From rebellion to reform: Bolivia’s reconstituted neoliberalism

Jeffrey Webber

ON DECEMBER 6, 2009, Evo Morales won a decisive mandate for a second term in office with an astonishing 64 percent of the popular vote.1 The turnout was close to 90 percent.2 This latest electoral victory marked the peak of a wave of successes in the polls, including 67 percent support for his administration in the recall referendum of 2008, and 61 percent approval of the new constitution in a popular referendum held on January 25, 2009.3

The December 2009 elections represented the most profound level of institutional consolidation in the apparatuses of the state for any political force in recent Bolivian memory. Morales is the first president in Bolivia to be reelected in successive terms, and the first to win with a larger percentage of votes when elected for a second term.4 For the first time since the 1952 National Revolution, a party won a massive majority and control of both houses of the legislature, providing the Movimiento al Socialismo (Movement Toward Socialism, MAS), with the power, among other things, to reconfigure the reactionary judiciary. The MAS controls 25 of 36 Senate seats, and 82 of 130 seats in the House of Deputies.5

Morales also made important gains in the departments of the media luna, the heartland of the country’s autonomist right wing. In Tarija, Morales actually won a majority of votes, and in Beni, Pando, and Santa Cruz, he increased his support substantially. Most importantly in this regard, he won 41 percent of the popular vote in the department of Santa Cruz, the principal axis of the eastern bourgeois bloc.6 In the departmental elections for governors, mayors, and departmental assemblies held on April 4, 2010, moreover, the tide continued to turn in favor of the MAS. Of the nine governorships, the MAS won six (Chuquisaca, La Paz, Cochabamba, Oruro, Potosí, and Pando) and lost three to right-wing oppositions (Tarija, Santa Cruz, and Beni). This represented a significant shift from merely three MAS governorships (Chuquisaca, Potosí, and Oruro) in the 2005 departmental elections. What is more, the race was tight in Tarija and Beni, and reasonably close in Santa Cruz. The winning opposition won 49, 53, and 43 percent to the MAS’s 44, 38, and 40 percent in Tarija, Santa Cruz, and Beni, respectively.7

The post-election scenario

The current conjuncture, at the close of the latest electoral cycle and in the midst of the opening months of the government’s second term, provides an ideal time once again to take stock of image and reality in contemporary Bolivian political economy. Unfortunately, on both the right and the left internationally, hyperbole has often substituted for serious reflection and analysis of the Bolivian scenario. In the weeks before the elections, for example, Judy Rebick, a prominent figure on the Canadian left who recently traveled to Bolivia, suggested that the MAS government is

reinventing democratic socialism. They are in the process of creating a pluri-national state with equal rights for all nations and people, redistributing land, providing free health and education for everyone, creating what they call a pluri-economy that includes public, private, co-operative and communitarian. In four years of power they have eliminated illiteracy, reduced extreme poverty by 6 percent, instituted a senior’s pension for the first time, nationalized hydrocarbons and achieved a 6.5 percent economic growth. They are showing that a government that acts in the interests of the majority really can succeed and that an alternative is truly possible.8
Naomi Klein, one of the most prestigious voices of the global justice movement, remarked, “Bolivia is in the midst of a dramatic political transformation, one that has nationalised key industries and elevated the voices of indigenous peoples as never before.”9

The Canadians were not alone. In various Latin American countries, leftists greeted the victory of Morales in Bolivia as an unequivocal advance toward socialism. Atilio Borón, a well-known Argentine intellectual, suggested that Bolivians had just elected “a President committed to the construction of a socialist future for his country.”10 For Mexican radical Ana Esther Ceceña, the continuation of the Morales–García Linera administration for an additional four years signified an opportunity to “deepen a creative pathway which does not repeat the exhausted roads of developmentalism,” but rather “invents fresh pathways” toward the “conceptualization and construction of no-capitalism.” She asks, rhetorically: “Will Bolivia be the example which offers the key for beginning that new era of humanity, the era of living well [vivir bien] in no-capitalism?”11

Communitarian socialism?

These positions were reflections of Morales’s recent rhetorical embrace of what he now often refers to as Bolivia’s advance toward “communitarian socialism.” Addressing the crowds amassed outside the Presidential Palace in La Paz following his December 2009 election victory, for example, Morales noted that the win provides a space and opportunity to “accelerate the process of change and deepen socialism.”
12 Later that month, at the climate talks in Copenhagen, Morales served as a beacon of hope for activists raging in the streets against the hypocrisy, arrogance, and suicidal tendencies of powerful state leaders who were consigning the future of the world’s eco-systems to oblivion in secret corridors and meeting rooms.13

The Bolivian president named capitalism itself as the key enemy of nature. At the subsequent World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, held in April 2010 in Cochabamba, Morales had this to say to Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!

We are here because in Copenhagen the so-called developed countries failed in their obligation to provide substantial commitments to reduce greenhouse gases. We have two paths: either Pachamama or death. We have two paths: either capitalism dies or Mother Earth dies. Either capitalism lives or Mother Earth lives. Of course, brothers and sisters, we are here for life, for humanity and for the rights of Mother Earth. Long live the rights of Mother Earth! Death to Capitalism!

The same symbolism that has triggered the imaginations and aspirations of some leftist intellectuals, as well as many progressive activists throughout the world, simultaneously sparked the ire of dinosaur Cold Warriors in Washington and conservatives in Latin America. Hawkish pundits, such as Mexico’s ex-leftist, Jorge Castañeda, have lined up behind U.S. imperialism’s branding of Morales as one of the scarier components of a disconcertingly immoderate current within the wider left turn that has gripped regional politics over the last decade.14 The Economist refers to Morales as a “socialist of Amerindian descent,” bent on “refounding” the country as an “Amerindian socialist republic.” The magazine reports that the December 2009 elections were a “thumping endorsement for the social revolution” he is leading.15 According to the Washington Post, the Bolivian president is a “leftist” driven by his quest to “tighten state control over the impoverished economy.”16

The intellectual scene in Bolivia

Much of the celebratory response, like the ritual demonization, relies heavily on the regime’s image-promotion and Morales’s supposed commitment to communitarian socialism. Within Bolivia, the theoretical debates on the origins and character of the MAS are more firmly rooted in reality. Getting a handle on these competing intellectual currents can be enlightening when this understanding is related to the historical conditions out of which they arose.

