Bolivia Dilemmas: Turmoil, Transformation, and Solidarity

Bolivia has erupted in conflict over the government’s controversial plans to construct a highway through the Isiboro-Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS), an indigenous territory and nature preserve protected under Bolivian law. The government insists that the highway is necessary for the economic development of the region and to facilitate the export of gas, oil, and other commodities upon which Bolivia’s economy depends. But according to the country’s 2009 Constitution, any economic or development project that would cut through indigenous territory must obtain the approval of the affected communities. For the past month or so, indigenous groups from the TIPNIS territory have been marching hundreds of kilometers from the Cochabamba and Beni departments of Bolivia westward to the capital of La Paz in protest of the construction project and asking that the government comply with a 16-point list of demands. After numerous failed attempts at dialogue between the government and the marchers, the conflict exploded this past Sunday, September 25th, when around 500 Bolivian police tear-gassed and detained many of the marchers, with several dozen injuries. Although it remains unclear exactly which officials ordered the police action (the latest local internal documents implicate the Minister of Justice, Nilda Copa), Sunday’s repression and the generally high-handed way that the government has dealt with the TIPNIS indigenous communities have greatly undermined President Evo Morales’s reputation as a champion of indigenous and environmental rights, further dividing the grassroots base of indigenous and other social movements that brought Morales to power. One cabinet member has already resigned in protest, while several other officials including the Minister of the Interior have resigned because they are widely blamed for the repression. While many social movement sectors maintain staunch support for both Morales and the highway proposal, the issue has also alienated important parts of the grassroots left.

The basic outlines of the TIPNIS conflict have been covered in many online news reports available in English, so I won’t rehash all the details and chronology here (interested readers can consult Emily Achtenberg’s blog at NACLA or Dario Kenner’s blog for regular updates). My goal, instead, is to offer some reflections about the implications of the TIPNIS conflict for Bolivian politics, for the economic development model pursued by Evo Morales, and for those anti-imperialists outside of Bolivia who wish to stand in solidarity with Bolivia’s oppressed.
I also seek to shed some light on the complexities of the current situation, avoiding the totalizing perspectives that I think some observers have taken. Although it’s indisputable that the government is guilty of violating indigenous rights in this instance and should thus be criticized, the situation is not quite as simple as some have implied. The immediate causes of the conflict are government insensitivity—and at times stupidity—and the belief that ignoring the rights of a tiny minority of the population will bring little political blowback (the marchers themselves may share some of the blame for the failure of negotiations, but I sense that the bulk of the blame lies with the government). However, behind the immediate causes lie deep structural dilemmas and contradictions that underscore the many difficulties of social transformation in severely underdeveloped, extraction-based economies like that of Bolivia.
The Bolivian political scene
The response of the Bolivian right, and probably of the US government behind closed doors, has been utter elation at the divisions in Morales’s base and the crisis of credibility that the Bolivian government has suffered. Those who have never shown much concern for indigenous or environmental rights are now cynically trying to take advantage of the TIPNIS cause for their own political gain. In the past week, many of the right-wing newspapers and radio stations here in La Paz have pounced on unconfirmed reports of protester deaths at the hands of police, reporting those allegations as fact and speaking of “disappeared” protesters and a government “massacre” in language no doubt meant to evoke the memory of Latin America’s military dictatorships. (As of this writing, no deaths have been confirmed, and the country’s human rights ombudsman, who immediately condemned the police repression, has said that there is no evidence that a baby died from tear-gas inhalation, as was widely reported as fact in the days following the confrontation; the leaders of the march, meanwhile, somewhat irresponsibly reported multiple deaths as a result of the police action, probably assuming that it would help their cause. Some signs and graffiti in La Paz have called Morales a “murderer.”)
What right-wing critics in the US and Bolivia don’t want to admit, though, is that the current conflict between Morales and many social movement sectors does not indicate disenchantment with Morales’s leftist ideals of socioeconomic redistribution, indigenous rights, environmentalism, and anti-imperialism, but rather disenchantment with the perceived failure to uphold those ideals, as protesters’ signs and public statements make clear [see photos]. A strong majority of the Bolivian population remains broadly sympathetic to such ideas, meaning that they would staunchly resist a return to a neoliberal US client state. Their criticisms of Morales do not indicate support for right-wing or US-favored forces—just the opposite.
Sunday’s police repression has galvanized a substantial solidarity movement throughout the country, with hundreds of people (maybe more than a thousand) marching nearly every day this past week here in La Paz. CONAMAQ, a major indigenous organization centered in the western highlands, has unequivocally supported the TIPNIS protesters. The main labor confederation, the COB, called for a one-day general strike this past Wednesday. The protesters’ slogans indicate anger at Morales’s failure to comply with his own rhetoric, referring to the president as a “traitor” and bidding “farewell to the process of change.” They accuse the government of being a tool of Brazilian “sub-imperialism” for succumbing to the pressures of the Brazilian government and the Brazilian company OAS, which is contracted to fund the highway’s construction. One popular chant last Monday went like this:
           Evo decía                                Evo said

