On the February 21, Bolivia returns to the polls to decide whether president Evo Morales and his running mate, sociologist Álvaro García Linera, can stand for a further term. Morales is still very popular amongst the Bolivian electorate, enjoying a satisfaction rating of somewhere between 60 and 70 percent.1 Evo is in many ways a remarkable political figure, a man with many firsts to his name. He was Bolivia’s first indigenous president; he and his party, Movimiento al Socialismo (or the MAS) were the first political party to win an overall majority in elections since the return to democracy in 1982; and they were the first incumbent government to get re-elected. They have now managed this feat twice, maintaining their majority on both occasions.2 No one in Bolivia’s two-hundred year republican period can claim to have had the same electoral success that Evo Morales and the MAS have enjoyed. The problem that the MAS’ political project faces now is one of succession. The problem for Bolivia more generally is far more serious.
Bolivia’s latest constitution, designed by a Constituent Assembly and introduced on 25 January 2009, is the country’s seventeenth. Bolivia, then, is not a country unaccustomed to constitutional change. Currently, Bolivian presidents and their vice-presidents are only allowed to run for two terms. Morales was allowed to run for a third term through a vote in congress. The house stated his third term was his second constitutionally, as Morales was elected before the introduction of the new constitution. This represented a “re-founding of the country,” and so all slates were wiped clean with its introduction in 2009.3 The referendum is a consultation with the Bolivian people to see whether the government can change article 168.4 A sí vote in the referendum would give the government a mandate to change the constitution for the second time in Morales’ tenure, allowing him and vice-president García Linera to govern until 2025.
Much of the debate about the referendum in Bolivia itself has focused upon the ferocity of the campaigns, with the Bolivian newspaper Pagina Siete describing recent events as a descent into a “war of accusations.”5 The sí campaign is currently slightly ahead in two out of three polls performed in January. Pollsters IPSOS estimate that 49 percent of the Bolivian public are in favor of the reform and 39 percent are against, whilst 11 percent are undecided (the figures are more decisively in MAS’ favor in rural areas, 61 percent sí compared to 28 percent no); El Deber and La Razón present the contest to be a much closer affair, 41 percent sí versus 37 percent no; whilst IPSOS Bolivia put no ahead of sí on 44 percent and 38 percent respectively.6 Whichever poll you believe, it is going to be a close-run thing.
However, at this juncture there are other more pertinent questions to ask: why does Evo Morales feel the need to return to govern for a fourth term? And why have the processes of state construction under his tenure led to such a sterile political environment in Bolivia? A critical examination of democracy reveals the tensions at the heart of this process; the liberal representative democracy of the state is markedly different from the radical democracy practiced by the social movements that carried Morales to power. The movements of 2000-2005 saw new forms of radical democracy – influenced by indigenous cultures – emerge and become an important aspect of how Bolivians understood and participated in processes of change. A critical approach to democracy helps address questions of why Bolivia’s radical transformation has become embodied in Morales; why there is such a dearth of possible successors to Morales (or alternatives in Bolivian civil society); and why we should be concerned about the constitutional referendum.
The Elusive Essence of Democracy
In recent times, democracy has too often been collapsed into liberalism (not without problems); so it is vital to recognize democracy as a portmanteau concept containing two opposing traditions.7 On the one hand, the illusion of equality between all men – essential for the construction of the bourgeois class – is at the heart of liberal representative democracy. Liberal democracy cannot be fully understood without consideration of its dialectical relationship with capitalism. As capitalism frees people from their obligation to the land, the increasingly alienated individual becomes detached, not only from the demands of the feudal lord or latifundia owner, but also from “customary, corporate, prescriptive and communal identities and obligations.”8 The economic imperatives of labor under capitalism do not depend on subordinate political or juridical status (as in feudalism), so labor can be afforded political and juridical equality without, as political Marxist Ellen Meiksins Wood states, “depriving capital of its appropriating power.”9 As capitalism develops, the “political” arena becomes separated from the “economic” sphere, with stark consequences for the ordering of society. Political struggles become alienated from the logic of capital and confined to the “formal” political sphere. The central tenets of “individual rights” and “civil liberties” mark out the depoliticization of civil society as the state is wrenched from – and placed above – civil society. Democracy assumes a representative form – something that is at odds with the original understanding of democracy as the rule of the people – as citizens vote for members of a select group, and legitimate politics outside the parliamentary sphere disappears.10 This means that universal suffrage and an extension of political rights can be granted to the general population, as long as they do not impinge on the functioning of capitalism.
