Social movements in Bolivia: from strength to power

Ann Chaplin
In October 2003, President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, one of the main authors of neoliberal reforms in Bolivia, was forced to flee the country amid a groundswell of social organizations calling for his resignation. Successive neoliberal governments since the mid-1980s had tried to weaken civil society organizations; yet, in the face of continued injustice and exclusion, people turned to their social organizations to push their claims. In January 2006, Evo Morales Ayma became Bolivia's first indigenous president, with the backing of these social movements. In a country where the majority is of indigenous background, but where being indigenous was synonymous with poverty and exclusion, this was an historic and unprecedented moment for the country

This article considers the factors which came together to effect this remarkable change and brought people from indigenous and popular backgrounds into the corridors of power. In particular, it considers the transformation of the role of Bolivian social movements, from presenting their disparate demands to government, to a more coordinated, proactive and political role. Finally, it addresses the question of what role the social movements play in the process for change currently underway in Bolivia. 

Development of social organization in Bolivia


Over many centuries Bolivia has depended on the export of raw materials – first silver, then tin and now natural gas – to feed the industrial and financial development of other nations, European and North American. The Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano talks of a bridge of silver that could have been built over the Atlantic Ocean with the silver taken by the Spaniards from the mining town of Potosí in Bolivia (Galeano, 1997). When the tin-mining industry collapsed in the 1980s, for a while coca production played an important role in the Bolivian economy. For centuries, the vast majority of Bolivians had lived in semi-feudal conditions; some worked in the mines, others on large landed estates; indigenous people lived on the poorest land. The popular revolution in 1952, however, involving miners, campesinos (subsistence peasant farmers) and parts of the middle classes, brought important changes. It led to the nationalization of the mines, land reform and voting rights to campesinos and women. 

Social organization in Bolivia, as in much of the Andes, is largely based on indigenous and campesino/peasant farmer values and practices. The individual and the community are closely knit: individuals contribute to the collective good, while also gaining benefits from collaboration with others. One family or individual typically helps another to sow a field or harvest their crops. At times, all the community works together to clear access roads, dig water channels or to bring in the harvest. Sometimes, whole communities turn out to help others, with the debt being repaid subsequently, even decades later. Important decisions in the community are made collectively, even sometimes on matters like who to vote for in an election. 

It was the miners' union, the Federación Sindical de Trabajadores Mineros de Bolivia (FSTMB), set up in 1944, however, that for decades formed the backbone of Bolivian popular organization. It provided leadership to the workers' union confederation, the Central Obrera Boliviana (COB), established in the wake of the 1952 revolution. The COB, the Bolivian equivalent of the Trades Union Congress, has been unique in Latin America. It represented a spectrum of social organizations across social classes and also encompassed a wide variety of political positions – not just that of one political party. Miners would meet together with campesinos, manufacturing workers, teachers and health workers, transport workers, street sales people, university students and cultural groups. Their demands were often for the improvement of basic working conditions and rights for their members. However, they were consistent in taking action to defend their political rights; the COB and the miners' federation clashed repeatedly with dictatorial governments at different times. 

In recent decades, there have also been significant demographic changes. The majority of the people are of indigenous background (62 percent according to the 2001 census) and traditionally rural dwellers (38 percent according the same census), but an increasingly large number are no longer rural-based. The indigenous people, who migrated to the cities, took with them their strong values and traditions learnt in rural communities. Indigenous communities have strong organizational traditions, which are different in the highland and lowland regions. Highland indigenous groups have largely organized along two lines. The 1952 Revolution led to land reforms through which campesinos were given small plots of land, in many cases taken back from the large estate owners (hacendados). They adopted a form of organization based on that of the workers' unions: the agrarian trade union. These are organized from community level upwards, with members elected to take part in local and regional federations. In 1979, with the backing of the COB, a single national confederation, (Confederación Sindical de Trabajadores Campesinos de Bolivia – CSUTCB) was created, bringing together the peasant movement under the leadership of Genaro Flores (who was shot and consequently disabled after the military coup of 1980). This national organization put a stop to the many years of manipulation of campesino leaders and organizations by the main ruling party, the Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (MNR), after 1952 and by the dictators who ruled the country in the 1960s and 1970s. 

