Disappearing Bolivia: The Globe and Mail's Coverage of the Gas War
An En Camino Media Alert
November 1, 2003
In a recent edition of Spain's Rebelión magazine, Latin American novelist Eduardo Galeano recalls a popular Bolivian story about how, in the year 1870, the country's dictator Mariano Melgarejo insulted a British diplomat. Upon learning of the slight, Queen Victoria is said to have pointed at the small Andean nation on a map and proclaimed that, "Bolivia doesn't exist!" It would seem that over a century later, Her Majesty's proclamation still resonates with the editor's of the Globe and Mail when it comes to covering events in the small country.
In fact, from September 19th to October 12th, not a single article on the popular uprising known as the 'Gas War' appeared within the pages of Canada's 'national newspaper' (a period that included the tragic massacre at Warisata instigated by government forces; the beginnings of an open-ended, nation-wide general strike; and the democratic, grass-roots mobilizations of whole communities throughout the country). It was only on October 13th, when President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada's already tenuous grip on the presidency was becoming untenable, that the Globe began covering the story.
A detailed analysis of the Globe & Mail's coverage from September 19th to October 24th will show that the editor's completely omitted some of the most salient features of the crisis, while presenting readers with a completely distorted image of an 'elected' President being besieged by 'angry' and 'violent' protesters threatening the country's 'democracy.' Nowhere in the paper's coverage are the words 'massacre,' 'repression,' 'torture,' 'human rights abuses,' 'censorship,' or 'racism' associated with a regime that was characterized by all of these; nor are the words 'democracy,' 'freedom,' 'justice,' 'human-rights,' 'emancipation,' or 'self-determination' ever found in reference to Bolivia's indigenous, grass-roots movements.
Of Generals, Technocrats, and Indigenous Peasants - The Roots of the Bolivian Crisis
Since 1985, both the Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (MNR)'s technocrat-turned-politician Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, or the Accion Democratica Nacionalista (ADN)'s School of the America's trained ex-dictator General Hugo Banzer have played decisive roles in the Bolivia's politics. The presidencies of Banzer (1971-1978; 1998-2002) and Sanchez de Lozada (1993-1997; 2002-2003) were characterized by some of Latin America's most intensive structural adjustment programs. Of course, these policies had already been codified in 1985 - to the delight of the Reagan and Thatcher administrations - by Victor Paz Estenssoro's MNR government, which promulgated Executive Decree 21060. The Decree set the pace for Bolivian 'shock-therapy' with the critical input of Sanchez de Lozada, who was the planning minister in Estenssoro's cabinet at the time and who was assisted by the friendly advice of Harvard-trained economist Jeffrey Sachs.
Although the IMF-mandated reforms did produce steady GDP growth throughout the late 1980s, and much of the 1990s, they also severely undercut human welfare, exacerbated inequalities, and destroyed the last vestiges of the progressive social gains that were won by the popular revolution of 1952. While resistance to these reforms was not absent, it wasn't as strong as in the past given that much of the organized left had been decimated during a string of right-wing dictatorships of generals Barientos (1964-1969), Banzer (1971-1978) and the slew of brutal dictators that ruled the country in the unstable period between Banzer's overthrow in 1978 and the restoration of nominal parliamentary democracy in 1982. Furthermore, Bolivia's elected, nominally left-of-center Presidents during the 1980s - such as Hernan Siles Zuazo, Victor Paz Estenssoro, and the former-Marxist Jaime Paz Zamora (who event entered into a coalition with Banzer's ADN during the late 1980s) - were either unable to manage the economy properly or became vociferous adherents to neoliberal orthodoxy.
This is not to say that these years were completely wasted in terms of activism. During the 1970s a new generation of indigenista intellectuals began shaping the outlines of a movement for cultural autonomy and radical social change known as Katarismo. This movement drew on the language of Bolivia's radical left, the indigenista movements of the 1920s and 1930s, as well as contemporaneous Third World anti-colonial struggles. The vital contributions of this movement's leaders, such as Jenaro Flores and Raimundo Tambo, to evolving forms of broad-based indigenous popular struggle in the late 1970s and early 1980s made it a key legitimizing force in Bolivian politics. Flores became the leader of the indigenous-peasants main trade union, the CSUTCB, which increasingly coordinating its actions with the slowly revitalized Union of Bolivian Workers (COB), while a range of new and old groups - ranging from the Tupac Katari Guerilla Army (EGTK), the Bolivian Communist Party (PCB) to the more parliament-oriented Movimiento Pachakutik - began reviving Bolivia's traditions of popular activism.
