In this second installment in the run-up to Bolivian elections on October 18, Mike Gonzalez discusses the long-running efforts of the Bolivian Right to undermine Evo Morales’s project, as well as the contradictions of the project itself.
On May 1 2006, at an emotional ceremony at the San Alberto oil facility, Evo Morales announced the nationalisation of oil, declaring it a pachacutik, the great day or the day of reckoning in Aymara mythology. In fact it was not a full nationalisation but an increase in the taxes and royalties to be paid by the oil companies; and the measure left half of the industry in the hands of big capital.
Resistance to Evo Morales
The battle was far from won, as the Media Luna began to organise to bring down the new government. Two forces faced each other – the mass movement on the one hand, and the racist bourgeoisie on the other – as Morales announced the election of a Constituent Assembly of elected delegates to draft a new constitution.
But there was a critical feature of their election which marked the end of the revolutionary moment. The MAS decreed that only members of political parties could elect delegates – not the movements who had created Red October. Because the strategies of the latter were not focused on elections, they had not built separate political organizations. Their aim, after all, was a new popular democracy, based on open public assemblies and collective mobilisation.
By excluding the them the MAS were taking over the leadership of the movement and sending a message to the heartlands of Aymara nationalism, like El Alto, that the focus of politics would be now be concentrated on winning the state rather than transforming the society.
With the encouragement of the US ambassador Philip Goldman, Media Kuna threatened to secede – taking with them the bulk of Bolivia’s natural resources. In the legislature and the assembly they mounted a sustained blocking strategy while in the east members of the MAS were persecuted and murdered by mobs of young white men. In the town of Porvenir (which ironically means the future) a march of mainly indigenous MAS supporters was stopped at a highway barricade and 30 were murdered while hundreds more disappeared.
Outside the Constituent Assembly building in Sucre, the administrative capital, demonstrations were held on a daily basis. The eastern provincial governors threatened to cut off supplies of oil and government buildings in the Media Luna were attacked and burned down. After a recall referendum confirmed him with 67% of votes, and after further threats, Morales declared a state of emergency in the four provinces.
In January 2009, the new Constitution was passed with a majority of 61%. Although the violence in the east continued, the Media Luna campaign declined; in that year’s presidential elections Morales won a decisive victory and the opposition campaign was scaled back. In fact, Morales had met with the eastern leaders earlier that year and agreed to guarantee their economic interests in exchange for a recognition of the MAS’s political control of the state.
It was not an end to the class conflict which in Bolivia always had the characteristics of a racial conflict too. But for the moment the Bolivian economy was growing annually and oil revenues did pull a significant proportion of the population out of poverty.
There were unresolved issues; the agrarian reform was never carried through, and the structures of power were not transformed. But the indigenous population were now visible in parliament, their rights and culture enshrined in the Constitution. In this still highly polarised society, however, Evo Morales’s claim to lead a “government of the movements” ensured that indigenous Bolivia would support and sustain him, as long as that community was protected and the promise to improve the quality of their lives was held to
One central element of that promise was contained in the concept of buen vivir, which appears in each of the Constitutions of the pink tide countries in one form or another. It is more than simple recognition and respect for the indigenous culture from which it derives. It is a commitment to a society and an economy based on a harmonious relationship between man and nature, guaranteed by an economy producing for need and in which priority is given to the interests of the collective over the individual.
Bolivia was a visible presence in international conferences on climate change and the environment. Yet in 2011, the contradictions between buen vivir and the development of what vice-president Linera had called “Andean-Amazonian capitalism” became dramatically clear in the TIPNIS National Park in the eastern region.
The government had approved the building of a major highway through this protected area where indigenous farmers worked the land in traditional and sustainable ways. The road was designed to allow the transport of mainly Brazilian products into Bolivia and of Bolivian minerals to Brazil and Argentina. The beneficiaries would be multinational companies.
For the farmers it was a direct threat to their survival as a community and they organised a 600 kilometre protest march to the capital. But the marchers were stopped en route by troops and police sent by the Minister of Defence. The social movements and trade unions demonstrated and joined the marchers, and the project was suspended. It was never cancelled and was later resumed.
This episode exposed the unresolved contradictions at the heart of the MAS government. Bolivia continued to be an economy organised around the export of raw materials, and the discovery of huge deposits of coltan and lithium on the exquisitely beautiful salt flats of Uyuni brought Chinese and Japanese capital to the area with their bulging pockets.