However, these agrarian unions sidelined an earlier form of rural organization, dating back to pre-colonial times. The ayllu brings together families from a group of communities in an organization that has traditionally been responsible for defence of territorial boundaries and resources, agricultural production and community justice. Under Spanish colonial rule, the leaders of the ayllus were responsible locally for law and order and for the payment of tribute to the Spanish crown. The 500th anniversary of the Spanish invasion in 1992 brought with it a resurgence in indigenous pride, prompting the ayllus that still existed to reorganize and reassert themselves. In 1997, a national organization of ayllus was established to represent their interests. 

Lowland indigenous organizations have a rather different history. The eastern lowlands, seemingly ‘empty’ 60 years ago (except for some early settlers from the highlands and migrants from overseas attracted by the vast extensions of arable land), are home to over thirty indigenous nations. These groups vary widely from Amazonian Indians with little contact with the outside world, to the Guaraní people who were ‘protected’ for many years from outside influences by the Jesuit missions in this region. From the 1970s onwards, NGOs began working with indigenous groups, particularly in Santa Cruz, on issues of rights and empowerment. In 1982, four indigenous organizations set up the Confederación de Pueblos Indígenas de Bolivia (CIDOB). In 1990, lowland indigenous groups carried out the first of several long marches to present their demands in the capital, La Paz, particularly relating to land ownership. They have since become well organized political actors in the lowlands, but distinct from their highland counterparts. 

Neoliberal reforms undermine social organization


The year 1985 brought a change of government with the MNR party, promoters of the nationalist and statist 1952 revolution, returning to power on a neoliberal ticket. The swinging adjustment measures of that year, followed by the collapse of the world price of tin, resulted in an exodus from the mines. The closure of most state-run mines forced about 27,000 miners and their families to leave their jobs and homes and to seek a new life elsewhere. Some went to the main cities to look for work, while others returned to work the land. Many migrated to the tropics, such as the Chapare, where coca leaf farming offered an alternative livelihood

The effect on popular organization was disastrous. With the miners reduced to a small number of people left in charge of maintaining some of the mines, the influence of the FSTMB collapsed. And, given the weight of the miners union in the COB, the COB itself was much weakened. Social organizations found themselves unable to hold back the economic and political reforms that followed. These were aimed at firmly reducing state involvement in the economy and welfare benefits, privatizing and selling off strategic national industries and opening up the country to the free market. Bolivia ended up importing cheap foodstuffs: eggs were brought from neighbouring Chile and even potatoes from Argentina and Peru. Bolivian producers were forced to take severe cuts in prices. The social costs were high, and poverty rates rose. The 2001 census showed only 16 percent of the population as having its basic needs met. Much of the population turned to informal activities to make ends meet, and organization based on labour relations ceased to be the major catalyst of social organization. 

Reforms open new doors to new forms of organization


As part of his programme of structural reforms in the mid-1990s, Sánchez de Lozada introduced the law of ‘Popular Participation’ in 1994. This sought to decentralize 20 percent of the national budget to over 300 municipalities. Local social organizations were to take part in decisions on planning the use of resources and in holding authorities to account. This move to decentralize state responsibilities, aimed at attending to needs at the local level, also sought to undermine the strong social organizations organized at the national level. However, it had the opposite effect since it threw a lifeline to those social organizations already organized on a territorial basis, such as the campesino and indigenous organizations, as well as urban neighbourhood groups, the juntas vecinales.
Campesino and indigenous groups, and neighbourhood committees, began slowly to play a more important role in planning the use of local resources, coming together to decide which communities or neighbourhoods should benefit from municipal projects. In areas where the population was predominantly indigenous and/or rural, they also began to put forward their own candidates in elections. At first, they looked to existing political parties to include them in their lists of local candidates, and then they began to organize their own parties such as the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) and Movimiento Indígena Pachacuti (MIP), led, respectively, by Evo Morales and Felipe Quispe. 

These factors, the involvement in local planning, the experience of standing for elections and holding office in municipal government, have been critical for the political development of many indigenous and popular leaders. Before they were excluded from taking part in government, whereas they now had an opportunity both to learn how local government is run and to gain confidence in their ability to take on these responsibilities. A good example is René Joaquino, a tailor, whose success as mayor of Potosí saw him re-elected for three terms. In 2009, he stood as a candidate for the presidency.
However, while the political development of male indigenous leaders has grown, there are still many barriers to women's participation. In indigenous communities, women traditionally take on representative roles, but they do so as wives, in partnership with their husbands. This tradition is maintained within indigenous communities and often in areas where migrants have moved to the towns. From marriage onwards, a couple can occupy posts of increasing levels of complexity and responsibility. However, in practice, this means that it is usually the man who takes on tasks of representation outside the community, and indigenous women rarely become involved in politics.