Three principal intellectual camps have emerged that in many ways reflect the contradictory and complex social and political forces at work in the country. There are, first, those intellectuals who rally to the defense of the social hierarchies and political-economic structures of capitalist development ensconced in the neoliberal model constructed in the country since 1985. Within this camp, there are conservatives who exaggerate the radicalism of the MAS and who favor regime change as a means of neoliberal restoration. Alongside the conservatives are liberals who share a reverence for the basic foundations of the neoliberal order, but understand the Morales government to be an effective dam against the flood of radical left-indigenous revolt that might otherwise erupt in the context of an extreme legitimacy crisis of neoliberalism. The liberals have a more or less realistic analysis of the limited scope and depth of socioeconomic reform actually carried out by the Morales regime in its first term in office, but are, at the same time, interested in circumventing any moves toward further, more structural, changes to the development model.17

A second intellectual current brings together divergent streams behind a singular loyalty to the MAS government: moderate promoters of indigenous rights who advocate the advance of cultural multiculturalism dissociated from, or at least unconcerned with, any socioeconomic transformations of the country’s class structure and development model; social democratic and populist moderates who overlap ideologically with the liberals but who are more faithful to the MAS as a project; and an eclectic array of anti-capitalists, some of whom believe Morales has planted the seeds for radical transformative change just over the horizon, and others who acknowledge the modesty of the encroachments on neoliberalism, but see in those subtle moves the only realistic change possible given the structural constraints of global capitalism.18

A third group, a critical left-indigenous collection of thinkers, is congealed around a politics of revolutionary indigenous liberation and anti-capitalist transformation of the Bolivian state, society, and economy. While committed to the defense of the Morales administration against destabilization campaigns from the domestic right and various imperialist forces, this current also believes that the break with neoliberalism actually introduced in recent years has been embellished by the Morales administration. Rather than waiting for transformative change to come from on high in the form of state officials aligned with the MAS, in this view, agency is rooted in the struggles and capacities of the exploited and oppressed themselves, working independently from the MAS.19

Morales and Bolivian neostructuralism

The development model that gradually unfolded over the entire four years of the first MAS administration (2006–2010) is best understood by locating it within wider debates that have exploded throughout the Global South since the mid-1990s. A crisis of neoliberal legitimacy has made itself increasingly visible, however unevenly, across large swaths of the Global South over the last fifteen years. The latest crisis in global capitalism, beginning in 2008, has accelerated this trend. The response of ruling classes and their organic intellectuals has been adaptation, not transformation, of the neoliberal project. A new consensus in mainstream political economy circles, international financial institutions, and state managers in the Global South suggests that unbridled market fundamentalism has been insufficient and is unsustainable in light of the intense social conflicts it tends to produce. The best way to facilitate the full flourishing of the market, the new consensus argues, is to embed the market in a coherent set of institutions, with a more active state that engineers subtle movements in Adam Smith’s famous “invisible hand.” The state might even need to take control, directly or indirectly, of the means of production and allocation in order for the market to perform.

Internationally, the latest development approach is most commonly known as “neoinstitutionalism,” but in Latin America it is more frequently called “neostructuralism,” and has been associated with the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) since roughly the mid-1990s. While neostructuralism signifies an advance away from neoliberal orthodoxies, it continues to obfuscate key components of class relations under capitalism and mischaracterizes the state as a neutral actor, fairly arbitrating between perennially-conflicting interest groups. The state’s role in reproducing the conditions for accumulation and enabling the generation of profits for private capital is concealed, as is its repressive role in policing the inevitable class conflicts, struggles, and explosions of resistance that occur in response to the exploitation, alienation, and dispossession inherent to capitalist society. In reality, the state maintains capitalist order and seeks to regulate its social contradictions, and it does so in the economic and political interests of the ruling class. Class exploitation and the state repression it frequently necessitates are constituent elements of capitalism as a system, not episodic or anomalous phenomena as neostructuralists like to imagine.20

Latin American neostructuralism as a theory of development has sanitized ECLAC’s classical conceptualizations of Latin American political economy by excluding the thematic foci of conflict and power relations from its analytical lens and policy prescriptions. Indeed the new theory is better described as a reconstituted neoliberalism. This theoretical and practical shift across large parts of Latin America, from neoliberal orthodoxy to a reconstituted neoliberalism under the guise of neostructuralism, has played itself out in the Bolivian context in ways specific to the country.

As early as the first year of the Morales administration, there were clear signs of deep continuities with the inherited neoliberal model. Alone, the record of the first year might be dismissed as too early to detect any coherent pattern. However, an examination of the political economy of the Morales government over the next three years (2007–2010) reveals the deepening and consolidation of the initial trend toward a reconstituted neoliberalism. This is a tendency, not a law, and the trajectory of the Bolivian economy clearly continues to be subject to the changing dynamics of domestic and regional class struggles, formations, and alliances, as well as the changing character of global capitalism and geopolitical strategies of large imperial powers in the hierarchical world system of states. With that said, it is still important to record the observable and structural trend toward the consolidation of reconstituted neoliberalism in the first term of the Morales government.

