Jonathan Watts reports for The Guardian; along with a very harsh video …
Bolivia’s caravan of courage leaves a bittersweet legacy for disabled protesters
When disabled protesters traversed the Andes to lobby for improved benefits, they were met with a police blockade. The Fight, a Guardian documentary, chronicles a battle that led to brutal violence but also sowed the seeds of change.
Even in a world grown numb to images of protesters being beaten with truncheons, sprayed with pepper spray and doused by water cannon, there is still something shocking about a video showing the brutal treatment of wheelchair users, amputees and other disability activists by Bolivian riot police.
It is not just the shots of paraplegics being tipped on to the pavement or battered with shields, or the scenes of them fighting back with wooden blocks or being winched above roads so they can increase their visibility. Rather, it is the human and political dramas that drive the campaigners to ever bolder deeds and leave the police looking ashamed as they obey orders to use force to keep the demonstration out of Plaza Murillo in La Paz.
Such is the content of The Fight, a documentary released by the Guardian on Friday. It tells of the struggle for disability rights and benefits that has forced the government of this Andean nation to reconsider its policies and damaged President Evo Morales’ reputation as a defender of the poor and oppressed.
Directors Violeta Ayala and Daniel Fallshaw filmed most of the material last year, when the protests were at their height, but the issue remains very much alive. In the face of public revulsion at the way the demonstrators were treated, Morales submitted a bill to Congress that would provide a monthly allowance of 250 bolivars (£28) to people with severe and very serious disabilities.
Last month, this proposal won the support of the Federation of Municipal Associations, which represents the mayors who would be responsible for making the payments.
But campaigners are wary, warning that the proposal does not cover all disabled people and provides only half of the amount that activists demanded when they set off on their epic procession, from Cochabamba to La Paz – a journey of hundreds of kilometres.
Despite misgivings, one of the leaders of the group, Rose Mery Guarita, said the more important achievement was to raise awareness and respect.
“We are talking about children who are abandoned by their parents and people living in extreme poverty,” she said. “With the protests, we have managed to make the general population more sensitive. I hope the new generation see us as people, not strange creatures.”
Guarita features prominently in the documentary as an articulate proponent of the cause that she helped lead during clashes with security forces. At one point, she is among a group of wheelchair users who are hoisted on to a bridge so they can dangle above the crowd below and lead chants of “Qué queremos? Renta mensual! Cuándo queremos? Ahora!” (“What do we want? Monthly benefits! When do we want them? Now!”).
Initially, the government refused to listen to their demands. Finance chiefs said the state could not afford it. The deputy minister of social affairs, Alfredo Rada, claimed the activists were part of a conspiracy. “This is obviously a political strategy to destabilise the government,” he said.
But public pressure has grown. In February Amnesty urged Bolivia to respect the rights of the disabled. Meanwhile, elections in neighbouring Ecuador brought to power the world’s first paraplegic president, Lenin Moreno, who has been a vocal campaigner at home and abroad.
Ayala said media coverage had helped, including the release of a trailer for The Fight, in February.
“That Morales has met some of the demands of the protesters is a big development for the film,” he said. “A year ago, the government was saying that people with disabilities didn’t need a pension, while today they are forced to accept the necessity of the pension, which shows the power of filmmaking combined with activism.”
The political impact of the protest and the film was stressed by Guillermo Mariaca, a professor at the Higher University of San Andrés.
“The making of the film was very important. It revealed the political and social callousness of the government. And it gave the protesters visibility and political self-esteem,” he said.
Mariaca said Morales had been damaged by the scenes of repression, which contrasted starkly with his image as a socialist defender of the poor and indigenous people. “Evo’s socialist discourse is lost. Society does not believe that it is authentic any more,” he claimed.
Guarita denied government claims that the disability campaign was part of a plot to undermine the president.
“We are called opposition, but we’re not. We are a-partisan. We just want our rights to be respected,” she said. “Like any Bolivian citizen, we want to be treated with equality and for the government to treat us as citizens, to give us the opportunity to work. We do not want any more silent deaths. We want society to include us, and also to take care of us. We just hope that the government isn’t lying to us again.”
[to watch the video, please use this link]
The brutality and disdain that the coca growers’ caudillo showed to the disabled, only highlights the real nature of this egomaniac!