What is Evo Morales afraid of?

Jason Farbman analyzes the politics behind a police crackdown on disabled marchers that took place outside the presidential palace in Bolivia's capital.

Bolivian riot police attack disability rights protesters in La PazBolivian riot police attack disability rights protesters in La Paz

BOLIVIAN RIOT police battled disabled protesters in the streets outside Evo Morales' presidential palace on February 23, a stark sign of the right turn of Bolivian President Evo Morales.

Hundreds of demonstrators had met a march of about 50 disabled Bolivians, who completed a 560-mile journey to the capital city of La Paz. The protesters' demands included meager support for the most vulnerable in an already impoverished nation. They want an annual state subsidy of about $400 for disabled Bolivians--the currently subsidy is about a third of that--and passage of anti-discrimination laws.

The march had left 100 days earlier from Trinidad, taking participants on a winding route into the highlands toward La Paz. Three months later, the marchers reacehd their destination, streaming in wheelchairs and on crutches into the streets leading to the Bolivian presidential palace.

They were greeted by rows of riot police blocking the streets. The police were ready for a march of impoverished and disabled: They wore riot helmets and shields, and held their batons at the ready, determined not to let the march close to the palace.

But protestors had not come 560 miles--depending on help from strangers along the way--to be stopped. They refused to back down. Videos of the incident show a number of protesters waving sticks and crutches at the police, who replied with tear gas and pepper spray.

Even then, the crowd did not retreat, but only became more enraged. In a Facebook account, a journalist for LaMalaPalabra described the scene:

The handicapped BEAT THE SHIT OUT OF THE COPS. The cops only covered themselves with their shields. They didn't do shit. The handicapped went loco, BUT REALLY LOCO. Hardcore, they were blowing up firecrackers in [the cops'] faces and [the cops'] helmets barely protected them. They threw real rocks at them...

[O]ne of them got on to one of the police trucks and using only his fists, he fucking destroyed the windshield, there was also the guy that passed him a big rock A BIG ROCK so he could finish his job, with cops inside the car that the only thing they were doing was protecting their face. The dog that was with the handicapped bit two cops, but not like when they just stick their teeth in you and that's it, he SHOOK them intense intense intense...

The media was present at the scene in force, and photos and videos spread quickly. Viewers across the world saw the courage of these disabled, sometimes legless Bolivians and the cowardice of Morales and his riot police.

By the end of the melee, eight disabled activists were arrested. The Urban Teachers Union issued a statement of support: "The comrades have been beaten. We demand the immediate release of all detainees. Urban teachers support the disabled, because they asked for a miserable bonus that won't be missed."

All those arrested were released several days later after one fell into an epileptic seizure during a court hearing. Still, the police tried to intimidate the disabled protesters. As Bolivia Weekly reported, "The activists and their families returned to their vigil on the corner of Plaza Murillo where they are surrounded by police officers."

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NEARLY 15 percent of the Bolivian population is disabled. Preventable diseases and high malnutrition are common reasons--most of the causes stem in one way or another from the country's extreme poverty.

Mentions of Bolivia are frequently followed by the phrase "South America's poorest nation." Thus, the Bolivian minister of the economy and public finance played up Bolivia's poverty in explaining why the demand for a larger subsidy was out of the question: "We have emergencies and natural disasters to deal with, then we have social programs that are already under way and we cannot discontinue them. In sum, it would be a huge blow to the Treasury."

If this were the case, that would be one thing. But in Morales' first years in office, Bolivia enjoyed the kind of fiscal conditions that neoliberals love: government budget surpluses, low inflation rates, and a big growth in international currency reserves. But there was almost no change in poverty rates or social inequality during this time.

What's more, Morales has pushed ahead with an aggressive plan to build a highway through an environmentally sensitive park and through indigenous peoples' lands. When the local population protested last summer, armed supporters of Morales' ruling Movement for Socialism (MAS) party moved in to crack heads.

As Jeffrey Webber points out in From Rebellion to Reform in Bolivia: Class Struggle, Indigenous Liberation, and the Politics of Evo Morales, "[T]he share of national income taken home by workers, having dropped consistently over the 2000s, continued to do so under Morales, from 30.1 to 24.6 percent in 2006, to 24.7 percent in 2007, and to 23.7 percent in 2008."

This shrinking share of the wealth stands in sharp contrast to a number of recently exposed lavish expenditures by Morales' administration.

For example, Morales announced that the town of his birth would house a $5 million Museum of the Democratic and Cultural Revolution. Morales claimed, "It will not be the Museum of Evo Morales, but of the democratic and cultural revolution." The museum will house gifts given to Morales over his six years as president.

One might think that throwing all his extra stuff into a $5 million storage unit would free up space at the presidential palace. But Morales has still found his home of the last six years "very small." Over the next three years, he will be moving into a building on a nearby lot that the state purchased, which will have its very own helicopter landing pad.

Thus, on the march to La Paz, a sign taped to one man's wheelchair read, "Evo wants a heliport, I want my rights."

More bizarrely, the Morales government announced the creation of the Bolivian Space Agency on February 10. Its first satellite, the Tupac Katari, will be launched into space within three years--at a cost of up to $300 million. That is about six times what Bolivia spends every year on public education.

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THE NEW Bolivian space program is part of a 2009 agreement with China that will put the country deeply in debt. This is a dangerous road for Bolivia. Unpayable debt in the developing world translates to even more leverage for the already powerful developed nations.

For example, Bolivia's neoliberal plunge in 1985 was very much due to massive foreign debt to the U.S. The resulting economic "shocks" engineered by Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs resulted in the dismantling of nearly every safety net for working Bolivians. Millions suffered greatly in years where living conditions were so bad, they sparked massive uprisings from 2000 to 2005. Morales and his MAS party owe their rise to power to these uprising.

Marcela Olivera--a veteran of the explosive Bolivian social movements since the 2000 Water War in Cochabamba, when labor unions and community organizations rose up to prevent privatization of their local water sources--had this to say about the situation in Bolivia today:

Things are still the same, and in some cases worse. Money is still going to the elites: bankers, agribusiness, etc. are the ones getting the favors. That's why there is no articulated right-wing movement in Bolvia, as there was in Morales' first years. Because they're all okay with what's going on.

Now the people fighting Evo are indigenous, teachers, health workers, the disabled. Morales' once historically high approval ratings have plummeted, from 70 percent in January 2010 to exactly half that this past October. With riot police beating, pepper spraying and arresting the disabled to keep them away from the presidential palace, that approval rating is likely to fall further.