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Nearly two years into the presidency of Evo Morales, government officials and leftist social organizations are determined to break with the past and transform the nation. The opposition calls it a civil war. The government calls it a revolution. Other Bolivian activists and analysts call it business as usual. A look at public opinion and recent conflicts in Bolivia exposes the challenges facing Bolivia’s first indigenous president.
During the weekend of November 24-25, opposition protestors clashed with police in Sucre, Bolivia. Protesters were demanding that the capital of Bolivia be moved to Sucre. Three people died and over 100 were wounded in the confrontations. Leading up to this bloody weekend, assembly people of the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS, the political party of Evo Morales) had been routinely attacked by opposition groups advocating the capital move and protesting the MAS and the new constitution. Due to these frequent attacks, the MAS moved the assembly to a nearby military college for security. Opposition assembly people boycotted the gathering at the military college, protesting the move and the MAS plans for the new constitution. On Saturday, November 24, the MAS and allied parties gathered to pass a new draft of the constitution without the opposition present. The new draft was passed by 138 out of the 255 assembly people.
According to Evo Morales, the draft that was passed guarantees autonomy for departments and indigenous groups, nationalization of natural resources, greater access to water, land, electricity, education and healthcare. Morales explained that the constitution respects private property but also public and communal property. The assembly has until December 14th to approve the final constitution. This final constitution requires the support of 2/3 of the entire assembly, meaning these articles won’t be passed without the participation of opposition groups. Any articles in the constitution that do not receive 2/3 approval will go to a national referendum for citizens to vote on.
The Landscape of Public Opinion in Bolivia
To gain an unofficial understanding of the general public opinion regarding the Evo Morales administration, I recently spoke with a number of Bolivians from diverse economic, geographical, and political backgrounds. These informal discussions took place on buses, in parks, bars, farms, and living rooms. They offered insights into the current crises and political landscapes in the country. It was these opinions and popular sentiments that erupted into violence recently and will likely decide the fate of the government.
In general, I found that poorer, working-class, and rural people tend to support the MAS primarily because Morales is the first indigenous president of Bolivia, a former coca grower, and is from a humble background like their own. These supporters, who largely make up the government’s base across the country, cite the partial nationalization of the gas, redistribution of land, improved access to basic services, and the work of the constituent assembly (in spite of its problems) as key reasons for their support. Many of the country’s social organizations and unions are within this supportive group. Though they have criticisms, many leaders have entered, or are working with, the government in some capacity. This is the group that will likely continue to defend the government from opposition forces and keep Evo Morales in office.
I have also met a number of people who, in spite of the criticisms they have, recognize the historic importance of the first indigenous president and the fact that the MAS is a political instrument developed by grassroots movements. These people acknowledge the challenges facing the administration and yet are not contented with the changes that have taken place under the MAS government. They say that more private land and corporations should be expropriated, that the gas should be fully nationalized, and that the MAS is dependent on the old structure of the corrupt state, rather than transforming the state. Criticisms are growing within this group, particularly after the violence and problems at the constituent assembly. Though this group may weaken the overall support for the government, they currently lack a coherent political strategy or major party outside the MAS.
Others cited the government’s lack of expertise and management and technical skills as reasons to be critical. They contend that, instead of picking people with technical and political experience, the MAS chose to hire people who are close political allies and indigenous people with union organizing experience. These critics say such choices have contributed to poor management within the government. It’s important to point out that in the past it has been the technically experienced politicians who have used their skills to loot the country. In this government, there has been a concerted effort to include workers, indigenous people, and leaders from excluded sectors who understand the suffering and needs of the population for whom the government was elected to work.
I have also met a handful of people who are against the indigenous president for racist reasons. Others oppose the government for ideological reasons and advocate continued neoliberal policies. Within this oppositional group is the occasional critique that Evo Morales isn’t governing for Bolivians, he is just following orders from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro of Cuba. This is not true. The route that the current government is taking in the management of natural resources, the re-writing of the constitution, and other issues has been established by popular demands from the Bolivian people. For decades, numerous mobilizations and protests pushed the constituent assembly and gas nationalization onto the political agenda. It’s true that there is a considerable amount of influence and support coming from Cuba and Venezuela. Yet many people in Bolivia see this as a good thing. It’s a collaborative relationship of mutual respect and much less hierarchical than the relationships that former Bolivian presidents had with Washington or multinational corporations. For example, when Venezuela lends money to Bolivia, there aren’t any neoliberal strings attached, such as the privatization of water resources.
