The new Andean politics: Bolivia. Peru, Ecuador

A "pink wave" across three Latin American states has lifted to power radical presidents committed to a pro-indigenous but also developmentalist agenda. John Crabtree surveys their record and assesses the challenges they face in the coming years.

John Crabtree
25 March 2012

A 700-kilometre march by indigenous protesters in Ecuador lasted two weeks before reaching the capital Quito on 22 March 2012. It echoes previous marches in both Peru and Bolivia against policies that threaten indigenous communities.

The governments of all three Andean countries face criticism for policies which seek to boost investment but fail adequately to take into account the interests of local people, who say these projects threaten their physical and social environment.

In 2011, lowland indigenous people in Bolivia marched on La Paz from the jungle city of Trinidad, a distance of 600 kms, in protest against a scheme to build a road through a protected indigenous area. And earlier in 2012, protesters from the northern Cajamarca region in Peru marched on Lima, repudiating plans to build a giant new copper and gold mine at Conga, a project that they claim will affect water supplies to local communities.

Indigenous and community rights

These events have occurred against a background where, in all three countries, governments elected with the support of indigenous populations have taken steps to enshrine indigenous rights in their respective legal codes.

President Evo Morales in Bolivia, first elected in 2006 in a landslide reaction against neo-liberal economic policies, oversaw the rewriting of his country’s constitution. The new constitution, approved by a huge majority in a referendum in January 2009, enhances indigenous rights in a country where indigenous peoples constitute a substantial majority of the population. Morales was re-elected with 64% of the vote later that year. An Aymaran Indian of extremely humble origins, Morales represents the aspirations of the indigenous majority in a country where ethnic and class divisions run along similar lines.

In Ecuador, President Rafael Correa likewise reformed his country’s constitution, extending indigenous rights. As in Bolivia, the 2008 constitution in Ecuador states - in an echo of the International Labour Organisation's convention no. 169 - that indigenous peoples should have the right to "free, informed and prior consultation" where development projects take place on (or under) their lands.

In Peru, too, this right has recently been passed into law. Soon after his inauguration as president in July 2011, Ollanta Humala passed a law making prior consultation a legal obligation.

Humala, elected on a leftwing ticket that supported indigenous rights, was obliged to enact a law which had been vetoed by his predecessor, Alan García Perez. In 2009, García had faced down protests in the northern town of Bagua as indigenous groups protested against plans to facilitate hydrocarbons exploration and exploitation in the Amazon jungle. Some thirty people, including police, were killed in the fray.

A "pink wave"

The governments of Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador reflect aspects of what has been called the "pink wave" in Latin America, a reversion against the free-wheeling neo-liberal policies in vogue up until the early years of the new millennium - albeit to varying degrees. Two of the three, Bolivia and Ecuador, belong to the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (Alba), spearheaded by President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. Both countries have pursued policies highly critical of the United States and its policies towards Latin America. For his part, Peru’s Humala came to power having previously established and led a highly nationalistic party which, in the elections of 2011, made common cause with the parties of the Peruvian left. Since taking office, however, Humala has abandoned much of his earlier leftist rhetoric.

The circumstances of their election also bore some striking similarities, particularly the collapse of traditional party systems and the discredit of political elites among large swathes of the electorate. Morales’s election in 2005, and re-election in 2009, pulverised the traditional parties in Bolivia, even the once mighty Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (MNR), the party that spearheaded the landmark Bolivian revolution of 1952. To distinguish itself from such parties, Morales’s Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) termed itself a "political instrument" rather than a party.

In similar vein, Correa in 2007 took full advantage of the tarnished reputation of Ecuadorean elites to lead an assault on the party establishment. He made the unusual (and risky) choice of standing for president while refraining from presenting a slate of candidates for Ecuador's congress, which he portrayed as a den of corruption. The move paid off, and once elected Correa decreed the election of a constituent assembly, in which he won a majority and which thereupon assumed legislative powers from the previous congress.

In Peru also, traditional party elites had failed conspicuously to resolve the country’s chronic economic and political problems, and were largely removed from the scene under the governments of Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000). But Fujimori’s departure from the scene did not lead to the resurgence of partisan organisation. Even the Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana (Apra), a party dating from the 1930s and once Peru’s largest mass party, remained but a shadow of its former self; in the 2011 elections it won only four seats in the 130-seat unicameral legislature.