The twin popular demands for indigenous rights and radical social transformation of the 1980s continued to gain steam, even as the general situation of leftist movements globally began to wane in the early 1990s. In an attempt to dampen opposition to his neoliberal Plan de Todos, Sanchez de Lozada began implementing constitutional reforms that guaranteed indigenous rights. The economic reforms adopted during his tenure, however, undermined the structural foundations that were necessary to achieve sustainable development in the indigenous communities that were to be empowered by constitutional changes. Tensions were further heightened with Banzer's election, and the financial crisis that spread to emerging markets from Asia in 1998.
This was also the year that the Clinton administration sought to implement a new anti-narcotics policy in the Andean space aimed at remilitarizing the region. In Bolivia, the Pentagon's new interventionism took the form of 'Plan Dignidad' - the local counterpart to the more infamous 'Plan Colombia' and 'Andean Regional Initiative' - which sought to destroy coca crops primarily concentrated in the Chapare and Yungas regions of the country. For the peasants that had born the brunt of neoliberal restructuring, the idea that the IMF and World Bank were once again prescribing remedies that placed the heaviest burden on the most vulnerable sectors of society, was unpalatable. When Banzer's neoliberal policies were coupled with the renewal of coca-eradication policies - which were first mulled as a counter-insurgency tactic by Banzer and Henry Kissinger in the early 1970s - the stage was set for a veritable social explosion.
USAID and UN-backed crop-substitution programs in the mid-1980s had already devastated Bolivia's largely indigenous cocaleros once. These programs had sought to substitute coca cultivation - used by local indigenous communities for ceremonial purposes, and recently as a hunger suppressant - in favor of coffee. The crop substitution scheme unfortunately coincided with a precipitous drop in the global price of coffee as a number of countries were simultaneously forced into export-oriented growth models (thereby creating a glut in many primary commodity markets). The bitter experience with crop-substitution schemes convinced most peasants to return to coca cultivation as the best alternative - an option that was augmented both by the crop's organic ties to local traditions and by the burgeoning demand for it in global markets.
Between 1998-2002 several clashes pitting local peasants - who were being starved by the wholesale destruction of their crops/income under Plan Dignidad - and Bolivian troops occurred in Chapare. The US-created a Joint Expeditionary Force to spearhead the program, which has been singled by human-rights observers and local activists for widespread abuses. According to Roberto Laserna, the director of a local think-tank, Plan Dignidad was contributing to the steady destruction of Chapare's social fabric and the exodus of over 50,000 of the regions residents - i.e. nearly a third of the region's population - by September 2001. According to Laserna, this brutal approach to coca-eradication was "incubating the conditions for conflict."
This localized resistance in Chapare also coincided with a growing sense of general frustration throughout the country given Bolivia's continued poverty and a rising sense of economic nationalism, which paralleled trends throughout Latin America. The most vivid expression of such sentiments in Bolivia was the April 2000 Water War in Cochabamba, when a coalition of local grass-roots activists succeeded in neutralizing the privatization of the city's water utility SEMAPA to US-giant Bechtel.
The insurgent mood in Bolivia was actively captured by a new generation of militant democratic activists who drew their support from Bolivia's base-communities, neighborhood organizations, and indigenous ayllus. The CSUTCB's Felipe Quispe, the COB's Jaime Solares, and the Movimiento al Socialismo's (MAS) Evo Morales - a former leader of Chapare's cocaleros - increasingly found themselves at the head of a burgeoning social movement that constituted the Bolivian expression of a more general Latin American phenomenon. Morales even stood in the 2002 presidential election only to be narrowly defeated by Sanchez de Lozada after US ambassador Manuel Rocha threatened that the United States would cut off all aid and close its markets to Bolivia if the MAS candidate was elected.
Bolivia on the Verge of Revolution
Since his dubious 'victory' at the polls, Sanchez de Lozada once again set about implementing the IMF's top-down economic reforms. However, this time he failed to take into account Bolivia's growing left, which had rebuilt itself and was revitalized by the growth of local grass-roots activism throughout the continent. By January 2003, Bolivia was on the verge of a social-revolution as more and more sectors of the population began to stage strike-actions, road-blockades and militant demonstrations in response to an IMF mandated tax-hike that would have disproportionately affected the poor.
Sanchez de Lozada responded to all challenges to his rule with the customarily brutal force that accompanies the customary 'IMF-riot' (i.e. mass-popular uprisings opposing austerity measures against the poor). This time, as in so many other cases, the government's repressive response culminated in the massacre of 27 protesters in La Paz in early February. The tragedy enraged nearly all segments of Bolivian society. Scenes of government sharp-shooters picking off nurses were broadcast live on television, leaving Sanchez de Lozada's ratings irreparably shaken. Yet a combination of intense pressure on Bolivia's social movements from Bolivia's new US ambassador, David Greenlee, and the disunity among opposition leaders, gave the President a brief respite (even though militant actions by grass-roots activists continued throughout 2003, despite the 'dialogue' initiated by the government and their leaders).
