Bolivia’s crisis through a historical lens

I have long been a supporter of Amnesty International, but when their urgent action alert about Bolivia popped into my email inbox, I found myself frustrated rather than impressed. It was not that it was inaccurate about the day-to-day events in Sucre, just that it missed the bigger picture. It didn’t resonate at all with the conversations I have had with many Bolivians, particularly those in social movements, about the underlying issues.

Unfortunately, Amnesty International doesn’t seem to be the only one. Other international organisations, even those based in Bolivia, seem to have got caught up in the interplay and back and forth of Bolivian politics, treating all sides with moral equivalence, rather than examining the underlying and historic forces and play-out of power that are driving the confrontations.

Nearly all end up telling the Bolivian government it should “dialogue” and “reach a consensus” with a right-wing opposition that has systematically blocked every proposal for change and which in its regions is increasingly displaying reactionary and authoritarian characteristics of repressing all dissent. I can see why international observers might push for consensus. After all it is clear that polarisation is driving
Bolivia towards violent confrontations and I too don’t want to see any more blood being spilt. I personally still believe in non-violent forms of transformation.

Yet I think dialogue can not come at the expense of justice. That just creates a false and temporary peace. I also believe as the ex-slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass said, “Power never gives up anything without a demand. It never did and it never will.” Or as Berta Blanca, from the Campesina Federation of Bartolina Sisas said in a meeting I attended the other week, “In spite of the rightwing violence we can not stop a process of change for which we have fought for so long and for which so many people have died. We will fight to the end for a Constitution that embeds radical change in our country, that brings about inclusion of campesinos and indigenous people who have been excluded for centuries.”

In this context, is it appropriate for international observers to undermine the long-term struggles of social movements by pushing for a false consensus? The question is who should compromise, those defending their privileges or those challenging them in order to bring about great economic and social justice?

Back in the 19th Century, we could after all have questioned Frederick Douglass’ views as polarising and unlikely to win over slave owners for excluding compromise, we could have said that violent slave rebellions weren’t the best way forward, we could have pushed for dialogue and consensus to end slavery. Indeed there were those at the time who argued this. Yet we know now that justice demanded one response: the total abolition of slavery. Today’s Bolivia demands a similar abolition: of a racist and a colonial neoliberal State.

So, what do I hear Bolivians say, not just recently but over my short three years here, that I feel need to be heard in order to better understand some of the key issues behind the details, the bigger picture beyond the news snapshots:

1.    CRISIS AND PERSISTENCE OF COLONIAL STATE AND NEOLIBERALISM. The state of Bolivia when it was founded in 1825 was an invention and imposition on indigenous peoples. At a march for nationalisation in 2005, Gilberto, an indigenous construction worker in El Alto, told me: “For 180 years we have been ruled by a small elite, who ruled for themselves, whilst we were excluded, mistreated and oppressed.”

Colonialism imposed a western individualist representative model of governance on a largely community-based, culturally-rich, spiritually grounded indigenous world. Bolivia’s beginnings as a State were embedded in racism, violent conquest, and the genocide of millions of indigenous people in order to export silver to Europe. From this violent birth of a colonial state, indigenous people who remained the majority were exploited, marginalised and systematically excluded within most of Bolivia’s governing structures. Colonialism lies deeply entrenched in Bolivia even to this day. Governments led by small elites, subservience to outside powers (Spain replaced by the US) and the belief that western values were infinitely superior to “backward” indigenous values are just a few examples of this.

This history is also acutely felt by indigenous peoples and integral to their struggles for change. As Felix Cardenas, an assembly delegate said: “Every act of my life has been assigned by history, and by the struggles of my ancestors.” In talking about change, Cardenas specifically says we have to recognise the racism embedded within the modern State and search for new models of organisations based on different values: “We should not follow those that read books from Europe and divide the country by trying to apply that model.”

The economic crisis in the early 1980s heralded the imposition of an economic model that accentuated this trend towards the “private” and “individual” with strong backing by the World Bank and IMF. It also heralded the handover of the Bolivia’s natural resources and the strategic parts of the economy to multinational companies. According to the Inter-American Development Bank, Bolivia was the country that most loyally followed all of the recipes known as the “Washington Consensus” cooked up by economists based in the US. The results did not even meet the criteria of growth, but instead led to increased inequality and economic impoverishment for the majority.

The reality of these policies became clear on a trip to Guaqui near the border with Peru where I heard testimonies of people who lost jobs as the railway and mines got privatised and of campesinos who could no longer produce food to sell because of unhindered imports of foodstuffs and end of price controls, both imposed by neoliberal free market policies.