Under a capitalist liberal democracy, the national-popular (to borrow Gramsci’s formulation) must become the natural form of civil society as state and civil society emerge as distinct but interconnected entities. This enables the construction of a unified market through the subsumption of other social forms.11 Liberal democracy thus has a spatial element – the “imagined community” of a nation state – which is constructed through historical events and discourses.12 In other words, although liberal democracy does not need to function over a monoethnic or monolingual community, it does require a collective subjectivity in order to function properly.
Throughout much of Bolivia’s history, the construction of the collective subjectivity of the national-popular – or attempts at it – has taken precedence over the functioning of liberal democracy itself. Bolivia is a heterogeneous or motley society, comprised of 36 recognized indigenous groups, that for a long time lacked the proper recourse needed if even the facade of democracy was to be upheld. The reasons for this can be found in the work of René Zavaleta Mercado, arguably the most important Bolivian thinker of the twentieth century. Zavaleta delineates three stages of liberal democracy in Bolivia, a place where liberal democracy is a non-native entity.13 Firstly, there was the period after independence from Spanish colonial rule where only mestizo males could vote, and democracy operated over only the illusion of a nation.14 Secondly, the national revolution in 1952 brought universal suffrage to Bolivian citizens, but it was unable to unify the internal market or the nation. Thirdly, the advent of neoliberalism in Bolivia transformed Bolivian society and finally unified the internal market (although it was incapable of unifying the nation), transforming democracy into the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. The failure, historically, to construct a national unity led to continual lapses into the barbarism of military coup d’états, a problem that was only overcome in the third stage of Bolivian liberal democracy that started in 1985.
On the other hand, a different type democracy – much closer to the rule of the demos imagined by the ancient Greeks – is at the heart of the new left in Bolivia. This radical form of democracy was present in the social movements between 2000 and 2005, who practiced mass participation and consensus politics. Radical democracy is characterized by apprenticeship – not scholarship – and cultural customs and wisdoms are passed down through the generations as people participate in democracy within the community.15 The social movements of some fifteen-years ago increased the participation of the subaltern classes through direct democracy practiced in an open-air forum, commonly know as the cabildo abierto. A central demand of this massive open-air forum was a Popular (or Constituent) Assembly. The Constituent Assembly was imagined as an expression of true working-class and indigenous democracy, to be comprised of, according to anthropologist Roberto Albro, “delegates from indigenous communities and urban neighborhood associations, along with worker, trade, and agrarian unions.’”16 This was to be a true moment of radical political pluralism capable of constructing a new social order.17 It was supposed to be an extension of the direct democracy practiced by the cabildo abierto, where events were discussed and actions planned through consensus. The driving force behind this radicalism was the Unity Pact, an alliance of left-indigenous organisations formed in Santa Cruz in 2004.18 This radical democracy thus assumes a completely different character to the liberal democracy of the state. It is based on an equality won by subaltern groups through struggles against the structures at the root of social inequality.
As we have seen, democracy is more complex a concept than the narrow liberal understanding that is sometimes presented as the only form of democracy. It is a contested notion that contains both the shackles of the oppressed and their liberation. It is the tensions between these two forms of democracy that has a feature of Bolivia under the MAS’ régime, and it also lies at the heart of the constitutional referendum.
