A pragmatic revolution

Bolivian politician René Martinez talks to newstatesman.com about rightwing political violence in Bo

After the turmoil and instability of 2007, Bolivia looks to be turning a corner on the troubled road to reform. Indeed, Bolivian MP René Martinez seems positively hopeful about his country's future.

A member of Evo Morales' governing Movement towards Socialism (Movimiento al Socialismo , MAS), Martinez is currently the President of the Committee for Constitutional Affairs in Congress. He is also leading the Congressional Commission investigation into the recent civilian deaths in the northern province of Pando on 11th September 2008 – the anniversary of the US-backed coup by General Pinochet against the democratically elected government of Chilean president Salvador Allende.

Receiving wide condemnation across Latin America, the 20 or so deaths in Pando marked a crescendo in right wing opposition to the government's programme of socialist reform. Martinez's role in establishing the details of the violence and in bringing the perpetrators to justice is therefore central – symbolic, arguably, of the government's ability to provide a foundation of stability on which lasting change can be built.

While the regional investigation, conducted by UNASUR (Union of South American Nations) and reporting on 3rd December, condemned the killings as a 'massacre', Leopoldo Fernandez, the opposition prefect in charge of Pando and accused in connection with the violence, still remains in custody awaiting trial.

At the core of the political violence lies a long-standing ethnic tension between the majority indigenous population, supportive of the Morales government, and the right wing opposition, descended from the colonial European elite. This enmity, rarely far from the surface in domestic politics, has reappeared in response to the newly drawn up constitution, to be put to the electorate in a referendum on 25th January 2009.

In essence, the constitution seeks to enshrine the rights of the previously sidelined indigenous population – providing for a fairer redistribution of wealth from Bolivia's gas and oil reserves and strengthening the central role of the state in economic policy. The opposition, concentrated in the four departments of Bolivia's eastern “Half Moon” (media luna) region, hold the majority of the country's natural resources.

What is striking throughout the discussion with Martinez is the sense of historical narrative with which he speaks . Recent events, he suggests, represent the “structural failure of the country”, marking the culmination of a long struggle that extends back decades, if not centuries. To see the current situation through the eyes of the Movimiento, it is necessary to put recent events in their broader context – Martinez repeatedly invoking the unfinished 1952 Revolution, which extended suffrage to the indigenous population; the 1826 Constitution that established the Republic; and prior to that, Bolivia's five centuries under colonial rule.

In this sense, the Morales government clearly recognises the significance of the current period in its search for justice. As Martinez suggests, with a deep sense of conviction, it marks the chance to resolve a “historical debt” to the country’s indigenous majority, for so long marginalised by the ruling elite.

Also evident throughout our discussion, however, is the measured nature of the thoughts Martinez offers. Though the indigenous population understandably has a right to feel aggrieved, his comments lack any sense of bitterness, instead characterised by a resolve simply that justice be done. This is something evident in the government’s remarkably restrained response to the recent political violence.

Throughout Martinez stresses the importance of an approach founded on “interculturality” and a “harmony of interests” as distinct from the competitive neoliberal model followed by Bolivia's conservative governments in past decades. As fellow MAS politician, César Navarro, wrote in the New Statesman in June, “The liberation of the people means the reaffirmation of their identity, not a negation of the other but a respect for differences”.

“What we want”, Martinez states tellingly, “is for everyone to live well."

Equally interesting is the way that he speaks about the period of transition as unique to Bolivia – resulting from an “internal look” at the country’s people and their specific situation, rather than relying on any overarching external influence. Indeed, Martinez is careful not to talk about socialism in broader terms, wary one suspects of inviting comparisons with other countries and of opening the theoretical baggage the word traditionally carries.

This is partly a product of the left’s sense of history, recognising the turmoil, instability and unfairness that has long beset the country. It is also perhaps a sign that the MAS is still in the early stages of shaping its programme of reform, aware that it has only just embarked on the long road towards change and its pursuit to uncover Bolivia’s true identity.

This is evident when he talks about the slow pace of reform in health and education. It is also apparent in plans to improve social housing hampered by lack of financial resources.

Such experiences seem, however, to have fostered a healthy pragmatism within the government – recognising the likely incremental pace of change and the need for determination in seeing the process through. Indeed, the Morales government seems intent on implementing its particular brand of socialism as a response to the specific needs of its people, rather than for reasons of rigid political ideology. “What we are doing is a very Bolivian process,” says Martinez.

When we do look outwards to the international context, however, the MP is predictably drawn into talking about the role of the US in Bolivian politics. This is understandable given the long history of US interference in Latin America and perhaps more so in light of recent suspicion about US collusion with Bolivia's right wing opposition. This led to President Morales' recent decision to expel the US Ambassador because of his alleged contacts with key opposition politicians immediately prior to the destabilising events of August and September.

Add to this a long-standing tension over Bolivia’s growing of the coca leaf – a raw material in cocaine production, but also a treasured symbol of native culture – and the degree of recent animus is understandable.

Nevertheless comments by President Morales, reinforced when I meet Martinez at the New Statesman's offices in London, suggest a new appetite for improving relations with the US, particularly in view of Barack Obama's election to the White House.

“There is a minority within the Bolivian public,” Martinez states, “who believe that whatever happens in the United States, nothing is going to change. But there's another line of thinking, which includes the majority and includes the President, Evo Morales.”

In large part, any change is likely to depend on the political capital that Obama and his nominee for Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, are willing to expend on shaping a new approach to Latin America, especially in light of continuing entanglements in the Middle East and Asia.

Clinton's comments, albeit made during the primary campaign, recognised a “series of miscalculations” in past US policy towards Bolivia and showed an awareness of the plight of the indigenous population after centuries of exploitation.

As Martinez states: “As well as recognising the bad things that have taken place in the past, we hope that we can have an equilibrium in diplomatic relations which can help to contribute towards harmony in the world and also towards pacification of the world.”

These positive noises notwithstanding the reality may be rather different - particularly in light of President Morales' most recent comments urging Latin American nations to expel their US Ambassadors if the incoming President fails to lift the US embargo on Cuba.

There is no doubting, as we finish talking, that the aspirations of René Martinez and the MAS are as high as the Andean mountains that dominate the west of their country. At the same time, however, such hopes are guided by an underlying pragmatism, only too aware of the practical obstacles to implementing widespread reform.

While the underlying convictions of the governing Movimiento al Socialismo find their roots in Bolivia’s past, it is on building a better future for the country that the eyes of Morales and his government seem firmly focused.

Photo provided by Daniel Espinoza/ABI