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Does a Referendum Manifest Power? Where is Power? The Case of Bolivia


One of the biggest questions facing social movements in Latin America over the course of the past decade is the question of power. Where is power? What is power? And how to organize in relationship to the answers to these questions.

Various paths have emerged since the late 1980s with the growth of the Landless Movement, MST, in Brazil, and have developed exponentially since the public emergence of the Zapatistas in 1994 and the subsequent creation of autonomous communities in Chiapas Mexico. In some movements, like those in Chiapas with the Zapatistas, or with the autonomous social movements in Argentina since the 2001 popular rebellion, or many of the indigenous movements based in land, the concept of power is that of what is created amongst and with one another. It is about a new social relationship in society that then sees institutional power as an obstacle or tool to help develop this new creation. Other movements, such as in Venezuela and segments of the movements in Bolivia, envision power as something to take so as to create these new social relationships. First it is about the institution, and then the space for relationships.

Sergio, a participant in the social movements in Argentina explained two types of power to me once in a way that still is the most clear of all the various explanations I have either read or heard.

"The difference is thinking about power as a noun, to arrive at power, to obtain power, as if it was a thing, and power is a verb." (Sitrin, 2005: 195)

What Sergio says is at the heart of the different conceptions of how to change society. The conceptions put forward in the majority of literature to date on social movement theory, as well as by so many of the revolutionary social movements in the world, is that power is something to be taken or achieved. Many of the new social movements in Latin America, however, are following another conception of power. These new movements, through various paths, have come to see power as something that is created within people and movements, and not something to take. In fact it is the very idea of power as something to gain in an institutional sense, which is what is being broken from. Emilio, a seventeen years old participant in the movements in Argentina at the time the below statement was made, explains this difference clearly.

 "… it is absurd to take power in Argentina…no  thank you, I pass. Besides, we are creating things that are so different, that point in another direction.  We can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel but we know there is a light and we continue. We are creating other values. We know that what we are doing goes against vertical logic, authoritarian logic, the logic of delegation, and what we are building is not their opposite.  That’s interesting to consider, we are not creating the opposite, we are creating something else. We are not building the opposite to the capitalist system, that’s been tried and doesn’t work. The opposite doesn’t work. We are building something different. What, I don’t know, it doesn’t have a name and I hope it never has one." (Sitrin, 2005: 143)

Neka, an active participant and one of the founders of the unemployed workers movement of Solano, in Argentina, continues with this concept articulated by Emilio.

"The most marvelous idea is not to think only of the future and deposit your life in others that will then guarantee this future, but rather it is the recuperation of life. It is that we come back to live and believe that more than anything, our life, today, what we can transform and live in a way that is different is our life." (Sitrin, 2005: 242)

This vision articulated above by people in the more autonomous social movements in Argentina is not one that I believe would be disagreed with by many in the social movements in Bolivia. However, many in the movements in Bolivia choose a path to power that included the taking over of the State. Once this was done, the question for the social movements become how to use the State to develop new social relations and more freedom. Too often once the State is taken over, people look to the State to answer questions and create solutions, or worse, and more frequent, the State interferes with social movements, "giving" them their solutions and even framing their questions. The challenge for social movements in countries where the State has been taken over by a left government is how to continue to organize and use the state to deepen social organizations.

The current call for a referendum in Bolivia raises this question of power for me. Where is power located, and how do we, as people in movements, continue to expand our power with one another, and our power that is our abilities. Does voting affirm our power? Would voting for a person who was already elected affirm that power to do and to be? I fear not. I fear that an election, and especially a referendum is about affirming power as a thing, power that someone has over others. Affirming Evo Morales in Bolivia is not what is going to defend the social movements against the right wing attempts to take over the country again. What can defend this power-to, this affirming power as a verb, is the movements together showing their strength, not the movements coming together to vote for someone. Imagine a mass assembly of movements discussing possible paths for Bolivia. Imagine small assemblies, as has been discussed, throughout the country, discussing what people desire and how to make it happen. This for me is a much stronger affirmation of people’s power and rejection of right wing attempted power grabs. Collective action is what brought the government into power. Evo is in power because of the power of the social movements actively creating an alternative, and then, and only then, emerged an electoral option.

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