Lessons from the Bolivian Revolution

As the Middle East burns, Europe quakes economically and geopolitically, and the U.S. remains uncertain about its position in the world, small, barefoot Bolivia has taught the "First World" a lesson in the power of popular democracy. These days, American voters, especially young ones, remain apathetic about the political process. The "Hope" and "Change" slogans President Obama touted during the 2008 campaign have, of course, not delivered their full ambiguous promises.Yet in South America, a region most Americans know next to nothing about, despite its proximity, interesting political shifts are happening.

On Sunday, October 12, Bolivians went to the polls and re-elected Evo Morales as their president with a 60 percent margin. The militant socialist Morales first made history in 2006 when he was elected as the country's first indigenous president 500 years after the Spanish conquered the Andean territory, leaving behind a mostly white, upper-class elite ruling its economy and social spheres. And this in a nation where the majority of the population, 55 percent, is indigenous (a rarity in a continent where the native populations were essentially wiped out).

Even a 1952 revolution, which delivered the Bolivian Indian from virtual fiefdom, did not completely change the social/political structure of the country. It's no surprise that this was the South American nation where the iconic revolutionary Che Guevara was captured and killed by the CIA in 1967, shortly after leaving Cuba with dreams of igniting guerrilla war all over Latin America.

It was in 2000 that Bolivia truly awoke after its government decided to privatize the nation's water, handing it over to foreign corporations who even planned to tax the collection of rain water by peasants.

Mass riots erupted and protests were led by collectives and union leaders like Morales. Between 2003 and 2005, two presidents were forced to flee Bolivia due to the fury of the masses. After Morales's campaigned under the banner of the Movement Towards Socialism party, Bolivia joined the growing tide of leftist governments elected in the hemisphere, the most famous at the time being in Venezuela under the late Hugo Chavez.

Unsurprisingly, Morales was immediately demonized by U.S. media outlets for establishing close relationships with Chavez and Cuba. Cuban doctors for example, carry out eye surgeries and other treatments for free in that country.

Since then, Bolivia has now become the most progressive, fastest-growing economy in South America. Morales has nationalized key industries such as natural gas, and has invested the profits in health and education programs. According to the United Nations, illiteracy has now been eradicated in Bolivia. As the Centre for Economic Policy Research (CEPR) in Washington reports, “Bolivia has grown much faster over the last eight years than in any period over the past three and a half decades.”

Poverty has declined by 25 percent, extreme poverty by 45 percent, and the minimum wage has increased by 87.7 percent. These figures show that even in a poor country, when a popular government directs its resources towards the people there are obvious, significant changes.

In countries like Bolivia, we are seeing what has been lacking in movements like the Hong Kong protests, Occupy Wall Street and other flashes of passive, somewhat aimless revolt. It is not enough to simply sit in a square and safely cast away the idea of political participation.

There has been furious protesting down south over inequality and corruption, but the key differences is that the popular movements actually formed political parties and entities to represent them at the ballot box.

In Bolivia the population grew tired of deep inequalities and abuses, so they helped Morales and others form parties like the MAS and gave them their vote. In Greece we are now seeing the same phenomenon with the formation of the radical leftist Syriza party following the 2010 economic collapse. Greek citizens became so disappointed with the traditional political parties that have ruled the country for decades that they have formed new, populist parties who's base of power is the streets.

Morales's Vice President is Alvaro Garcia Linera, a former guerrilla who is a highly respected intellectual and author. Morales himself never even graduated from high school. These are not the typical suits and bureaucrats who we see paraded before the cameras, spewing cryptic rhetoric. Real change will never come anywhere when a status quo entrenches itself.

Change is of course never easy. In fact, in 2008 Morales even faced the prospect of civil war when several, resource-rich provinces owned by the country's elite rose up in rebellion and threatened to tear the country in two. But like the Bolivian people, we should never be afraid of hoping for something better, even in a highly industrialized country like the United States.

Consider that while we are certainly richer and more stable than a country like Bolivia, it is difficult for a student to not live check by check. Healthcare is not guaranteed, and education's higher palaces of learning are constantly pushed further away by rising tuition costs.

The Bolivian road to change is worthy of our attention, because it demonstrates the common sense of a people demanding something better. The heart of the south is beating, are we listening?