Finally, there is a large and vocal political opposition to the Evo Morales administration. This opposition is organized primarily through right-wing political parties and civic organizations in the eastern parts of the country. These groups have led the charge against the MAS in the assembly, the media, and the streets. A recent strike was called by prefects for six of the nine departments in Bolivia. This strike represents the cohesion of the Right, and the regional division in the country. Though the MAS won the presidency, it did not win a number of prefect and mayor positions. These local governments and right-wing leaders have united against the MAS. It’s this opposition that poses the biggest challenge to the MAS government.
A common critique that crossed these lines of support and opposition to the government was the tension and violence in the country. The recent deaths and injuries in Sucre are part of a cycle of violence that has beset the administration since it took office, erupting earlier in Cochabamba, Santa Cruz, and elsewhere in the country. These outbursts aren’t necessarily just the Morales administration’s fault, but part of a power struggle which has erupted between the MAS and the opposition. And, as Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera explained in a recent interview in the IRC Americas Program, these tensions, both racial and economic, are not anything new for Bolivia: “The novelty today is that for the first time society is forced to look at itself in the mirror, and it has to see its limitations, its cracks, its weaknesses. . . . The real problem would be if we didn’t resolve them, if we just did what past governments had done and swept them under the rug.”
“With or without Evo”
Another group of intellectuals and journalists offered their analysis of the current government and the role of society outside the government palace.
In the worn-down Bolivian Workers’ Center office in El Alto, I met with Julio Mamani, a journalist who has for years reported on his city, its politics, and social movements. Mamani lamented the lack of space for critique within the MAS: “If you critique the government, they say you are an instrument of neoliberalism.” Others in the government shared this criticism, complaining about a “with us or against us” mentality within the MAS that stifles open discussion and critiques.
Mamani explained another challenge is the lack of political alternatives on the Bolivian Left. Most groups have gathered under the umbrella of the MAS. “What will happen to them after Evo is gone?” Mamani asked.
Felipe Quispe, a long-time indigenist/leftist leader, and Felix Patzi, a radical sociologist and former minister of education in the MAS government, had answers to that question.
In a hotel lobby near the central Plaza Murillo in La Paz, a mustachioed Quispe, smoking cigarettes and chewing coca at the same time, tilted his hat above his forehead and shook his fist in the air when talking about indigenous mobilizations in recent years. “We have tried to recuperate our land and our power. Yet this power is in the hands of our looters, including the MAS. We have to reorganize, rearticulate our forces in the countryside and in the cities. . . . Who will make the revolution for us? It’s us, the poor, those on the bottom, the discriminated, the workers, we who built this country, it’s up to us. We need to govern ourselves.”
The academic Patzi spoke of the social and indigenous movements that were very active in recent years and helped pave the way to the election of Evo Morales. “The MAS is a part of the momentum of these social movements. . . . If this movement is to go forward, it’s up to us. We’ll have to continue this process with or without Evo.”
Others on the Left are planning for a Bolivia without Evo, or at least a radicalization of the existing government. Writer and analyst Luis Tapia also looked beyond conventional thinking. Tapia has a beard, long flowing hair, and red-rimmed glasses. Speaking in a sure, steady tone, he explained that Bolivia contains many more political and social forces that the state does not include. “In Bolivia, politics is a lot more diverse than just the state,” Tapia explained. He mentioned communitarian governance among indigenous groups, unions, anti-privatization movements, and neighborhood councils which question the vast inequalities in the country. “This political diversity and power often doesn’t fit into political parties or governmental positions. Democracy is not synonymous with the state.” Tapia said that the Bolivian state only represents a part of the diversity of the country and likened presidents to monarchs — both centralized positions of power which facilitate the application of policies harmful to the people. Tapia said there is a dire need to “de-monopolize” politics and democracy in Bolivia.
On the other hand, the MAS contends that it is a government made of social movements and is working to transform the state so that it can better serve the needs of the poorest sectors of the population. As Morales recently explained: “It is the experience and effort of social movements that are causing democracy to address the issues that really concern poor and needy people. . . . Democracy is much more than a routine election every four years.” Indeed, many of the ministers and party members within the MAS are from union and indigenous movements. In many ways, and with limited results, the MAS initiatives and policies have reflected the demands of these excluded sectors.
The hope and enthusiasm of the first year of the Morales administration has dissipated. The initial plans and announcements of 2006 have largely unraveled in 2007. Instead of an instrument of transformation, the constituent assembly has been turned into a political swamp which the MAS may not be able to pull itself out of. Though the gas has been partially nationalized, some land has been re-distributed, and access to basic services increased, much still needs to be done. There may be a strong presence of social movement leaders within the government, but until the MAS can transform the state into something which reflects the diversity of Bolivia, it risks being suffocated by the rusted apparatus of the old state. Though the poor majority may still support the Morales administration, its first two years in office have exposed the stark challenges facing the polarized country.
Benjamin Dangl is the author of The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia (AK Press, 2007). Email Bendangl(at)gmail.com.