Thursday, October 31, 2013

Black October: Revolution at the Heart of South America


You don’t have to spend too long examining Bolivian history to come to the realisation that the country has been a victim of foreign exploitation for huge periods of its existence. With abundances of tin, natural gas and lithium, Bolivia has long been a prime target of both countries and companies of superior wealth and power. This has been the case for the past two hundred years, in which Bolivia has lost land, natural resources and access to the sea to Europeans, Americans and several of its South American neighbours.

However in  October 2003, while the rest of the world were acknowledging the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger to the position of Governor of California, the launch of iTunes, the Rugby World Cup in Australia and the continued invasion and occupation of Iraq, Bolivia had a swift and, as far as the west was concerned, silent revolution.

Protests originally arose in response to unpopular trade policies in which natural resources were being exported to the United States and Chile, both long-term opponents of the Bolivian nation. This was combined with the fact that most of the people involved in the production and collection of these resources were the long-exploited and marginalised indigenous communities across the country. The protests were mainly located in areas where these societies were prevalent, particularly in El Alto, where protests were met with heavy-handed responses from the military. On the 20th September 2003, violence erupted when, on direct orders from President Lozada, police and military forces killed six Aymaran villagers, including an eight-year old girl. This only invigorated the protesting groups, which now included major labour unions, to increase their efforts and block communication routes surrounding La Paz. 

Martial law was soon imposed in El Alto, resulting in a further sixty deaths and hundreds of injuries. These extreme responses resulted in a withdrawal of support from major political players in the Bolivian system, forcing Lozada to resign and flee to the United States. His successor and previous vice-president, Carlos Mesa, quickly put the issue of gas to popular referendum and in doing so gave the Bolivian people more autonomy in respect to their energy production.

The Legacy of Black October

Black October affected the nation on many different levels in a variety of different ways, and so trying to identify its legacy is a difficult task when attempting to write a short article such as this. For this reason the article is limited to exploring the political and educational consequences of this particular time.

From a short-term perspective it seems that the events of Black October revealed incredible institutional weaknesses and acted as a wake-up call for the Bolivian people. The events ´humanized´ the Bolivian system of democracy, showing the governmental fragility which led to what could very nearly have been described as a dictatorship. This prompted the Bolivian people to not just settle for “democracy” but to take political control of their country. No longer would Bolivia be merely a pawn for wealthier powers, but an autonomous nation with the self-determination that its people deserve.
Local young people flying the Indigenous flag while
celebrating Aymara New Year 

This had repercussions on an ethnic level, symbolically liberating Bolivia’s indigenous people and playing no small part in the subsequent election of Evo Morales, the country’s first indigenous President. As far as foreign policy is concerned, Evo has continued the legacy of Black October; the gas industry has been nationalised, ties have been strengthened with Cuba and Venezuela - staunch rivals of the United States, and more recently the Morales administration has renounced UN anti-drug conventions that declare the coca leaf illegal due to its importance to the Bolivian economy.

On a generational level Black October was a powerful moment of politicisation, particularly for teenagers and young adults, most of whom would have been old enough to be aware of what was going on around them, but not be able to explain why. This would ultimately create a generation of politically active young adults, something which is still evident today, visible in the constant protests taking place outside the University in the centre of La Paz.

Bolivia has changed dramatically since the events of Black October; with the political rise of the indigenous communities a brand new constitution has been written, even changing the official name of the country in order to account for its diverse population. Recent laws have been passed making education obligatory for all under the age of eighteen. But this is yet to be realised, requiring a massive transition from theory to reality. This on-going transition is a contributing factor to the lack of a comprehensive educational syllabus and therefore the absence of Black October in the education system. Currently it is completely up to the discretion of the educator as to whether the children are made aware of the most significant event in Bolivia’s recent history.

Ten years have passed since this dramatic turning point in Bolivia’s history and much has changed, yet there remains a distinct lack of available public information about the brief but explosive time period. With its recent anniversary, questions need to be asked about the legacy of Black October. How should it be represented in education? Are young people made sufficiently aware of its pivotal importance to their current political state? Has the government of Evo Morales (Lozada’s most popular opposition ten years ago) made enough effort to properly commemorate those who lost their lives in the events and celebrate the direction that Bolivian society has taken as a whole since then?

Currently these questions are still to be answered as Bolivia continues to redefine itself and its position on the global stage. Perhaps ten years is too short a time period to truly acknowledge the importance of the autumn of 2003, but if Bolivia continues on this generally positive path then it should only be a matter of time until Black October assumes its rightful place alongside the national revolution of 1952 and the water war of 2000 in Cochabamba as a crucial formative date in Bolivian history.

Written by Jack Mudd 
Edited by Sarah Cassidy

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