          Que todo cambiaría             That everything would change

          Mentira, mentira                    Lies, lies

          La misma porquería            It’s the same bullshit

More substantively, the protesters have insisted that “another [form of] development is possible” (Otro desarrollo es posible), that the government need not violate indigenous rights and destroy the environment in order to generate meaningful economic development and social redistribution.
The TIPNIS-related protests are only the latest in a rising tide of grassroots critiques of Morales from the left, which indicate popular disillusion with the government’s perceived failure to deliver on the radical change it promised when first elected in December 2005. These critiques began early in Morales’s first term, for instance when the May 2006 gas and oil industry “nationalization” merely raised taxes on foreign companies rather than actually nationalizing them. The miners’ federation continues to demand nationalization of the country’s mines. The administration also caused an uproar among consumers last December when it sought to eliminate state gasoline subsidies—the so-called “gasolinazo”—and was forced to back down by popular protest. Lately, Morales’s approval rating has fallen to just 37 percent (it dropped 7 points in just the past month, probably largely because of the TIPNIS conflict). The disjunction between rhetoric and reality has produced an “enthusiasm gap” among many grassroots sectors, similar in some ways to the widespread popular disillusionment with Barack Obama in the United States (though to be sure, Morales is not Obama—his government has enacted some meaningful changes, such as increasing taxes on the hydrocarbons industry in order to fund social programs and passing a new, more democratic Constitution; one key difference is that in Bolivia there exists a militant mass of organized social movements and a progressive political culture that propelled Morales to power and which has held his feet to the fire since).
But despite widespread protests over the past week, significant segments of Bolivia’s marginalized (workers, peasants, indigenous, women, etc.) continue to support the road construction project, with some even organizing road blockades to prevent the TIPNIS march from reaching La Paz and otherwise harassing the marchers. The country’s largest peasant organization, the CSUTCB, continues to support the road, though it has issued strong condemnations of the police repression of the march. Oil workers, a prominent women’s organization, and some peasants and indigenous groups in the La Paz region have vocally supported the government. The miners’ federation, which remains a significant force despite being much weaker than it was thirty years ago, has expressed solidarity with the TIPNIS protesters but nonetheless supports the road. According to one tally, around 350 Bolivian organizations have come out in support of the road.
There are several possible reasons why. Some farmers and other sectors might benefit from the road in that marketing their products would be easier. Second, and more importantly, there is widespread suspicion that the Morales government wants to open up the TIPNIS to “colonization” by highland Indian farmers and cocaleros (coca growers) who are eager for land; the overlapping groups of “colonizers” and cocaleros, unlike Bolivia’s less numerous lowland Indians, are keystones of Morales’s traditional support base. And third, some organizations like the mineworkers and oil workers favor gas and oil drilling in the region, perhaps in part because of increased employment opportunities but also because they anticipate that the increased tax revenue would be used to fund social spending. Here an ideological commitment to the government’s “process of change,” and the perception that resource extraction is necessary for that process, definitely plays a role. This rationale has become more pressing, both for the state and for social sectors that depend on it, since a 2010 report revealed that Bolivia’s gas reserves may be much lower than previously thought. These last two reasons—the desire for land for small farmers and for gas/oil—might help explain why the government has so stubbornly refused to re-route the highway around the TIPNIS territory—what would seem to be a logical and fairly easy solution. The protesters, who agree on the need for a road somewhere, have repeatedly proposed this solution, but the government has thus far refused to consider it.
The Bolivian government’s response
Morales has condemned the excessive use of force against the protesters, and has publicly apologized for the repression, though he denies having given any order for the police to attack the protesters. But the repression and the official apology aside, the government’s way of dealing with the protesters has been reckless and at times disingenuous. The government has repeatedly accused the protesters of being tools of US imperialism, NGOs, and the Bolivian right, and blame the media for its smear campaign. These accusations have a partial basis in truth: the right, probably the US, and maybe Brazil, are trying to manipulate the situation for their own gain. Much of the Bolivian media has been dishonest in its reporting. And the TIPNIS movement is not monolithic—some indigenous protesters have conferred with these right-wing forces, and some may indeed have ulterior motives. But the government is disingenuous in using these facts to try to discredit the entire movement.
The latest solution that the government has proposed is also highly problematic. Following Sunday’s repression, Morales called for the issue to be decided by a popular referendum among the populations of Cochabamba and the Beni, the two departments to be traversed by the road. Analysts predict that such a referendum would approve of the road. But as the TIPNIS protesters have pointed out in their rejection of this proposal, the Constitution enshrines the right of indigenous minority groups to decide the fate of their lands and communities; majority-rule should not be allowed to infringe on the basic rights of minorities.
Why doesn’t the Morales government simply re-route the highway around the TIPNIS? Some have cited the influence of Brazilian interests (see above), who want the highway in order to transport goods to the Pacific. Certain Brazilian companies might also stand to gain from resource extraction in the TIPNIS. But I don’t think that Brazilian pressures fully explain why the government insists on building the road through the TIPNIS territory as opposed to around it. My guess is that the government’s logic, like the logic of grassroots groups that support the project, probably goes something as follows:

  1. Bolivia is the poorest country in South America, and is highly dependent on oil, gas, and mineral extraction for economic growth and for the revenue needed to promote social redistribution. Given this reality, plus the prospect that gas reserves are likely much lower than previously thought, opening up the TIPNIS to extractive industry (oil and gas, logging, etc.) seems justified. (Some observers would say that social redistribution is not the main goal, although the government has taken modest steps in this regard.)
  2. “Opening up” the TIPNIS would also provide land for highland Indian farmers and cocaleros, thus rewarding key sectors that support Morales. The government has not explicitly cited either of these last two reasons, but they are widely suspected to be major factors.
  3. The government can afford to alienate lowland indigenous peoples like the TIPNIS residents, who comprise a small fraction of Bolivia’s population and who have never supported Morales as strongly as highland indigenous groups have.  

The complicating factor, however, has been the galvanization of left sectors that do not stand to be directly affected by the highway project, who are legitimately outraged about the disrespect for TIPNIS communities and forests. The TIPNIS conflict is now a national issue of great symbolic importance, much to the government’s dismay.
In the short term, the key question for the government is one of political calculations: Is there a point at which the instability created by the protests, plus the blow to Morales’s credibility both domestically and internationally, will outweigh the political and economic incentives to go forward with the highway? And if not, if the government stubbornly refuses to bend, will its intransigence irreparably harm it? So far (as of September 30th), there is no indication that the government is willing to re-route the road around the TIPNIS territory, as the marchers demand. The leverage of Brazilian interests, the strong support and expectations of important segments of Morales’s base, and the potential fiscal benefits to the state of building the highway and opening up the TIPNIS for resource exploitation all militate against such an alternative. It would be rash to try to predict what will happen in the coming weeks; the present conflict may or may not prove to be a “turning point” for the Morales administration, as some have predicted (what that “turning point” would mean in concrete terms is also unclear). The only thing that can be said with certainty right now is that the government’s legitimacy has suffered a formidable blow.
Is the model doomed? Is “another development possible”?
As the divisions in Bolivian popular movements suggest, the current conflict is not quite as simple as “corporate profits versus indigenous rights,” with corporations and a subservient neoliberal government pitted against pure and innocent Indians. For one thing, the Morales government is not a typical neoliberal government (although nor has it pursued a radical break with neoliberal economic policies; the extent of change, and the amount of maneuverability available to the Morales administration, is a matter of much debate among leftists inside and outside the country). And it would be erroneous and essentialist to assume that all indigenous peoples, including those opposed to the TIPNIS highway, are inherently “pure” and committed to human rights or environmental preservation, as Federico Fuentes points out. On the other hand, while the current conflict has pitted oppressed groups against each other, it does also reflect a fundamental violation of indigenous rights, and the government is wrong to use the causes of national development and social redistribution to justify ignoring the legitimate rights of indigenous communities in the TIPNIS territory. It is these complicated realities which make the situation even more vexing, and so disheartening for those of us who sympathize with the stated ideals of the Morales administration.
The TIPNIS conflict raises a fundamental question about the possibilities for revolutionary transformation in underdeveloped, extraction-based economies: Is “another development possible,” one in which Bolivia uses its mineral and hydrocarbon reserves to promote social redistribution, industrial development, and diversification while at the same time respecting indigenous rights and curbing deforestation and pollution? Or does the current conflict mean that attempts at radical social transformation are destined to fail in severely underdeveloped countries like Bolivia, plagued by intractable structural contradictions and the tendency of those contradictions to pit certain popular sectors against others and against the environment? This question has no easy answer, and one might rightly argue that the Morales administration has not even attempted a “radical social transformation”; perhaps, as Jeffery Webber has suggested, the transition to a socialism that provides for all while respecting human rights and the environment would be no more difficult than the transition to a developed capitalist economy. Perhaps the government would be better off radicalizing its economic and social policies (e.g., through a genuine nationalization of hydrocarbons and minerals, a radical land reform program, etc.), as the Cuban Revolution did in 1959-61, and further devolving power to popular sectors to compensate for the inevitable right-wing and corporate backlash. But finding some sort of resolution that goes beyond patchwork and avoids trampling on the rights of minorities would seem to be essential for those who seek a model of social transformation that is truly sustainable over the long term. The message of many of the protesters, based on my observations, seems to be that yes, harvesting and exporting Bolivian resources is necessary in the short term for social redistribution and growth given Bolivia’s underdevelopment and mono-export economy, but there should be limits to that agenda, even if we must sacrifice something in the name of respecting indigenous rights and nature. Where the line gets drawn, though, and what sort of alternative (if any) is forged, is a question that can only be decided by political struggles among Bolivians.
Thoughts on anti-imperialism and solidarity in a complicated situation
