Federico Fuentes, Monthly Review, July-August edition, 2007
After five hundred years of domination and colonialism, more than fifty years since the introduction of universal suffrage, and following five years of intense social struggle, the indigenous majority of Bolivia, for the first time in December 2005, elected one of their own as president—the coca grower leader and head of the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) Evo Morales. The victory—winning more than 50 percent of the vote—was more than an indication of the rejection of twenty years of neoliberal rule. Peruvian activist Hugo Blanco summed up the significance of this event when he wrote, “the new president is not the result of a simple ‘democratic election’ like the many that frequently occur in our countries, it is an important step in the path of the organized Bolivian people in their struggle to take power into their own hands.”
Morales’s election marked the emergence of an alternative national project for South America’s poorest country, coming on the back of a new cycle of revolutionary struggle which opened in 2000 with the concurrent “water war” in Cochabamba against privatization, the Aymara rebellion on the altiplano (the highlands to the west of La Paz), and the cocalero (coca growers) resistance in the Chapare region. Through a combination of street fighting and parliamentary battles, a policy of consistent alliance building and accumulation of social forces, and by focusing on the key national desires of the people—control over natural resources and a constituent assembly—Morales and the MAS leadership have forged a powerful national movement of liberation.
The contest between ‘Two
A recent chain of events triggered by the passage of a new agrarian reform law, part of Morales’s “agrarian revolution,” brought to the fore the political polarization gripping
This move gave the government greater powers to redistribute land that was not performing a “social function.” In retaliation, the right-wing opposition intensified its destabilization campaign. A series of cabildos—open town meetings—were held on December 15 in the four eastern departments (provinces). The largest of these cabildos, held in Santa Cruz, brought around a half-million people onto the streets. The meeting resolved to not recognize the new constitution being drafted by the Constituent Assembly, which began meeting in August 2006, if it did not include a form of departmental autonomy granting high levels of political and economic independence to the governorships.
That same day, Cochabamba Governor Manfred Reyes Villa called for a new referendum on autonomy for his department and declared support for “independence for
By January 8, 2007, tens of thousands of mostly indigenous campesinos, cocaleros, and water irrigators, together with workers and members of other social movements, had occupied the center of the city of Cochabamba, demanding Reyes Villa’s resignation.
The protesters’ anger grew after being attacked by the police, and they burned down part of the building housing the offices of the governorship. On January 11, residents from the middle-class northern suburbs of
These events brought into stark relief the two competing social blocs fighting to gain hegemony over the country’s future, a struggle centered principally on control over Bolivia’s gas reserves, the second largest reserve in Latin America. The battle over whether Bolivia should remain dependent on transnationals and the external market or move toward a process of integral industrialization of the country centered on gas and regional energy integration, so as to break imperialist domination, has continued to deepen this contradiction.
On one side stand the pro-imperialist business elites from the eastern department of
On the other side stand the combative indigenous and social movements rooted in the western highlands and the center of
How this social experiment—centered on a strategy of taking power and utilizing the country’s natural resources to construct a radically new
The Morales government has already begun to encounter a number of obstacles, not just in the form of a resurgent right wing, but also internal tensions within the movement and sometimes strong residual sources of disunity among various indigenous groups themselves.
From Resistance to Power
The creation of the Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples (IPSP) in the 1990s—more commonly known as MAS, the name under which it runs in elections—marked an important step forward in the history of struggle by Bolivia’s indigenous peoples. Rooted in the cocalero movement of the Chapare region and the Yungas, it emerged as a political response to the U.S.-imposed “war on drugs.”
Between the 1970s and the early 1990s, the Chapare region experienced population growth fuelled by a number of factors. The first half of the 1980s witnessed a boom in the price for coca, which coincided with the drought wave of 1983 in the altiplano region and the “relocation” of over 20,000 Bolivian miners as a result of the privatization of the mines in 1985. These events triggered a large migration of Aymara indigenous people, among them the family of Evo Morales, and miners—bringing together the strong indigenous identification of the former with the trade union militancy of the latter.