By August, it was becoming increasingly clear that the 'dialogue' couldn't resolve the grievances of most Bolivians. Furthermore, a popular revolt in neighboring Peru and increased indigenous activism in Ecuador that same month only reinforced the feeling that the solution to Bolivia's impasse would only come through militant actions in the streets. To this end a broad-alliance of groups called for nation-wide actions on September 19th to protest Sanchez de Lozada's planned privatization of Bolivia's natural gas to an Anglo-Spanish-Argentinean consortium known as Pacific LNG. Adding fuel to the fire, the gas was to be exported via Chile for reprocessing in Mexico, before being shipped to service California's energy starved market. Given Bolivia's history - in which the riches of its subsoil have continuously been exploited to the detriment of the indigenous majority and the benefit of others - the country's newly emboldened indigenous movements demanded a referendum on the project and proposed an alternative development scheme for the countries reserves of natural gas.
Sanchez de Lozada responded again with brute force to such demands, dispatching crack-units throughout the country to crush the incipient rebellion. The wave of government repression instantaneously produced a massacre that killed seven people in Warasita on September 20th - five civilians, including an eight-year old girl, and two soldiers - when Bolivian security personnel sought to forcibly 'rescue' a column of stranded tourists in the region. The bloody episode left both the government and Bolivia's popular movements embittered. Soon afterwards, the country's biggest union the COB, declared its intention to stage an indefinite general-strike, starting on September 29th, until the gas-privatization scheme was reversed.
The mass-participatory and democratic nature of these mobilizations needs to be highlighted as they contributed greatly to the movement's success. In town after town and city after city, local activist groups convened cabildo abiertos (akin to town hall meetings) in which a consensus was reached seeking the ouster of Sanchez de Lozada and his hated ministers, Yerko Kukoc, Minister of Government, and Carlos Sánchez de Berzaín, Minister of Defense. Throughout the next few weeks an increasing number of social sectors joined the strike, including teachers, health-workers, students, truck-drivers, the intelligentsia (which went on a hunger-strike), media-professionals, the indigent and unemployed, and of course the miners, workers and peasants who formed the core of the movement.
As the regimes remaining legitimacy quickly disintegrated, the US embassy in La Paz did everything in its power to prop-it-up by warning the opposition. In Washington, meanwhile, the White House was issuing coordinated statements with the Organization of American States (OAS) to the effect that no unconstitutional changes would be tolerated (both passed-over in silence the deadly repression and human-rights abuses perpetrated by Sanchez de Lozada).
More ominously, according to local press accounts, it is widely believed that US military personnel directed much of the repression. The most compelling information about such an intervention were provided by Jorge Martin, a journalist with the Bolivian weekly Pulso, who detailed the central role played by four US military operatives in coordinating the activities of Bolivia's security forces during the crackdown. C-130 Hercules transport-planes from Miami were also reported to be landing at airports throughout the country in an effort to bring-in much needed military hardware and other forms of assistance to the regime (and possibly prepare the groundwork for an evacuation).
By the last week of his presidency, nearly the entire country was in revolt. The President's popularity rating had plummeted to 8%, a number that was confined to the most intransigent sectors of the country's oligarchic elite, conservative sectors of the middle-class and the higher-echelons of the military. Between October 10-17, government repression claimed the lives of at least another 60-70 people throughout the country, with the largest loss of life taking place in El Alto on October 11-12. Demonstrators, armed only with rocks and sticks (if anything) were confronted by armored personnel carriers, tanks, and security forces equipped with the latest in US-supplied military hardware. It seems that a larger massacre was only averted because increasing numbers of mainly Aymara and Qechua conscripts were refusing to obey the orders of their superiors and deserting their police and military units.
The increasingly desperate Sanchez de Lozada sought salvation through the media, as other pillars of his rule began to crumble. However, even here his grip on power was sliding. Employees of the state television broadcaster resigned en masse citing pressures on them to cover-up the massacre at El Alto. Privately owned media, for their part, also began distancing themselves from the embattled President. Left to his own devices, Sanchez de Lozada repeatedly went on TV fulminating about an 'international conspiracy' to unseat him and the threat posed to Bolivian democracy by an incipient 'anarcho-narco-labour' dictatorship that he warned would replace him. This bizarre behavior was accentuated by the President's wife, who appeared on national television with a copy of the Bible in her hands and inviting the country pray for salvation. As the ERBOL network of community radio stations increasingly became an important source of alternative information, Sanchez de Lozada is reported to have dispatched masked paramilitaries to attack several of its stations.
It was only after his hold on power became completely untenable on Friday, October 17 - after the President's last coalition partner, Manfred Reyes Villa's right-wing New Republican Force (NFR), abandoned him - that the US embassy grudgingly accepted a constitutional secession that would bequeath power to Vice-President Carlos Mesa. Not content with leaving it at that, the State Department issued a communiqué thanking Lozada for "for his commitment to democracy and to the well being of his country" and arrogantly warned Bolivians that "It is now the responsibility of Bolivians to take steps to end political polarization and to guarantee respect for human life and the rule of law." In a final sign of gratitude, Sanchez de Lozada was immediately evacuated to Miami at the behest of US officials who were also exploring the possibility of evacuating the US embassy.