Politics refashioned

All three presidents have had scope, therefore, to refashion their country’s electoral politics since taking power. In Bolivia, despite some defections, the MAS has a clear majority in both houses of the legislature, now known as the "plurinational legislative assembly". With only a modest presence, the opposition parties are effectively powerless to stop legislation.

Rafael Correa’s party, Alianza Pais (AP), also has had a working majority in Ecuador’s national assembly, although it has suffered some damaging defections in recent times. The situation is different in Peru, where Humala’s Gana Peru grouping did not win a majority in the 2011 elections, but has since entered into alliances with centrist and centre-right groupings which have (at least so far) afforded him parliamentary majorities.

Leaders and military

All three presidents have managed to fashion good working relationships with their armed forces, still an important factor of power in this part of Latin America. In each case, they have used their electoral prowess to push through changes at senior levels to garner support in the barracks.

In Bolivia, military loyalty to Morales was put to the test in 2008 when the government faced the threat of secession by elites in parts of eastern Bolivia. The army remained steadfast. In Ecuador, Correa faced a critical moment in October 2010 when sectors of the police force mutinied in Quito, and even held the president to ransom for a short while. In Peru, the situation is distinct in that Humala himself comes from an army background, and served as a commander in the war against the Sendero Luminoso guerrillas in the 1980s. In similar fashion to Chávez in Venezuela, he led an unsuccessful rising against the (by then) unpopular Fujimori government shortly before its collapse in 2000. After his inauguration as president, Humala was quick to promote a phalanx of officers who belonged to the same military generation as himself.

Presidents and public

All three presidents have, despite political difficulties, managed to retain far higher levels of popularity than their predecessors. Even though support for Morales probably peaked with his re-election in 2009, he retains a strong level of popular backing, particularly in rural areas of the country. Recent opinion-polls suggest that his standing has fallen to around 35%, but they only reflect opinion in the country’s main urban conurbations and ignore views of those in rural areas. In any case, support for opposition leaders is far lower.

Correa too, with his anti-elite discourse, retains a solid level of public support, although this appeared to dip in 2011 over a referendum in 2011 on constitutional changes he recommended. In Humala’s case, he has not been president for long enough to make any firm conclusions, but opinion-polls suggest that his support has risen strongly since his election in 2011; admiration for his young and attractive wife, Nadine, who has displayed some formidable political skills since becoming the first lady, makes her a political factor.

Re-election and re-re-election

All the presidents seem to harbour aspirations to stay in office once their present terms expire, an increasingly common trend in Latin American politics where term-limits have been modified in many countries. Evo Morales in Bolivia, already re-elected in 2010, seems likely to seek re-re-election in 2014; he will argue that this will be his first re-election under the new constitution which removed the previous bar on presidents seeking immediate re-election. In 2008, in order to win support from opposition leaders for the new constitution, he had promised not stand again in 2014. Now, barring the unexpected, that promise now looks likely to unfulfilled.

A similar pattern is evident in Ecuador where most observers think that Correa will once again seek re-election in 2013 (though he has yet to confirm his intentions). As with Morales, he will probably argue that this will be his first re-election under the new constitution; this, as in Bolivia, removed the legal barrier to immediate re-election.

In the case of Peru, it is too soon to say what will happen when Humala’s term ends in 2016. Humala has said he will not stand, and he lacks the parliamentary strength to change the constitution to be able to do so; but there are many who argue that he will seek to perpetuate his power by supporting the candidacy of his wife, Nadine. This would be to emulate the Argentine model, whereby Néstor Kirchner was replaced as president by his wife, Cristina.

The opposition challenge

As in any democracy, however, all three presidents confront a number of problems which may affect their chances of retaining power.


In Bolivia, Morales’s ability to stay on top of events has been called into question over the last fourteen months on a number of occasions. In December 2010 and January 2011, he was forced into an embarrassing about-turn on domestic energy-pricing policy, which cast doubt as to the political wisdom of government decision-making. A near doubling of energy prices brought great numbers of people onto the streets. The cost of fuel subsidies, in existence for years, has a strongly negative impact on central government finances. In April 2011, government attempts to maintain wage restraint led to disturbances on the streets of La Paz and a clash with the unions.