The policies didn’t just exclude and impoverish the majority in Bolivia, the ideas designed in the North also clashed with alternative values that promoted community ownership and control, especially of natural resources.

By 2000, these conflicts of visions and unjust diverging realities came to a point of confrontation in the Water War in Cochabamba where a collective sense of water as a patrimony and human right and indignation with rising water rates clashed with the World Bank and local elites’ view that water was a commodity that needed to be privatised. According to Oscar Olivera, the union leader who helped lead the struggle in Cochabamba: “Water is a patrimony of the people, it belong to everyone, so plans to privatise water goes against our very culture.”

From then on, the colonial and neoliberal model entered into a crisis as indigenous resistance continued to bring the country to a halt, bringing down two governments over issues of control over the country’s natural resources including gas and land. Behind those demands came an ever-louder demand to go deeper and tackle the structural causes of this clash of unjust realities and opposing values, with a demand for a Constituent Assembly to end the colonial and neoliberal State.

2.    CLASH OF ECONOMIC AND POLITICAL POWER. When the MAS government came to power with an unprecedented election victory in 2005, it won political power but not economic power in the country. Evo Morales in an interview to the BBC in his first year in office made this very clear: "In last year’s election we only captured government …… [but] who makes the decisions here – the poor and indigenous people or those families who’ve done so much damage to our country in the past? … It’s a political fight – it’s a fight for power."

Economic power remained in the hands of those committed to the colonial neoliberal model. These elites controlled the key companies, large landholdings and most importantly media companies that became the key tool for resistance against the government.

This is evident in looking at who are the leaders of the current opposition: Osvaldo Monasterios who runs the main opposition TV channel UNITEL is a powerful landowner and businessmen, Leopoldo Fernandez and Mario Cossio, prefects of Pando and Tarija, are ex-militants for parties that led the neoliberal push in Bolivia, Branko Marinkovich has huge illegally-gained plots of land and is a major food industry tsar. Moreover the laws enacted by previous governments, also meant that even attempts by the current government to increase taxes on multinationals largely benefited the regions controlled by the opposition rather than the State.

Initially shocked by the scale of MAS’s victory, Bolivia’s elites soon recovered by mobilising around regional sentiments and age-old resentment against inefficient centralised government to gain popular support.  As friend and journalist Miguel Lora recounts, they also benefited from errors and misjudgements by MAS government, such as the initial opposition it showed towards regional autonomy: “This enabled the Right to paint the government as authoritarian, anti-democratic and centralist.” But behind the battles, there was a deeper clash of political power with impulses to decolonise Bolivia against economic power wedded to neocolonialism and neoliberalism.

3.    IMPERIALISM. It is important to remember that MAS and more generally the shift towards the left in Latin America, is not just a threat to national interests but also international capital and particularly US interests. Whilst many on the left point to the very moderate nature of government proposals (gas and oil contracts were renegotiated with multinational Companies rather than confiscated), there is fear by international investors that the Government’s increased focus on the role of the State in the economy will continue to undermine the freedom of multinational companies in Bolivia.

In the 1990s the divisions between the Bolivian State, institutions like the IMF and World Bank and multinational companies became very fluid, with many Bolivian elites flitting from one institution to the other. Research for a chapter on debt earlier this year kept coming up with the same names, first in the Central Bank, than the World Bank, and now working for an international government aid programme. Key opposition leaders like the current Governor of Cochabamba, Manfred Reyes Villa, were trained in the US, in his case in the controversial military School of Americas. This means that the Bolivian elites at the very least have doors open to them internationally, and will have at the very least sympathy but more often active support especially in the Bush administration.

Behind this is a long legacy of US intervention in its self-declared “backyard” to defend its interests. Whilst the US administration is still distracted in the Middle East, we don’t have to look back too far in time to see their involvement in supporting the coup in Venezuela in 2002. Investigations in 2005 by Reed Lindsay of US magazine NACLA and the US government’s own websites show that in Bolivia the US has had a long-term strategy of dividing social movements and more recently supporting opposition regional prefects against the central government.

4.    RESISTANCE AIMING FOR REAL STRUCTURAL CHANGE. The proposal by social movements of a constituent assembly had the aim of changing the State profoundly so that it truly recognised Bolivia’s plurality of peoples and values, but also to tackle the structural economic, social and cultural causes of inequality and injustice. The struggles which led to countless deaths by indigenous movements, especially in massacres in October 2003, were not just looking for a cosmetic change to a constitution, but a real change that had an impact on their reality.

