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Home arrow News/Essays arrow The Techno-Fantasies of Evo Morales: The Consequences of Modernization
The Techno-Fantasies of Evo Morales: The Consequences of Modernization PDF Print E-mail
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by Chellis Glendinning   
24 December 2010
ImageCochabamba, Bolivia

On 22 January 2006, newly inaugurated President Evo Morales made his exuberant procession through the streets of La Paz to join the throngs of supporters awaiting him in the Plaza de los Héroes. To the excited crowds, Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano announced that the historic event signaled “the end of fear.” Vice-president Álvaro Garcia Linera shouted that, in the new government, poor Bolivianos would be given equality at last.

And President Morales proclaimed, “Our job is to finish the work of Che Guevara!”

It was a triumphant day -- for the most destitute country in South America had finally risen above the centuries of oligarchies and dictatorships to elect one of its own: the first indígena to lead the nation in 500 years. But who, at that peak moment, was remembering that Che Guevara was not just the hero of courage and confrontation whose life’s work lay unfinished due to assassination in Bolivia? He was also Cuba’s great pusher of industry, development, and modernization.

And so, true to his words, Morales has pursued industry, development, and modernization.

From Flores to Progreso

Perhaps the tip-off to this lunge toward technological expansion arose when billboards leading into the tiny agricultural town of Tiquipaya were abruptly changed from “EL CAPITÁL DE FLORES” to “EL CAPITÁL DEL PROGRESO” -- and high-rise apartments and office buildings, suddenly and without local input, began to tower over tin-roofed shanties and women hawking papayas on the Reducto.

Or perhaps the tip-off came when President Morales proclaimed via his government T.V. station that the goal was to make Bolivia’s economy like that of Brazil, which is currently viewed as the #1 (and, according to financial advisers in the U.S., only) country in Latin America to invest in.

Or perhaps it surfaced when he claimed access to wireless Banda Ancha/Universal Broadband as a “human right” -- despite that international scientists have proven that electromagnetic emissions can cause sleeplessness, anxiety disorders, depression, cancer, genetic breakage, heart disorders, immunological deterioration, and other health problems.

The discovery of lithium was the biggest boon to Morales’ urge to emulate Brazil’s rise to economic potency. The rarity of the “gold of the 21st century” -- with its importance to the up-and-coming electric-car battery industry, as well as to nuclear weaponry -- has put Bolivia in the running to build a Saudi-Arabia-size bank account, with battery sales between 2011 and 2014 slated to top $902 million and total sales possibly reaching $515 billion. At the same time, partnerships with the likes of Mitsubishi and South Korea have traditional communities nervous about any possibility of local input-- as does the inevitable contamination of air, water, and soil via leeching, leaks, spills, and emissions.

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Off the Map, by Chellis Glendinning
The Morales administration is likewise building multi-million-dollar hydro-electric dams whose construction is requiring the displacement of entire villages. The president is allowing Brazil to build two dams near the border that will outsize the Hoover Dam by 300 percent, just as Brazil is pitching in $1.5 billion toward Bolivia’s hydrocarbon industry, with an emphasis on petrochemicals. Energía Argentina is erecting a 900-mile pipeline through Bolivia for importing natural gas to Argentina, while the administration has signed a contract with Jindal corporation of India to construct one of the largest iron mines in the world near Santa Cruz. In August 2010, Morales announced plans for an international state-of-the-tech airport in Oruro that will increase toxic contamination, while providing access to international corporations partnering in mining deals. And in September the administration verified that caches of uranium exist in the hills of Potosí and the country would partner with Iran to explore excavation. By October, after a quick trip to Iran, Morales announced his desire to build nuclear plants in Bolivia.

Then there’s his pet mega-project.

The Initiative for the Integration of Regional Infrastructure in South America aims to construct mega-high-tech-industrial-highway-telecommunications-corridor networks throughout the continent, and Bolivia’s part has already been started: a 300-kilometer highway that will bust through a national eco-reserve, slashing the forest lands of at least 11 endangered animals and 60 indigenous communities, some of whom are the last to live according to their traditional hunter-gatherer ways. The Villa Tunari-San Ignacio de Moxos highway promises to create environmental havoc; foster development in the form of motels, gas stations, and entertainment centers -- all the while emanating a swath of electromagnetic radiation. And this is not to mention how industrial thoroughfares historically enhance prostitution and narco-trafficking, both of which already pose problems in the area.

Local communities are protesting these projects by demanding the autonomy and local decision-making that President Morales daily promises via his Estado Plurinacional de Bolivia. But just as political scientist Langdon Winner pointed out in Autonomous Technology: Technics as a Theme in Political Thought (1977),the pursuit of technology -- which always springs from political urges and always has political effects -- escapes the democratic process because it is viewed as an inevitable aspect of “progress.”