For those of us who are citizens of the United States or other imperialist powers, our first priority must be to stop our governments, corporations, and banks from seeking to control Bolivia’s destiny, as Jeffery Webber emphasizes. Imperialist intervention is ongoing, as recent Wikileaks revelations have underscored, although it’s no longer as powerful as it historically has been. The US government approach to Bolivia, and to Latin America more generally, has remained consistent under Obama, with the prime objective being to combat what Washington calls “radical populism”—shorthand for what one State Department official (Laurence Duggan) in the 1940s identified as the idea “that the first beneficiaries of the development of a country’s resources should be the people of that country.” The fundamental objectives of US policy have changed little since the 1940s, although the tactics have evolved. In Bolivia, as internal US government documents make clear, the recent US strategy has been to fund political opposition groups and to try to divide the country’s popular movements, promoting opposition groups that will “serve as a counterweight to the radical MAS.”
As noted above, the Morales administration has at times cited imperialist intervention as a way to discredit legitimate opposition to its policies, as in the case of the TIPNIS conflict. This dynamic highlights a common and often-neglected negative consequence of US imperialism in countries like Bolivia, Cuba, and Venezuela: US intervention, in addition to a variety of other harmful impacts, tends to discredit legitimate dissent within these countries—much of which comes from the left of the governments in power, as in the case of the TIPNIS conflict (though again, right-wing forces have also latched onto the issue for political gain).
Contrary to what some on the left argue, opposing US imperialism does not mean that we should maintain kneejerk solidarity with governments that self-identify as progressive or anti-imperialist. In the worst cases, the anti-imperialist rhetoric of such governments can blind us to the vicious repression that they practice against their own people (Ahmadinejad and Gaddafi come to mind). In other cases, like Bolivia or Venezuela or Cuba, the governments do indeed have real merits, as well as flaws (with wide degrees of variation and differences among them). As our first priority, we should try to defend those governments and their people against imperialist hostility from the United States and other powers, which includes refuting right-wing attacks from politicians and the press in our own countries. But the task of combating the right should not prevent us from developing a nuanced understanding of the domestic situations in those countries, one which recognizes both the relative merits and the flaws (and even, at times, crimes) of those governments. If an Evo Morales or Hugo Chávez does not fulfill the ideals that they profess, we should not pretend otherwise. Ultimately our solidarity should be with grassroots revolutionaries, anti-imperialists, and defenders of human rights, not with governments or parties.
An additional caveat which I find important to emphasize is that anti-imperialist solidarity must be accompanied by constant attentiveness to the potential unintended consequences of our actions. It’s easy for progressive people with good intentions to say or do things that inadvertently harm the people we wish to help. Academics and activists alike have sometimes fallen into this trap. With regard to Bolivia and similar cases, we need to be sure that when we criticize left-leaning governments we don’t end up empowering right-wing and imperialist opponents of those governments. The left in Bolivia itself inadvertently did so several times in the twentieth century, for example in 1946 and 1964 when major segments of the left grew so disillusioned with the insufficiently progressive nature of the reformist governments in power that they actively helped to overthrow them, opening the door to governments that were considerably more reactionary and repressive. I’m not sure that today’s Bolivian right is powerful enough to take advantage of the current crisis as it did in 1946 or 1964, and I certainly don’t have the confidence to predict what will happen, but I think the possible unintended consequences at least need to be borne in mind.
In some left critiques of Morales, both here in Bolivia and internationally, I sense very little awareness of these nuances and possible unintended consequences, as when people crudely contend that “Evo is the same as Goni,” the latter referring to Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, the neoliberal president overthrown in 2003 after he ordered the massacre of dozens of protesters. Some foreign NGOs, even the progressive ones, have failed to acknowledge the complexities of the situation. The small Trotskyist Revolutionary Workers Party (POR) in Bolivia has decried the government for “fascist” actions and called for its downfall.
In most left critiques of the government within Bolivia, though, there is more nuance and sophistication. To my knowledge, no major union or mass organization on the left has called for Morales’s resignation. Many of the people who have fierce critiques of the government nonetheless defended Morales against a right-wing coup attempt in September 2008 and helped reelect him in December 2009 with 64 percent of the vote. They understand that Morales is better than his neoliberal predecessors, and better than the neoliberal opposition, but that Bolivians still deserve better than what they’re currently getting. Moreover, much of their anger derives from their perception that Morales’s actions and inactions are in fact empowering the right by alienating popular sectors and failing to pursue genuinely revolutionary policies of massive redistribution, decentralization, and respect for indigenous rights and the environment. In her September 26th letter of resignation, Defense Minister Cecilia Chacón cited this concern, saying that “the measures taken [against the TIPNIS marchers], far from isolating the right, strengthen its power to act and manipulate the March with the aim of attacking the process of change for which Bolivians have sacrificed so much.” On September 28th Pablo Solón, the former Bolivian ambassador to the UN and the coordinator of Bolivia’s 2010 World Peoples’ Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, sent a letter of protest to Morales expressing a similar sentiment: “To block the right, which wants to take advantage of the protest in order to return to the past, we must be more vigilant than ever in defense of human rights, the rights of indigenous peoples, and the rights of Mother Earth.”