These radical political currents merged with the already existing cocalero syndicato, which began to act more as local powers than unions—regulating the distribution of land to individuals, carrying out transactions with state institutions on behalf of the cocaleros, mediating local disputes, and organizing community work, such as maintaining infrastructure, building schools, and repairing roadways. With the intensification of the “war on drugs” in the second half of the 1980s, the syndicatos began to form armed self-defense committees to protect their livelihoods. Although the social composition of the syndicatos consisted of individual property owners, through these structures, the retention of communal indigenous practices, and the collective experiences of combating military intervention, strong bonds of solidarity and anti-imperialist sentiments were formed.
At the beginning of the 1980s, the syndicatos found themselves not only fractured locally into six different federations, but also strategically affected by the fact that four of them were affiliated at the national level to the Single Union Confederation of Campesino Workers of Bolivia (CSUTCB), and two were affiliated with the Confederation of Colonizers of Bolivia (CSCB). However, the struggle against the militarization of the region aided unification of the six separate cocalero syndicatos into the Six Federations of Cocaleros of the Tropics of Cochabamba, bringing forward a new leadership within the cocalero movement. Headed by Morales the cocaleros became the center of national resistance to imperialism. The powerful symbolism of the coca leaf—which not only provided a dignified livelihood for the cocaleros, but also encapsulated the continued resistance of the millenary indigenous cultures to foreign colonialism—along with a conscious policy of alliance building, helped development of the cocaleros’ nationwide support and influence. This expansion was aided when the predominately Quechua cocaleros gained control of the CSUTCB in the early 1990s, reflecting a decline of the katarista current of the Aymaras, which had suffered defeats and fragmentation throughout the previous decade.
Meanwhile, among the campesinos of the east, a self-identifying “indigenous” movement began to form. The principal organizations involved were the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of the Bolivian East (CIDOB, created in 1982), the Assembly of the Guarani People (APG, 1986), the Indigenous Peoples of Beni Central (CPIB, 1987), and the Coalition of Ethnic Peoples of Santa Cruz (CPESC, 1994). In 1990, these groups initiated a march from the country’s east to
The development of these groups was heavily influenced by two factors. First, many of them were originally set up as initiatives of non-government organizations, which through this process aimed to secure funding. This dependence from birth on NGOs led to a moderation of these movements’ demands. Second, the new movements were located in the heartland of the wealthier, white east—home of the gas transnationals, large landowners, and logging companies and were numerically very weak. In this context they began to view the state more as an ally than an enemy.
In 1992, in the framework of “500 years of resistance,” the cocaleros and the emerging indigenous movements were first able to articulate themselves. The creation of a political instrument, which was already being discussed within the CSUTCB—and pushed strongly by the cocaleros—was proposed as a measure to provide a political arm to the social movements, with the aim of moving “from resistance to power.” This relationship was developed over the following year through protests such as the 1994 March for Life, Coca and Sovereignty. In 1995, the Assembly for the Sovereignty of the Peoples (ASP) emerged out of the Land, Territory and Political Instrument Congress held in
Also in 1995, aligning itself with the United Left (IU) in order to meet the legal requirements to run, ASP won forty-seven councilors and ten mayoralties, all in the department of Cochabamba. In many cases, notably the Chapare region, these councils were essentially dissolved and real decision-making power placed in the hands of the assemblies of the local syndicatos Again aligned with IU, the ASP won four deputies in the 1997 national congressional elections, including Morales and Roman Loayza, head of the CSUTCB. Divisions in the ASP following the elections resulted in Morales, together with the majority of the ASP, forming the IPSP.
