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Special Reports Last Updated: Aug 16th, 2007 - 01:07:31

The silent revolution In Bolivia
By Gaither Stewart
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Aug 16, 2007, 01:04

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Bolivian President Morales continues his �Agrarian Revolution,� nationalizing unused land and distributing it to small farmers. His government program points at the redistribution of 20 million hectares of land.

During his first 18 months in office, President Morales has personally signed 5,166 property ownership documents over to nearly landless peasants. Until now Morales� leftwing government has redistributed land belonging to the state. In the next stage, President Morales recently announced, land reform will deal with property still in the hands of large landowners, the latifundistas, �who do not use the land profitably for society.� By the end of his presidential term in 2011, Morales hopes to redistribute a total of 20 million hectares of land, about 50 million acres, or one-fifth of the land surface of Bolivia.

Morales is Bolivia�s first Indian President, the only recently elected leftwing state leader in Latin America with a broad social base among the majority of the population. He justifies his revolutionary land reform with the slogan that �land must belong to those that work it.�

In many cases, land ownership in Bolivia is unclear. Often, if not in most cases, large landowners simply confiscated land in times past and arbitrarily included it in their latifundios -- large landed estates -- and today consider it their property, whether it is used or not.

The Morales government insists that such land belongs to the state. Under his presidency, for the first time, the state is redistributing land to the peasants.

Along with nationalization of the energy sector and a new constitution, the land question is a priority in Morales� government program. Redistribution of land is in fact the heart of the government�s policies for social justice. He considers the agrarian reform begun in 1953 that was limited chiefly to Andes western highlands far from sufficient. A former farmers union president points out that in eastern Bolivia big landowners possess five hectares of land �for each cow.� While in the western part of the country a family of five persons must live from half a hectare of land, a little more than an acre.

It is the old story of Latin America. Of the world. Few people possess nearly everything. Yet this is the key question in much of Latin America. I have quoted elsewhere the French sociologist and close observer of Latin America, Alain Touraine, who wrote that �the key to the political life of the continent and its capacity to invent a political-social model capable of working in an exceptionally difficult situation is without doubt in Bolivia.�

Land distribution in Latin America�s poorest country is very unfair. The unfair distribution of land has led time and time again to social tensions. According to estimates of even the Catholic Church, a few families claim more than 90 percent of Bolivia�s farmable land and pastures, while 3 million small Indian farmers have to get by with the rest.

Big cattle raisers and soya producers are unwilling to surrender even unused land without a battle. �We will not permit them to take even one square meter of our land,� said a spokesman for the national Agricultural and Cattle Breeders Association. If necessary, the big landowners threaten to organize self-defense groups and resist any requisitioning of their land.

Much more than the conflict concerning nationalization of the energy sector, land reform underlines the deep divisions in Bolivian society. The lines are drawn between the haves and the have-nots. On one hand, Morales sees in land reform the possibility of improving living conditions of the Indian population from which he himself comes. He appears determined to carry out his revolution even against massive resistance of landowners and the entire Bolivian right.

The elite class of European background -- about 15 percent of a country with a predominantly indigenous population -- and the dominant class via which the USA has historically controlled Latin America, is just as determined as is Morales. This minority class is ready to defend old privileges by any means, as it always has. And it depends on Washington�s economic and moral support. Here then, again, is a classic case of Washington and its local vassals vs. any sign of genuine progress in the Americas.

The two fronts are meanwhile entrenched in their positions. At this juncture no compromise is in sight. Therefore, there appears to be little chance of political and economic stability in Bolivia. Apparently, I might add, Che Guevara knew what he was doing when he zeroed in on Bolivia.

Gaither Stewart, writer and journalist, is originally from Asheville, NC. After studies at the University of California at Berkeley and other American universities, he has lived his adult life abroad, first in Germany, then in Italy, alternated with long residences in The Netherlands, France, Mexico and Russia. After a career in journalism as the Italian correspondent for the Rotterdam daily newspaper, Algemeen Dagblad, and contributor to the press, radio and TV in various European countries, he writes fiction full-time. His books of fiction, "Icy Current Compulsive Course, To Be A Stranger" and "Once In Berlin" are published by Wind River Press. His new novel, "Asheville," is published by He lives with his wife, Milena, in Rome, Italy. E-mail:

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