Setting the Tone for the Globe's Coverage - Carlos Valdes and the Associated Press (AP)
The first article to appear in the Globe and Mail dealing with Bolivia's Gas War was Carlos Valdes' "Martial law imposed after 16 die in Bolivia" (G&M, Oct. 13 - A10), which was picked-up by the Globe's editors off-of the AP wire. The headline chosen for the article is indicative of the way the deadly violence unleashed by government forces would be covered in the mainstream press. Responsibility for the brutal massacres at El Alto is therefore left vaguely undefined in the Globe's headline. In fact, from the title alone, one would be hard-pressed to say whom the victims were and what their cause of death was - they could have just as well have been killed by one of the frequent mudslides and bus accidents that plague the Andean highlands as from the barrels of military and police guns.
The body of Valdes' article is also unhelpful in clarifying who the victims were and who was doing the killing. In fact instead of squarely placing the blame for nearly all the casualties on the shoulders of the Bolivian police and military forces (where the blame belongs); Valdes' article, instead, intimates that the deaths were largely caused by the protesters. He does this by describing the attacks of heavily armed soldiers, tanks and armor personnel carriers on a largely unarmed civilian population as "clashes" (three times) in which the two sides "clashed" and even had a "shout-out." The reader is forced to conclude that those who were "killed" and "hurt" were the victims of these "clashes," which dilutes the more direct responsibility of government forces.
Although one would expect Valdes to repeat what human-rights observers and local media on the ground were reporting - that the government's response to the demonstrations was lethal and disproportionate to the threat and that the "violence" of the demonstrators was overwhelmingly defensive in nature - he instead suggests that the "clashes" were precipitated by "violent protests" (mentioned twice) in which "demonstrators attacked soldiers…with guns and rocks." The demonstrators are described as "angry" (again, mentioned twice in the article), and as an "unjustified" "plague" on the administration of Sanchez de Lozada, in order to drive home the point as to who the reader is supposed to blame for the "clashes" (and hence the deaths).
As if this alarmist and racist demonization of Bolivia's indigenous-led mass-movement wasn't enough, Valdes employs a string of equivocating statements to describe the blood-soaked security forces in almost glowing terms. Thus martial law is described as a "necessary" measure to "ensure safety" and to "protect public and private property." Security forces are portrayed as victims of violence who are trying to carry out important tasks and restore order, and whose tasks are only impeded by aggressive demonstrators who continuously attack them with "guns and rocks." Thus we learn that while, "Soldiers manned major intersections…the move didn't stop protesters who repeatedly clashed with the soldiers and police trying to disperse them." "[D]espite the violence" of the demonstrators, however, we are told that authorities continued doing their job of providing services to almost non-existent 'loyal' citizens by "driving 12 trucks with gasoline into La Paz" where we are told "a fuel shortage has been acute."
It should be noted that Valdes never once mentions by name any of the organizations partaking in the demonstrations, any of the protest leaders, nor does he quote them directly. This is in marked contrast to the three paragraphs devoted to the views of Presidential spokesman Mauricio Antezana, who framed the situation in much the same way as Valdes does throughout his article. This is not to say that Valdes' doesn't give a 'voice' to some rank-and-fail demonstrators, but this is done in a way that only confirms Valdes' thesis in which responsibility for the massacre at El Alto is obfuscated behind ambiguous statements that cloud the agency of the killers. Thus Eva Mollericano, the mother of a slain 7-year old boy, is quoted describing a "bullet" that hit her son during a "shoot-out." The boy was killed "by a stray bullet" according to Valdes, the provenance of which is left undetermined despite widespread reports that security forces were indiscriminately shooting into homes. The poignant arguments of "union leaders and Bolivia's poor Indian majority" who were leading the protests are briefly paraphrased in a sentence.
This pattern of coverage was repeated in the October 14 and 15 editions of the Globe and Mail, during which time two abridged AP stories - consisting of a grand total of four paragraphs - were devoted to developments in Bolivia. In "Deadly clashes erupt anew" (G&M, Oct. 14 - page A26) "deadly clashes" and "massive protests that resulted in 16 deaths" are seen to continue "despite word from the President that he will shelve the controversial [gas] plan." The wording suggests that the protesters can't be reasoned with through government concessions - as we learn later that "12 more people were killed in yesterday's marches, even after" Sanchez de Lozada told the press that "he will promote a national dialogue" - thereby in some ways justifying the crackdown.