Despite his Aymará origins, it seems, Evo Morales has been captured by said fantasy.

Borrachero del Poder

The truth about Bolivia’s flurry of noveau-tech modernization is that, while such a pursuit may have appeared to be the means toward sustainability and defense for an island like Cuba, under attack by the world’s most potent nation-state in the 1960s -- today’s ecologists, environmentalists, social-movement activists, and traditional peoples assert that exploitation/expansion-based development can no longer be the way up and out.

Writing in mid-20th century, U.S. philosopher Lewis Mumford and French sociologist Jacques Ellul were among the earliest to apply a systemic analysis to technological society, noting that the Machine itself had become its template, infiltrating every thought, act, agency, architecture, and institution. Their breakthrough insights were followed in late century by such intellects as political scientist Langdon Winner, physicist Vandana Shiva, historian Kirkpatrick Sale, farmer-poet Wendell Berry, community activist Gustavo Esteva, etc. -- all of whom agree on the essential dysfunction of industrial technologies and the mega-machine-scale society they foster. And their work has been substantiated by a cavalcade of witnesses to the impossibility of continued technological development a la late-stage-mass society -- to name just a few: Peak-Oil expert Richard Heinberg, ecologist Stephanie Mills, journalist Danny Schechter, biologist E.O. Wilson, and oil-analyst-turned-eco-activist Jan Lundberg.

For all his attention to international consultants, President Morales has made zero use of the perspectives drawn by such voices -- who curiously share with him a fundamental critique of capitalism and the dominant civilization, as well as respect for the traditional wisdoms of indigenous cultures. Not to mention the myriad intellectuals, social-movement comrades, and indígena thinkers within Bolivia, many of whom have become cynical about that glorious hope surging through the Plaza de los Héroes in 2006. One of those is the president of the National Council of Ayllus and Markas of Qullasuyu, Rafael Quispe, who is demanding a moratorium on extractive projects. Another is theologist/ government-insider Rafael Puente, who describes 2010 as the start of the “Borrachero del Poder”/”Drunk with Power” phase of the administration. Cochabamba’s Water War leader Oscar Olivera holds to the notion that true power resides “in the plaza, not in the palace,” while his sister, water activist Marcela Olivera, claims she is witness to two different Evo Morales’: the one who makes international eco-proclamations and the one, at home, who is pushing dams, uranium excavation, cell towers, and mega-highways.

Grabbed by such contradictions, in August 2010, Morales’ own Minister of the Environment, Juan Pablo Ramos, resigned his post -- “out of conscience.”

Contradictions and Ironies

The irony is that President Morales is championed by activists the world over as something of a modern-day Che Guevara.

His screw-you-Copenhagen Cumbre Mundial de los Pueblos Sobre el Cambio Climático held in Cochabamba in April 2010 was a rare opportunity for global climate-change activists to gather their energies toward real progress on addressing the environmental problems foisted by techno-capitalist excesses.

But little was it known -- amidst all the excitement, sunrise ceremonies, Aztec dancers, and marches by local indigenous groups -- that Morales’s government had actually tarped over the all-pervasive carcasses of fresh-cut ancient trees in wood lots around Cochabamba. Little was it noticed that they had installed a flashy, multi-storied, conference-ready, Wi-Fied-to-the-Max, luxury hotel -- for the occasion -- in the rock-dusted-nowhere-shanty town of Tiquipaya where most people live in adobe-tin huts. Or that the government had unilaterally thrown up a barrage of cell towers for global activists’ Blackberries, for which local residents would have little use, but from which they would bear the health brunt for years to come.

Plus, Morales made hay with the global spotlight right before the conference, announcing his intent to launch Bolivia’s very own telecommunications satellite whose purpose is to splay electromagnetic radiation over the unwitting countryside -- and, ironically, whose name will be Tupak Katari, after the great Andean freedom fighter. When local activists tried to enter the meeting hall with banners in protest, the military threw them out.

Now President Morales has inspired activists around the world again, in Cancún, with his gritos of “¡Planeta o Muerte!” and “¡Venceremos!” brilliantly bringing to mind earlier, perhaps more-empowering times.

Surely today’s world -- perched as it is on the edge of ecological/ social/economic/cultural collapse -- presents a wild ride through ironies and contradictions. Speaking on “Democracy Now,” the president quipped, “What is Bolivia going to live off? Let’s be realistic.

The sad lesson of the slashed hopes of the decolonization movements that took the planet by storm after World War II was that the set-up of power relations resulting from centuries of empires is a predicament that fosters contradiction: how to recover local dignity and equality in a world demanding full-tilt participation in global power politics. One can reflect on the sabiduria/wisdom of the writer Andrew Schmookler in his 1984 The Parable of the Tribes, in which he points out that as long as one bully is playing the field, all other players must in some way -- whether by submission, co-optation, or bullying-up -- play too.

