The Revolution on Hold – Departmental Autonomy and the Crisis of the Left in Bolivia


When Evo Morales was elected the first indigenous president of Bolivia in 2005, he swept to power with a huge and unprecedented popular mandate, crushing his nearest opponent by a 25-point margin. The country’s traditional political classes were discredited and divided after the failures of twenty years of neoliberalism to produce much except misery for the majority of Bolivians. The Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (MNR), a formerly revolutionary party responsible for the nationalization of Bolvia’s mines and a 1950s era land reform that destroyed the hacienda system in the Andean sections of Bolivia but later became the main technocratic engineers of neoliberal reform, had been bathed in blood and polled less than ten percent. Just two years earlier, the party had produced almost 90 deaths in repression of demonstrations under the presidency of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, who subsequently had to flee to exile in the United States. The main right-wing opposition party, Poder Democratico y Social (PODEMOS) consisted of the remnants of the political movement of general Hugo Banzer, a 1970s era dictator whose brief democratic return to power was marked by repression of coca growers and social movements fighting against water privatization. In addition to pursuing unpopular policies, they had to cope with the legacy of military rule that had usurped the popular will of Bolivian democracy.

 

The ideological hegemony of neoliberalism had been broken, although its actual structures and regulating structures remained operational. No longer was there a broad consensus in Bolivian society that the “tough medicine” of privatization, trade liberalization, flexibilization of the labor market, and gutting of the social welfare state was the necessary price to pay in the changing global economy. Morales’ Movimiento a Socialismo (MAS) strode boldly into this vacuum, promising a new kind of politics that would recuperate the resources that were systematically sold to foreign investors in the last twenty years and place the focus on the indigenous and economically disadvantaged majority of the country. The movement, with strong roots in the popular movements that had flourished in the resistance to the preceding right-wing governments, would seek to revalorize Bolivian culture in the context of a political project opposed to what Morales called a “savage capitalism” imposed by the United States.

 

As part of his new popular politics, Evo cut his own salary by 57% and demanded a similar austerity from MAS politicians. . In January 2006, he undertook an expansive world tour, meeting with leaders of major European, Asian, and African powers and working to drum up alternative investment sources to lessen the country’s historical dependency on the United States. He began to flex his political muscle, declaring on May Day that all foreign national gas companies would have to renegotiate their contracts, granting vastly increased proceeds and control to the Bolivian state. In August of that year, he convoked the Constituent Assembly, charged with the lofty task of rewriting the Constitution. While the opposition fought his every step, the MAS government had achieved clear popular support for their policies. What seemed impossible only a couple years before seemed to be coming into reality – Bolivia was on the brink of a radical social change that would began to address the historic inequalities of the country’s social structure.

 

Two years later, Evo Morales cannot travel to five of the country’s nine departments for fear for his personal security. The constitutional project that was the centerpiece of his administration has fallen into question, with the right-wing line that it does not represent a genuine social contract achieving wide credence among middle-class sectors that had previously been receptive to the Morales message. “Evo murderer” and “Evo dictator” graffiti dot the streets of middle-class neighborhoods throughout the country, even outside the main center of opposition to his government in Santa Cruz.

 

Although the faithful allegiance of popular sectors allow for the stability of the government itself and make an electoral defeat extremely unlikely, the mandate that MAS had to transform Bolivian society has effectively evaporated. Popular discourse is no longer about social change and alternative economic models – it is about an elite-driven departmental autonomy movement that has successfully cast the government as authoritarian, arbitrary and centralist in order to stop its proposals for social change that would challenge their political power and economic status.

 

There is no doubt that hope remains that the Morales government will be able to prevail in the current crisis, regain the popular support it once had, and continue with the historical mission it was elected to fulfill. However, despite the declarations of officials and MAS loyalists, the process is unmistakably stalled and losing momentum to a right-wing regionalist populist resurgence. The manner in which this happened offers a lot of lessons for leftist social movements globally – moving from protesta to propuesta, from an oppositional stance towards a proactive governing body, can be tremendously problematic.