Despite its reputation as a defender of the environment, the MAS´s environmental promises remained largely unfulfilled. It was true that the Morales period had raised millions from poverty, had introduced health and education projects. The main beneficiaries of Evo’s policies were a mainly indigenous urban and rural lower middle class engaged in commerce and trade, who reaped the benefits of higher levels of consumption.
But political support for MAS was built on its reputation as a party representing the indigenous peasantry, and dedicated to the advance of 21st century socialism. What TIPNIS had clearly exposed, however, was that the country remained tied to and integrated into a global capitalist system in which it continued to play the same role of supplier of the minerals, oil and gas that flowed from what the writer Eduardo Galeano had described as the “open veins” of Latin America.
Garcia Linera, the intellectual power behind Morales, had clarified much earlier that what was being built in Bolivia was what he called “Andean-Amazonian capitalism”, and with it a new indigenous middle class. It would become clear that this new capitalism was based on the old economy, producing raw materials for a global market rather than creating a new kind of economy producing for its own population in an ethical, environmentally-friendly framework.
Two developments exposed the contradictions in the strategy and would make the Evo regime vulnerable to the coup that eventually brought it down. The first was the above-mentioned TIPNIS. The second was Morales’ proposal for a referendum to change the Constitution to allow for his re-election beyond the two permitted terms. It was rejected by nearly 52% of those voting.
The reasons are complex but what the results indicated clearly is that Morales’ level of support was not automatic nor guaranteed. His dress and his discourse emphasised his identification with the indigenous communities. But the construction of a new 27-storey presidential building and the purchase of a 38 million dollar private jet symbolised an arrogance of power which contradicted Morales’ modest manner. The layer of government functionaries were part of a new bureaucracy and an increasingly corrupt MAS.
There were other signs of change. David Choquehuanca, the highly respected foreign minister and himself an indigenous native of the Altiplano, the high Andean plateau, was arbitrarily fired in 2016 and sent to a backwoods diplomatic post in Venezuela. It was reported that he and Linera had clashed with increasing frequency in Cabinet meetings. Linera for his part had begun to coin the concept of Evoismo, a political idea based on Evo himself rather than what he represented in the political life of Bolivia. And that personalism was reflected in corruption which had taken two of his ministers to prison.
There is no question about this. The coup is the latest episode in a political, racial and class conflict which had never ended in Bolivia. The Media Luna lay in wait, as did Washington and a Latin American right desperate for the collapse of the Bolivarian experiment.
That said, if Evo and his allies in the MAS, or at least a section of them, did not see the rising discontent among his mass base, the growing cynicism of many of those in or close to power or the distance that was growing between Evo and his supporters, then it was wilful blindness. Neither did they notice that the level of mass protest against the coup in a country that had come close to revolution a dozen years earlier was muted and slow.
The first actions of Añez left no doubt that the fall of Evo Morales would be the occasion for a violent revenge inflicted on the mass of poor Bolivians by a racist right infuriated by the loss of their economic and political privileges.
The COVID-19 pandemic showed clearly that this new government had specific priorities which did not include the health or welfare of the majority population. Añez’s response was so poor that her own right wing allies turned against her. MAS meanwhile, or MAS in parliament, now led by Eva Cova, decided to negotiate with Añez; its principal concern was to ensure that there would be no obstacles to its standing in the postponed, but now imminent presidential elections, which it expects to win.
Añez has now announced her withdrawal from the elections on October 18th, to clear the way for a single candidate of the right, Carlos Mesa. Evo Morales himself is prevented from standing because the Constitution forbids him from standing for a third term.
He has been refused the right to be a candidate for the Senate because he has been outside the country for a year. It would have been logical that the popular Choquehuanca to be the MAS candidate but that was vetoed by Morales who has put forward a moderate economist, Luis Arce, instead. Unlike Morales and Choquehuanca, he has no mass base of support and is wholly dependent on Morales’ backing.
It seems that the MAS has a reasonable chance of emerging with the highest vote, but the majority it needs is not guaranteed. And MAS itself is not unified; its members in La Paz and in parliament are interested above all in returning to power; its base in the countryside and among the urban poor may be looking back to Red October in the hope that it will return.