In "Bolivians blockade streets; protests paralyze capital" (G&M, Oct. 15 - page A17) the polarized template of adjectives used to describe the actions of demonstrators and security forces - and thus implied responsibility for the mounting casualties - remains unchanged. Readers are told that "supplies ran short yesterday as protesters…blocked roads and virtually paralyzed the Bolivian capital" (even though local observers noted the solidarity between converging demonstrators who brought supplies with them and La Paz's residents who opened their homes to their allies). Again there is no indication of the agency behind the killings and words such as 'massacre' and 'repression' remain curiously absent from the Globe & Mail's coverage.
Not all Regime-Changes are Equal
This pattern of coverage is maintained through to October 18th, with the notable exception of Paul Knox's work on October 16th which is discussed separately below. On October 17 - i.e. the day Sanchez de Lozada would resign in the face of a mass-convergence on the capital La Paz - the Globe's editors only dedicated one paragraph to the unfolding drama under the heading "Bolivian protesters vow to continue revolt" (G&M, Oct. 17 - A18). The paragraph again informs readers that indigenous "leaders rejected President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada's bid to defuse the deadly revolt." Once again, Lozada is portrayed as seeking compromise, while the popular uprising is painted as a "deadly revolt."
This theme is relaxed somewhat in Kevin Gray's October 18th AP article dealing with Sanchez de Lozada's dramatic resignation. Under the predictable title "Besieged president of Bolivia resigns - Vice-president sworn in as nation's leader after riots erupt over plan for gas exports" (October 18 - A18) Gray introduces us to Bolivia's "colourful" indigenous majority. According to Gray, "thousands turned out in La Paz to celebrate" - thereby underestimating the turn out by a factor of one-hundred, given that by Friday hundreds of thousands had converged on the capital - as "Indian women in bowler hats chanted alongside men and children." Unfortunately, this procession of demonstrators does not really speak, but only seems capable of "shout[ing]" or "chant[ing]" various slogans, while "brandishing sticks of dynamite" - in marked contrast to the more sober portrayal of congressional law-makers managing an 'orderly' transition of power.
While Gray does the usual disinformation bid about "weeks of bloody street protests" and "days of rioting" there is at least a tacit acknowledgement near the end of the article that the source of the protests can be found in the "deep discord with Bolivia's decade-old free-market experiment, which has failed to narrow the enormous gap between rich and poor in this impoverished country." More importantly, it is interesting to note that Gray's article appears deep-inside the Globe & Mail's Saturday edition, indicating that for the editors of this paper at least, it would appear that 'regime-changes' driven by indigenous grass-roots elements from within a society are not as worthy of front-page coverage as those secured through imperialist wars of aggression.
New President, Same Old Pesky 'Indians'
With Sanchez de Lozada's resignation, Carlos Mesa - who in previous articles was nurtured as a more moderate alternative to the generally faceless and 'angry' social movements in the streets - assumes the new role of favorite within the mainstream press. The hostile tone aimed at the country's indigenous social movements, however, is largely retained. Thus in the one-paragraph story entitled "Bolivia's new President names his cabinet" (Oct. 20 - A11), we are once again presented with the image of a President who is going about the business of government and trying to accommodate "Indian groups that led a bloody popular revolt that toppled his predecessor."
The theme of Mesa's attempts to reason with the 'violent' opposition is taken up in greater detail in Alistair Scrutton's "Defiant Bolivians warn new president" (Oct.21 - A24) from the Reuters News Agency. It would seem that despite the apparent changes in government, "multicoloured Inca flags of protest still fly from crude brick homes [as] Bolivians who brought down one president have warnings for the next one." While the article generally focuses on the important role of El Alto in the protests - and also touches on institutional racism and poverty in the country - it nevertheless intimates that the current government of Carlos Mesa enjoys a measure of legitimacy and that it should be given space to work. To the extent that indigenous leaders are mentioned at all, Evo Morales is described as opposing the "U.S.-backed scheme to eradicate coca, the raw material for cocaine" (thereby ignoring the socio-economic basis of coca-cultivation in the Andes), while Felipe Quispe of the CSUTCB is dismissed as a "a former guerrilla, who rails against 'European elites.'"
What is most disturbing about this article, and the others like it, however, is that all of them insist on employing the term 'Indian,' instead of 'indigenous,' to describe Bolivia's impoverished majority. Apparently the editors of the Globe & Mail didn't consider it necessary to change such a racist and out-dated term for their Canadian audiences given the context of state-orchestrated genocide against Canada's own native communities. To describe as "Indian" populations that self identify as indigenas (i.e. indigenous peoples), is not only deeply racist and insensitive, but it also hints at the possible class-allegiances of the various reporters that covered the story. After-all, the term indios (Indians) is now only used as a derisive term by the Andes' non-indigenous elites for the native inhabitants of large swaths of Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia. Thus the transmission of this local slur into English mainstream coverage reveals the lines of communication - linking Western reporters to local elites - through which information about the Andean space is disseminated to Western audiences.