Negotiating an Exit: Rebuilding democracy under MAS
The régime of the MAS has been a period of reconstituted representative democracy and a political economy dependent on royalties from the extraction of hydrocarbons. The social movements of 2000-2005 were in part galvanized by a fiscal crisis of the state in the late-1990s, as the neoliberal government of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada privatized the main source of state revenue. First the state-run hydrocarbons firm Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales Bolivianos, YPFB, was privatized through the 1994 Law of Capitalisation, then well-head royalties were reduced through 1996 Hydrocarbons Law, decreasing the state’s budget by $552 million per year.19 However, during MAS’ tenure, Bolivia has enjoyed the benefits of a global commodities boom between 2008 and 2013. Re-negotiated well-head royalties of 50 percent, high global prices for Bolivia’s main export – natural gas – and newly completed pipelines to Argentine and Brazilian markets led to booming profits in the hydrocarbons sector, and a massive increase in state revenue.20 The state has used this revenue to pay for a limited redistributive package, whilst at the same time diligently building up a stockpile of foreign reserves through what The Washington Post describes as “fiscal prudence.”21 Nevertheless, there has been little structural change in Bolivia’s economy, and the sectors of capital accumulation at the heart of the MAS’ political economy are still mainly multinational capital in lowland agribusiness, hydrocarbons and mining; complemented by the incipient bourgeoisie in cooperative mining, commercial trading, contraband and narcotics.22 These forms of capital accumulation come directly into conflict with the indigenous principle of vivir bien and the radical demands of the social movements.
The MAS is not, as some would claim, a simple counter-revolutionary actor against the radicalism of the social movements that brought Morales to power. We must be careful not to tar Morales with the same brush as some of his political opponents: the MAS, the neoliberal regime of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and the far-right civic-governors behind the failed coup attempt in 2008 are not the same thing.23 It is more helpful to view the reconstruction of representative democracy through the prism of a “restoration-revolution dialectic.”24 The form that the transformation of the state assumed – conservative reform dressed up as progress or genuinely progressive changes that are curtailed by restorative factions – was determined by the power dynamic between “revolutionary” pressures from below and pushes for “restoration” from above.
This is how we can conceive the changes in Bolivia since 2005. The transformation of Bolivian society galvanized by the social movements of 2000-2005 has led to a qualitatively different type of parliamentary politics and democracy in Bolivia. The coca-growers movement against US-led eradication programs and Aymara nationalism founded on the social unit of the ayllu have found expression on the formal political terrain. Political actors that were long denied representation in Bolivian parliament have found that they now have representatives from their communities who share their outlook, and fought alongside them in their struggles. Maybe this is part of the reason why Morales’ popularity remains so high, and it may also explain why Morales was able to become the first incumbent to be re-elected. However, this was not a complete transformation, an unrestrained revolution that moulded this new Bolivia in the imagined form of the social movements.
An important question that has to be asked at this juncture is “how have previously excluded (or at the very least under-represented) actors who engaged with social movements gained representation inside parliament?” On the one hand, it represents a step forward, and a progressive turn as far as parliamentarianism is concerned. But if we consider the processes that led to this supposedly progressive result, we come to slightly different conclusions. These new representatives in parliament were integrated into MAS during the period following the social upheavals of 2000-2005: “those who engaged in practices of organisation, articulation and direction in relation to the construction of a historic bloc (the mass of social movements between 2000-2005) and a project of civilisation, state and society” became part of the MAS and their project.25 This is the process that Gramsci labelled “transformism,” but what does it mean in the Bolivian context? The absorption of social movement leaders was designed to help maintain an organic link between the militant sectors of society that were responsible for the upheaval of the state, and the formal political project of the MAS.
However, this process has led to a number of perverse outcomes. Firstly, because the MAS was more interested in pursuing a parliamentary course and solidifying its place within the pre-existing liberal democratic structures, the radical democracy of the social movements was curtailed. The pluri-political and radical democratic features that shaped the internal horizons of the social movements were replaced by representative democracy, reducing democracy to the same nucleus as the state.26 Throughout the period of the constituent assembly (and right up to their second electoral victory) the MAS was more concerned about consolidating the gains achieved by the 2005 electoral victory than trying to radicalize democracy itself and implement the imagined transformations of the social movements. That would have required dismantling the very system that provided the MAS with its legitimacy, a move that would have undermined its position at the head of the restorative process. Instead, it concentrated all of the gains of the past decade – the victories against neoliberalism and the old republican state – at the heart of the party, until they became indistinguishable from Morales himself. The president, for many, has become the embodiment of the transformations achieved by the mass movements, obscuring the potential for more radical change. For MASistas, Evo is synonymous with the poverty reduction over the past ten years, and with the increase in health and development indicators.27 He has become the sole reason for these changes, even though much of this improvement has been due not to a massive increase in social spending (the proportion of GDP spent on conditional class transfer program sits at a measly 1.6 percent), but the global boom in commodity prices between 2008 and 2013.28 Amongst this section of the population Evo is becoming, contends Pablo Stefanoni, a figure rivalling the eponymous Tupaj Katari.29 Indeed, this is an image he himself has tried to garner, with the government mobilising the legend of Tupaj Katari, the indigenous leader that laid siege to La Paz in 1781, as a rhetorical tool throughout its premiership. One simply needs to look to the skies, to Bolivia’s new satellite Tupaj Katari 1, to find evidence of this.