Most of Morales’s first four years can be described, from an economic perspective, as high growth and low spending. Prior to the fallout of the worldwide economic crisis, which really started to impact the Bolivian economy in late 2008 and early 2009, the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) had grown at an average of 4.8 percent under Morales. It peaked at 6.1 percent in 2008, and dropped to an estimated 3.5 percent in 2009, which was still the highest projected growth rate in the region. This growth was based principally on high international prices in hydrocarbons (especially natural gas) and various mining minerals common in Bolivia.

Government revenue increased dramatically because of changes to the hydrocarbons tax regime in 2006. But fiscal policy remained austere until the global crisis struck. Morales ran budget surpluses, tightly reined in inflation, and accumulated massive international reserves by Bolivian standards. Public investment in infrastructure, particularly road building, increased significantly, but social spending rose only modestly in absolute terms, and actually declined as a percentage of GDP under Morales.

Fiscal policy changed in 2008 and 2009, as a consequence of a sharp stimulus package designed to prevent recession in the face of the global crisis. The social consequences of reconstituted neoliberalism—whatever the rhetoric of sympathizers on the international left—have been almost no change in poverty rates under Morales, and deep continuities in social inequality. Both of these axes persist as monumental obstacles standing in the way of social justice in the country.21

One of the dominant theoretical and practical innovations of Latin American neostructural economic theory has been proactive labor flexibility, or the prioritization of state efforts to build consensus among workers around submission to the imperatives of export-led capitalist development in a fiercely competitive world system. States attempt to co-opt and reengineer labor movements so that they abandon class struggle in favour of cross-class cooperation and stability in labor-state relations.

This synergistic relationship is thought to make all social classes winners under the development model, and advance “systemic competitiveness” of the country as it inserts itself ever more deeply into international markets. In Bolivia under the MAS, this framework has taken the form of strategic co-optation and division of labor and peasant movements on the part of state managers, while capital simultaneously seeks to deepen the flexibility and precariousness of the workforce to its advantage. While the rate of exploitation has risen under the MAS, the strategy of the state and capital has not unfolded seamlessly.

Class contradictions inherent to the development model are slowly generating cracks and conflict, expressed in episodic strikes and other social movements such as those in the Colquiri mining district in 2009, and the teacher, factory worker, miner, and health care worker strikes of May 2010. These may signal the renewal of collective action from the left of the MAS, something that could very well grow in the near future so long as the Morales administration continues to pursue an economic model based on reconstituted neoliberalism.

Post-neoliberal turns?

There are many who continue to believe that the process of reform has run more deeply than I have suggested. The radical trajectory of the government in its first term is frequently proclaimed, and the current moment, after Morales’s decisive victory in the December 2009 elections, is seen as beckoning still further progress in the revolutionary transformation of the country’s state, society, and economy.
“This revolutionary movement,” Federico Fuentes suggests, for example, “with indigenous and peasant organizations in the forefront, has pushed the traditional Bolivian elite from power through a combination of electoral battles and mass insurrections. It has begun the struggle to create a new ‘plurinational’ Bolivia—based on inclusion and equality for Bolivia’s 36 indigenous nations.” Even outside narrow cultural conceptions of indigenous liberation, change is said to have occurred in the economy as well. “The Morales government has reclaimed state control over gas and mineral reserves and nationalised 13 companies involved in gas, mining, telecommunications, railways and electricity,” Fuentes argues, drawing on official figures. “This increased state intervention means the public sector has increased from 12 percent of gross domestic product in 2005 to 32 percent today.” For Fuentes, and many other like-minded observers, “this government is the product of a new anti-imperialism whose roots lie in previous nationalist movements. It surpasses previous nationalist experiments because, for the first time, it is not military officers or the urban middle classes leading the project, but indigenous and peasant sectors.”
22

The perspective advanced by Fuentes is similar to that proposed by Pablo Stefanoni in various interventions, albeit with the important caveat that Stefanoni is more critical of the MAS project as a whole. For Stefanoni, the current process of change under Morales evokes a certain popular nationalism similar to that of the post-revolutionary 1950s, however with a novel indigenous nucleus to the project’s social base and ideological statements.23 “The MAS, although it denies it,” Stefanoni suggests, “has resumed the policies and rituals of 1952,” with the “indigenous military marches, the nationalization of natural resources, and the multiclass alliance of the ‘people,’ military nationalists, and ‘patriotic’ capitalists.”24

But both Fuentes and Stefanoni are confusing the rhetorical commitments of the government to state-led industrialization with actual substantive movement toward that end, as well as superficial rhetorical similarities to the 1952 revolution with the much more limited extent of reforms actually introduced in the Morales era compared to those enacted throughout the earlier epoch. Stefanoni is correct to point out that it is increasingly apparent that the MAS has re-created the legacy of nationalist populism in a new melange fit for the twenty-first century.

The government has indeed incorporated some of the language of indigenous liberation developed by the earlier popular struggles, but has separated its indigenous focus from the material reality facing indigenous people, and has not proposed economic reform anywhere near the levels of the mid-twentieth century, nationalist-populist epoch in Bolivia. A glance at the late 1960s, for example, demonstrates that levels of state employment were massively higher than they were after four years of the MAS administration, and the state’s proportion of total investment in the country in the late 1960s was 52 percent, by conservative estimates, as compared to the maximum claims of 32 percent today, with ultimate official goals of only 36 percent state participation in GDP.25

Fuentes refers to thirteen nationalized companies. If we focus for a moment simply on mining, we start to recognize that a more incisive and careful dissection of the realities on the ground is necessary. First, the two nationalizations—of the Huanuni mine and the Vinto mine—were a consequence of concerted struggles from below, by the mine workers and community allies, which forced the Bolivian government to act. They can hardly be seen as part of the government’s overarching agenda.

