Bolivia’s patriarch in trouble

March 7, 2016

In a major blow to Evo Morales and his Movement for Socialism (MAS, by its Spanish initials) party, Bolivians last month voted against a constitutional referendum to lift term limits so Morales could have run for another term as president. The referendum lost by 51.3 percent to 48.7 percent. The pro-MAS turnout dropped significantly from just last year, when Morales won re-election with 61 percent of the vote. The defeat in the referendum follows setbacks last year, when MAS lost mayoral elections in eight of Bolivia's largest 10 cities and four of nine governor's races that were on the ballot.

Since Morales became the country's first indigenous president in 2006, Bolivia has undergone a huge transformation. Morales and MAS were brought to power following massive struggles in 2006. Enjoying mass popularity, they decisively defeated the Bolivian right's attempts to undermine the government and enacted a series of policies that lowered poverty in the country by more than one-third between 2002 and 2010. Bolivia's indigenous majority won new rights under a "plurinational state."

But the last decade has also witnessed contradictory developments whose negative consequences are now emerging. For one, the tripling of Bolivian GNP owed largely to the global commodities boom, including increased prices for fossil fuel exports--those prices have crashed in the last two years.

During the boom years, the MAS government based economic development on these extractive industries, while at the same time proclaiming its commitment to the Quechua concept of pachamama, or environmental sustainability. This contradiction led it into violent confrontations with some of the country's leading labor, indigenous and environmental militants. The government has met these challenges with an increasingly authoritarian response, even as leading spokespeople like Vice President Álvaro García Linera, a one-time Marxist revolutionary, insinuate that lifelong leftist militants are in league with the right and U.S. imperialism.

Raúl Zibechi, editor of the Uruguayan weekly Brecha, discussed the political environment for the Bolivian referendum, in an article published shortly before the vote at Rebelión and translated here by Camila Quarta.

"HERE PEOPLE aren't afraid," smiles the taxi driver as he slowly and exasperatingly makes his way through the impossible streets of El Alto on his way to the heart of La Paz. "They're not afraid," he repeats, shrugging his shoulders. It's almost like a mantra that can explain anything, from the chaos of traffic to the incredible inner strength of women--omnipresent in the Aymaran city--working like ants, carrying staggering weight, and taking charge of life.

The city has changed, especially with the streets' impeccable asphalt and the four- or five-storied buildings, and the "cholets," a mestizo architectural style born in El Alto out of a budding Aymaran commercial bourgeoisie. At the same time that the taxi driver repeats his mantra, nobody seems alarmed by the confusing incident of the occupation and burning of the municipal building by parents of school children, which left six dead. [On February 17, a protest march of parents calling for increased school spending ended in an occupation and arson of city hall in El Alto, the mostly indigenous city on the heights above the capital of La Paz.]

A worker faces off against police in a mass strike under Morales in 2012
A worker faces off against police in a mass strike under Morales in 2012 (Simon Quilombo)

Opposition Mayor Soledad Chapetón, who won municipal elections in the pro-government stronghold with 55 percent of the vote, accuses ex-members of the Movement for Socialism (MAS) of carrying out the assault and arson of the city hall. The government, on the other hand, asserts that municipal officials, in league with the opposition, carried it out themselves. The events that unfolded in El Alto are of particular importance in the final stages of the electoral campaign for the referendum on [Sunday, February 20], where Bolivians must decide if the Constitution is to be reformed to allow for a second re-election of Evo Morales.

For several days now, protesters have cut off the main avenue of La Paz, in the middle of the city and a third of a mile below El Alto. Lines of mestizas (women of mixed race, indigenous and European) in their skirts and hats calmly sit down and block the streets while men shoot off fireworks. Most of them belong to associations of retirees, but many are also miners and oil workers, or members of other sectors that are taking advantage of the electoral period to place an additional demand on the government.

"We are calling for our holiday bonus," explains a woman when she is asked about the reason for the protest. The week before the referendum witnessed a proliferation of popular protests, a spontaneous coming together of the most diverse sectors that believe this is the opportune moment to demand more.

"DO YOU agree with reforming article 168 of the State's Political Constitution, which states that the president and vice president of the country can be re-elected twice in a row?" This is the question that 6 million Bolivians will have to answer this Sunday.