The second result of transformism has been to decapitate local-level community organisations and projects. Their leaders have either been denounced as heretics; or become MASistas, drawn into the party and denied the opportunity to operate autonomously and develop the leadership skills needed to run the country. During the period of intense struggle, social movements became incubators of radicalism and leadership, with Evo Morales, Felipe Quispe and Alejo Véliz all emerging as vibrant leaders in the 1980s and 1990s. Struggles against the dictatorships of the 1970s, coca eradication and the harsh social programs of the 1980s and 1990s bred a generation of civil society leaders who possessed the skills and capacity to lead effectively. At this moment in time, there is not the same depth of leadership, nor the same opportunities to develop these vital skills.
On the one hand, all social struggles against the MAS’s political project – the clearest example being the conflict over the highway being built through the TIPNIS national park – are labelled as counter-revolutionary, and portrayed as enemies of the state. The socio-popular bloc formed of numerous different social movements in 2000-2005 was hardly homogeneous, and has always been characterized by internal contradictions and tensions. However, these antinomies have become more pronounced since the start of this conflict. The government has attempted – albeit with limited success – to tackle the internal contradictions expressed in this conflict by creating a dichotomy of friend-foe, accusing lowland indigenous groups who are against the construction of the road through the TIPNIS national park as fracturing the socio-popular bloc of the revolution and hindering the process of change.30 Consequently, the lowland movements and the highland movements are distrustful of one another, jealous of the gains in territory or political privileges that the other is given. These tensions are compounded by contrasting perspectives on the trajectory Bolivia should follow: the indigenous peoples represented by the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia, CIDOB, and the National Council of Ayllus and Markas of Qullasuyu, CONAMAQ, do not share the same developmentalist perspective as the colonizers – peasant-farmers who moved from the harsh conditions of the altiplano to the agricultural frontiers in search of land and prosperity from the 1950s onwards – and the cocaleros (coca-growers). In 2011 the first signs of rupture emerged, with CIDOB and CONAMAQ splitting from the Unity Pact. Once CIDOB and CONAMAQ had formally left the Unity Pact, the MAS began a campaign to undermine their capacities. In 2012, MASistas within CIDOB decried the elected officials and demanded the election of new authorities through “an extended commission;” whilst in December 2013, a minority of MAS supporters within CONAMAQ occupied its headquarters, violently expelling the legitimate authorities with the help of the police.31 Amongst Evo’s swathes of supporters – the rank and file now dominated by market-oriented cooperative miners, coca-growers and the incipient Aymara bourgeoisie – leaders who speak out against the government are not to be trusted, as the state denounces political action over controversial issues as selfish acts in defence of self-interest.
On the other hand, those leaders who became a part of the MAS are part of a project that has become increasingly about one man, making it difficult for potential successors to build up the leadership skills and public respect needed to succeed Morales. The peasant union, the CSUTCB, the colonizers and the coca-growing unions stay loyal to Morales, whilst rural infrastructure projects run by El Fondo Indígena are managed mainly by MASistas.32 These groups are tied to the project of the MAS, unable to fulfil their radicalism of over ten-years ago. Jorge Viaña highlights the consequences of these ties, demonstrating that it is not just inside the edifice of the state where conservative tendencies have taken root.33 As decision-making has been monopolized within the heart of the state, the schism between the government and its support base has widened. Social movements have experienced alienation through exclusion from democratic processes, fragmenting movements and diminishing the sense that a deepening of the process of change is possible. The conservative tendencies that emerged with TIPNIS conflict in June 2010 have become, through this process of “transformism,” present not just in the formal structures of the state, but with the social movements themselves.