 

Messaging Problems – The Fear of Indigenism

 

By most accounts, Evo’s policy decisions are not what has led him to alienate the middle class. His major accomplishments – the successful renationalization of capitalized industries, direction of funding towards underfunded rural districts, maintaining an independent foreign policy, among others – have not been cause for anger, and in many cases have been received well. Unfortunately, the Morales government and its social movement supporters have, at various times, made the mistake of justifying moderate policies with radical rhetoric. Because of the indigenist content of their political program in many cases this rhetoric was ethnically or racially coded. It was very easy for the opposition to use such terms to stoke the racial fears in such an unequal in the middle-class populace. The control over media sources by the right-wing makes headlines with titles like “Evo provokes conflict” common.

 

Perhaps the most egregious example of unnecessarily provocative rhetoric stemmed from an incident in the historically radical municipality of Omasuyos in the department of La Paz, where members of the Poncho Rojos, an Aymara self-defense group strongly in support of MAS, tortured and beheaded two dogs, declaring that “this is how the dogs of the Media Luna [the regions confrontational with Pres. Morales] will suffer!” Indubitably, such actions evoke the images of racial violence in the conscience of the urban middle classes and produce a great fear of indigenous hordes violently taking back what they believe to be theirs. Significant racially-tinged clashes between indigenous pro-Morales protesters from rural areas and upper-class supporters of the regional governor in the city of Cochabamba in January 2007 led to three deaths and have fed the racial fears of “conquest” that white urban Bolivians feel.

 

The right-wing in Bolivia may indeed be racist and oligarchic, but to denounce it in such terms is to play into its hands when it owns the press that frames discourse in the country. Without much governing experience and coming out of a militant union tradition Evo Morales does not have a very sophisticated messaging apparatus compared with that of his right-wing opponents, who have been advised by USAID.

 

The Capital Conflict in Sucre – Missed Opportunity for Reconciliation

 

One of the major missteps of MAS concerned the loss of its support in the department of Chuquisaca, where the party held one of its three elected regional governments and enjoyed widespread support. The department holds the constitutional capital of Bolivia, Sucre, which lost its status as full capital when La Paz assumed all administrative duties after a civil war in the late 19th century. The move of the capital to La Paz led to the creation of a vast governmental bureaucratic apparatus that generated a large quantity of jobs, and the people of Sucre have harbored some resentment for their diminished financial opportunities and political status ever since.

 

The Constituent Assembly, which was proudly convoked in August 2006 with a vast street march representing all of Bolivia’s different indigenous groups, quickly fell into chaos when representatives from Sucre, backed strongly by Santa Cruz autonomist groups, introduced a proposal for all three branches of the government to be moved to the city from La Paz. This provoked a strong response from the generally MAS-affiliated members from La Paz and even provoked a regional split between MAS representatives from Sucre and the national party.

 

The demand for moving the capital, while wrapped in a long list of historical justifications, was functionally a ploy by the elite of Santa Cruz and Eastern Bolivia to impede the progress of the new constitutional process and infuse regionalism into a process that had before been defined primarily by issues of ethnicity and class. Moving the capital from La Paz, a large, cosmopolitan metropolis with a large international airport and all the infrastructure necessary to support its administrative functions to Sucre, which was a small historic city unsuited for such a function, would be extraordinarily difficult. The massive expenditure that this would require would be extreme, especially for a country as poor as Bolivia, and the social effects it would have on the economy of La Paz would be catastrophic. Simply put, the request was not reasonable in terms that considered the well-being of the country as a whole. While the government recognized that this was a trap, its inexperience led it to walk directly into it.

 

National MAS spokespeople, instead of taking a moderate tone that would allow for some negotiation to occur, declared strongly that the seat of government would not move and denounced the “regional oligarchy” for sabotaging the unity of the country. While there analysis may have been factually accurate, and in line with the type of rhetoric they were used to employing in social movements fighting against elite interests, it was politically disastrous. Furious that the Constituent Assembly refused to take up their issue, the people of Sucre took to the streets. The violence escalated, and Assembly members were attacked and beaten. The regional governor, who was a member of MAS, resigned because he did not want to be a part of the crisis he saw inevitably approaching. Eventually, after MAS members pushed forward a draft of the constitution that did not consider the transfer of the capital, four people were killed in confrontations with police and the Assembly was forced to move to the city of Oruro for its security. At this point, the right wing claimed that the Constitution was illegitimate and soaked in blood and boycotted the proceedings, casting aspersions on the validity of the entire project.

