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Protests Bolivia: Listen to Youth

Evo Morales has been elected president of Bolivia for the fourth time. And this is not without a struggle. The opposition says fraud has been committed when counting votes and many people – especially young people – have taken to the streets to protest. An interview with Conny Toornstra, ICCO’s Regional Manager in Latin America, who lives in Bolivia and follows the protests closely.

Protests Bolivia: Listen to Youth
What is going on?

conny toornstraAfter the elections of October 20, Evo Morales has declared himself president for the fourth time in a row. However, it is assumed by the opposition and a large part of the population that fraud has occurred with the counting of the votes.
People – especially young people in the cities – took to the streets after the election results to protest against the government. Where the protests first started to express dissatisfaction with the fraud committed, the demands of the demonstrators are increasing. First there had to be a recount of votes with a possible second round, then new elections had to come and now people demand that Morales leave. And the dissatisfaction goes beyond the elections: protestants demand a restoration of democracy and independent institutions, such as the judiciary. Young people in particular are angry about the demolition of democracy in the country.

The protests are growing daily in the country, in all cities. Here and there, protests and blockades led to riots and clashes between supporters and opponents of Morales. Three people have already been killed and many are injured. The situation is worrying. But there are also protests in peace and in a creative way: young people walk through the streets with Bolivian flags and people start panning at nine o’clock every evening. There is also hope for change.

Morales – as Bolivia’s first indigenous president – originally focused on the rights of the poorer people: indigenous people and farmers. ICCO mainly has projects in Bolivia that focus on this target group. How do they view Morales now?

The focus of Morales and his political party MAS was indeed originally on the rights of the poorest. Farmers and indigenous people were once proud to have a native president, but many now feel rather disappointed and confused by things that are not going well and Morales’ increasingly authoritarian behavior. For example, in recent years the government has attached more importance to the economic development of Bolivia than to the preservation of nature and forests where indigenous people live. While in his early years as president, he argued for the protection of nature and indigenous areas, he later started working together with large farms and the mining industry to promote the growth of the economy. It is not without reason that many Bolivians recently took to the streets to protest against Morales’ environmental policy, following the forest fires in the east of the country.
It’s hard to say how farmers and indigenous people now look at Morales, you can’t just divide people into groups. There is also division among them: you have supporters and opponents. Moreover, not everyone sees salvation in the largest opposition party, which for many of them is known as a white elite party.

There are more crises in South America. We all know the worrying situation in Venezuela and Chile sees the largest popular uprising since the dictatorship in the 1980s. Does this have anything to do with each other?

Whereas in Bolivia it is mainly about the restoration of democracy and of independent institutions such as the judiciary, in Chile it is more about (income) inequality and access to education. The big common denominator is that it is mainly young people who determine the image on the street; and they are both massive revolts, not just in the capitals.
Venezuela is a different story. Many people in Bolivia are afraid of becoming a second Venezuela. The refugees from Venezuela in the surrounding countries, including in Bolivia, have a great impact on the population.

What needs to happen to restore peace again?

ni mesa ni evoIt is difficult to create a clear picture about this, there is division and apart from the recount by international organizations, the government does not shrink. That is also the major concern: how does a solution emerge? At the moment, I think that peace can be restored with new elections and a package of measures that meet the demands for democracy. Young people need to be involved in a serious way, they are the future of the country and they are present in large numbers in the protests.

Can ICCO contribute to this?

Our impact will of course never be so great that we can influence the democracy of the whole country, but we certainly contribute on a smaller scale. For example, we work through the Civic Engagement Alliance program to help young people and indigenous peoples stand up for their rights. They do this by participating in local debates and by influencing the regulations of local governments in particular. ICCO also works on rural development and activity of young people, farmers and indigenous peoples who make their possibilities and needs visible to a larger audience.