The Cocaleros and the rise of Evo Morales


By gthomas2219, July 17, 2013

This essay will explore the impact that the Cocaleros and Evo Morales have had on Bolivia over the recent history. The impact of the Cocaleros will be shown in their central role in establishing a platform for Morales to rise to prominence on. Morales’s impact will be explored through examination of specific changes enacted in his time as President, specifically establishing a new constitution, reforming extraction of Bolivia’s vast gas reserves and reforms related to the coca plant. To begin certain contextual factors of Morales’s changes will be established.

Bolivia’s history is one of exploitation, whether it be the colonial Spanish exploitation of the vast silver deposits of Potosi’s Cerro Rico in the Sixteenth Century, or the exploitation of the vast natural gas reserves by multinational corporations (MNCs) throughout the late 1980s and 1990s (Artaraz, 2012). The historically continuous exploitation of Bolivia’s vast natural resource wealth has been felt by the Bolivian people as a lack of sovereignty (Dangl, 2007; Artaraz, 2012). Politics in Bolivia since the foundation of the republic in 1825 has proved difficult (Dunkerley, 2007). An incomplete revolution in 1952 was defeated by a military coup in 1964, by 1982 democracy had formally been re-established, however political power was concentrated in the hands of a minority elite, unrepresentative of the vast majority of Bolivians (Dunkerley, 2007; Morales, 2011; Artaraz, 2012). In response to the unrepresentativeness and corruption that was characteristic of Bolivian politics, especially since 1982, the general attitude of the population to politics was one of dissolution. However, the international perception of Bolivian politics during the 1990s was excellent, Bolivia was seen as a shinning example of neoliberalism, it had opened itself up to MNCs, it had low public spending and it was conforming to US War on Drugs through eradication of the coca crop (Dunkerley, 2007; Klein, 2011). This being said there has always been a strong thread of resistance running through Bolivian society. Emblematic of this until the 1980s were strong trade unions, particularly mining unions, however the closure of tin mines and the loss of over 20,000 jobs in 1985 wrought huge destruction (Dangl, 2007; Klein, 2011). The mining union’s loss was the Cocaleros’[1] gain as many newly unemployed miners moved east to the Chapare region and took their unionising skills with them (Artaraz, 2012).

The movement of miners to the coca growing area of El Chapare proved hugely significant for Bolivia. The miner’s background in unions helped structure the organisations of Cocaleros and their resistance to law 1008[2] and the eradication efforts of the government (Crabtree, 2005). The government stepped up eradication policy in 1997 with President Hugo Banzer advocating a ‘zero coca’ policy (Crabtree, 2005, p. 38). Not only attempting to defend their livelihoods the resistance of the Cocaleros was hugely symbolic for two reasons. One, the resistance represented a defence of a traditional Andean symbol – the coca leaf which has been a central symbol of Andean culture for centuries, and two, the fight against US imperialism and defence of Bolivian sovereignty (Crabtree, 2005; Dangl, 2007; Artaraz, 2012). It was through the organisation of the Cocaleros’ resistance that Evo Morales came to prominence, he rose up to become the leader of the largest Cocaleros union (Crabtree, 2011; Artaraz, 2012). The resistance of the Cocaleros transformed into active political participation throughout the 1990s, with a key moment coming in 1994 with the ‘Law of Popular Participation’ (PPL) (Artaraz, 2012, p. 46) being enacted. PPL decentralised power to newly created municipalities, which provided a base for limited representation of local groups (Klein, 2011; Artaraz, 2012). In 1995 the Cocaleros joined with other indigenous social movements to create the ‘Political tool for Sovereignty of Common People (IPSP)’ (Dangl, 2007, p.49). The established political parties and the electoral commission denied recognition of the IPSP as a political party and so the IPSP took on the name of MAS[3] (Movement for Socialism) in 1999 to be able to stand for election (Dangl 2007; Harten, 2011). The notion of a political tool as was the IPSP and MAS is crucial as it demonstrates the bottom-up design of MAS; the primacy of the social movements that make it up – it is for their use, not for politicians (Harten, 2011). MAS is a tool to use not to be used by. The first leader was Evo Morales.

Despite MAS and Morales’s lineage being directly traceable to the Cocaleros, since coming to power in 2005[4] they have widened their base to include all social and indigenous movements, as well as trying to curry favour with the urban middle class (Harten, 2011). Morales’s skill as a leader, and a central plank of MAS’s electoral success, is his ability to galvanise and shape a vast array of indigenous and social protest movements into a unified political project (Salman, 2007). Like the miner’s influence in organising the Cocaleros, Morales and MAS have taken the general anger and dissatisfaction of a wide array of social/indigenous protest movements and formed them into a coherent political articulation (Salman, 2007).

