievences will come to ahead eventually, in some form or another. What the consequences will be for the Morales government, MAS party, and national politics, I cannot say or anticipate at this moment. But I do imagine they will be less dire than the current press pundits in Bolivia and abroad are now saying.

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