Cochabamba is a city with a history of struggle. In April 2000 the people stood up against the privatisation of their water supply, threw out the multinational Bechtel and retook control of the local water company. In October 2003 they joined the thousands of people on the street in El Alto, La Paz and other cities to defend the right of the people to nationalise the country's gas reserves, effectively forcing, then president and champion of the neoliberal economic model Gonzales Sanchez de Lozada to flee the country.
Over the last few months, the citizens of the department of Cochabamba have once again taken to the streets to defend democracy, this time calling for the resignation of the perfect of the Cochabamba (a position similar to governor). In a so called pro-democracy, pro-autonomy rally in December, Cochabamba governor Manfred Reyes Villa aligned himself with the Media Luna (the bloc of eastern departments demanding autonomy) and called for yet another referendum on the issue of autonomy. This despite the fact that in July the same referendum was rejected by 63% of the voters. This, plus his long history as a nefarious civic leader, has forced the social movements (campesinos, teachers, factory workers, small merchants, coca growers and others) out into the streets demanding his resignation.
Reyes Villa is a former student of the School of the Americas in Panama (in 1984, the US-run SOA was relocated to Fort Benning in Georgiaa). He was a student of the brutal Bolivian dictator Garcia Mesa, who has been implicated in a number of political assassinations. During his time as mayor of the city of Cochabamba, he signed the contract with Bechtel, privatising the city's water supply hence precipitating the Water Wars.
He was a member of the last Gonzales Sanchez de Lozada government, under which up to 80 people were killed in February and October 2003. In 2005, he was elected prefectura of Cochabamba and during his 11 months in office he has used state funds to finance a political advertising campaign that has attempted to cover up his past political doings and further his political ambitions. He owns several houses in Cochabamba and the US.
Reyes Villa's previous history, combined with his December 14 call at a public rally of his supporters for another vote on the issue of autonomy, set in motion a series of massive open meetings, called "cabildos", and marches. As the social movements took to the streets throughout December and early January, resentment continued to grow and eventually lead the social movements to call for his resignation.
On January 8, a march on the main plaza turned into a fight between local police and protesters, and part of the municipal council building was burnt. With a people dozen injured, the social movements began to march each day, demanding the resignation of Manfred Reyes Villa. On January 11, violence erupted when Manfred supporters, many of whom wore white shirts to identify themselves, and a group called Youth for Democracy broke through the police lines and began indiscriminately beating any indigenous person they could find. The "white shirts" then attempted to take the main plaza, but those in the plaza fought back. A long and violent battle that lasted well into the night resulted in two dead (one campesino and one member of Youth for Democracy) and more than 200 injured. The city was in shock as images in the media of the white elite fighting the brown-skinned working class graphically illustrated the clear class and race divisions within Bolivia.
Before the violence broke out on January 11, Reyes Villa went to La Paz for a meeting with the governors of the Media Luna bloc. From there he flew to Santa Cruz, refusing to return to Cochabamba for fear of inciting violence and demanding the government come to Santa Cruz to negotiate with him. In doing this he has clearly aligned himself with the eastern states, and this may serve to anger some of his in Cochabamba.
Indigenous President Evo Morales returned from early from his Central American tour to meet with the social movements and has said that this is clearly an issue that needs to be negotiated between Cochabamba's social movements and Reyes Villa and not an issue for the national government. Morales also introduced a new law that would allow official recall votes of any public official, similar to the law passed in Venezuela. Morales's Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) government has repeatedly said that it will not go to Santa Cruz to negotiate with Reyes Villa, and that Cochabamba's problem must be negotiated in Cochabamba.
The push towards autonomy in the Media Luna states is steeped in racism. These states hold vast natural resources that the Morales government has just nationalised and most of Bolivia's economic wealth. The divisions between class and race were no clearer than in Cochabamba on the afternoon of January 11. The white-shirted Manfred supporters were mostly white, middle- and upper-class people, whereas the social movements represent the working class, peasants and poor.
The history of Bolivia is a history of exploitation. From the Spanish Invasion and the use of slave labour in the mines in Potosi 400 years ago, to the neoliberal policies of previous governments, indigenous people have been exploited and excluded from wealth and power for over 500 years. The election of Morales in December 2005 was a turning point in the history of Bolivia, yet many of the elites (a lot of who gained their wealth through government corruption) cannot except that their "right to rule" is over. The Media Luna block are fomenting divisions between departments, with their political speeches, their open racism towards Morales and their unwillingness to share the wealth with the rest of the country.
For some time now, an interesting dynamic between MAS and the social movements has been developing. There are those social movements aligned with the government, such as the cocaleros (coca growers) and some that are clearly not (Coordinadora of Water and Life in Cochabamba). Some of the social movements critique the government and accuse it of coopting the movements so that criticism of the government is kept to a minimum.
During the cabildo on January 15, the social movements of Cochabamba elected a "Popular Prefectura" and its council. The MAS government has come out and said that it do not support this decision as it is not supported by the constitution and is un-democratic. A party that was once at the front line of the struggle has now become a voice for the system. While Morales and his government are pushing along with some reforms that benefit the people (free universal health care, financial support for education, literacy programs) they are also allowing the right wing to still dictate the way they govern.
January 18 will be the first anniversary of Morales's inauguration as Bolivia's first indigenous president. The hope and excitement of that day is not forgotten, but a lot of reflection needs to take place on which road the government will choose to take this year and who it is willing to placate instead of listening to the people and its own base.
In Cochabamba, like Oaxaca, Mexico, the people are standing up against corruption and oppression. It is the people of these cities who serve as an inspiration to those of us who are living in the world of John Howard and George Bush.