A key election pledge made by Morales before his victory in 2005 was to write a new constitution to enshrine the rights of the indigenous people of Bolivia, who despite making up the vast majority of the population [5] have been marginalised in Bolivian politics, and Bolivia in general throughout the country’s history (Artaraz, 2012). The new constitution, which was ratified in January 2009, casts Bolivia as a ‘plurinational’ state (Republica de Bolivia, 2009 in Albro, 2010, p. 78). Theplurinational characterisation of the state highlights the rise in stature indigenous groups have experienced alongside the rise of Morales to the Presidency (Albro, 2010; Assies, 2011; Artaraz, 2012). A symbolic – as well as practical – codification of the new constitution is the classification of the coca leaf as not a drug in its natural form, the protection of this central symbol of Andean culture is also a direct challenge to US classification (Assies, 2011). Another strengthening of the legal recognition of indigenous people is shown in the codification of Andean ethics – ‘ama qhilla, ama llulla, ama suwa (don’t be lazy, don’t lie, and don’t be a thief)’ (Assies, 2011, p. 112); the new Bolivian constitution is not just a document to rule by, it is a document to live by – crucially an Andean indigenous life. The representation of indigenous groups by the constitution is also reflected in Morales himself as he straddles the two most prominent indigenous identities, the Aymara and the Quechua (Crabtree, 2011); his family background is Aymara, but he grew up within a Quechuan area and so is a potent figure for the raised stature of Bolivia’s indigenous population. Whilst physically embodying the indigenous identities of Bolivia, Morales’s politics are also of an indigenous nature, which can be classified as ‘sindicato democracy’ (Conzelman, 2010, p. 5). This is a democracy typified by high levels of direct community accountability; a focus on consensus; individual responsibility to the community; subordination of the individual to the community; economics that work for the community (Conzelman, 2010). The sindicato democracy of Morales, in the language of the liberal democratic tradition he has widened and strengthened the public sphere, he has established a non-exclusionary public sphere, he has empowered civil society (Fraser, 1997; Albro, 2010; Conzelman, 2010; Artaraz, 2012). As noted above, there has always been a strong theme of resistance in Bolivian politics, occurring within civil society, but the codification of indigenous rights within the new constitution has undoubtedly strengthened civil society (Assies, 2011). The pre-eminence of indigenous identity in the new constitution evidences the strengthening of sovereignty of Bolivia, it also points to the reclamation of Bolivia for Bolivians, what Postero (2010, p.19) has called ‘indigenous nationalism’, which is emblematic of Morales’s political project.

A significant sign of Morales’s impact since coming to power can be seen in the nationalisation of Bolivia’s vast reserves of natural gas (Kaup, 2010; Sivak, 2011). However this was not a total/traditional nationalisation, but a renegotiation of contracts between the state and MNCs (Kohl, 2010; Sivak, 2011). The state raised taxation and royalties charged to the companies from 18 per cent to 50 per cent, and in some particularly significant gas fields to 82 per cent for a short time, this initial extra rise was in order to recapitalise the state’s gas company YPFB (Kaup, 2010). What this demonstrates then is not a full or traditional nationalisation, but a significant imposition of the state within the economy – state capitalism rather than full socialism. The profits derived from the renegotiated contracts have been channelled into social welfare programmes such as education and health care (Kohl, 2010; Kaup, 2010; Crabtree, 2011).
The semi­-nationalisation of gas, and the increased role of the state within the economy, points to the sindicato style of Morales’s political project. In this sense the economy is seen to work for the nation, profit for the community rather than individual profit. There has been criticism of this approach both from the left and right (Kaup, 2010). From the left are claims that Morales has not gone far enough, and that Bolivian gas should be totally nationalised (Kohl. 2010; Kaup, 2010). Bolivia’s contract with Brazil, which relies on Bolivian gas for up to 50 per cent of its total consumption, stipulates that 65 per cent of all daily Bolivian production be sent to Brazil (La Razón, 2007 in Kaup, 2010). Critics on the right claim that the sharp rise in rents charged by the State will discourage new investment and stifle current work, similar criticism is levelled at the use of the revenue for social programmes, arguing for its re-investment in the gas industry (Kaup, 2010). This demonstrates the tightrope that Morales must walk and his pragmatism in walking it. Regardless of criticism of Morales’s semi-nationalisation of gas, it has undoubtedly increased Bolivian sovereignty over one of its key natural resources and reduced the exploitation of the country by foreign actors; it has also greatly increased social welfare programmes that are vital in reducing social inequalities.

Another example of Morales’s pragmatism and the unique middle way between capitalism and socialism is the codification of private property and land laws set out in the 2009 constitution. Protection of private property is conditional on it having a ‘social-economic function’ (Assies, 2011, p. 115). Property must work for society, again evidencing the shift in relationship between the nation/civil society and the economy. Unlike in the neoliberal ideology where the economy is predominant to all other sectors of society, a predominance which is based upon the ultimate protection of private property and the rule of law, the social function required of private property in the 2009 Bolivian constitution predominates the social over the economic/legal (Plant, 2010; Wolff, 2013). In short the social-economic function demanded of private property points to a central theme of change under Morales, the subordination of the ‘rule of law’ to ‘the rule of the people’ (Wolff, 2013, p. 46). This subordination is unsurprising as it follows the logic of sindicato democracy. The fundamental nature of Bolivian politics has changed since Morales’s came to power. Under his Presidency the country has seen a diminishing of liberal political traits and a rise of what Wolff (2013) calls ‘post-liberal democracy’ (p.31), or as has been the case throughout the text sindicato democracy. The decline in the institutional role of traditional political organs such as the executive, judiciary ect. is reflected in the rise of participation outside of institutional boundaries seen in mobilisations rather than institutional participation through traditional methods – joining a political party (Wolff, 2013). To put it simply the post-liberal/sindicato democracy stemming from Morales’s rule is a much raw-er, more direct and less institutionally confined form of governance.