MAS assumed power in a time of crisis: the state structures were weak and lacked legitimacy. There was a real opportunity to reconstruct the state in the image of the radical democracy of the social movements. However, the MAS decided to use the rhetoric of plurinationalism and autonomy – central pillars of the radical democracy practiced during 2000-2005 – to reconstitute the state and its liberal institutions. The government embarked upon a project of restoration, the re-construction of a nation-state and the consolidation of representative democracy in order to maintain the authority and legitimacy of the MAS itself. This necessarily required decision to be centralized and concentrated inside the state through the consolidation of liberal democracy. This was performed under the guise of “plurinationalism,” a complex idea containing a multi-layered conception of autonomy, where indigenous originary territories, indigenous originary peasant regions, intercultural regions and departments were assigned a level of self-determination.34 Rather than existing over a single, geographically defined community, plurinationalism borrows a non-spatiality from the Aymara ayllus, whose ability to function is not limited by overlapping geographical territories. Plurinationalism is grounded in the radical democracy of the community assemblies, where decentralized decision-making and consensus trump concentrated power and majority rule. “Rotation” and “obligation” are the cornerstones of this radical conception of democracy, rather than the liberal ideals of “rights” and “responsibilities.” “The fight to construct a [radical] plurinational state,” in the words of Viaña, “is the fight to usurp the perverse forms of liberal modernity, which expropriates collective sovereignty in the name of representation.”35 The true self-management and autonomy of this plurinationalism have been ignored by MAS, who have used it to consolidate a contradictory form democracy, a liberal form of democracy.
A further term for Evo Morales does not lead Bolivia out of this impasse, beyond the contradictions of democracy in Bolivia. However, what we can say is that the constitutional referendum is at odds with the values at the heart of the indigenous communities that Morales purportedly represents. Key to the organisation of the ayllus, and also salient to the mobilisation of actors in the social movements of 2000-2005, were the ideas of “rotation” and “obligation.” In Aymara communities, everyone is expected at one time or another to perform leadership roles (as well as other functions too). Families were obligated to send one family member to community councils, and to the roadblocks at the height of the protests. However, this was counterbalanced with the idea of “rotation”: once someone had performed a task for the community, they stepped down and passed the buck to another community member. Morales, by asking for a fourth term, is directly in conflict with these ideals. This has not gone unnoticed by many within MAS, and some of the central protagonists of the no campaign, including governor of La Paz Felix Patzi, are ex-MASistas.36 The problem is that Morales has for many become the personification of gains of recent times, – gains that were won from below – and transformed into the position he is occupying, preventing the rotation of leadership. The constitutional referendum of 21 February represents a refusal to adhere to the democratic principals of the social movements which brought Evo Morales to power, and a rejection of indigenous practices. In choosing to consolidate the western tradition of liberal democracy, Morales has excluded the very people he claims to represent. The constitutional referendum is but the latest expression of the tensions caused by this exclusion. A sí vote in the referendum may allow Morales to continue for a fourth term, but it does not address the deeper contradictions that lie at the heart of democracy in Bolivia today.