Second, important as these struggles were, it remains true that the overwhelming majority of active mines in Bolivia are owned and operated by transnational mining capital, principally Indian, Korean, Japanese, Canadian, American, and Swiss capital at the moment, with the possibility of French and Russian involvement soon, through lithium development.26

The legacies of 1952

The revolution of 1952 achieved the nationalization of the mines, the breaking up of the haciendas (large land holdings) through wide-scale agrarian reform, and the abolition of the hated pongueaje, a system through which indigenous rural laborers had been obliged to provide personal service to the landowner, his family, and his overseers in exchange for the ability to sow small sections of land on the hacienda.

The labor movement, led by the miners, demanded the full-scale socialization of property relations and the institutionalization of workers’ control in the mines and elsewhere during the opening years of the revolutionary process. However, after the initial period in which the Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (Revolutionary Nationalist Movement, MNR) was forced to enact major reforms due to pressure from popular movements, the MNR quickly turned on the workers, with the assistance of U.S. imperialism. In alliance with co-opted peasant organizations—placated by the recent land reforms—the MNR began reversing the gains of the revolution and rebuilding the army as a means of repressing the miners.

In 1956, an International Monetary Fund–backed economic stabilization program was introduced, and by the time of the 1964 right-wing military coup, the state had developed an elaborate system of divide-and-rule tactics to deal with rural and urban popular sectors, repressing the most radical and integrating those who could be integrated through co-optation and the divvying out of selective benefits from the state’s purse.

Leading into the second term of the Morales government, there remains the possibility of a renewal of an old social pact between fractions of the eastern bourgeois bloc and imperialist forces in their various guises, and the state bureaucracy occupied by the MAS. Such an outcome would require sufficient levels of reform to achieve the temporary quiescence of the masses, while at the same time avoiding a level of reform that would lead to reaction from the “honest,” “responsible,” and “patriotic” fractions of the bourgeoisie, and a new cycle of crisis and instability.

Morales, as an indigenous president and ex-cocalero leader, may continue to have sufficient political capital—legitimacy within the popular classes and indigenous organizations—to facilitate such an outcome. Because such a conclusion would continue to avoid confronting the fundamental class strongholds in the urban and rural economies of transnational capital and their domestic allies, it could lay the basis for fundamental counter-reform over the long term. These reactionary forces—currently ideologically and politically fragmented—would over time be able to reorganize politically and socially. We should remember that the far more radical reforms initiated by the MNR following the 1952 revolution were nonetheless overturned by the far right in a military coup in 1964, in part because the revolution never evolved from left-populist to genuinely socialist and indigenous-liberationist.

Such a trajectory is made more plausible by various recent indications of government intentions. The nostalgia for an honest, patriotic bourgeoisie that might be disciplined by the state ran through Vice President Álvaro García Linera’s thinking the night before the December 2009 elections. Expecting a huge majority of votes, journalists asked him how he would respond to those who suggest that the new mandate will lead to a radicalization of the process. “We are going to do what we have said,” indicated García Linera. “There is no hidden agenda.”

Asked if he would move to expropriate the huge tracts of land held by the agro-bourgeoisie in Santa Cruz, he responded by defending the sanctity of private property, as enshrined in the new constitution. “We will never go against a Constitution that we have put together ourselves, and there are parameters [in the Constitution] about land: a maximum size, respect for private property, and that the social functions of the land must be fulfilled.” What about the apparent rapprochement with the business elite of Santa Cruz who until that moment had seemed so hostile? García Linera said of the meetings between the government and the eastern bourgeois bloc,

These meetings are not new, what is new is that they are publicly acknowledging them. The business class had three blocs: a rabidly oppositional bloc that conspired [against the government] and was defeated; a nucleus that agrees with our policies but will not say so publicly; and a sector that shifts allegiances depending on the political winds. This last section is now inclined to accept the calls from the government to get to work. We will not accept corporate elite acting as though they were a political party. If they understand this, the state is firmly committed to supporting these productive sectors. I believe they have understood.27
At the same time, a second exit to the post–December 2009 conjuncture might be that the country polarizes once again in dramatic ways, that social movements obtain some autonomy, at least from the more conservative wings of the MAS, and that the left-indigenous forces of the country are once again pitted in open confrontation against the social forces of the right. In such a process, reforms might become increasingly broad, and revolutionary possibilities increasingly plausible once again. Such a virtuous circle of momentum might inspire the masses to take the situation into their own hands, to take over large land holdings in the countryside and workplaces and communities in the cities.

As I have suggested, however, the second possibility must be the product of the self-activity and self-organization of the popular classes themselves, as the leadership of the governing party will not initiate such action on its own, and, indeed, will resist it until it becomes impossible to resist. This was patently true in the political economy of the first year of the Morales government, and no less so in the economic structure, fiscal policy, spending patterns, and inequality and poverty outcomes over the next three years (2007–2010).
The centrality of Bolivia in anti-neoliberal struggles

Bolivian popular movements have been at the cutting edge of resistance to neoliberalism in Latin America in recent years. Latin America, in turn, has been the region of the world most militantly opposed to the social depravities of neoliberalism. Radical left-indigenous movements rose up in an insurrectionary cycle with a breadth and intensity unparalleled in the Western hemisphere in the first five years of the current century. The popular upheavals of the Water War against privatization in 2000 turned the tide against the previous fifteen years of right-wing assault.

This was followed by the ousting of two neoliberal presidents in the Gas Wars of 2003 and 2005, through mass extra-parliamentary insurrections—Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and Carlos Mesa, respectively, were tossed out in the course of these street battles. All this laid the basis for Evo Morales’s successful bid to become the country’s first indigenous president, as leader of the MAS, in the December 2005 elections. He then consolidated this position four years later, with 64 percent of the popular vote in December 2009, on a 90 percent voter turnout.