Whilst certainly not traditionally socialist, the political project embarked upon by Morales since his rise through the coca unions is one that can be characterised by its anti-neoliberal, perceptibly anti-American imperialistic neoliberalism (Sivak, 2011). Bolivia now does not receive any new loans from either the IMF or the World Bank, a sign of the rejection of the neoliberal conditions that these loans are based on and increased sovereignty of the country (Dangl, 2007; Sivak, 2011). A specific example of the rejection of American led policy, outside of the change in approach to coca growing, is seen in Morales’s decision to leave the ‘Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA)’ (Sivak, 2011, p. 145) which is a free trade agreement used by the US to exercise influence and stifle the growth of regional trade blocs that could potentially damage US business interests in the area. Relatedly Bolivia’s joining of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) and the People’s Trade Agreement (PTA) with Cuba and Venezuela can be seen to represent – in one instance – anti-American/anti-neoliberal policies (Dangl, 2007; Sivak, 2011). The PTA is a good example of the sindicato theme of Morales in that it is based on mutually beneficial trade, something that cannot be said of FTAA (Dangl, 2007).

Morales’s close link to coca has had a key structuring effect on his politics. Whilst rising to a position of power through the coca grower’s unions, since becoming President he has pursued a surprising policy approach to coca (Dangl, 2007; Sivak, 2011; Artaraz, 2012). His approach may be taken as another example of his pragmatism, or the reformist nature of Morales and MAS as opposed to revolutionary (Webber, 2010). On the one hand Morales has been sympathetic to his Cocaleros roots in that he has codified coca as not a drug, in its natural form, in the 2009 constitution (Assies, 2011). Morales has greatly expanded the internal, legal, market for coca, which has greatly benefited small farmers as it has widened their platform to sell their crops (Dangl, 2007; Kohl, 2010). Eradication initiatives whilst still in place have been qualitatively changed, no longer are they violent and forced but are now voluntary and achieved through social control when a farmer grows over the 1,600m2legal limit (Dangl, 2007; Sivak, 2011). The change in the nature of eradication has vastly reduced the violence in the El Chapare region (Dangl, 2007). However, it is the fact that eradication efforts are still in place that has surprised many. Morales has focused his anti-coca policy on combating coca farming for cocaine production, but despite this the US since the Bush administration has continued to withhold certification of Bolivia as an ally in the War on Drugs(Sivak, 2011). Most significantly, despite winning consecutive elections with an increased majority, Morales has not repealed law 1008, the US-backed drug laws that have been shown to disproportionately affect small scale farmers as opposed to growers of coca for cocaine (Crabtree, 2005; Dangl, 2007).

Whilst not impacting as significantly as expected on coca laws, Morales has undeniably impacted on Bolivia. A concrete manifestation of his impact is the 2009 constitution, which primarily codified the rights of indigenous people, it has raised their stature in the country and it is hard to envisage it ever declining. The nature of democracy has changed vastly; Morales has overseen a drastic shift from neoliberalism to Andean sindicato democracy, which has reversed the dominance of the economy and put civil society, the citizens in charge. The empowering of the nation is also clearly seen in the semi-nationalisation of Bolivia’s gas reserves, and the new mutually beneficial trade alliances with other Latin American countries. The exploitation that has characterised Bolivian history since it’s colonisation is rapidly declining. Morales has facilitated ownership of Bolivia for Bolivians and is a shinning example of the strengthening of indigenous people.

This essay has traced the impact of the Cocaleros and Evo Morales on Bolivia by first establishing context. The impact of the Cocaleros was seen in that it was here that Morales began to climb the ladder to presidency. The Cocaleros were also crucial to the formation of MAS, which has now become the dominant force in Bolivian politics. Morales’s impact has been specifically outlined in the reforms to the gas contracts, the change enacted in coca eradication, the writing of a new constitution, and a fundamental change to the nature of Bolivian politics. Whilst the essay has focused primarily on Morales he would undoubtedly not be where he is today without the Cocaleros organisations, ironically the neoliberalism that has been severely diminished by Morales and MAS played a central factor in strengthening the Cocaleros unions which provided the platform for the progress of MAS and Morales.

Republished from AlethoNews

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[1] Coca farmers
[2] Passed in 1988, bringing various US influenced anti-drug laws together and setting a maximum area for coca growing (Crabtree, 2005).
[3] MAS was a defunct party in all but name (Harten, 2011)
[4] Morales won an unprecedented absolute majority in the Presidential election of December 2005, winning in total 54% of the vote (Hylton, 2006).
[5] ‘Nearly 62% of its [Bolivia] people are native speakers of an indigenous language’ (INE, 2003; World Bank, 2008 in Postero, 2010, p. 19).


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