As Esperanza Huanca, an assembly delegate in Sucre made clear in a speech I heard at the Constituent Assembly in June: “I will never forget how they killed our ancestors like Tupac Katari [an indigenous rebel leader], the way indigenous people have been treated like fleas, discriminated, excluded. That is why we are here to call for a profound change. We need a state that is plural, made up of many nations. But you [she said pointing to the delegates of the rightwing opposition], slaves of multinationals want no change at all.” To bring about the constitution, social movements held thousands of meeting across the country, held vigils outside the assembly, watched debates, lobbied for change and even lost lives over several years.

The end result hasn’t been an extreme or radical proposal for a State, but one that recovers elements of communal ownership whilst recognising private property, includes a broad charter of economic, social and human rights, increases the role of the State in the economy, accepts pluralities of power and sovereignty to include indigenous movements, and that pulls together progressive proposals relating to many areas of Bolivian life from protection of the environment, to promoting just international trade to ending mistreatment of women. For more radical social movements, the constitution and the government’s general programme does not go nearly far enough. A recent communiqué by the Cochabamba worker’s federation whilst condemning the opposition of the right says:  “And if the government has failed to achieve anything or significantly change anything, then it must reflect if it is really worth keeping alive, like a corpse, whilst people on the street end up vicitms of a violence unleashed by the right.”

Yet despite the moderate tone of the constitutional proposal, this resistance has come up against the interests of the elites who currently have power – whether it is in proposals for indigenous autonomy which undermine the power of departmental autonomy, or whether it is in restrictions on landholdings. They have systematically blocked advances towards social movement demands. Dialogue and consensus in this context which weakens an already moderate document is a both a denial of the struggles of social movements and an unacceptable compromise in the face of a belligerent right.

5.    RIGHT-WING BACKLASH WITH FASCIST AND RACIST UNDERTONES YET STILL WITH A POPULAR BASE. The right in their attempts to block Bolivia are using every tactic possible to create instability and to undermine the government. This has involved tactics around division, milking regional sentiments and most disturbingly uncovering a strong underbelly of racism present in Bolivia. This was done to devastating effect in Sucre winning popular support against the Constitutional Assembly by mobilising around the historic demand to move the capital from La Paz to Sucre and racism against Aymaran indigenous peoples which led to bloody confrontations. According to Carla Esposito, the Right’s “use of fear, division and racism is not just discourse, but part of a political project to undermine MAS and prevent change.” 

Strikingly, much of the rights’ tactics are very reminiscent of proto-fascist movements as a leaflet circulated by the coalition of anti-fascist youth in Cochabamba has highlighted. The creation of internal and external enemies (indigenous peoples and Venezuela), the promotion of a region’s interest above all others, the use of armed thugs to repress dissent, the looking for violent confrontations  (even whilst using the rhetoric of democracy and human rights) and control of media to continuously pump out propaganda and often use complete misinformation and lies to make their case are all tactics that have been used by fascist movements, including most famously the Nazis in Germany.

This has succeeded in creating an environment of fear and insecurity which is often attributed to the government rather than the Right. There have also been allegations that the powerful economic elites have been using speculation and hoarding to exacerbate inflation. All of these tactics are of course tried and tested forms by elites over the last century to oppose leftwing governments. I recently saw a documentary on President Allende’s fall in the 1970s and the parallels with modern-day Bolivia are frightening.

Meanwhile, MAS has often played into the hands of the Right, who with their control of the media are far better at amplifying MAS’ mistakes than the Government is in highlighting the contradictions in the Right’s rhetoric. The Government’s provocative and divisive rhetoric, their clumsy attempts to push changes through, their typical tendency of a party to exclude dissenting voices has provided constant ammunition to the Right. Basilia Catari from Household Workers Union acknowledges this, ““We have to admit that both the government and some social movement leaders are provoking violence. …Too often the words of our leaders strengthen the power of the Right.”

Worse of all, the government has been very unsophisticated in its analysis of the opposition. Whilst it is clearly true that it is being driven by economic elites, it is also true that the opposition includes popular sectors who are driven by motives of regional sentiments, fear of change, frustration with government actions or inaction, lack of alternative information, and traditional historic loyalties to oppose the government. They are also undoubtedly influenced by the constant propaganda that MAS is introducing a Cuban/Venezuelan dictatorship, something I have heard repeated back to me even by campesinos, MAS’s natural base.

In this context, MAS and the Left’s dismissal of all opposition and indeed the whole of the east of Bolivia as oligarchic elites has the perverse effect of increasing popular opposition who indignantly say “Well I am not an elite” and become further entrenched in the rightwing opposition’s camp. A MAS government deputy admitted privately a couple of days ago that the government needs to be more sophisticated in winning over popular sectors by accepting valid criticism (for example of the problems of a centralised State, inefficient ministries and bureaucracy, a party that lacks proper forms of accountability, and to a series of serious Government errors) at the same time as more effectively highlighting the contradictions and real motives of the leaders of the opposition in order to split the Right’s forces.