An analytical framework for understanding the insurrectionary cycle between 2000 and 2005 and, most importantly, its relationship with the political-economic trajectory of the MAS government during its first four years in office (2006–2010), is more urgently required than ever before. It is necessary to consistently separate image from reality, rebellion from reform, with empirical and historical clarity, and remain in fundamental solidarity with the aims of anti-imperialist, socialist, and indigenous-liberationist transformation in the country, the hemisphere, and, eventually, the world.

What becomes clear through an honest appraisal of the historical record is that the left-indigenous insurrectionary period between 2000 and 2005 did indeed amount to a revolutionary epoch, even if its main protagonists have not yet achieved a social revolution. As politics shifted from the streets to the electoral terrain after the May–June 2005 revolts and the lead-up to the December 2005 elections, we witnessed the common turn toward a dampening of revolutionary possibilities and social movements demobilized as a moderate political party came to office.

Those elections catalogued the demise of traditional neoliberal parties in Bolivia and popular rejection of their political and economic legacies. Unfortunately, given its changing class composition, ideology, and strategy over the few years leading up to those elections, the party the masses elected into the state apparatus had moderated dramatically since its origins.

The election of Evo Morales signified an historic blow against informal apartheid race relations in the country, and was rightfully celebrated domestically and internationally as a major democratic step forward for the country. But it was also true, and harder for many to come to terms with, that the MAS had long since abandoned the perspective of simultaneous liberation from class exploitation and racial oppression of the indigenous majority. Rather, the party had shifted ideologically and programmatically toward a crude model of stages, where a much thinner, cultural decolonization of race relations was promised immediately, while socialism was deferred to a distant future.

It should perhaps have been less surprising than it was for many that the first year of the Morales government saw only modest breaks with the inherited neoliberal orthodoxies—limited essentially to foreign relations with Cuba and Venezuela and the International Monetary Fund, and domestic policy in the hydrocarbons sector. At the same time, while popular movements had struggled for a revolutionary constituent assembly to refound the country, the actual assembly established by the government in 2006 was a poor substitute, indeed more reminiscent of the proceedings of the existing liberal congress than a participatory and revolutionary rupture with the status quo.

If the first year of the Morales administration was characterized by steady movement away from rebellion and toward reform, the next three years (2007–2010) consolidated that turn in the form of reconstituted neoliberalism. The new model abandoned features of neoliberal orthodoxy, but retained its core faith in the capitalist market as the principal engine of growth and industrialization.
Government revenue spiked, but international reserves were accumulated at record levels, while social spending decreased as a proportion of GDP. Budget surpluses were tightly guarded, as were inflation rates. Rates of poverty and levels of social inequality showed little alteration. Precarious and flexible labor conditions have persisted. Indeed, they have even been encouraged in many ways, including the denunciation of workers as “counterrevolutionary” when they attempt to organize independently against these trends and for other improvements in their living standards and working conditions.

Socialists, anti-imperialism, and appraising the Morales regime

The arguments advanced above clearly run against the standard accounts of the Morales government from both the right and the left. Left critics of my position might reasonably ask whether I am not being too hard on the Morales government, given the structural impediments of global capitalism and imperialist threats. Elsewhere, I have discussed at some length the dynamics of contemporary capitalist imperialism and the unusually wide window for change in contemporary Bolivia under current conditions. This, I hope, constitutes at least an opening response to the first objection.

Others might suggest that our priority—especially as activists based in the Global North—must be to defend Morales uncritically because his government represents a resolutely anti-imperialist power in a hostile world, which can only be a good thing. I would like to conclude by responding to the second possible objection by way of a cursory glance at the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, held in Cochabamba in April 2010.

It was undoubtedly an historic step forward for ecosocialist internationalism to have tens of thousands of activists—mainly from the Global South, and particularly from Latin America—gather in Cochabamba with the premise that the capitalist system is the principal enemy of nature. There are also extraordinarily good reasons to celebrate Morales’s vigorous denunciations of the hypocrisy and arrogance of leaders of the key imperialist countries at the Copenhagen climate talks in late 2009.

He spoke to the aspirations of the thousands resisting in the streets, facing repression and lengthy prison sentences for civil disobedience in the name of preventing the regularized destruction of the earth’s ecosystems. We can celebrate this gathering as an initial step forward against imperialism and for building the incipient networks for an authentically anti-capitalist, ecologically sane, and internationalist socialism.

At the same time, we must not shy away from the contradictions of what is happening domestically in Bolivia, many facets of which I trace at length in my new book, From Rebellion to Reform in Bolivia: Class Struggle, Indigenous Liberation, and the Politics of Evo Morales (forthcoming from Haymarket Books). We must avoid simply putting our faith in the benevolent leadership of state leaders who pledge a commitment to “twenty-first century socialism” in international forums.

At the same time that Morales speaks about anti-capitalist ecological politics to the international media, his domestic policies have reinforced a complex and reconstituted neoliberalism, based on the export of primary raw materials, such as hydrocarbons and mining minerals. In the lead-up to the Cochabamba conference, peasants and workers in western Bolivia waged a pitched battle against a Japanese multinational mining corporation at the San Cristóbal mine. In the month after the international activists went home, striking miners, teachers, health care workers, and factory workers were insulted as counterrevolutionaries by Morales government officials, including Morales himself along with Vice President Álvaro García Linera.28

The contradictions of Morales’s moves to extract and industrialize raw materials in “partnership” with transnational mining and petroleum capital—leading inevitably to the exploitation of workers and the dispossession of indigenous peasants located on and around natural resource deposits—calls into question a simple relationship between Morales and ecosocialist struggle internationally.

Major social struggles are likely to emerge in the near future as debates in Bolivia unfold as to if and how the development of massive lithium deposits will proceed in the country. Taking a position of uncritical loyalty to the MAS government will likely put many well-intentioned progressives on the wrong side of indigenous peasant and proletarian struggles for justice in many instances.29 Likewise, in Ecuador, indigenous popular movements have often been pitted against the extractive industrial policies of “twenty-first century socialist president” Rafael Correa.