This thesis is confirmed to some extent by the fact that Scrutton devotes two sentences to the views of Sebastien Obermaier - including a direct quote (which the Globe has yet to produce from anyone of the country's indigenous leaders) - who is simply described as "a German-born Roman Catholic priest who has spent 25 years in El Alto." Yet, Obermaier was recently denounced publicly in an open-letter by the vast majority of El Alto's indigenous social movements for his attempts to build a church on indigenous lands and his attempts to incite violence against indigenous activists that opposed him. In the communiqué issued by a broad-coalition of El Alto's social movements - including the Confederación Sindical Única de Trabajadores Campesinos de Bolivia CSUTCB; the Dirigentes de la Nación Aymara; the Federación de Juntas Vecinales (FEJUVE); the Federación de Mujeres Campesinas Bartolina Sisa; the Federación Departamental Única de Trabajadores Tupak Katari; and the Central Obrera Regional de El Alto (COR) - Obermaier is denounced for "continuing the politics of colonial times where the Christian God is being used as a cover for the taking of our lands."
Paul Knox and Naomi Klein for "Balance" but Marcus Gee Gets the Last Word
In fairness to the Globe, we should also consider what its own reporters and columnists had to say about the events in Bolivia. To this end the contributions of Paul Knox and Naomi Klein are noteworthy, while those of Marcus Gee leave a lot to be desired.
The October 16 edition of the Globe & Mail actually features two articles in which Bolivia plays a central role. The first one is 24-paragraphs long and was compiled by Knox with files from AP, Reuters, and AFP. The second piece is a 27-paragraph op-ed entitled "Egg rolls and chicken balls" by Jane Chua. It deals with the seeming ubiquity of Asian food restaurants around the world, including Latin American chifas, with a particular emphasis on good restaurants in Bolivia (apparently Wagamama in La Paz is noteworthy, but the New Hong Kong in Sucre should be avoided). Not that culinary advice isn't important, but one would have hoped that the readership of the Globe & Mail would have at least had a better picture of Bolivia's broad-based opposition before getting into the more subtle details of fine dining in the land-locked Andean state!
Having said that, while Knox's article does the usual bits about embattled troops and violent protesters hurling "Molotov cocktails" and "dynamite" - a dichotomy that is visually reinforced by a photograph whose caption reads, "Bolivian police stand beside a five-car train that demonstrators pushed off a bridge yesterday, blocking a highway into La Paz" - it does provide readers with at least some invaluable information. We thus learn for instance that "Indian conscripts have been ordered to fire on protesters" by the government. Yet even though Knox makes this admission deep within the article, the word 'massacre' is still absent from his text. Furthermore, it is not clear why the word "conscript" is modified by the qualifier "Indian" given that Aymara and Qechua conscripts were reported to have been widely deserting the military and refusing to obey orders. Although such questions remain unanswered, the admission by Knox of command responsibility for the killings in Bolivia is important as it is the only time that one finds a clear indication of who is responsible for the killings within the pages of the Globe & Mail.
Along the same lines, we learn from Knox that Bolivia is Latin America's poorest society, in which "a minority rules the majority" and in which "Indians have long complained of being bared from wealth and power by a tiny white elite even under democracy." However, despite the important information that is embedded in the article, the editors of the Globe once again allow racist and out-dated terms such as "Indian" to make it into print. Furthermore, it is puzzling why a society in which "a [rich, white] minority rules the [impoverished, indigenous] majority" is nonetheless still referred to as a "democracy" when the description more accurately describes a de facto situation of racial and social apartheid.
Despite these minor cracks in the general pattern of the Globe's coverage - including the first mention of an actual indigenous leader by name, Morales - Knox's October 16th article persists in perpetuating many of the biases built into the Globe' coverage of Bolivian affairs from previous stories. Thus at the end of his article, for instance, Knox quotes Latin American 'expert' Donna Lee Van Cott who argues that it's "too soon to count Mr. Sanchez de Lozada out" since according to Van Cott, "He's a steely guy. He's very experienced, and I don't think he's going to resign just because people don't like him."
The choice of Van Cott - who was perhaps the most quoted 'expert' in the mainstream Western press during the crisis in Bolivia - is, once again curious for Van Cott is no friend of Bolivia's indigenous peoples. In her professional work the University of Tennessee scholar forwards a racist and conservative thesis whose torturous logic seeks to demonstrate that indigenous resistance can hurt indigenous peoples. According to Van Cott,
"Persistent resistance by indigenous movements to economic reforms that are required to reduce the inefficient and unproductive role of the state in the economy and to restore economic growth can have negative affects on indigenous peoples' economic well-being…This resistance also may perpetuate a political environment too volatile for progress on implementing legislation necessary to realize the benefits of indigenous constitutional rights… A rigid anti-neoliberal posture also may restrict the possible alliances of which indigenous peoples' political parties and social movement organizations might take advantage in the struggle to implement indigenous rights."