The electoral innovation of alternancia introduced under the Evo Morales government strengthens the electoral rule that 30 percent of candidates should be women. It stipulates that if a man is first on a list of candidates, then he should be followed by a woman in the second place or vice versa. At first, women elected as municipal councillors found it difficult to assert themselves and spoke little in sessions. However, the situation is changing slowly, and there are several women who are now role models for young girls growing up in the communities. Rosa Choque Muruchi was made the first woman Mayor of Uncía. She is unusual in as far as she is not married and is from the indigenous Ayllu Aimaya in Norte Potosí. This empowerment of young women is in part due to the efforts of NGOs such as the research and educational promotion centre, CIPE (Centro de Investigación y Promoción Educativo), in the Norte Potosí area, which supports agricultural production by working with family groupings within the ayllus, respecting their cultural knowledge and practices. CIPE works with indigenous families both in their communities and at ayllu level organizations and includes training for women in literacy, self-esteem and local government and institutions as integral to their programme. These are some early but crucial steps towards empowering women to take on representative roles in their communities, although there is a long way to go before this extends to the majority of women. 

Social organizations begin to regroup


Partly as a consequence of the spaces opened up through the Law of Popular Participation and partly spurred by the effects of neoliberal policies, social organizations began to have a stronger voice, which they amplified through increased levels of organization and mobilization to make their demands more widely heard. New alliances and coordinated forms of resistance emerged around the country in the late 1990s.

Coca producers organized themselves to challenge government policies of coca leaf eradication, in response to US demands, which led to frequent clashes between coca producers and the army and anti-narcotics police. Evo Morales' leadership of the ‘Federation of Six Federations’ in the Chapare brought him into the national limelight. At the same time, campesino organizations carried out road blockades, frequently bringing traffic in parts of the country to a halt for weeks at a time, to draw attention to the low prices they were getting for their produce. The government's privatization policies, introduced in line with neo-liberal reforms, triggered a spectrum of social actors to come together to carry out coordinated acts of resistance. 

In Cochabamba in 2000, an alliance of civic groups rallied to protest against the privatized water company hiking its prices and making mains water connections too expensive for most people. Small-scale agricultural producers living on the outskirts of the town, people living in the poorer districts, manufacturing workers and coca producers brought the city to a stop on several occasions. This was known as the ‘water war’. The international company involved, Bechtel, was finally asked to leave the country, returning water provision to local administration. After several years of negotiation, Bechtel agreed to drop its claim and was paid nominal compensation. 

Another experience of popular organizing is El Alto, a city of almost one million people that sits above La Paz. Most of its residents are of campesino origins and retain a strong tradition of community. Following the closure of the mines, there was also an influx of miners and their families; they brought with them their trade union experience and discipline. These experiences found a home in the neighbourhood committees across the city which had been working for some time on local issues. In August 2003, when the mayor attempted to introduce increases in taxes on houses and land, these neighbourhood committees played an active part and people took to the streets to protest, and two months later, El Alto was the epicentre of the showdown with President Sánchez de Lozada. 

From localized to nation-wide protest


These localized expressions of primarily indigenous and campesino dissent and protest came together at a national level in 2003 around what became known as the ‘gas war’. The government introduced a proposal to sell part of Bolivia's natural gas to the United States, exporting it through Chile (with which Bolivia has longstanding territorial disputes). The proposal proved extremely unpopular, and an initial road block protest by campesinos was violently dispersed by the Minister of the Interior with part of the army. Six protesters were killed in the small town of Warisata to the north of La Paz.
These events strengthened a sense of common purpose across the different social movements. 

Campesinos from the highland areas were supported by coca growers from the sub-tropics, unionized miners and those working in cooperatives, neighbourhood committees in El Alto and La Paz and even people from the middle classes. The movements' initial demands – increasing state revenue from natural gas and convening a constituent assembly to draw up a new constitution – soon took on a new slant when some sixty-five people were killed by the army. In response, the rallying call changed to ousting the president. The towns of El Alto and neighbouring La Paz were brought to a complete halt for over ten days. Every day the city of La Paz became a rolling sea of different organizations, all marching in different directions, yet with a similar purpose. There was no one leader, but many. 