My new book offers, among other things, a response to the dominant view of Evo Morales’s development project in Bolivia on the international left, a view that is steeped in romanticization. Predictably, the debates occurring inside the country are much more richly grounded in the real contradictions there than what too often passes for analysis outside the country.

From my perspective, the first priority of activists in the Global North should indeed be to oppose imperialist meddling anywhere. This means, concretely, opposition under any circumstances to imperialist-backed destabilization campaigns against Morales. But the political situation is too complicated to end our discussion at that stage. Our first allegiance ought to be with the exploited and oppressed themselves, rather than any leaders or governments who purport to speak in their name.

For example, we should have been with the Bolivian workers when they were demanding decent wages in May 2010, and we should have opposed Morales on that question.30 We should stand in solidarity with the peasants and workers who take on the mining multinationals, such as the opposition to Japanese capitalists in the San Cristóbal mine, not with the Morales government on these questions. And, of course, we could give many more examples.

Second, we should be clear that the Morales government is not the only force in Bolivia fighting imperialism, nor does the government consistently take anti-imperial positions. Should anti-imperialists automatically defend Morales, for instance, even when he aligns with transnational mining and petroleum capital against the interests of indigenous peasant communities? To do so is not serious left politics, it seems to me.

In such instances, Morales is in fact channeling imperial economic power and guaranteeing a legal environment for their ongoing exploitative practices. This is happening against the interests of the popular classes and against the interests of ecologically sustainable development that meets authentic human needs. Morales does so, it has been recognized, at the same time as he hosts the Cochabamba climate conference, which was an important gathering in terms of building ecological consciousness and organization on an international scale.

Our politics must be sufficiently mature and nuanced to understand the importance of defending the best possibilities of initiatives such as the Cochabamba gathering, while condemning the gap between rhetoric and reality when it comes to building communitarian socialism inside Bolivia. The peasants, workers, and community members who recently took on the mining companies through direct actions at the San Cristóbal mine are at the forefront of anti-imperialism in Bolivia, and they are deserving of our solidarity, even when their actions run directly against the Morales administration. Such adherence to principle, and nuanced, complex, and open revolutionary politics, does not align us with imperial capital and states who would rather see Morales pushed out of office. We will resist them, too, at every turn.

The hope for Bolivia’s future remains with the overwhelmingly indigenous rural and urban popular classes, organizing and struggling independently for themselves, against combined capitalist exploitation and racial oppression, with visions of simultaneous indigenous liberation and socialist emancipation guiding them forward, as we witnessed on a grand scale between 2000 and 2005.

Republished from International Socialist Review


Jeffery R. Webber is a lecturer in the School of Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary University of London. He is the author of Red October: Left-Indigenous Struggles in Modern Bolivia (2010); From Rebellion to Reform in Bolivia: Class Struggle, Indigenous Liberation, and the Politics of Evo Morales (2011); and, co-editor with Barry Carr, of The Resurgence of Latin American Radicalism: Between Cracks in the Empire and an Izquierda Permitida (2011). He is on the editorial collectives of Historical Materialism and Latin American Perspectives.

1 This article draws from sections of my forthcoming book, From Rebellion to Reform in Bolivia: Class Struggle, Indigenous Liberation, and the Politics of Evo Morales (Chicago: Haymarket, 2011). The sources for data on economic and social trends touched on in this article are cited more comprehensively in the book, and their significance is explained at much greater length.

2 “The explosive apex of Evo’s power: Bolivia’s presidential election,” Economist, December 10, 2009.

3 See Pablo Stefanoni, “Bolivia después de las elecciones: ¿a dónde va el evismo?” Nueva Sociedad, No. 225, January–February 2010, 4–17; and, on the recall and constitutional referendums, see Pablo Rossell, “El proyecto de Evo Morales más allá de 2010,” Nueva Sociedad, No. 221, May–June 2009, 23–32.

4 Atilio A. Borón, “¿Por qué ganó Evo?” Rebelión, December 8, 2009.

5 Rosa Rojas, “Arrasa Evo Morales: Gana relección y el MAS tiene mayoría en el Congreso,” La Jornada, December 7, 2009.

6 Stefanoni, “Bolivia después de las elecciones,” 4–5. For a discussion of the origins and trajectory of the eastern bourgeois bloc, see Jeffery R. Webber, “Carlos Mesa, Evo Morales and a divided Bolivia (2003–2005),” Latin American Perspectives, Vol. 37, No. 3, May 2010.

7 For the election results, see Corte Nacional Electoral, “Resultados: Elecciones departamentales y municipales 2010,” available at http://www.cne.org.bo/. For the April 2010 departmental elections, the position historically known as “prefect” was changed to “governor.”

8 Judy Rebick, “Bolivia re-invents democratic socialism with indigenous people in the lead,” www.rabble.ca, November 14, 2009.

9 Naomi Klein, “Bolivia’s fight for survival can help save democracy too,” Guardian, April 22, 2010.

10 Borón, “¿Por qué ganó Evo?”

11 Ana Esther Ceceña, “Es el tiempo de crear el sistema del vivir bien y el manantial está en Bolivia,” La Epoca, December 11, 2009. See also Ángel Guerra Cabrera, “La victoria de Evo y las nuevas ame?nazas,” La Jornada, December 11, 2009.

12 Quoted in Hugo Moldiz Mercado, “Evo pide acelerar el camino al socialimso,” La Epoca, December 10, 2009.

13 For a discussion of the way forward after Copenhagen, see Mike Davis, “Who will build the Ark?” New Left Review, II, 61, January–February 2010, 29–46.
14 See Jorge G. Castañeda and Marco A. Morales (eds.), Leftovers: Tales of the Two Latin American Lefts (New York: Routledge, 2008).

