Revolutionary times in Bolivia?

Nick Buxton
16 December 2005

“We are not just talking about a change in president, we are talking about a change in history”, Roxana Liendo, an NGO worker, predicted at a recent dinner in Bolivia’s capital, La Paz. In the final week before Bolivia’s elections on 18 December 2005, the feeling that the country is about to enter a new stage in a long history of repression and resistance, exclusion and privilege, has begun to take hold.

La Paz is still festooned with flags and posters that represent a rainbow of parties, but there is an extra spring in the step of the blue-clad supporters of indigenous leader Evo Morales and his left-wing party Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS). The party was trailing in third place with 15% of the projected vote. Now it is in the lead with 36%, six points ahead of the nearest rival, the right-wing Jorge “Tuto” Quiroga. Evo Morales’s support appears to be still rising and most commentators now feel he will form Bolivia’s next government.

“We are going to have a president who knows what poverty is like, who has lived like one of us”, said taxi-driver Freddy Salinas on the way to a MAS rally. At the rally, thousands of indigenous people dressed in traditional bowler-hats and vividly-striped clothes, their skin dark and sun-weathered, waved flags expectantly and spoke of a new indigenous force that has regained energy and self-belief in the last ten years. Evo Morales could be the first indigenous president not just of Bolivia, but of Latin America.

Nick Buxton lives in La Paz, Bolivia, where he works for a political NGO. His website is www.nickbuxton.info

Also by Nick Buxton in openDemocracy:

“Bolivia in revolt” (June 2005)


If you find this material valuable please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work for democratic dialogue

Beyond the potent symbolism of an indigenous person taking power in a continent where the legacy of Spanish colonialism is still powerful, Evo Morales and MAS are also declaring their imminent arrival in power as an “end to imperialism and neo-liberalism.”

In a widely-quoted speech in Mexico in October 2003, Evo Morales declared: “The worst enemy of humanity is capitalism. That is what provokes uprisings like our own, a rebellion against a system, against a neo-liberal model, which is the representation of a savage capitalism”. Elsewhere he attacks the United States: “If we want to defend humanity we must change the system, and this means overthrowing US imperialism.”

MAS: What kind of party?

Morales’s comments have provoked dark warnings from the US government that Bolivia risks becoming a “communist narco-state.” In July 2005, Roger Pardo-Maurer, former US deputy assistant-secretary for the western hemisphere, said that with the support of Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro, MAS "is trying to steer this revolution toward a Marxist-socialist populist state."

Yet despite Morales’s anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist rhetoric, the evidence suggests that MAS is unlikely to take a radical economic and political stance. Evo Morales has not been at the forefront of any of the recent mobilisations that have paralysed the country since 2000, in particular the “gas wars” of October 2003 and May-June 2005 in which demonstrators demanded the nationalisation of Bolivia’s natural-gas resources.

After the overthrow of President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada in October 2002, Morales played a pragmatic political game, choosing to cooperate with Sanchez de Lozada’s successor Carlos Mesa by giving support to a controversially-worded referendum in return for control of a few government ministries.

“The foreign press sees Evo, but it doesn’t see the social movements,” says Pablo Solón of the Bolivian movement against the Andean free-trade agreement. “MAS represents a certain current but it is certainly not the most radical current. Even when they talk of nationalisation, they are not talking about taking multinational companies out of Bolivia, but ensuring they pay more.”

MAS’s programme suggests at most a more Keynesian approach to Bolivia’s economic policy: reasserting the role of the state but emphasising a convivencia – living with the private sector. It emphasises the need to focus energies towards endogenous growth, with targeted support for small and medium enterprises, rural agricultural production and sustainable tourism projects.

One of MAS’s key campaign managers, Juan Ramón de la Quintana says explicitly: “MAS is not a revolutionary party. We won’t bring about a revolution.” He said change will be profound but inevitably slow and that in the short-term, MAS will be able only to meet some of the needs of the population.”

Despite the word “socialism” in its title, he argues that MAS is different from traditional left parties: “We haven’t developed a Marxist doctrine which dominates western left parties. Our ideology is under construction; it is not defined and it is fed by different forces, movements and distinct actors.”

The reality is that a MAS government will face huge obstacles to making significant changes in Bolivia. Even if Morales wins the largest share of the vote, MAS is unlikely to win more than 50%. This result would mean that the decision as to who will be president would fall to congress. MAS might find itself leading a minority government and facing a congress largely opposed to its plans or being forced to make an alliance with a right-of-centre party in order to form a government.

Also in openDemocracy on Bolivia’s politics:

Oscar R Olivera & Jim Schultz, “America’s promise” (October 2004)

John Crabtree, “Bolivia’s retreat from civil war” (June 2005)

John Crabtree, “Bolivia on the brink” (October 2005)

Nor will MAS’s national success be replicated regionally. Polls suggest that the party will lose most of the nine prefectures that make up the country, a result that would weaken Morales’s ability to implement his programmes. In eastern Bolivia, MAS will face a strong autonomy movement led by strong business interests, whose attempts to gain more control over the large gas and oil deposits in their regions could cause deep fractures within Bolivia.

Moreover, a party make-up that has proved successful in galvanising support may prove to be a more difficult vehicle for government. More than a political party, MAS has been a convergence of different forces: coca producers, a modest apparatus linked to its congressional deputies, leading intellectuals such as the vice-presidential candidate, Álvaro Garcia Linera, and social movements which have agreed to deliver votes, but condition their support on a MAS government satisfying their own demands. The possibility of attaining power has attracted highly committed and intelligent candidates and supporters to MAS, but it has also drawn in a few politicians from traditional parties, some with dubious reputations, who could undermine MAS’s promise to deliver a very different politics to the traditional, neo-liberal model.