For all his sincerity, good intentions, and love of charango music, Morales appears to be allowing himself – and his country -- to become victims of situation by traveling a superhighway paved in what some might call a state-of-the-past fantasy.

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Chellis Glendinning
Chellis Glendinning is the author of five books, including When Technology Wounds and the award-winning Off the Map: An Expedition Deep into Empire and the Global Economy. She is Writer-in-Residence at Asociación Jakaña in Cochabamba. She can be reached through her website.

The above article was originally published in www.counterpunch.org in their 24-26 December 2010 edition. It appears here with the author's permission.

Further reading and photos:

The Road to Overpopulation is Roads, from Auto-Free Times magazine, issue #10 (later called Culture Change magazine by issue #19), Winter 1996, by Virginia Abernethy and Jan Lundberg

Essay by Jan Lundberg and photos of Bolivia by Bronwyn Lundberg on the occasion of the April 2010 People's World Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, in Cochabamba:
Bolivia in Contrast: Feeding the Petroleum Industry amidst Local Resilience

More articles by Chellis Glendinning on Culture Change

Comments (12)Add Comment
Thanks for the reality check, Chellis.

Peter
Peter Crabb
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This underscores how powerful the system's grip.

Dave Gardner
Producing the documentary
GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth
Dave Gardner
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I found this commentary to be breathtakingly naive, condescending and not the least bit helpful to Bolivia. What is the alternative Glendinning is proposing? Continued abject poverty that does not, in many cases, even have the virtue of being protective of the environment? If Bolivia is indeed the most destitute nation in the hemisphere, surely it is entitled to some industrial development even if, at the same time, the developed nations must themselves downsize their economies and especially their industries-- without at the same time compensating for that by parasitically consuming what India, China, etc. produce for them so as to maintain their rampant consumerism. It is obvious that we do not need to eliminate all industry; what we need to do is to once again subordinate industry to farming. We need to largely relocalize by choice so as to avoid having complete relocalization imposed upon us. If, in the developed nations, we had actually done this we could provide an example for Bolivia and we could share our newly acquired wisdom. In the meantime, these observations are of no value whatsoever. I cannot resist observing that this very conversation relies on technologies that this Glendinning has criticized. Am I to assume that first hand reporting was entailed in the lead up the writing of this piece or is the author a lifetime resident of Bolivia? If the former, I am wondering if this was a prudent use of fossil fuel?
John R Bell
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and am in agreement with most of the commentary about President Morales. I think he comes across increasingly as just another rube indígena high on the white man's firewater, or whatever.

But then she got to the part about "international scientists" having proven that electromagnetic emissions can (not DO CAUSE, mind you, but CAN cause) "cause sleeplessness, anxiety disorders, depression, cancer, genetic breakage, heart disorders, immunological deterioration, and other health problems." And tossed herself straight into the tinfoil hat brigade. I wonder if other health problems includes athlete's foot and being delusional. None of those things are considered "proven" by scientists -"international' or otherwise- (whatever the heck that means) under normal day to day conditions of exposure. If Culture Change wants to reach a larger audience, y'all need to think twice before publishing stuff that will make any larger audience question your judgment.
Extra
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The paragraph below summarizes for me the important points made in the article.

"The sad lesson of the slashed hopes of the decolonization movements that took the planet by storm after World War II was that the set-up of power relations resulting from centuries of empires is a predicament that fosters contradiction: how to recover local dignity and equality in a world demanding full-tilt participation in global power politics. One can reflect on the sabiduria/wisdom of the writer Andrew Schmookler in his 1984 The Parable of the Tribes, in which he points out that as long as one bully is playing the field, all other players must in some way -- whether by submission, co-optation, or bullying-up -- play too."

It warrants an extended conversation. What way(s) are there for Bolivia or Morales or any of us to not be "damned if we do, damned if we don't."

Dick
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Thank you for a very balanced and accurate portrayal of what faces us here in Bolivia today. While we have a President whose rhetoric is still consistent with our ideals, there is an imbalance often in what he says to the outside world and the development policies he is pursuing here at home. Bolivians are not at all opposed to progress; it is just certain kinds of development, the ones that make possible the commodification of nature and allow the unjust exploitation of it in the name of industrial progress and development. There are other ways to feed the people, provide universal health care and education, create meaningful and just employment for workers, and protect our traditions into the future. Morales talks about this when he addresses foreign governments and activists around the world. He does not practice the same principles here at home.
Marcela Olivera
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Electromagnetic radiation is linked to severe health effects in humans. This is known by many scientists yet is suppressed and discounted as were early reports by Rachel Carson about DDT killing bird eggs by weakening their shells. We will not ever get enough proof for some skeptics, though it is usually best to take the precautionary principle and avoid direct contact with any electromagnetic fields whenever possible. In this case the poverty stricken neighborhoods were not given a choice. Another case of psuedo-socialism. Lesser evilism will not save Madre Tierra either!!
moth
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"Wi-Fi systems essentially take small versions of these masts into the home and classroom - they emit much the same kind of radiation. Though virtually no research has been carried out, campaigners and some scientists expect them to have similar ill-effects. They say that we are all now living in a soup of electromagnetic radiation one billion times stronger than the natural fields in which living cells have developed over the last 3.8 billion years. This, they add, is bound to cause trouble