Cott is seemingly under the impression that the overall situation of indigenous people is better in Colombia and Bolivia than in Ecuador and Venezuela, because in the former pair neoliberal reforms have been enacted, while in the later set such reforms have been stalled. She holds up the alliance of the marginal Movimiento Pachakutik in Ecuador with the right-wing Partido Social Cristiano (PSC) as a model of how indigenous movements can cooperate with neoliberal elites. Van Cott's scorn is reserved for the popular indigenous movements that represent the majority of indigenous people's in the Andes and without whose struggles none of the rights won by these communities would have been possible.
In all fairness to Knox, the Globe did run a much better October 22 article by him - i.e. after Sanchez de Lozada's ouster - entitled "One-size-fits-all doesn't fit Latin America." In this piece, Knox forthrightly addresses the catastrophic impact of neoliberal policies in Latin America and explores the massive inequalities embedded in Bolivian society. However, here again the article retains a problematic frame of analysis that lets World Bank and IMF technocrats, and the Western governments that backed local Bolivian elites, off the hook too easily. While acknowledging that the "IMF didn't have the answer" to Bolivia's ills, Knox ascribes the failure of neoliberal policy largely to a Latin American culture of "political cronyism" and the lack of "judicial reform" on the continent. Bolivia's problem is not, therefore, an unsustainable model of capitalist development, but is caused instead by internal barriers to the further penetration of transnational capital. As if to confirm that this is Knox's thesis, he notes that, "Tragically, the political upheaval has probably snuffed out the chances of anyone -- Bolivians included -- profiting from increased gas exports in the near future."
During the period under consideration Naomi Klein had two articles in the Globe & Mail, although only one of them touched on Bolivia (however briefly). In "Latino Politics, Miami beached" (Oct. 23 - A21), Klein discusses the upcoming FTAA talks in Miami, warning that if Latin American Presidents don't listen to the growing chorus of voices opposed to the neoliberal model they may find themselves vacationing in Miami permanently, along with its newest citizen, Mr. Sanchez de Lozada! Although the article raises important issues surrounding the latest round of hemispheric trade liberalization, it isn't specifically concerned with Bolivian politics and is therefore unable to counter-balance the gross-distortions present in Globe's framing of the Gas War. Thus stories completely missed by the editors are left unexplored, including: the democratic/innovative character of revolt; the broad scope of issues involved; proper coverage of the coca issue; the extent of the repression, details about the massacres, and the role played by a US-equipped, trained, and potentially directed security apparatus in the attendant abuses.
The only ideologically consistent treatment that gives readers a broader perspective on Bolivia was Marcus Gee's October 24th commentary "Anti-reform revolt will bury Bolivia" (Oct. 24 - A19). It also happens to be the last Globe article printed on the issue to date, giving the notoriously racist Gee the last word on this issue. In the article - written as if he had just gotten off the phone with the bizarrely paranoid Sanchez de Lozada - Gee's hatred for Bolivia's indigenous social movements leaps of the page, approaching the hysterical as it echoes the deposed leader's conspiratorial world-view.
According to Gee those rejoicing at the victory of Bolivia's impoverished indigenous majority are "dancing a jig on the grave of Bolivia's ex-President" while the movement that deposed him "threatens to produce social chaos in Bolivia, ending two decades of relative calm for the country of nine million people." Leave aside for the moment the fact that the gap between rich and poor grew precipitously during those two decades - and that the fruits of this "calm" only accrued to a small elite - Gee wants readers to believe that the real problem isn't the neoliberal model but an unseemly alliance of "Bolivia's globophobes and their foreign sympathizers" who are undermining its implementation.
According to Gee this alliance is led by Evo Morales a "demagogue who made his name as leader of the coca-workers union" and who apparently represents a "populist, [and] often-xenophobic movement" (no evidence is given for the claim). The protests were apparently as much about "hatred of foreigners as fear of globalization" - given that some demonstrators made nationalist arguments against the gas transiting through Chilean ports on account of the fact that Chile had annexed a large swath of Bolivian territory in 1879. "They were also about cocaine," although like Lozada, Gee again offers no evidence to substantiate the alleged links between the regions social movements and the drug trade. Gee concludes that, "The anti-foreign, anti-market, anti-gringo, anti-globalization formula peddled by Bolivia's insurgents will only make its problems worse. Those who dance on the grave of Mr. Sanchez de Lozada are only digging one for their country."
While Gee acknowledges that neoliberal reforms failed to resolve Bolivia's inequalities and injustices (and in fact exacerbated them), he argues that the reforms themselves would have contributed to the general betterment of Bolivian society if they had not been sabotaged by local "corruption" as well as "[c]urrency devaluations in nearby Argentina and Brazil" and "the US recession and weak world prices for commodities" (as if all these developments were somehow independent of the rapacious capitalism favored by Sanchez de Lozada and not integral to it). While Gee professes concern for democracy, he barely devotes a paragraph to the theme, while dedicating more than half the paragraphs in his article to his torturous apologias for neoliberalism's failures.