By 2000, the IPSP had begun to assume a strong anti-neoliberal and anti-imperialist character, having moved beyond opposition to the criminalization of coca to raise national issues of sovereignty, indigenous rights, recuperation of natural resources, and the convocation of a constituent assembly. The fusion within MAS of indigenous, syndicalist, and nationalist currents created a type of “indigenous nationalism” in which indigenous pride was viewed as synonymous with the creation of a new, dignified
The Terminal Crisis of the State
With the advent of neoliberalism in
This new wave of struggle was the result of the three components of the historic crisis of the Bolivian state—the lack of economic development, due to its submission to imperialism, the social exclusion of the indigenous people, and the lack of any real popular representation through the existing political party structures.
With the overthrow of President Gonzalo “Goni” Sánchez de Lozada in October 2003, the
In sharp contrast to the October 2003 uprising, during which diverse sectors that had previously protested separately with their own demands concentrated in El Alto and the west, uniting only in response to government brutality, and declared simply, “Goni out!”—this time the various social actors were able to cohere across the entire country. Their demands centered on the nationalization of gas, with a significant majority also calling for a constituent assembly.
At the same time, the right wing, which had already begun to reorganize itself behind the banner of autonomy and had demonstrated its strength with a 150,000-strong march in Santa Cruz in January 2005, began plotting to avoid any changes in the hydrocarbon sectors and to depose Goni’s successor, Carlos Mesa, who the elite felt was not one of them.
Squeezed between these two contending forces,
With the social movements having forced through early elections, the right wing attempted to block elections for the congress, fearing a loss of power. They successfully achieved an electoral redistribution that gave
Within the left, a realignment took place. None of the movements outside of MAS were able to cohere an alternative program, a reflection of both their political and territorial weaknesses. Neither the radical indigenismo of Quipse, nor the ultraleftism of Jaime Solares, who presided over the shell that is the Bolivian Workers Center (COB), nor the autonomist discourse of Oscar Olivera of Cochabamba’s Coalition in Defense of Water and Life were able to put forward a platform to unite even a few of the social movements on a national scale.
Instead, it was the platform of Evo Morales and Alvaro Garcia Linera (now vice-president), calling for a constituent assembly and the nationalization of gas, that provided an outlet for those seeking a way out of the crisis. MAS’s program was to promote a process of the decolonization of power, and renationalization of the economy and the state. The results of the December 18 congressional and presidential elections, where MAS received over 90 percent of the vote in the Chapare, around 80 percent in the El Alto and the altiplano, a surprising 30 percent in Santa Cruz, and a clean sweep of all the middle-class seats in La Paz, demonstrated the unification of Bolivia’s oppressed behind a national project of liberation spearhead by the indigenous, campesino, and cocalero movements. It was an unambiguous expression of the desires and hopes of the indigenous majority, who had drawn large sectors of the other oppressed classes behind them, to begin to chart a new path for
Correlation of Forces
The cross voting (Morales for president, opposition candidates for other positions) presented a situation where MAS, although controlling the chamber of deputies was a minority in the Senate, and six of Bolivia’s nine prefects belonged to the opposition. In addition to this, as Morales was quick to point out there existed the huge problem of the “colonial state”: winning government was not the same as decisively winning power. Morales explained, “After hearing the reports of the commission of transition, I have been able to see how the state does not control the state, its institutions. There is a total dependency, as we have seen in the economic sphere, a transnationalised country.”
Even before his
Morales has also moved to incorporate Bolivia into the Common Market of the South (Mercosur) and has taken a very public stand on the negotiations over gas prices with Argentina and Brazil, the two bigger powers in the region and to whom Bolivia sends the overwhelming majority of its gas exports. Perhaps most importantly Morales has sought to build integration from below, reaching out to the indigenous movements of the continent, particularly in the
Morales has further indicated his intention to strengthen the nationalist wing of the military. His first act was to retire twenty-eight generals who had been responsible for the “missile crisis”—the handing over of the Bolivian army’s Chinese-manufactured missiles to the
During the May 2006 gas nationalization, the military was mobilized to occupy gas fields and take control of the gas transnationals’ offices. This role allowed those in the military to share the nationalist sentiments of the people and the recuperation of their dignity as
Through these measures Morales has endeavored to increase support within a military that historically has been divided along pro-imperialist and nationalist lines. According to Maurice Lemoine, the nationalist sections expressed themselves during the May-June 2005 uprising, approaching MAS to support a civic-military coup to nationalize gas and convoke a constituent assembly. While sections of COB had been calling for a “Bolivian Chávez” to rise out of the military, the nationalist sections in the military realized that only MAS could provide a solid support base for such an initiative.