 

The tragic error here is that, had cooler heads prevailed, a better solution could likely have been reached. Historical trappings aside, the issue was primarily one of a desire for jobs – and had MAS not declared that the issue would not be considered out of hand and instead offered some sort of compromise solution that would have transferred some ministries to Sucre, it is possible to have avoided an explosion of the conflict and the loss of Chuquisaca to the right wing.

 

The lesson of this error is that public relations and rhetoric are important. Being correct, and being able to prove so, sometimes needs to take a backseat to finding a pragmatic political solution that will satisfy everyone. The MAS government is characterized by being extremely attuned towards the demands of its social movement base, having come out of their struggle. However, the fact that regional demands of Sucre never played a role in the demands of MAS-affiliated organizations led to a lack of understanding as to how deep they were held among the population. When MAS declared in favor of La Paz, it took a political-regional position that had nothing directly to do with the class, ethnic, and nationalist politics that generated its support. This was a gift to a right-wing opposition that had no substantive solution to the country’s problems, but which was quite adept at winning over the political argument that such a position generated.

 

The Autonomy Referendum in 2006 – Missing the Regionalist Pulse

 

What some MAS activists have called the “original sin” of the Morales government which allowed the right wing populist resurgence to take hold was the decision to advocate for the “no” vote on the 2006 referendum which dealt with the issue of departmental autonomy. The referendum, pushed primarily by elite interests from the four culturally distinct departments of Eastern Bolivia, would give the Constituent Assembly a legally binding mandate to incorporate a regime of departmental autonomy within the newly produced text. Going with a public position that this autonomous regime was merely a ploy by the landholding classes of the East to maintain their own power against the indigenist redistributive proposals of the central government, MAS urged its supporters to vote “no” on this referendum.

Numerous Santa Cruz-based MAS activists and leaders told me that they forcefully argued against this position at internal party gatherings, going as far as to call it “lunacy”. While the fact that the Eastern oligarchies were behind the project was undoubtedly true, the functional effect of MAS’s position was to effectively make the right wing the sole proprietor of the autonomy slogan, which was tremendously popular in Santa Cruz, Pando, Beni and Tarija.

 

Apparently, MAS national leadership, riding high on a crest of popular approval, sincerely believed that they were going to win the referendum in all the departments. The national leadership was highly drawn from the social movements based in the altiplano and the valleys of Western Bolivia which hold much of the country’s indigenous population, and representatives of the East were significantly outnumbered. The results of the referendum were disastrous, with 73% voting for the “Yes” option in Santa Cruz and similar percentages in the other departments. From this point, MAS was on the defensive in half of the country and had given up any ownership over defining an autonomy that would respect the claims of their indigenous and popular constituency in the East.

The Constitution approved by a MAS-dominated Constituent Assembly included a section on departmental autonomy, but delegated mostly symbolic powers to the departmental governments, reserving most of the competencies for the national state, municipal governments, and loosely-defined indigenous territories. While this theoretically complied with the mandate of the referendum, the Civic Committees of the Eastern departments refused to accept this and began drafting their own Autonomy Statutes that would asserted the exclusive right to control over renewable natural resources, land distribution and administration, the administration of justice, and other competencies that had historically belonged to the state.

 

While it would have been difficult to do so in a way that pleased everyone, advocating for the “Yes” option on the referendum would have depoliticized the regional issue. The historical feelings of neglect and distance to the power-center of La Paz that eastern Bolivians have felt were appropriated into a political project to stop the process of social change pushed for by Morales and to shift the focus towards the conduct of a supposedly “centralist” and “undemocratic” government that is rejecting the people’s right to self-determination.

 

The MAS government looked towards its bases again, and failed to understand how underrepresented eastern Bolivians were within the organization, and did not listen to the objections of its constituents in those areas. It also displayed tremendous arrogance and naivete in believing that it was going to be able to smash the opposition in this referendum, when a broad desire for autonomy was a transpolitical issue broadly shared by eastern Bolivians with a history of popular mobilization independent of the tradition the party came out of.

 

Where Things Stand Now

 

In the first half of 2008, the four departments that had voted yes on the 2006 referendum held votes on the Autonomy Statutes that elite civic groups redacted. The government position, backed up in some degree by international NGOs and the OAS, was that the votes were illegal and had no legal status under the Bolivian Constitution. As such, the government pushed for it supporters to abstain from going to the polls. The results were mixed – although the “Yes” vote triumphed overwhelmingly in all four departments, abstention was significantly higher in all of them compared to the 2006 vote. All in all, I believe it to be fair to say that a small majority in each of these departments has come to support the autonomist project, due to an impressive campaign of power-consolidation by the regional elites that has achieved near hegemony of discourse by their ownership of mass media.

 

I believe it to be unlikely that the content of any of these statutes will ever be applied, and I do not believe this to be the overall goal of anyone except the most radical elements of the Bolivian right. The Santa Cruz elite had few problems with a central government when it formed part of it, and I view the autonomy demands as a strategic maneuver to gain political support rather than a coherent political project. While it is a powerful motor in Bolivia’s economy, the Santa Cruz export-sector which generates much of the wealth of the autonomist elite is heavily dependent on diesel subsidies from the central government and preferential prices in neighboring South American countries negotiated by the central government as well – a pariah state in eastern Bolivia that does not at some point make amends with La Paz would not be viable.

 

However, the country’s discourse has shifted in favor of the autonomists. The hot topics of the day debated on the streets, on the television channels, and in the print media no longer relate to the political program of Evo Morales, but rather to the questions of autonomy and decentralization. The new constitution, even if it can muster majority support of the population, has been discredited by a lengthy slander campaign and would likely be viewed as illegitimate by eastern Bolivians and the middle-class in western Bolivian cities if it is passed and applied. The class and racial issues brought up by Morales’s triumph in the twilight of neoliberalism have been replaced by regional and political issues.

 

Unfortunately, the government’s response is once again political. In a bizarre alliance with the parliamentary brigade of the right-wing party PODEMOS (but not with the departmental governors of said party), the government declared a “recall” referendum. In August 2008, voters will be able to recall the mandate of Evo and his vice president Alvaro García Linera, as well as their departmental governor, known as a prefect. In a calculating political move, the percentage necessary to recall a governor would not be a simple majority, but would have to be one vote more than the percentage by which they got elected in 2005. Since Evo’s 2005 percentage was 54%, and the percentage of most of the regional governors is under 50%, this gives the government a clear advantage.

 

This is a bad tactical move because it confirms to the public that the conflict is political and not social in nature and does not lead to a clear resolution of the current stalemate. It is extremely unlikely that either Evo or Ruben Costas, the prefect of Santa Cruz and regional leader of the opposition will get recalled. A likely scenario is that the anti-MAS prefect of La Paz, José Luis Paredes (who won election in 2005 with only 37% of the vote) and potentially Morales enemy Manfred Reyes Villa of Cochabamba will lose their mandate, conceivably allowing MAS to consolidate its power in the regions in which it already has ample strength. However, barring major changes in the political climate, MAS will lose again in Santa Cruz and eastern Bolivia, confirming its inability to govern on all of the national territory. Although the government’s official line is to promote national integration, this referendum is likely to confirm regional division. Additionally, the immense amount of energy and money that both sides are spending on political intrigues make it difficult for a coherent politics for the development of Bolivia’s people to develop.

 

The election of Evo Morales in 2005 was a tremendously positive leap forward for the Bolivian people and the result of a decades-long resistance against neoliberalism contextualized within a centuries-long resistance to external and internal colonialism. The errors of the MAS government do not erase that history, which is still deeply engrained in the collective consciousness of Bolivian society. The very fact that the country finally has an indigenous people responsive to the needs of the majority has changed the political climate in historic ways. However, for the first time in years, the dynamic process of social change in Bolivia is in danger of stagnating. I believe the government composed of genuine radicals committed deeply to rescuing Bolivia from the disaster that capitalism has consistently inflicted upon it; but this government has made grave errors that have endangered its project and leave it today standing on a weaker foundation than when it started in 2005.

 

However, bright spots remain. In response to the Santa Cruz referendum, massive pro-Morales marches dominated by his rural base erupted in most of the cities in western Bolivia, including the largest march in the history of the city of Cochabamba. Despite considerable economic hardship over the global rise in food prices, most of those outside the urban middle classes have not lost faith in MAS leadership and are ready to defend their gains. By focusing on their positive achievements, recentering national debate around issues of class and economic development in the country and enunciating a program that is proactive and not reactive, the Morales government can regain the initiative and push back the oligarchy-backed surge.

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