Added to these internal weaknesses are the even greater difficulties MAS will face in dealing with the strong economic interests that will oppose a MAS government. In particular, MAS can expect strong pressure from oil and gas companies, which seek to reverse elements of a hydrocarbons law which was passed in May 2005. MAS itself has promised to move in the opposite direction to advance nationalisation.

The companies have already initiated a legal process, under various bilateral investment treaties, that could see Bolivia being sued for billions in mid-2006, in the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes. Speaking of the call for nationalisation, the head of the hydrocarbons chamber of commerce told me: "Nowhere in the world do you hear people talking about nationalisation. But natural gas has become a political banner in Bolivia. What we have faced is a sea of ideological rhetoric one centimetre deep in practical application.”

Meanwhile, any future government will find its hands tied as a result of years of IMF programmes and dependence on foreign aid. The international community, in particular the United States, Europe and Japan, funds more than 50% of Bolivia’s public investment, and is unlikely to take kindly to attempts to put many restraints on foreign investment.

The pincers of power

In this context, it is likely that MAS will be a very reactive government – constrained by both its context and its make-up from making bold moves to tackle the deep structural inequalities in Bolivia. And it will be caught between two major forces: the US government and Bolivia’s social movements.

Pablo Solón says: “The key question is not what a government of Evo will be like, but what will the reaction of the US be?”

The US has chosen a low profile during these elections, not least because of the widely-held belief that US intervention in the June 2002 elections was counter-productive and helped MAS. However the evidence from the relationship with Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and comments by various US administration officials suggests they will strongly oppose a MAS government. David Rieff quotes Michael Shifter, "one of the shrewdest and most experienced American observers of Latin America” as saying that “he has been struck by the depth of conviction in Washington that Morales is dangerous” (“Che’s second coming”, New York Times, 20 November 2005).

Also on Latin America’s democratic and social struggles in openDemocracy:

Sergio Aguayu Quezada, “Mexican democracy in peril” (April 2005)

Guy Hedgecoe, “Losing Ecuador” (April 2005)

Ivan Briscoe, Nèstor Kirchner’s Argentina: a journey from hell” (May 2005)

Arthur Ituassu, “Poverty and the state in Latin America” (August 2005)

Celia Szusterman, “Argentina: the state we’re in” (October 2005)

Sergio Ramírez, “Nicaragua’s hijacked democracy” (November 2005)

Roberto Espíndola, “Michelle Bachelet: Chile’s next president?” (December 2005)

Juan Ramón Quintana certainly thinks that the relationship with the US will be a conflictive one. “We obviously won’t provoke the US. We are not fools. But I think that our attempts to reassert the role of the state, to end manipulation of (the US’s) aid, to regain sovereignty over our security will lead to a tense, conflictive relationship... We are talking about a nation which is expanding, a despotic empire founded on violence.”

Quintana, who specialises in security issues and is touted as a future defence minister, hoped that a counterbalance of friendlier European Union states, US distraction by violence in Iraq and a supportive region of left-of-centre governments in Uruguay, Brazil, and Argentina would help a MAS government.

On the other side, there are a number of Bolivian social movements that will apply equally strong pressure on MAS. Such groups as the water Coordinadora (who threw US multinational Bechtel out of Cochabamba in 2000), the residents’ association of El Alto (Fejuve), the rural farmers’ network (CSCUTB), miners’ cooperatives, and the landless movement (MST) will fiercely fight any attempts by MAS to renege on promises to nationalise gas, redistribute land, reverse privatisation of public services and establish a constituent assembly that draws up a new, more representative constitution.

Oscar Olivera, head of the water Coordinadora reflected many of the views of social movements when he said: “We never fought for elections. They are merely a vehicle for a certain mafia of Santa Cruz, and multinational companies who want to put a brake on social movements…. At the same time we can’t allow the right to return to power, so will support MAS. We want to create a new society built on models we had before colonialism, based on relationships of community and with nature. We reject a system based on a neo-colonial state. If MAS doesn’t work towards this than we will see movements taking government but we know this will require preparation and a creation of alternatives.”

In the run-up to the election, many of the social movements have been working on those alternatives – holding assemblies on rebuilding public services and nationalisation. At a recent meeting, representatives of the social movements declared that they will give a new MAS government three months to start to show evidence of working towards their agenda. “We have seen the appropriation of autonomous, dignified social struggles in Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. We won’t let that happen in Bolivia”, Olivera said.

There is no doubt, as Roxana Liendo pointed out, that historic changes are happening in Bolivia. But elections, and even the election of MAS, are much more of a sign of rising social forces than a conclusion. The announcement that elections were to be held put a temporary stop to the explosion of protests that took place in May-June 2005 demanding gas nationalisation; but a new stage of conflicts, rooted as they are in deep structural injustice, is likely after the election.

MAS will be investing hope in its ability to making concrete steps on the questions of gas and a constituent assembly that would rework Bolivia’s social contract and tackle the deeply-embedded inequalities that Bolivia’s social movements want to address. The taxi driver, Freddy Salinas said of MAS: “We don’t know if MAS will be successful, but it is time to give them a chance.” Many people from across Bolivia will be hoping that MAS can deliver on its promises, but a party with no experience in government will certainly find itself with challenges that most governments could barely imagine.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData