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Report from the Campesino National Trade Union Congress, (Part 2)

May 5, 2010

Before we could take part in the second day of the CSUTCB campesino congress, we had to get our accreditation as ‘journalists’. This involved being taken past some Policia Sindical (PS) or Union Police by a friend, each of them scrutinising us closely, and then sitting nervously for an hour in a huge hall waiting for our passes to come back to us. The PS each had sticks and we certainly didn’t want to get on the wrong side of them. There were very few press people present, and most cameras were taking commemorative pictures of people under the Evo banner.

As soon as we got our passes we made our way outside, relieved. We got chatting to one of the (PS),  Javier from Oruro, about their role. He explained that this was a custom from indigenous communities, where there is autonomy from state police and the PS work as a form of self-regulation. At the congress male and female PS from all the regions had organised into groups with a captain and sub-comandantes. Their main role was to make sure that there was no-one there who shouldn’t be to make sure it was a fair vote,  and to prevent any trouble from breaking out. “We are aware of our cultural idiosyncrasies!” he said, explaining that people outside who had been drinking would be stopped from coming back in.

We asked Javier about the significance of being in Sucre he said, “When I saw the humiliation that happened in Sucre in 2008, I felt as if it was happening to me.” Until that same day nobody had faced trial although now proceedings are beginning against a few of the perpetrators. He had attended the climate conference and while he found it very positive event overall he pointed out that indigenous participation was high, whilst the middle classes and students were noticeably absent. A possible indication of which sectors of Bolivian society are supportive of the government’s policies.

Javier explained that the effects of climate change are already being felt in the Oruro region; less predictable seasons, heavier rainfalls and longer winters. New diseases have been brought by mosquitoes, which they had never had at that altitude, and there is a new plague of hares that are menacing the crops. “Mining has drastically damaged the local water systems, livelihoods from fishing have been destroyed, the water is contaminated and livestock are born with deformities…  Whether the mines are nationalised or not, the pollution is the same.” Unfortunately our chat was cut short as he was called off to a meeting.

After a lot of ushering by the PS, by about 4pm things eventually got started, but it became clear all was not going well. A Cochabambino friend explained that the delays were, “pure politics.” The main aim of the congress was to elect a new president and officers for the following 5 years. Once all the regions were present and sat where they should be, separately from each other around the hall, they each proposed one representative. There were disagreements between the West and the East of the country over the candidates and accusations that the Paceñas (people from La Paz) had brought too many people with them in order to influence the voting. One key decision was how the voting would be conducted. The options were secret ballot, lining up in front of a favoured candidate, or raising the hand and shouting – the latter coming out as the the preferred option.

We soon realised that the internal union politics were not really for us to engage with. Cristian Dominguez, who we had met in the UK and Copenhagen and who had invited us to the congress, was up for re-election and so was busy negotiating with different delegates for their support behind the scenes. The problems faced by campesinos were not being discussed, but instead the complicated regional politics of this trade union and the wider country. Whilst it was an interesting experience, we ultimately left feeling that it was a lot of the same old power politics and not the more directly democratic model that we  expected to find.

The next day it was reported in the papers that there had been a major breakdown in the meetings. A fight had broken out on the stage and the conflicts over candidates had prevented things from moving forward, with the current representatives relocating to continue the meeting. The tensions seemed to be a result of differences between those loyal to the government and those not. It was suggested that any dissenters of MAS were excluded from the congress. The role of the CSUTCB has been key to Evo’s rise to power, but it appeared that now with MAS in government, the union itself may face regional fractures.

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