15 “Bolivia’s new constitution: A passport to utopia,” Economist, January 22, 2009; Michael Reid, “Latin drift: Sorting Latin America’s pragmatists from its populists,” Economist, November 19, 2008; “The explosive apex of Evo’s power,” Economist, December 10, 2009.

16 Diego Ore and Eduardo García, “Bolivia nationalizes four power companies,” Washington Post, May 2, 2010.

17 Representative examples of the conservative position are Franz Xavier Barrios Suvelza, “The weakness of excess: The Bolivian state in an unbounded democracy,” in John Crabtree and Laurence Whitehead, eds., Unresolved Tensions: Bolivia Past and Present (Pittsburgh, PA: Pittsburgh University Press, 2008); José Luis Roca, “Regionalism revisited,” in Crabtree and Whitehead, Unresolved Tensions; Juan Antonio Morales, “Bolivia in a global setting: Economic ties,” in Crabtree and Whitehead, Unresolved Tensions; and Horst Grebe López, “Estado y mercado en Bolivia: Una relación pendular,” Nueva Sociedad, Vol. 221, May–June 2009, 137–150. And of the liberal position: George Gray Molina, “State-society relations in Bolivia: The strength of weakness,” in Crabtree and Whitehead, Unresolved Tensions; Xavier Albó, “The ‘long memory’ of ethnicity in Bolivia and some contemporary oscillations,” in Crabtree and Whitehead, Unresolved Tensions.

18 See, for some representative examples, Pablo Stefanoni and Hervé Do Alto, Evo Morales de la coca al palacio: Una oportunidad por la izquierda indígena (La Paz: Malatesta, 2006); Shirley Orozco Ramírez, “Historia del Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS): Trayectoria política e ideológica,” Barataria 1, No. 2, 2004, 16–22; Pablo Stefanoni, “MAS-IPSP: la emergencia del nacionalismo plebeya,” Observatorio Social de América Latina, No. 12, 2003, 57–68; María Teresa Zegada, Yuri F. Tórrez, and Gloria Cámara, Movimientos sociales en tiempos de poder: Articulaciones y campos de conflicto en el gobierno del MAS (La Paz: Plural Editores, 2008); Jorge Komadina and Céline Geffroy, El poder del movimiento politico: Estrategia, tramas organizativas e identidad del MAS en Cochabamba (1999–2005) (Cochabamba: CESU-UMSS, 2008); Karin Monasterios, Pablo Stefanoni, and Hervé Do Alto, eds., Reiventando la nación en Bolivia: Movimientos sociales, Estado y poscolonialidad (La Paz: Plural Editores, 2008); Jim Shultz, “‘Evonomics’ Gets a Second Term,” NACLA Report on the Americas, Vol. 43, Issue 1, January–February 2010, 4–5; Nancy Postero, “Morales’s MAS government: Building indigenous popular hegemony in Bolivia,” Latin American Perspectives, Vol. 37, No. 3, May 2010, 18–34. Luis Tapia is, by far and away, the most interesting in this camp. He is ultimately supportive of the MAS project, but is uniquely unromantic and often has highly perceptive critiques to offer. See, for example, Luis Tapia, Pensando la democracia geopolíticamente (La Paz: Muela del Diablo Editores, 2009); Política salvaje (La Paz: Muela del Diablo Editores, 2008); and La coyuntura de la relativa autonomía del Estado (La Paz: Muela del Diablo Editores, 2009).

19 Examples of this eclectic group of thinkers include: various contributors to Gustavo Ayala and Luis Tapia, eds., Amanecer en Bolivia: Los movimientos sociales y el cambio (Quito: Ediciones La Tierra, 2007), particularly the chapters by Jorge Viaña and Marxa Chávez; Raúl Zibechi, “Bolivia-Ecuador: El Estado contra los pueblos indios,” Rebelión, July 19, 2010; Lorgio Orellana Aillón, Nacionalismo, populismo y régimen de acumulación en Bolivia (La Paz: CEDLA, 2006); Raquel Gutiérrez Aguilar, Los Ritmos del Pachakuti: Movilización y levantamiento indígena-popular en Bolivia desde la perspectiva de emancipación (2000–2005) (La Paz: Textos Rebeldes, 2008); Jeffery R. Webber, Red October: Left-Indigenous Struggles in Modern Bolivia (Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2010); Forrest Hylton and Sinclair Thomson, Revolutionary Horizons: Past and Present in Bolivian Politics (London: Verso, 2007); Enrique Ormachea Saavedra, ¿Revolución agraria o consolidación de la vía terrateniente? El Gobierno del MAS y las políticas de tierras (La Paz: CEDLA, 2008); Enrique Ormachea Saavedra, Soberanía y seguridad alimentaria en Bolivia: Políticas y estado de situación (La Paz: CEDLA, 2009); Silvia Escóbar de Pabón, Situación de los ingresos laborales en tiempos de cambio (La Paz: CEDLA, 2009); Silvia Escóbar de Pabón, Situación del empleo en tiempos de cambio (La Paz: CEDLA, 2009); Marxa Chávez, “Weaving the Rebellion: Plan 3000, Center of Resistance in Eastern Bolivia,” Socialism and Democracy, Vol. 23, No. 3, 2009, 101–116 ; and the contributions by Máximo Quisbert Quispe, Rafael Bautista, Pablo Mamani Ramírez, Ximena Soruco Soluguren, Lucila Choque Huarin, Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, and Esteban Ticona Alejo to the first two issues (2008 and 2009) of the new journal Willka: Análisis, pensamiento y acción de los pueblos en lucha.