Nick Miroff, “Leftists are wobbling in South America: Here’s why Bolivia’s Evo Morales may be the last socialist standing,” Washington Post, January 7, 2016; “Bolivia votará el 21 de febrero si permite la reelección de Evo Morales hasta 2025,” El Mundo, September 23, 2015; “Bolivia’s parliament passes law to let Evo Morales run for another term,” The Guardian, September 27, 2015. ↩
Gisela Brito and Shirley Ampuero, “El Referendo Constitucional y la reelección presidencial,” Rebelión. January 23, 2016. ↩
Wendy Pinto, “La campaña se crispa por guerra de acusaciones,” Pagina Siete, January 13, 2016; Luis Mealla, “Gobierno critica de nuevo a Mesa y éste lamenta la ‘falsa polémica’,” La Razón, January 11, 2016. ↩
See Ellen Meiksins Wood, Democracy against Capitalism: Renewing Historical Materialism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 225-37. ↩
Ibid, 220. Latifundia are large agricultural estates in Latin America. ↩
Ibid, 201. ↩
Ibid, 217. ↩
René Zavaleta Mercado, “Las masas en noviembre,” in Obra completa: René Zavaleta Mercado, tomo II: Ensayos 1975-1984 (La Paz: Plural editores, 2011), 129. ↩
Álavaro García Linera, Plebeian Power: Collective Action and Indigenous, Working-Class and Popular Identities in Bolivia (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015), 171. ↩
See Zavaleta Mercado, “Cuatro conceptos de la democracia,” in Obra completa, tomo II, 513-30. ↩
A mestizo is someone of Spanish descent. ↩
Wood, Democracy against Capitalism, 193. ↩
Robert Albro, “The Culture of Democracy and Bolivia’s Indigenous Movements,” Critique of Anthropology 26, no. 4 (December 2006): 388. ↩
Luis Tapia, El Estado de Derecho como Tiranía (La Paz: CIDES, 2011), 90. ↩
Webber, “Political Theatre in Bolivia,” Herramienta 56 (2015): 4. ↩
Claire Mcguigan, The benefits of FDI : is foreign investment in Bolivia’s oil and gas delivering ? (La Paz: CEDLA, 2007), 52. ↩
See Carlos Arze Vargas and Javier Gómez, “Bolivia: ¿El “Proceso de Cambio” nos Conduce al Vivir Bien?,” in Promesas en su laberinto, eds. Carlos Arze Vargas et al. (Buenos Aires: CLACSO, 2013). ↩
Nick Miroff, “Leftists are Wobbling in Latin America. Here’s Why Evo Morales May Be the Last Socialist Standing,” Washington Post, January 7, 2016. ↩
Webber, “Burdens of a State Manager.” ↩
The attempted coup was orchestrated by civic committee leader Branko Marinkovic and departmental perfect Rubén Costa in Santa Cruz. See Jeffrey R. Webber, From Rebellion to Reform in Bolivia: Class Struggle, Indigenous Liberation, and the Politics of Evo Morales (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2011), 132. ↩
Antonio Gramsci, Quaderni del carcere (Rome: Einaudi, 1975), Q9:§133; cited in Massimo Modonesi, “Revoluciones pasivas en América Latina,” in El Estado en América Latina: Continuadades y Rupturas (Buenos Aires: CLACSO, 2012), 143. ↩
Luis Tapia, El Estado de Derecho como Tiranía, La Paz: CIDES, 2011), 119, my translation. ↩
Ibid., 115. ↩
Carlos Arze Vargas and Javier Gómez, “Bolivia: ¿El ‘Proceso de Cambio’ nos Conduce al Vivir Bien?,”in Promesas en su laberinto, eds. Carlos Arze Vargas, Javier Gómez, Pablo Ospina, and Victor Alvarez (Buenos Aires: CLACSO, 2013), 114. ↩
Jeffrey R. Webber “Revolution against ‘Progress’: Neo-Extractivism, the Compensatory State, and the TIPNIS Conflict in Bolivia,” in Crisis and Contradiction: Marxist Perspectives on Latin America in the Global Political Economy (London: Brill, 2014), 303. ↩
Webber, op. cit. (2015), 4. ↩
Brito and Ampuero, “El Referendo Constitucional y la reelección presidencial.” ↩
Jorge Viaña, “Estado plurinacional y nueva fase del proceso boliviano,” in El Estado en América Latina: Continuadades y Rupturas, ed. Mabel Thwaites Rey (Buenos Aires: CLACSO, 2007), 391. ↩
Fernando Garcés “The Domestication of Indigenous Autonomy in Bolivia: From the Pact of Unity to the New Constitution,” in Remapping Bolivia: Resources, Territory and Indigeneity in a Plurinational State, eds. Nicole Fabricant and Bret Gustafson (Santa Fe: School for Advanced Research Press, 2011), 51. ↩
Viaña, “Estado plurinacional,” 387. My translation and my emphasis. ↩
Brito and Ampuero, “El Referendo Constitucional y la reelección presidencial.” ↩