The initiative came from the presidency and many believe that Vice President Álvaro García Linera, the government's "brain" [its leading strategist and ideologue], was involved. Morales became president in 2006 with 54 percent of the vote. He was re-elected in 2010 with an impressive 64 percent, and in 2015 assured his third term, which will end in 2020, with 61 percent. Now he is fighting to run again, which could leave him in power until 2025, or 20 consecutive years.

The question that many Bolivians are asking themselves is why a referendum is being proposed so far in advance, seeing that the national elections will be held in four years. What is certain is that the referendum has divided the country in two. MAS and the social movements that support the government, including the Unified Labor Confederation of Rural Workers of Bolivia (CSUTCB), the country's most important social organization, are behind the "Yes" vote, but so are some local figures, such as ex-soccer players Marco Etcheverry and Erwin Sánchez.

The support base of the "No to re-election" side is a lot more heterogeneous. From their ranks, we can point to former President Carlos Mesa and the governor of Santa Cruz, Rubén Costas, both of them part of the right wing, as well as to the governor of La Paz, Félix Patzi, and the ex-minister of defense Cecilia Chacón, who can be considered leftists.

The polls are inconclusive. Those released in February point to a tie of around 40 percent for each option, leaving the final result to the undecided. At the end of the pro-government campaign on February 17, thousands of people rallied for Morales on the Costanera Avenue of the southern zone of the capital.

"We have liberated ourselves and pushed the social movements to become a political tool for liberation, and in 10 years we have changed Bolivia's image," Morales told the crowd, emphasizing that his call for the referendum reflected "demands of social movements and organized people."

At the same time, students at the Public University of El Alto protested near the Plaza Murillo, alluding to the last scandal that links Morales with businesswoman Gabriela Zapata Montaño, who would have benefitted from her privileged relationship with the president. "Evo, Zapata, give back the money," chanted the students who, alongside organizations of retired folks, shut down the city center.

According to the opposition's press, the people who participated in the official events are civil servants required to attend. As soon as the president's speech ended, "public servants and members of social organizations made sure to stamp their name and signature on the attendance list for the end of the Yes vote campaign organized by MAS in La Paz" (Página Siete, February 18).

Proponents of the "no" vote also organized one of the largest mobilizations on Wednesday the 17th, in the central Plaza San Francisco. Important social organizations, such as the National Council of Ayllus and Markas of Qullasuyu (CONAMAQ), which broke with the government over the TIPNIS controversy in 2011, took part. In that incident, authorities repressed a march against a highway that was to be built across TIPNIS, the Indigenous Territory and National Isiboro Sécure Park. "It was the biggest and loudest demonstration in La Paz by the Bolivian opposition in a decade" (Agencia de Noticias Fides, February 18).

A WEEK before the referendum, two political bombshells challenged the government's credibility.

The one that had less impact involved the vice president, who listed in his military service certificate a degree in mathematics, even though he never finished his studies. He is also referred to as a graduate in many of his books. On the book jacket of his Sociology of Social Movements in Bolivia, García Linera writes that he is a mathematician and a sociologist, the same as in his other publications. On Saturday, February 13, García Linera held a press conference, where he announced, in a condescending tone that has earned him popular scorn, "Álvaro García Linera studied mathematics in Mexico, but did not finish his degree because he came to Bolivia to organize a guerrilla war to fight against the neoliberals. I said it two years ago, a while ago."

The news agency Fides reported that a biography published on the vice president's web page had been removed. The biography had noted that García Linera "obtained his undergraduate and graduate degrees" at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Now another text is in its place, stating only that he "studied mathematics," (Página Siete, Monday, February 15).

But the major explosion happened right under Morales' nose. The journalist Carlos Valverde denounced that the president used his influence to benefit Gabriela Zapata Montaño, a representative of a Chinese company in Bolivia. Even though he did not give details, the president admitted that he had a relationship with the young woman and that in 2007 they had a child who died. But he denied that her company would have benefitted in any way from the personal relationship.

According to the complaint, Morales met Zapata in 2005 when she was 19 years old and he was 45. She is a figure in wealthy social circles in the state of Santa Cruz and works for the Chinese company Camc Engineering, which has millions in contracts with the Bolivian state. The accusation claims that the government favored her in contracts worth more than $500 million. It was the first direct blow at Evo.

The government forcefully counterattacked, pointing to the fact that the journalist Valverde was head of the Bolivian intelligence between 1989 and 1993, at the height of the neoliberal period, and that he currently has a tight relationship with the U.S. embassy. According to the pro-government argument, Washington is trying to put a stop to the China's advance in the South America, which would explain why the contracts with Zapata's company are the focus of the scandal.

Both assertions could be true: that the journalist works for U.S. interests as well as that the Chinese company was favored because of the relationship between the president and the businesswoman.

AWAY FOM the media buzz, the more fundamental debate revolves around the question of the economic model MAS supports. It is based on the exploitation and exportation of hydrocarbons, mining, and soy monocultures. In short, the same model that has defined the country throughout its history since Spanish colonization.

The Movement for Socialism had promised an "industrial leap" that not only did not materialize, but has entrenched extractivism. Now the vice president speaks of a "temporary extractivism" that would allow for the accumulation of resources to invest in industrialization. Nevertheless, outside of a revitalization of the textile industry by small and medium producers, there is no change.

The investigator Pablo Villegas, from the Center of Documentation and Information of Bolivia (CEDIB), insists that the drop in world commodity prices is causing an acute crisis in the country. "This crisis has two aspects," he said. "On the one hand we have growing external debt and a significant increase in taxes, and on the other we have an institutional incapacity to face the crisis. If we continue in this way, we will have a government with resources in a country without resources, along with a population strangled by high taxes."

Months ago, the CEDIB, whose central office is in Cochabamba, was one of the NGOs threatened with expulsion due to its constant criticisms of the government and its supporters. The "pink tide" governments of Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia have become increasingly resistant to criticism coming from within the left. Villegas is not optimistic about the immediate future and suspects that as the governmental crisis worsens, the state could opt for a repressive response to the social movements and inevitable street mobilizations that form part of the political culture of the Bolivian people.

"Their entire plan is to stay in power," Villegas says of MAS and Evo Morales. "The alternative is getting democracy back," he says, and adds that he considers "corruption, as demonstrated by the governments of Brazil, Chile and Bolivia," a common feature of progressive politics.

Of his own accord, sociologist Luis Tapia asserts that "the excess of commodity exports has not been used to transform production, but rather to lubricate clientele networks to increase societies' political control and facilitate the rise of a new bourgeoisie."

Tapia was a member of the group of intellectuals Comuna and for years worked alongside García Linera, from whom he distanced himself both personally and intellectually. He reflects on what he terms "colonial presidentiality," that consists of "permanent electoral processes to legitimize decisions made outside of institutional settings, and even outside of the country, using plebiscitary processes as a guise to avoid governmental changes."

But the most devastating critique comes from Aymaran sociologist Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, a legend to both intellectuals as well as movements. Rivera is the author of the most important book about Bolivian social history, Oppressed But Not Defeated, which traces and analyzes the history of the Aymaran and Quechuan peasantry since 1900. She is as much an intellectual as she is an activist, and she is the most renowned Bolivian thinker both inside and outside of the country.

In a letter released on February 16, in which she defends a vote against re-election, she accuses García Linera of having forged an alliance with the landowners of Santa Cruz, to whom he would have offered to "change whatever law or decree to favor them." She goes even further by highlighting that she "recognizes him as one of many opportunists who have filled our path with shame, indignities, and defeats," and calls for the "energies of our rebel consciousness and the light of the indigenous and plebeian teachings of our history" to prevent the possibility of re-election.

The mutual distrust, and even hatred, between members of the government and those who were part of that same project until they began to split, is striking. Until 2005, they fought together in the Water War (2000) and the gas conflicts (2003 and 2005), and they participated in dozens of marches and collective actions across the country. For government supporters, the critics are "doing the work of imperialism." For the left opposition, the new ruling class "has betrayed the agenda of October," a list of demands signed in blood during the days of October 2003, where 67 protesters died and 500 were gravely injured.

It's an impossible dialogue that demonstrates the limits of the processes for change and of the very alternatives for the left.

First published at Rebelión. Translated by Camila Quarta.

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