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Drugs, unrest and socialism

Top Bolivian politician Silvia Lazarte talks about her role in reforming the South American country

For a politician whose country is wracked by such violent unrest some commentators predict civil war, Bolivia's Silvia Lazarte is surprisingly positive about her nation's prospects – steely, even, in her insistence the outlook is good.

As one of the most senior politicians in the ruling party, MAS (Movimiento al Socialismo, or Movement towards Socialism), Lazarte is understandably keen to emphasise the widespread support enjoyed by Bolivian president, Evo Morales.

At a referendum held in August, she points out, he won 67 per cent of the vote.

But, equally, the division and dispute at the heart of Bolivian politics are clear when she speaks about the government's right wing opposition.

“These are people who never accepted their downfall in the last elections, who don't accept that they were kicked out of power. They were used to being in control and being in power and ignoring the people,” she tells me when we meet at the New Statesman's offices in Victoria.

The most recent illustration of the opposition's refusal to submit came on 11 September this year, when at least fifteen people were killed on their way to a pro-government rally in the northern region of Pando.

Bolivia's political polarisation is matched by its shockingly wide poverty gap: despite rich reserves of oil, natural gas and minerals, it is one of Latin America's poorest countries.

Most of the country's resources are concentrated in a few wealthy lowland regions in the east known as the “Half Moon”, which are largely populated by a European-descended elite.

However, the majority of the population – about two-thirds – belong to Bolivia's 36 indigenous peoples and live at subsistence level in the country's more mountainous, western regions. The current constitution ignores both women and the indigeous peoples.

So as the president of the Constitutional Assembly, Lazarte's importance to Morales's socialist reforms is clear.

She has led the drafting of the charter – expected to pass into law when it is put to a referendum in January next year.

The new constitution aims to improve the living standards for the indigenous population by redistributing profits from the gas fields in the east of the country.

Like Morales, Lazarte is herself an indigenous Bolivian, and she arrives for interview in full traditional dress: layered skirts, a narrow-brimmed white hat and an almost neon-bright patterned shawl.

For a Brit used to the funereal gloom of Western political fashions, her colourful appearance gives an immediate impression of flamboyance, but in her choice of words, of course, Lazarte is no less calculating than a British cabinet minister would be.

Her comments on the new constitution are unequivocal: “It is inclusive. That is the most important thing about the constitution, that everybody is taken into account,” she explains, her expression completely neutral. “The rights of women ... the indigenous, first peoples of Bolivia, all the ethnicities, languages, these are all recognized.”

What she glosses over though is the response from the right wing, which has been vehement, sustained and extremely violent: the incident in Pando is only the most recent in a series of anti-government gestures which have erupted repeatedly in the two years since the Assembly was first created. Five of the wealthy regions have also voted for greater autonomy.

However, Lazarte is adamant that the situation has started to improve in recent months. “There really isn't as much division now. We got through this with the formulation of the constitution - the writing of the constitution was everybody's work. The government had their representatives there [on the Assembly] and in congress just like the opposition did.”

The MAS government has made several major concessions in order to secure a date for the referendum, including an agreement that the president, Evo Morales, must only seek one more term in office.

Surely this suggests that the opposition has retained its ability to strongarm the government? Lazarte insists not: "the right wing has recently lost a lot of power, it's fighting within itself.”

Her view stems from the aftermath of the killings in Pando. Leopoldo Fernandez, Pando's regional governor, has been jailed and stands accused of hiring hitmen to kill farmers on their way to a pro-government rally.

There is also an investigation looking at “the broader network” of regional governors and civic committee members who may have been involved in the killings.

As a result, she says, several suspects appear to have fled: “Branco Marinkovic, who is a key figure in Santa Cruz politics, apparently is no longer in the country, according to the information we have. Ruben Costas, who is the prefecto [regional governor] of Santa Cruz, apparently left, went to his hacienda and is not at large.” Lazarte does admit though that there are “a few other groups around the place”, such as the Santa Cruz Youth Union, who have been implicated in violence, but as the investigation is ongoing, will not go into further detail.

The US has also waded into this strained relationship. Concerned by Morales' warm relationships with Cuba's Fidel Castro and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and his support for coca-leaf growers, whose crop is important both culturally and for the Bolivian economy but also provides the raw material from which cocaine is produced, the US has never been supportive of Morales.

In 2005 the then US ambassador warned that if Morales was elected, Bolivia would lose Washington’s financial support and goodwill.

Last month his successor, Philip Goldberg, was expelled after holding meetings with opposition politicians including Ruben Costas. Morales accused Goldberg of “seeking the division of Bolivia”.

“The US ambassador was constantly meeting up with the right wing,” Lazarte claims. “What happened with the ambassador from the United States was that instead of complying with Bolivian law and Bolivian policies, he decided to conspire against the government, and the Bolivian people will not accept that.

"What the Bolivian people don't want are impositions. We don't like it, we never will like it, and we won't allow it.”

She claims that, along with Leopoldo Fernandez' arrest, his expulsion was “significant” in weakening the right wing, although Morales clearly didn't feel Goldberg's ejection was enough: just days ago he also suspended the activities of US drug enforcement agency, accusing its agents of working “to conduct political espionage and to fund criminal groups” involved in anti-government protests.

In this context, Lazarte's calm assurances that Bolivia has a united, peaceful future ahead of it - “we are now in a process of consolidation and achieving more consensus every day” - seem less than reliable.

With Fernandez in jail and the US presence in Bolivia weakened, the dangerous minority of right-wingers appears to have been brought under control for the meantime. But it is unlikely that the US will stop meddling in the country's affairs as long as Morales is in power; and how the right wing will behave as the referendum draws closer still remains to be seen.

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times