The jammed crowd of marchers on December 6 in Cochabamba took an hour and a half to walk past the window of our office, from start to finish. By the time that the dense snake of supporters President Evo Morales wound its way through the city centre and gathered as a single throng in the Central Plaza, it easily numbered 10,000 or more. It was the largest gathering I have seen in the plaza since the high tide of the "water revolt" in April 2000. It was also completely peaceful.
It was a day when, in typical fashion, political struggle in Bolivia played out both among the politicians and on the street. The headlines were taken up with the announcement the previous night that Morales will push for a new national referendum in which he and Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera, along with all nine state governors, would stand for an up or down vote from the people, to decide whether each would continue in his job (they are all men).
This will be a hard offer for the governors to resist, given that Cochabamba's anti-Morales governor, Manfred Reyes Villa, proposed exactly the same thing during his conflict with Morales' Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) in January.
But in the streets of Cochabamba today the news was not of political ping-pong, but of the return of "the other Cochabamba" to the streets in full force. Over and over again, in Manfred-led rallies, the opposition to Morales has flexed its muscle in the street, in significant numbers. But none was anything close to what was seen on December 6.
"This mass gathering is to demonstrate that the Bolivian people and the people of Cochabamba are in agreement with the new constitution that has been approved in draft", a cocalero (coca-grower) representative, Julio Salazar, told The Democracy Center. "We are in support of this process of change, to recover and industrialise our natural resources and especially to recover our dignity and sovereignty."
Not since before Morales' December 2005 election has the city seen a full mobilisation of the social movements, labour groups, cocaleros, and other elements of MAS's political base. The January marches on the city by MAS supporters were hardly at full steam. And a large number of people here are not simply Morales backers. Many came from youth groups in the city and other sectors, mobilised by what they see as an effort by the opposition to block political change.
However, the vast majority were people from the countryside. Women I talked to left early in the morning, babies on their backs, from the deep corners of the rural Chapare province to arrive for the 2pm march. Critics love to spin the tale that all these people came only because they were paid to do so, but that's never the story I get from anyone I speak to who came. They are here because they see themselves in a battle for change vital to their children's futures. Don't doubt it.
There were also middle class people from the city who joined in the march. I spoke to one young Bolivian woman I know, who owns a small restaurant in Cochabamba: "Most of Bolivia is campesinos. People in the city forget that most of Bolivia still lives in the countryside. Bolivia is a lot more than just the north [affluent] side of Cochabamba. In ten years Evo Morales will still be president of Bolivia because they support him."
Her point is well-taken. While both local and international media reported that the right-wing protests to shut the city down the previous week was complete, in fact it only stopped movement in the center of the city and the better-off northern neighbourhoods. In Cochabamba's poorer southern neighborhoods and in outlaying towns like Tiquipaya and Quillacolla, life was normal.
It is easy to forget how deep and adamant the MAS political base is in this part of Bolivia. It is where Morales began his political rise and many of the people here know him, not as a figure on television, but as someone who has spent time directly by their side.
On the surface, it would seem difficult for Morales to match the 53% of the vote he won in December 2005. But don't believe the polls, which, with a distinctly urban bias, have underestimated Morales support by double digits consistently. And don't count out the power or passion of Bolivia's rural poor, either in the streets or at a new ballot.
[Reprinted from The Democracy Centre blog, <http://www.democracyctr.org/blog>.]