Bolivia: Compromise and advance

Pablo Stefanoni & Ricardo Bajo, La Paz, 14 November 2008

The ominous clouds that seemed to indicate the worst of storms, and which tend to hypnotise analysts inside and outside of Bolivia, dissipated following a political agreement that has set January 25 as the date for a referendum on the draft for a new constitution.

The partners were not the “pro-autonomy” prefects in the east — who maintain an intransigent position, halting the negotiations — but rather the debilitated opposition Podemos parliamentary bench that continues to hold an important institutional weight.

Once again the “particular” interests of these relics played an involuntary but effective role in aiding the consolidation of the left-wing government of indigenous President Evo Morales.

If the August 10 recall referendum, in which more than 67% of voters endorsed Morales’s mandate, the president’s support expanded the length and breadth of the country, then the political agreement reached between the government and Podemos on October 21 has allowed the government to concentrate all initiatives in its hands.

Opposition divisions

It made clear the lack of strategy and strength of the opposition in the so-called half moon departments of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija in Bolivia’s east.

These forces lack the means to dent the support of a national government protected by its 80% vote in the western Andean region and a solid base of more than 40% in the most hostile zones of the country.

From now until January 25, Morales’s Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party and the government apparatus has set itself the task of raising support for the process of change in the east — aiming to “reach 90%” approval for the new constitution.

Various elements explain the current breaking-up of the opposition.

Firstly, an underestimation of Morales’s leadership, which expresses a truly national movement equivalent to that of Bolivia’s 1952 National Revolution, and that is deeply embedded in the Bolivia that was always invisible to the accommodated classes — the impoverished, indigenous majority.

This includes the half moon, where the intensity of the 2000-2005 cycle of mass struggle was much lower than in the west.

Secondly, the lack of political experience among the half moon leaders — whom the more “political” Tarija prefect Mario Cossio attempted without success to redirect away from their delirious actions — meant that they gambled away the political capital won on August 10 when their mandates were ratified in referendums, due to their violent take over of state institutions and the massacre of unarmed peasants in Pando during September.

And thirdly, the regional factor. Other South American nations took a strong stance in favour of institutional stability, denying legitimacy to the violent campaign from the “pro-autonomy” forces in the half moon.

Once again, it was made clear that Bolivia is governed from its capital based in the west, La Paz.

crisis of the right has deepened. One part of the opposition will vote in favour of the new constitution, while those that decided against doing so will be left in the uncomfortable situation of rejecting a constitution that legalises autonomies and supporting, by default, a the current constitution that is ferociously centralist.

The demoralisation of the conservative forces has reached such a level that its leaders now rely on the hope that the global economic crisis will have a devastating effect on the government — something its erratic strategies have failed to do. Instead, they have helped to consolidate the government.

The attempts to reconstruct a right out off the ashes of the current Santa Cruz elites brings with it the danger of a negative response from their own bases and provoking social isolation and/or a radicalisation without a clear destination.

The emergence of new leaderships among the regional right wing, especially in Santa Cruz, will take time, as it will need to find new faces that haven’t been “burned”. In particular, they need new banners to shield themselves and work out a political program that could be presented as an alternative, in the medium or long term, to “Evismo” and its effective banner of left nationalism with an indigenous face.

In an unexpected way, under this banner, the government has been able to construct a new national-popular hegemony — perhaps not entirely in line with the aspirations of the government’s eclectic base.

But it is what exists.

Limits of constituent assembly

However, all the victims of the political agreement cannot be placed on the right. The tally of the damage is broader.

The triumph of a “compromise outcome” over the “revolutionary” road, fuelled by the intransigence of the half moon prefects, also dealt a blow to the illusions of the “new left” and its belief in the re-founding of the country via a constituent assembly that was to put into action the power of the “multitudes”, materialised in the form of a plurality of “social movements”.

Right from the beginning, it was clear that the assembly lacked any real power, not only to draft up the new constitution without (excessive) interference, but also to reach political agreements that would allow for the construction of a majority with moderate sectors of the opposition, isolating the hard right that was wagering on a boycott.

As opposed to the experiences of Colombia or Ecuador, the assembly did not want to, or could not, temporarily assume the functions of the Congress.

Bogged down with formal debates (such as over two-thirds consensus that chewed up many months) it also could not — or did not want to — generate a truly national debate that reached beyond certain union elites, NGOs and political leaders.

It ended up getting bogged down over the demand to make Sucre the “full” capital, a demand plucked out of a hat and supported in an opportunist manner by the “half moon” in order to muddy the playing field and impede the assembly from achieving its mission.

Neither are the complaints of the “radicals” from El Alto (an impoverished city on the outskirts of La Paz) worth much: during the two years that the assembly met, this city, that when it mobilises is unstoppable, only came out onto the streets to chant, in a corporative manner, that “the headquarters will not be moved” (i.e.: La Paz should remain the capital).

At no time were there any important mobilisations in defence of the assembly or against the destabilisation of the regionalist right.

The rhetoric of the theoretically and practically inconsistent “left of the left”, opposed to the “change of more than 100 articles”, could not resist the first wave of a foreseeable militant and media-based campaign by MAS to close ranks in “defence of the process of change” and its proud baby: the new Political Constitution of the State.

Conceived of as a horizon of resistance in the middle of neoliberal hegemony, the assembly was a victim of the successes of the popular movements: time sped up and the assembly delegates were faced with the expectation that out of the assembly would emerge a new generation of cadre.

Assembly delegates were only able to partially achieve their objectives.

Despite the wishful thinking of many “anti-systemic” intellectuals, during the congressional negotiations Morales acted as he always has: a popular politician with strong doses of realism and a reluctance towards projects involving the revolutionary taking of power.

Morales also maintains a complex relationship with the peasant unions that combine, not without contradictions, autonomy with “verticalism” by its leaders.

On the other hand, would it have been desirable — and sustainable in time — for the left to close down Congress and force through the constitutional referendum in a “bonapartist” manner; that is, based on the support of the streets but above all the Armed Forces?

Because that is what it would have been, not the indigenous and anti-Western revolution that the pachamamaist indigenists — many of them middle-class mestizos — had imagined.

Despite the concessions, the new constitution has everything that Morales needs to construct his project for power: reelection, greater spaces for state intervention in the economy and certain instruments to use towards a “decolonialisation” understood as social equality.

New challenges

But the consolidation of the “process of change” will perhaps have another auspicious consequence: without the spectre of a conspiracy by the right — which acted as a shadow over the nape — the popular state of alert may begin to be relaxed, allowing space for some much needed constructive criticism.

Such criticism is as necessary as it is absent from the government ranks (and a renewed left, that is, if a left exists in Bolivia today).

With clearer skies, a possibly more difficult stage begins (without the enemies that, at the same time as threatening the government, helped unite and cohere its bases). This stage involves transforming the aspirations for change — drawn up in the proposed new constitution — into public policies that begin to change the living conditions of the majority of Bolivians.

Health, education, housing, new gas exploration and exploitation, and rural development all require strong and efficient institutions to become a reality.

All this in a new context: the world no longer has to pay the price of gold to be the beneficiaries of our primary materials. Rather it is awash in a sea of doubts about the future, darkened by a crisis, for now, without a light at the end of the tunnel.

With the “enemy” drawing back, at least for the moment, the postponed demands can begin to take the form of new challenges to a power that the popular sectors perceive as their own.

This article was translated by Federico Fuentes, with permission. It is abridged from the November issue of the Bolivian edition of Le Monde Diplomatique, of which Stefanoni and Bajo are the director and sub-director, respectively.

Republished from Green Left Weekly

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