Prof Leif Salford, of Lund University - who showed that the radiation kills off brain cells - is also deeply worried about wi-fi's addition to "electronic smog".

There is particular concern about children partly because they are more vulnerable - as their skulls are thinner and their nervous systems are still developing - and because they will be exposed to more of the radiation during their lives.

The Austrian Medical Association is lobbying against the deployment of Wi-Fi in schools. The authorities of the province of Salzburg has already advised schools not to install it, and is now considering a ban. Dr Gerd Oberfeld, Salzburg's head of environmental health and medicine, says that the Wi-Fi is "dangerous" to sensitive people and that "the number of people and the danger are both growing".

In Britain, Stowe School removed Wi-Fi from part of its premises after a classics master, Michael Bevington - who had taught there for 28 years - developed headaches and nausea as soon as it was installed.

Ian Gibson, the MP for the newly wireless city Norwich is calling for an official inquiry into the risks of Wi-Fi. The Professional Association of Teachers is to write to Education Secretary Alan Johnson this week to call for one.

Philip Parkin, the general secretary of the union, says; "I am concerned that so many wireless networks are being installed in schools and colleges without any understanding of the possible long-term consequences.

"The proliferation of wireless networks could be having serious implications for the health of some staff and pupils without the cause being recognised."

But, he added, there are huge commercial pressures" which may be why there has not yet been "any significant action".
"

http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/health-news/danger-on-the-airwaves-is-the-wifi-revolution-a-health-time-bomb-445732.html
moth
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What part of modern technology should they turn down / reject? Medicine, communications, transportation. We already have those, and who are we to say that the developing countries can't have them?
landshark
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I don't know hpow this will fit to the general discussion, but I would like to give some simple facts.
I reside in Italy, a Country with many problems, which I would not consider an best case study for a Country where to live in, but it represent a "decent" "western level" country, whatever this means. Well Italy has some more than 300.000 square km, Bolivia has over 1 million, Italy has 60 million citizens and over 800 thousand km of roads to connect them, Bolivia has some more than 8 million citizens and a road net of 41 thousand km (in a country 3 times the size of Italy) to connect them with no motorway watsoever.
I don't wish them to convert their country in a bad copy of congested western country, however there could be a good balance. Maybe the real question is how to manage the processes you describe in your article and from which point on the turn to "bad". A country like Bolivia seems to me in the urgent need of some big development in infrastructure. If the spreading of the wireless broadband can give access to information and to all kinds of trade avoiding the actual physical displacement of people (and ensuing pollution) then maybe the trade off with some magnetic pollution could be worth thinking of. I hope not to start a flame war with this post...
Luigi
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Today's news in Bolivia (nevertheless secondary to those on the scarcity of food, price increase, the consequences of "gasolinazo", then returned, or find a video on the manipulation and the "costs reserved" the Morales government): military spending, and the Interior Ministry in Bolivia represent 50% of the national budget.

Only those defense are 9 times greater than those of education and sport.

Health, education and sport represent only the 11% of the public budget. http://www.eldeber.com.bo/2011...0117005015
pedro navaja
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Some information more.

In Bolivia by the arrival of Morales (early 2006), thanks to the decree which opened the legalisation of smuggling cars, motor Park has tripled (from 350 thousand to one million vehicles).
Many of the ancient ayllus (community) aymara and quechua Andean, where hundreds of varieties of potetos and quinua was cultivated, were converted into large “autovendite”. Does not bother the merchants Aymara (here it is that it happened to 4 policemen: buried alive. http://www.lostiempos.com/diar...527/Ayllus de Uncía admiten haber linchado a 4 policías_72610_134640.
html, http://www.eldeber.com.bo/2010...0526235231).

The emission of CO2 (only those fossil) have increased by 300% over the last 10 years.

Producer of cement, oil and gas (remember that Bolivia is a country of less populated the intertropical moist and rich world of raw materials: oil, gas, forestry, agro-industry, at least half of the Earth lithium, silver, gold, uranium, iron and much more) Bolivia should now import liquid gas, diesel and cement because the construction boom (favored by drug trafficking) and the enormous increase of motor vehicles, have been so rapid that the domestic industry fails to keep pace with our growth.
pedro navaja
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