In many respects the situation in Ecuador is similar. Ecuador’s indigenous movements have likewise been extremely critical of President Rafael Correa, for similar reasons and to a greater extent, but have also demonstrated a high degree of political sophistication. In response to a September 2010 police strike that the Ecuadorian right tried to turn into a coup against Correa, Delfín Tenesaca of the indigenous organization ECUARUNARI emphasized the need to oppose the coup, but also blamed Correa for helping create the conditions under which the coup attempt took place:

The political crisis in Ecuador at this moment caused by the insubordination of the police has been turned by police officers and some military sectors into a coup attempt, behind which is undoubtedly Ecuador’s right wing and the forces of imperialism. We have no doubt that this political crisis is a right-wing reaction against the 2008 Constitution, adopted by the affirmative vote of 64% of Ecuadorians, and is therefore a clear threat to democracy, Plurinationalism, and the Sumak Kawsay (living well)…What is the position of the organized social sectors? The vast majority of popular organizations that resist against dictatorship and neoliberalism of the pro-imperialist oligarchy in Ecuador, and despite our deep disagreements with the national government that has tried some of our leaders as terrorists, this is no reason to stand with our historic enemies. Behind the protest of the police and their wage claims is the claim of ignorance of the Constitution where we recognize many of our proposals and historical struggles.Rafael Correa’s Citizen Revolution formed broad alliances with right-wing groups in mining, oil, agribusiness, etc., and attacked and persecuted popular left-wing organizations (especially the Indigenous movement) which leaves those reactionary sectors free to act in this way. (translation by Marc Becker)

This past week the president of another major Ecuadorian indigenous organization, CONAIE, sent a letter to Evo Morales that urged negotiations and respect for indigenous rights, also warning that failure in these regards would further strengthen the right and imperialism. It’s not always easy to criticize governments like Morales’s while avoiding actions that might empower their right-wing opponents, but statements like those above offer something of a guide.
Meanwhile, recent events in Ecuador and Bolivia provide an ominous reminder of what can happen when left-leaning governments fail to consolidate strong grassroots support via radical and meaningful policy change. As William Robinson wrote recently, Latin America’s “Pink Tide governments will not be able to stave off this [right-wing and US] counteroffensive without mass support. And it may be that the only way to assure that support is by advancing a more fundamentally transformative project.” The Morales administration may well weather the current crisis, but it should start listening more closely to the social movements on its left if it’s serious about promoting real and lasting revolutionary change.

Photos from a Monday, September 26th, solidarity rally in La Paz. PHOTO 1: Protesters, largely students, jeer at the police line along the side of the street (out of picture) while hoisting signs saying “Respect human rights,” “We are all TIPNIS,” and “Another [form of] development is possible.” PHOTO 2: One sign calls Evo Morales a “traitor,” while another says “Farewell to the ‘process of change,’” in reference to a common government slogan.




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