Then in August 2011, a new dispute broke out over the scheme to build a road through the doubly protected Indigenous Isiboro Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park (Tipnis). Despite the constitution, no attempt at prior consultation had been held with the indigenous groups living in this jungle area on the borders between Cochabamba and Beni departments. The government showed little inclination to be browbeaten by local protesters, particularly as they organised their 600-km march across the jungle lowlands and over the Andes to La Paz. The proposed road formed part of a network which would open up the Tipnis to agricultural and commercial activities, and had strong backing among some groups. With plans to hold a local referendum on whether to go ahead with the road, the issue remains deadlocked; the indigenous groups have pledged to hold a repeat march to press their case.

The issue has shown that not all social movements now support the Morales government, and that the "unity pact" between peasants and indigenous movements, which had held together until 2010, has all but broken down. Indigenous groups from both the lowlands and highlands have mobilised against the government, although the former more consistently. Attempts to rally social movements around "the process of change" by holding a big gathering in Cochabamba at the turn of the year does not appear to have healed the rifts. Opposition parties and groups have been swift to exploit the political opportunities raised by the Tipnis dispute, which has cast some doubt as to the sincerity of Morales’s discourse about protecting indigenous rights and the Pachamama ("mother earth") on which they depend.


In Ecuador, the challenge from indigenous groups also threatens to undermine some of the pretensions of the Correa administration. The Ecuadorean Confederation of Indigenous Nations (Conaie) supports the latest protest movement against mining projects in the country. Conaie has been a formidable actor in the past; it was in part responsible for bringing down two governments and two presidents, Jamil Mahuad in 2000 and Lucio Gutiérrez in 2005. It embraces both indigenous movements in the Amazon lowlands, where opposition to the activities of oil companies has a long history, and those of the Andean highlands.

The focus of recent protests has been the proposed development of the mining potential in the Ecuadorean highlands. Ecuador up to now has not been a mining country, but it has come under increasing interest from international companies, especially from Canada and China, keen to take advantage of strong demand for minerals and high global prices. The development of mining has raised serious questions about rights to water and protection from environmental hazards, and also threatens traditional ways of life. There have been several protest movements in recent years about who should control water distribution: the central government, local governments or local communities. The government, despite its left-wing discourse and laws on prior consultation, has firmly defended its right to enter into concession agreements with foreign mining companies.


In Peru, too, the future of mining and extractive industries more generally has become a major source of political discord, of which the Congas dispute is but the latest of a series of bitter confrontations. The Congas project involves the expansion of activities by Yanacocha, Latin America’s largest gold producer; it involves a consortium of Newmont Mining (of the United States), Buenaventura (a large Peruvian miner) and the International Finance Corporation (IFC), part of the World Bank. There has been a history of conflict between Yanacocha and local community groups and farmers stretching back over most of the past decade. The latter claim that their livelihoods will be irretrievable damaged by the project.

Environmental impacts have been a major source of conflict between mining companies and communities throughout the Peruvian highlands. Several important projects have been stopped because of local pressure, including Yanacocha’s Cerro Quilish scheme near Cajamarca city. Peru has seen an unprecedented expansion in mining and hydrocarbons projects in recent years, attracting more investment than most other Andean countries. Often these investments take place in remote areas where the state is virtually absent and where there are no other legitimate entities to mediate disputes.

The president previously sided with local communities against extractive industries. But Humala has found himself under huge pressure from pro-mining lobby groups and other interested parties to shift his ground. Since his election victory, he has publically acknowledged the need to continue to support mining investments but argued that the resources generated thereby should be used to raise the living conditions of the poorest, including those living in the areas surrounding mining camps. In December 2011, he dismissed many of the more leftwing voices in his cabinet.

However, traditionally, the Peruvian state has proved unable to respond effectively to such social needs, lacking the administrative machinery to make this happen. While social spending has increased in recent years, the conditions of poverty in Peru’s interior have not improved substantially. There is therefore considerable doubt as to whether Humala will succeed where his predecessors failed.

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