In the same article, an unnamed close associate of Morales spoke of these events: “The proposal was rejected. Whatever doubts there may be about the democratic process, the people have paid for it with blood, death and exile. There is no question of halting it. And anyway the military would just have been a brake.” Lemoine reported that following Mesa’s resignation “it has been reliably reported that a group of generals met to decide which to support, and that during their deliberations a colonel entered the room, clicked his heels and announced: ‘I think you should know that many officers regard the MAS as the only fit representative of our nation’s dignity.’”
In the mid-1960s, the Military-Campesino Pact—an alliance in which campesinos, through para-state unions, were subordinated to the military government of Rene Barrientos—exploited the campesinos as a social base for the right-wing 1964–69 General Barrientos dictatorship. This time Morales is trying to reverse the formula in building a solid social base for his government. This was symbolized in an indigenous-military march on August 6 to inaugurate the Constituent Assembly. Campesinos from the most remote regions of the country were given rapid training in order to lead the parade.
In January this year, Morales called on the historic “Red Ponchos” of the altiplano to once again take up their Mausers, many of them relics of the 1952 National Revolution, so that side by side with the military they could defend the process. No one is willing to claim that a decisive transformation of the military, which has carried out more than 180 coups since 1825, has taken place yet. There is only speculation as to whether the nationalist sector has been able to impose itself within the institution, what is the strength of the right-wing faction that undoubtedly continues to exist, and what the middle sector would do if confronted with the possible break up of
Crucially, Morales has continued to organize and shore up his support amongst his main social base. Central to this strategy has been moving forward in the economic sphere—the nationalization of gas, a measure supported by over 80 percent of the population. While some have criticized the measure for being too moderate, Morales has continued to point out that the nationalization is a process aimed at rebuilding the state petroleum company, YPFB, expanding state intervention to the entire productive chain, and increasing the industrialization of gas. Morales has stated that the process can only move forward with the continued mobilization of the people. To ensure this, Morales has made sure personally to deliver the fruits of the nationalization, traveling each week to numerous rural areas to hand out land and tractors, and to inaugurate new literacy and health care programs.
Despite heavy resistance over six months from the gas transnationals, which forced the resignation of Morales’s first hydrocarbons minister, Andres Soliz Rada, all twelve companies have signed new contracts. The new gas contracts signed on
Taking advantage of an error in the process of passing the contracts through Congress, the opposition launched another counterattack throughout March and April. Through its majority in the Senate, and its control over the mass media, the opposition attempted to block the passing of the contracts as they had to once again go through Congress, launching a scathing attack on the MAS government for causing “economic damage to the state.” This would involve an attempt to cloak themselves in a nationalist guise. Although congress has now approved the contracts—unanimously—the gas transnationals continue aggressive intervention, attempting to put a brake on this process. On
In contrast, integration projects between
There have been steps forward in the process of renationalizing the mining industry, however these, too, have exposed some of the hurdles facing the revolution. In early October 2006, cooperative workers turned on workers employed by COMIBOL, the state mining company, over control of
Villaroel was forced to resign and Guillermo Dalance, a former COMIBOL worker, was installed. Dalance moved ahead to incorporate 4,000 cooperative workers at Huanani into the COMIBOL, joining the 1,000 already employed by the company, with the government regaining operative control of the Huanani Mining Company.
The recuperation of the Vinto tin smelter in February 2007 marked a further step forward in the process of nationalization. However, the unauthorized visit of Dalance to
To these problems can be added the lack of adequate spaces for the government and social movements to debate strategies in order to develop a clear line of march. Much of the first year of government has relied heavily on Morales for the day-to-day solving of problems, rather than the implementation of a clearly articulated, strategic government plan. The nature of MAS—more a diffuse confederation of social movements and ideologies than a political party—exacerbates this, as corporative alliance building is prioritized over real political unity. In the rural areas, the structures of the campesino movements are the political centers of MAS, while in the city areas MAS branches are dominated by clientalist relationships and opportunist elements in search of jobs in the state bureaucracy. The space for democratically resolving these tensions is limited by the current MAS structures. The move to create the National Coalition for Change, bringing together representatives from the ministries, the Congress, the Constituent Assembly, and the social movements, could be a response to this.
The biggest flashpoint has been the Constituent Assembly, through which the movements hope to “constitutionalize” the steps forward taken so far, and out of which they hope to construct a new
By raising the banner of “democracy” and disputing the definition of the two-thirds majority that the Constituent Assembly requires to adopt a draft constitution, the opposition have worked furiously to stall any possibility of a radical transformation through this body. MAS argued that the law only requires the final text to be approved by two-thirds of the participants, with individual articles being approved by 50 percent plus one vote. The first six months of the twelve-month term of the Constituent Assembly saw a deadlock, with the opposition refusing to budge over the rules and regulations of debate within the assembly. The opposition’s calls for “democracy” signaled an attempt to reach out into the country’s west, as its push for autonomy was gaining no traction outside of the right wing’s already consolidated eastern base. A combination of street demonstrations, a concerted media campaign, and the troubles in the Constituent Assembly have worked to swing a section of the urban middle class behind the opposition.
Confronted with this dilemma, the Morales leadership has opted for a change of tack reflected in the growing weight of the line of Garcia Linera: avoid unnecessary radical discourse, work toward achieving consensus in order to move forward, and win back the middle classes. The shift in policy was signaled by MAS’s proposal for breaking the Constituent Assembly deadlock: any article not approved by two-thirds will go separately to the popular referendum on the new constitution. Furthermore there has been a shift in the official position on the thorny question of regional autonomy—to support autonomy but based on solidarity, within the framework of national unity, knowledge of the regions, and the indigenous peoples—and changes to ministers about whom the most questions have been asked.
Rather than a political retreat, these moves are a reflection of the current balance of forces in
It is clear that the process of change that
As they prepare for bigger clashes to come, the right wing today is clearly trying to weaken this front by scaring the middle class into its arms, promoting demoralization by stalling the process, and provoking the radical sectors into unnecessary confrontations. The MAS leadership has a difficult challenge ahead: keeping
1. “Bolivia-Perú,” Rebelion,
2. Alison Spedding, Kawsachun coca (
3. The CSUTCB was formed as a result of the breakup of the Military Campesino Pact which sustained many of the right-wing dictatorships in the 1960s and 1970s. It emerged primarily from the Aymara struggles, who refusing to be integrated via the transformation into “campesinos” continued to hold onto their indigenous identity.
4. The current known as Katarismo emerged in the altiplano amongst urban Aymaras as part of a resurgence in indigenous identity formulated in the slogans “we are foreigners in our own country” and “we are exploited as campesinos and oppressed as indigenous peoples”
5. Pablo Stefanoni and Herve Do Alto, Evo Morales (La Paz: Malatesta, 2006).
6. Stefanoni and Do Alto, Evo Morales.
9. “Bolivia: The Military Plan and Wait,” Le Monde Diplomatique (February 2006).
11. Vision de Pais, MAS-IPSP, March 2007.
12. “‘Vamos a corregir las senales erradas,’” La Prensa, February 7, 2007.
13. Álvaro García Linera, Vicepresidente de la República. “Fue un error no liderar el pedido autonómico,” El Deber, January 21, 2007.
14. “‘Vamos a corregir las senales erradas’” La Prensa, February 7, 2007.