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Bolivia in the 80's, the US in 2008: a comparison

Perspective on the performance of the democrats since they took control of Congress in 2006
Yesterday the House of Representatives passed an amendment to the FISA Act of 1978, by a vote of 293-129, which means that nearly half of house democrats voted in favor of the bill. The "enhanced" FISA bill gives the Bush administration most of what it wanted, including immunity from lawsuits for telecom companies that have collaborated with the government in the illegal domestic spying program, also known as the "terrorist surveillance program."

The bill is expected to be passed by the senate next week. The house had been blocking passage of the bill since February, much to the president's dismay. The main sticking point was the issue of immunity from lawsuits for telecom companies, and the house has now caved in on that point.

The democrats have surprised us, yet again. It's one of the many surprises since November 2006, when the democrats won control of Congress. There's a relevant historical comparison to the democrats' performance in the last year and a half, and that's the aftermath of the Bolivian elections in 1985, which I learned about from Naomi Klein's book The Shock Doctrine.

For most of the previous two decades, Bolivia had been ruled by military dictatorships. The 1985 elections were a chance for Bolivians to break away from that cycle. One of the choices for president that year was Victor Paz Estenssoro, who had been a democratically elected president of Bolivia in the past. He was a developmentalist, which meant that he was in favor of nationalizing industry, distributing land to indigenous peasants, and ensuring the right to vote. He was a Hugo Chavez-like character.

The other choice was Hugo Banzer, one of Bolivia's former military dictators. He was bent on subjecting Bolivia to economic shock therapy, and one of the advisers to his economic team was famed neoliberal economist Jeffrey Sachs.

Estenssoro became the new president, in close elections, and Bolivians let out a sigh of relief. What followed was both unexpected and tragic. Paz, (as Estenssoro was known), adopted the radical economic shock therapy plans of his rival Hugo Banzer, and he even went further than that.

Bolivians were opposed to mass privatizations, free trade, runaway inflation and other aspects of economic shock therapy, so they took to the streets. The new president declared a "state of siege" and soon tanks rolled through La Paz, the capital. Police arrested hundreds of demonstrators, and scores of union leaders were sent to internment camps in the remote Amazon jungle.

Bolivia's brief experiment with democracy turned into a disaster, and the most surprising thing is that it happened under the leadership of a president who had espoused democratic and egalitarian principles in the past.

Similarly, when the democrats took control of Congress in November 2006, many of us were not only relieved but optimistic about what the future might hold. Many democrats had run on a platform of defunding the occupation of Iraq and beginning the pullout or redeployment of troops. There were other reasons for the democrats success in 2006, but the key issue was this stance on the occupation.

Within a year of winning Congress, not only were there MORE troops in Iraq, with no threat of occupation funding being cut off, but there was a six month extension given to the Bush administration's illegal domestic spying program.

What was the other major achievement of the democrats in this time period? A 70 cents per hour raise for minimum wage workers. So if you had been making $5.15 an hour, all of a sudden you were sittin' pretty with $5.85 an hour in your pocket.

It turned out that the cost of that raise was less civil liberties and the continuation of endless occupation in Iraq. Congress said: here's a little extra money, please look the other way while Bush spies on you and more troops are sent to Iraq.

I can't help but see parallels between that 70 cent an hour raise, (and more recently, the "economic stimulus payments") and the jungle internment camps in Bolivia in the 1980's. Unlike in Chile, Argentina and Brazil in the 60's and 70's, the Bolivians who were sent to jungle prisons weren't killed or tortured. They were sent there just long enough for the new economic programs to be implemented. They were sent there so that they would look the other way.

It's better to get a raise than to be sent to a jungle prison, of course, but one must look at this comparatively. In the US in 2008, isn't making $5.85 an hour kind of like being in prison?

It's also worth noting that the house passed the FISA amendment just as American's are spending the last of their "economic stimulus payments." Their appetites sated, they can't help but look the other way.