Last week I was in Bolivia where I had lived ten years ago before joining IDS. When I last visited in 2008 the country fizzled with the excitement of the dramatic changes experience following the election of a social revolutionary government led by Evo Morales in 2005. It felt like being in Paris in 1789 or Petrograd in 1917. Most striking was the sight of indigenous women shopping, as of right, in the posh part of La Paz where previously the only indigenous women you saw were domestic employees or street sweepers. It was clear then that even should the political revolution fail, there was irreversible radical social change. Four years on, this is visible everywhere. In a recent interview with the Bolivia Information Forum (recommended for keeping up to date with events in Bolivia), the General Manager of Bolivia’s principal domestic airline commented how in the past better-off indigenous people didn’t use to fly.
‘It wasn’t a problem of purchasing power, of income, it was a problem of not feeling that it was for them. ….. All those people today take the plane. It’s very gratifying to see on a flight, any flight, people wearing traditional clothes without it being in any way unusual. A great diversity of people, reflecting this country’s make-up, is [now] flying.’
So now in 2013 I am enjoying dinner with old Bolivian friends, descendants of European settlers and ‘intellectuales’ (as you would say in Spanish). When still students in the 1970’s they were political exiles during the military dictatorship and on returning to Bolivia after the re-establishment of democracy had devoted themselves to the cause of social justice. In 2005, they had all voted for Evo Morales and the Movement for Socialism. But now most of them were angry and bitter about the Morales government, accusing it of clientelism, of authoritarianism, and incompetence. ‘Everything is in chaos’, says one of my friends. ‘It’s all a mess’. Just one person at the table seeks to present a more dispassionate, balanced analysis of both the positive changes and what is going wrong. She concurs with the messiness but wonders what else to expect when a country goes through such a major upheaval. She talks interestingly about the government’s struggles to implement a rights-based approach when its different political constituencies are struggling amongst each other for access to land and water. She notes the irony of the government’s socialist rhetoric and capitalist practice. She agrees that there is a lot of incompetence – but then what else would one expect when those now in power are having to learn how to govern after 500 years of oppression? Look at all the good that is also happening, she urges, citing the new social programmes to reduce poverty and inequality.
But the others don’t want to listen. For them, it has all gone wrong. I listen quietly but ask myself whether their sense of grievance comes from them no longer having a role in the process. Before 2005, they were the white middle class interlocutors with government for the socially excluded. Today, it is the representatives of these excluded who are running the country – and who are no longer taking my friends’ advice. Is this why they are disappointed with a new bunch of politicians who turn out not to be perfect? Is the dream of revolution more comfortable than the reality?
Participation, power and social change! It’s all happening today in Bolivia. And has left me wondering about us – the PPSC team at IDS. Not all white (though the majority of us are) but, otherwise, like my Bolivian friends, middle class progressive intellectuals and like them committed to social justice – in our case on a world, rather than a national stage. How will we feel when the people whose interests we argue for no longer want our advice and we have lost our role? Will we congratulate ourselves for the past contribution we have made? Or will we feel aggrieved that the tide of history has left us high and dry on the beach?
Rosalind Eyben is a Research Fellow in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS and her Twitter account is: @rosalindeyben
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