6.    PROCESS OF CHANGE GOES BEYOND MAS. One of the things that always strikes me in Bolivia in any meetings of social movements is that people talk less about the MAS government and more about a “proceso de cambio” (process of change). The MAS Government is nearly always seen as part of that process, yet it is clear that the process of change is one that is deeper and broader than the current Government. After all the October Agenda which is central to the Government’s mandate (which includes nationalisation of gas, Constituent Assembly and land reform) was established by indigenous movements in El Alto in a mass uprising in October 2003, that included but was not led by forces aligned to MAS.

MAS’s election was a result of social movements struggles over more than a decade, who set the agenda that MAS has had to follow.  And whilst there is a large swathe of support for “compañero y hermano Evo” (comrade and brother Evo) in social movements, there is also clarity that the party has not always lived up to everyone’s expectations and that the process will continue with or without MAS. As Carmina Moscoso from the Workers Federation in El Alto said the other day, “With or without MAS, with or without Evo, we will continue.”

Yet the Right, the international media and some of the Left tend to paint the whole process as one led by MAS with Venezuela behind it. They are blind to both the different currents within MAS (which has various and sometimes contradictory threads and currents: indigenous, Marxist, social democrat, NGOs), and myopic about the social movements that led the struggles in recent years who are often critical of MAS for very different reasons to the Right. They are most of all blind to the fact that this historic time in Bolivia has opened up a debate that goes beyond parties and structures, that talks about new forms of popular control, that highlights the importance of cultural resistance to western consumerist values, that poses fundamental questions about the role of the State and traditional forms of politics for resolving today’s critical issues.



  1. mcentellas December 13, 2007 at 6:58 am - Reply

    A few minor points (since I agree w/ most of your analysis).
    First, I’d be careful about the use of fascist to describe only the opposition. Fascism is neither a “right” nor a “left” ideology, but rather something else. And your description of it in Bolivia (scapegoating foreigners, use of intimidation & violence, reliance on passion over reason) is not limited to the opposition. It’s not for nothing that MAS was once MAS-U (Unzaguistas, after FSB founder Unzaga de la Vega).
    Second, I’d also caution against an overly romantic view of “social movements.” I’d recommend a look at Charles Tilly’s history of social movements (a short little book) for a sense of the potential (and consequences) of social movements as a political phenomenon. Even social movements for good causes can do horrible things. And Sheri Berman (and others) have long debunked the idea that social movements or “civil society” are necessarily good (she studied the Nazis as an expression of civil society in the democratic Weimar Republic).
    I think Amnesty International is doing the right thing, overall. The violence is being instigated by both sides. But just like in October 2003, one should hold the state to a slightly higher standard. I think MAS has made many missteps. But some of them stem from the fact that neither MAS nor the opposition are true “democrats” in the Western liberal sense. Change is necessary in Bolivia. But change made through violence is unlikely to last.
    And if we romantically embrace the idea that “necessary” change must be made through violence because there’s no other way … then we should start asking if there’s a level we accept. Is 100 lives the “right” price for that change? How about a million?

  2. Nick Buxton December 13, 2007 at 1:25 pm - Reply

    Hi Miguel, thanks for your thoughtful comments. I am not personally advocating violence as a way forward. I personally am a pacifist but have to say from living in Bolivia that I do wonder if radical and profound changes based on restructuring power can happen without violence – especially in the face of a small elite who won’t even accept moderate change. I still hope so.
    But my main point is that I think international organisations have to be careful not to undermine movements that are pushing for changes that would bring about greater social and economic justice. I think they also need to consider both the historical context and the balance of power before making comments or analysis. That doesn’t mean that I think that Bolivian calls for dialogue or alternative ways to resolve the current crisis don’t have any legitimacy, and I am glad to see that with a few exceptions that the Bolivian social movements haven’t been provoked into responding to the racist attacks launched by the Right in areas such as Santa Cruz. I just think that the onus is more on the opposition at the moment than the Government.
    Whilst I agree that social movements can be over-romanticised (and I have witnessed the usual problems in the left of egos, squabbling, power games, corruption and inefficiency) the cohesiveness and extensiveness of collective forms of organisation here, the strong sense of history of struggle and the long-term demands of particularly indigenous and campesino movements have an overriding current of justice running through them and have in general been very positive agents for change in Bolivia. From what I have read of the constitution so far, many of these currents have also been converted into positive and interesting proposals within the current consitutional proposal.

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