And to power …


In December 2005, Evo Morales, an indigenous campesino, was elected to the presidency. This was an unprecedented event which displaced the traditional elites from political power. His government moved quickly to increase the rate of taxes paid by petrol, gas and mining companies. This revenue was redistributed to the poorer parts of the population in the form of payments and allowances to children, the elderly, and pregnant women and their babies and channelled to regional and municipal governments and to state universities. A Constituent Assembly was elected in 2006 and rewrote the constitution in order to, among other things, recognize the rights of indigenous people. 

The presence of an indigenous coca grower in the presidency is, however, not to the liking of the elite, now displaced from positions of power and decision-making. There has been vociferous and sometime violent opposition to the new government. The involvement of indigenous people, however, at top levels in government, including some women, has brought a tremendous sense of empowerment. Fifty years ago, indigenous people were not allowed to walk in the main squares of towns, whereas today they walk the halls of the presidential palace. 

This change in government has not only signified recognition and political influence for the indigenous and campesino Bolivian people, but has also introduced indigenous cultural values into its policies. The government's social policy is based on the concept of ‘living well’, which is an idea rooted in local indigenous culture which seeks to ensure people have access to the means to life. It gives emphasis to relationships of solidarity with others and how to live in harmony with nature, rather than being better off than your neighbour. It resonates with the notion of ‘quality of life’; ‘living well’ implies the covering of material needs, but also involves personal growth and empowerment. In the current global context where capitalist values and excessive consumption are being questioned, this idea rings true beyond Bolivia's borders, and it provides the basis for Bolivian involvement in international meetings on climate change. 



It has been argued in this article that the social movements that brought Evo Morales to power are rooted in the strong tradition of organization that still persists in the Andes, and in particular in Bolivia. Living in difficult conditions, people have come together to form mutual help systems at the local level. Though migration to the towns has affected these structures and practices, it has also allowed their dissemination in the cities. 

The nature of social organization in Bolivia has also been shaped by the exclusionary behaviour of government: as their demands were persistently ignored, people have become accustomed to resorting to protest to make their voices heard. The previous government's refusal to negotiate provoked the mass mobilizations that took place. Since the return to democracy at the start of the 1980s, political parties represented the interests of only a small elite. No effort was made to build bridges with the excluded majority, except at election time. Parties took turns in power, in a variety of coalitions. The silent majority watched on as this situation unfolded, biding its time. Consequently, political parties lost any vestige of respect, and social movements have replaced them as key interlocutors between the people and government. The ‘movement of social movements’ that forms the MAS ‘political instrument’ – as they call it – is a powerful underpinning for government. Ironically, part of its strength lies in its lack of a formal structure. 

As we have seen, the Bolivian social organizations that have come together at critical points in the last fifty years represent diverse demands. Some organizations represent trades or guilds; campesinos, manufacturing workers and miners organize around issues of production. For some, the concern is about improving prices, whereas for others it is about labour relations. Indigenous groups, neighbourhood committees and groups working on regional problems are more based on territorially defined matters, such as land, and access to basic services. What is critical is that these are democratic organizations which represent and respond to their memberships as a whole, and as such, political parties have failed to control them or bend them to their positions. This recognition is one of the key strengths of Bolivia's social movements. Social organizations such as the campesinos and indigenous people, miners working for cooperatives and pensioners support the government of Evo Morales and the MAS, but they are not a tool of it. The government is aware that people can take away their support at any moment, and this keeps the doors of government open at all times. 

So, it is from a position where the union movement was in disarray and unable to challenge the introduction of neoliberal reforms that social organizations have been able to rebuild, each one from its own perspective and attending to the needs and demands of its own members. As common areas of interest and demands developed, this began to take on a political momentum, and demands were no longer local in their scope and relevance, but national and global. The demands these movements raised when they threw out the President Sánchez de Lozada in October 2003 included raising the revenues from oil and gas and drawing up a new constitution. These demands were taken up by Evo Morales and became central planks of his government's policies. 

The active involvement of social organizations in the process of change in Bolivia guarantees continuity of this political project for some years to come. The challenges will be for the government to deliver on its promises of redistribution, of creating jobs, of building a more democratic state and particularly in the industrialization of the country's natural resources. In the international arena, much will depend on how much the idea of ‘living well’ strikes a note with other peoples, in a world already concerned with climate change. 

Ann Chaplin is an aid worker and facilitator of development processes who has lived and worked in the Andes for the last thirty years, much of the time in Bolivia. She studied languages, and then Government and Sociology at the University of Essex. More recently she studied Documentary Photography at Newport, Wales.

Republished from Community Development Journal 45 (3): 346-355.

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