20 For one classical representative statement of this perspective, see Osvaldo Sunkel, Development from Within: Toward a Neostructuralist Approach for Latin America (Boulder, CO: Lynne Reinner Publishers, 1993).

21 Drawing on data from Bolivia’s National Institute of Statistics, the best study thus far charts poverty and extreme poverty trends up to 2007, which are the latest available figures. The study notes that since 2005 there has been only marginal change in the poverty rate, and that this change has been slightly upward, from 59.9 percent of the population in 2005 to 60.1 percent in 2007. Levels of extreme poverty increase from 36.7 to 37.7 percent over the same two-year period. At the same time, other categories relevant to living standards, such as household density, and access to electricity, running water, and sewage systems, all show modest improvements between 2005 and 2007. It is possible that poverty levels have improved since 2007, and it should also be noted that these figures do not take into account improvements in the social wage of workers and peasants—i.e., any improvements in social services for the poor. Again, however, social spending has actually declined as a percentage of GDP under Morales, even as it increased in real, inflation-adjusted terms. The record on poverty shows that there is little to celebrate. The key data here is derived from Mark Weisbrot, Rebecca Ray, and Jake Johnston, Bolivia: The Economy During the Morales Administration, Center for Economic and Policy Research, December 2009, 16. It ought to be noted the poverty figures from ECLAC do not correspond with the figures discussed here. The latest ECLAC publications provide national figures for 1999 and 2007, and claim that there has been a downward shift in Bolivian poverty from 60.6 percent poverty to 54 percent poverty between these years. See ECLAC, Anuario Estadístico de América Latina y el Caribe, 2009, 2009, 65.
Inequality, likewise, remains a huge barrier to achieving social justice in the Bolivian context. Between 2005 and 2007, income inequality, as measured by the Gini coefficient, declined from 60.2 to 56.3. Figures for the distribution of Bolivian national income show that the poorest 10 percent of the Bolivian population received 0.3 percent of national income in 1999, and still received only 0.4 percent by 2007, the last available figure. Meanwhile, the richest 10 percent of the population took home 43.9 percent of national income in 1999 and precisely the same percentage in 2007. If we broaden our perspective, to compare the bottom and top fifths of the social pyramid, we reach similar conclusions. The poorest 20 percent of society took in a mere 1.3 percent of national income in 1999 and, in 2007, a still-paltry 2 percent. The richest 20 percent of the population pocketed 61.2 percent of national income in 1999 and 60.9 in 2007. In other words, there has been almost no change on either end of the scale in terms of the redistribution of income, never mind the redistribution of assets. See, Weisbrot, Ray, and Johnston, Bolivia: The Economy, 18, for inequality figures employed here.

22 Federico Fuentes, “Bolivia: Between Mother Earth and an ‘extraction economy,’” The Bullet, Socialist Project E-Bulletin, No. 355, May 17, 2010.

23 Pablo Stefanoni, “Bolivia después de las elecciones,” 5.

24 Ibid., 14. There is an increasing rupture between the socioeconomic and sociocultural dimensions of evismo, with intensifying class differentiation and stratification within the indigenous nucleus of MAS supporters, and one way to maintain the cohesion of the social base in light of these growing contradictions has been the appeal to indigenous populist nationalism. See Pablo Rossell, “El proyecto de Evo Morales más allá de 2010,” Nueva Sociedad, No. 221 May–June 2010, 27.

25 James Malloy and Eduardo Gamarra, Revolution and Reaction: Bolivia, 1964–1985 (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1988), 16.

26 Osvaldo Guachalla, “La exacerbación de la política extractivista del MAS: Privatización con fachada nacionalista,” El Observador, Vol. 4, No. 8 January 2010, 14–15.

27 Silvina Heguy and Pablo Stefanoni, “‘No hay una agenda oculta: la Constitución respeta la propiedad’: Entrevista a García Linera,” Clarín, December 6, 2009.

28 The official conspiracy theories concocted by state managers escalated when the COB called, on Thursday, May 6, for a general strike to begin on Monday, May 10, in the event that the government did not respond to the workers’ demands for a better salary increase. García Linera intimated that the United States and the domestic right were behind the call for a general strike, which he compared to earlier (authentic) right-wing destabilization campaigns that the Morales government had endured. “Those who have been a part of union struggles know that general strikes have a political content; general strikes are declared to overthrow governments,” García Linera argued. He said that right-wing groups since 2006 “have tried coup d’états, assassinations, and now they are attempting [destabilization] from within; the right uses these measures, and I wouldn’t doubt that behind this there also could be North American functionaries.” See, “Bolivia: Principal sindical obrera desafía a Evo Morales con huelga general,” La Razón, May 7, 2010.

29 For discussion of the Latin American left’s relationship to extractive industries, and the lithium debates in Bolivia more particularly, see Eduardo Gudynas, “El Nuevo extractivismo progresista: Tesis sobre un viejo problema bajo nuevas expresiones,” El Observador, Vol. 4, No. 8, January 2010, 1–10; Osvaldo Guachalla, “La exacerbación de la política extractivista del MAS: Privatización con fachada nacionalista,” El Observador, Vol. 4, No. 8, January 2010, 11–16; Rebecca Hollender and Jim Shultz, “Bolivia and its lithium: Can the ‘gold of the 21st century’ help lift a nation out of poverty?” Democracy Center, May 2010, http://democracyctr.org/pdf/DClithiumfullreportenglish.pdf.

30 See “Bolivia: Alza salarial propuesta por Evo genera rechazo y ?amenazas de huelga,” La Razón, May 3, 2010; see also, Carlos Arze Vargas, “El aumento salarial del ‘vivir bien,’” Nota de Prensa, CEDLA, May 2010; Confederación General de Trabajadores ?Fabriles de Bolivia, “Rechazamos el incremento salarial de 5%,” Nota de Prensa, April 27, 2010.

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