The pro-market bias in Gee's text clearly illustrates where the emphasis lies when the mainstream media uses the term 'market-democracy' - coined during the Clinton-era - to describe newly democratizing Latin American governments. In fact, throughout its coverage, the Globe has shown that it is generally in favor of those who stress the first part of this equation in Latin America and is less concerned about the 'democracy' end of the equation (unless, of course, one is taking about countries that have been targeted for imperial intervention or sanctions).
In fact, in order to sustain the neo-imperialist logics inherent in this stage of late/hyper-capitalism it becomes an essential task of the mainstream corporate media to sever links of compassion and potential solidarity to movements that represent genuine alternatives. The peoples of the South, in particular, need to be portrayed either as victims or as blind/misguided followers; nowhere can their agency be seen as creating the conditions for their own emancipation independently of Western interference that aims to either save or discipline the dehumanized native. Thus, in the prevailing logic of currently supremacist ideologies emanating from the West, the popular revolt in Bolivia must be encoded within a language that strips the mass-based popular movements of any legitimate agency - imputing to these all sorts of nefarious motives instead - and inscribing into their 'image' responsibility for the violence and the chaos generated by globalization.
In a recent prison interview with the Resistance in Brooklyn collective, US political-prisoner David Gilbert discussed the way in which the theme of violence is generally filtered into North American society through the main-stream media. The following quote throws some light on the structural biases inherent in the Globe & Mail's coverage of Bolivia's Gas War,
"Those who hold power envelop us in a media virtual reality that makes political violence exclusively an issue of the actions of opponents of the system. It's obscene to accept those parameters, because they demand a heartless silence about the untold and incalculable violence of the system - massive and brutal, yet unnoticed because it is structured into the foundation of the status quo…Please keep in mind, when discussing violence how effectively corporate media manipulates the most humane emotions. Whenever the enforcers of the system, or its allies, are hurt, we are presented, most vividly, with the human reality of their lives and the grieving of their families. But there is a terrible media silence about the far, far greater number of innocent victims of imperialist violence. They are not considered human beings; they are relegated to limbo, considered nonentities, by a media that simply presses the erase button on the video equipment…the human realities are totally whited-out, off screen, out of print"
In much the same way, the human-reality of the 80-plus victims of Sanchez de Lozada's US-backed crackdown is expunged from the pages of the Globe. This is not to say that the paper is incapable of human compassion. In the two days following the deaths of a pair of Canadian soldiers in NATO-occupied Afghanistan, due to a mine, the Globe was able to produce a total of 14 stories on all aspects of the issue (with considerable space given to the reactions of the families of the deceased). Not once was the morality of Canada's involvement in propping up an illegitimate and un-elected government that is despised by the majority of the native population in Afghanistan allowed to even be questioned.
Such a position of respect for the dead stands in marked contrast to the treatment of those killed in Bolivia, who's presence is relegated to a single number that appears in only one sentence - if that - in each of the 12 articles on the subject that the Globe & Mail covered. If the paper has enough resources to expend newsprint on the opinions of Canada's Navy personnel ridding aboard the HMS Iroquois in the Persian Gulf, regarding the two-drink limit that is depressing morale - see "Two drink limit in Persian Gulf sinks Navy's spirits" (GM, September 24 - A11) - there's certainly a reporter out there who could have coaxed at least one direct quote from one of Bolivia's indigenous leaders on the tragic nature of Sanchez de Lozada's crackdown.
Yet, as Gilbert astutely points out as a rejoinder to his previous observation,
"I'm not saying that the antidote to the media's crass manipulation of our emotions is to cynically close ourselves to the human displays they do present. What I'm asking for instead is that we open our hearts and consciousnesses much more widely to know about and feel the many more people who are ripped apart by the naked political repression and barbarous social conditions inflicted by imperialism. These are human beings, whose lives matter. When we look at the issue of violence in an honest and fully human way, the primary question becomes how can we most effectively change this unjust social system?"
This is a question all of us need to be asking as Canadian forces are increasingly implicated in not only policing distant lands, but also maintaining a colonial regime with respect to its own native populations and ratcheting up the internal targeting of the poor, immigrant communities and the homeless. It is important to make clear to the Globe & Mail's editors that readers will no longer tolerate frequently racist apologias for an unjust social-order and brutal comprador regimes, while those who represent genuine struggles for self-determination are consistently demonized. To express your frustration at the Globe's coverage please write directly to:
Edward Greenspon, Editor-in-chief
Sylvia Stead, Deputy Editor
John Stackhouse, Foreign Editor
Patrick Martin, Comment Editor