Critical reflections on the downfall of the first Indigenous President of Bolivia
Wed 4th December at 14.00-15.30
Speech by Dr. Eija Ranta, University lecturer at Development Studies, University of Helsinki at the Helsus Global South Encounters, University of Helsinki
After disputed elections on 20th October, a massive wave of mobilizations, protests and violence broke out in Bolivia. After three weeks of intensifying contestations and the launch of the preliminary results of the OAS electoral inspection report, which suggested that electoral fraud had occurred, Bolivia’s military forces urged Bolivia’s first Indigenous president Evo Morales to step down. As a result, he resigned and fled to Mexico with the vicepresident Alvaro Gacía Linera and some members of the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS).
In defence of Evo Morales, prominent members of the international left such as Noam Chomsky and Vijay Prashad were the first to announce that there was a military coup in Bolivia. In addition, researchers of Bolivian politics Jeffery Webber and Forrest Hylton argued that a coup had occurred. They argued that it was not a hard military coup nor a soft parliamentary coup, which happened in Brazil, when Dilma Roussef was ousted out due to corruption charges, but in Bolivia people’s diverse uprising against Morales’ alleged misconducts was soon co-opted by racist, fascist far-right groups like in Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil.
Others celebrated the ousting of Evo Morales as the end of 14 years of dictatorship.
Amidst interpretations that tend to emphasize saints and villains, the good and the bad, black and white, many Bolivian scholars and activists have been desperately arguing for more complex and nuanced analysis of the situation. They have pointed out that in a situation in which there exists a massive polarization between people, black-and-white interpretations by journalists, researchers and activists are dangerous, because they can further accentuate the polarization among Bolivians, whose everyday lived realities have for weeks been filled with so much pain, so much suffering and so much violence.
Many Bolivian scholars and activists have been desperately arguing for more complex and nuanced analysis of the situation.
Bolivian sociologist Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui and Bolivian anarcho-feminist activist María Galindo, for example, have argued that in Bolivia, capitalism, racism, patriarchy, extractivism, lack of self-criticism within the Latin American Left and the appropriation of popular struggles now by the rising far-right groups all come together formulating a very complex assemblage that goes beyond Left-Right-duality. When we talk of countries like Bolivia, we cannot avoid talking about the continuities of coloniality. The situation is very complex and needs nuanced analysis.
In normative sense, I share the view that Morales’ regime had many important gains and accomplishments. Despite contradictions and failures, there was also a lot of potential in its progressive social and environmental policies, in laws to protect the Mother Earth, and in new conceptualization of development as vivir bien; well-living and conviviality among people and between people and nature. The current transitory government that is just supposed to organize new elections next spring is trying to strip down this legacy, which is very worrying and condemnable.
Let me now say a few words about the reasons behind Evo Morales’ initial support and behind the weakening of his popularity, and then I will come back to the current political crisis.
Reasons for Morales’ support
Morales was first elected President of Bolivia in December 2005. His election sparked huge hopes inside and outside Bolivia. While he was one of the prominent figures in the pink tide of the new Latin American Left, his importance was even greater for world’s many Indigenous movements.
In Bolivia, his presidency was supported by a wide variety of diverse Indigenous movements, peasant unions, labor movement, neighborhood committees, NGOs, student movements; people consisting of both the rural poor and urban middle class.
Bolivians were tired of the dictation of political and economic conditions from abroad: from foreign banks, development agencies and corporations. With his anti-imperialist discourse, Morales became the symbol for the restoration of Bolivian sovereignty vis-à-vis the World Bank, the IMF and foreign companies. This had very wide support.
Morales promised the restoration of people’s will that ostensibly had been lost by the dictates of neoliberal globalization.
Morales’ politics was seen as the beginning of a new kind of popular democracy. Until then, political parties from left to right seemed to conduct similar pro-Washington Consensus policies, which lessened the popular appeal for representative democracy. Morales promised constituent assembly, referendums, Indigenous autonomies and Indigenous self-determination: that is, the restoration of people’s will that ostensibly had been lost by the dictates of neoliberal globalization.
Morales also promised decolonization: in a country where the majority of the population belongs to thirty six recognized Indigenous peoples but where racism runs deep it was a very popular aim.
Government revenues were boosted by favorable world market prices for natural resources, particularly natural gas. This income was used for highly popular income transfer programs (including pensions and study grants). During Morales’ presidency economic growth has been very high and poverty has fallen significantly. Morales’ first term is widely regarded as one of the best in Bolivia’s history.
Towards personification of power
However, gradually Morales’ popularity began to crack.
Government-led extractivism, natural gas projects, hydropower plans, road networks and other development projects started to threaten Indigenous lands and territories. Morales’ troops silenced Indigenous protests violently. A turning point was the so-called TIPNIS conflict in 2013 after which major Indigenous movements withdrew their support from Morales. Morales dismantled these Indigenous movements and replaced Indigenous leaders with his own supporters.
Any criticism or self-criticism about the government was condemned as neoliberal, US-backed opposition activity.
At the same time, Morales’ growing authoritarianism started to raise concerns. Any criticism or self-criticism about the government was condemned as neoliberal, US-backed opposition activity. Popular left-wing and Indigenous figures and NGOs were bypassed and silenced. Almost all social movements and workers unions were co-opted to state institutions without any independence. In today’s Bolivia, there are very few popular instances left that could hold the governing regime accountable.
Many started to fear that the main goal of Morales and his Vice President, Alvaro García Linera, was to stay in power for as long as possible. This fear seemed to become true when in February 2016, Morales held a referendum about a constitutional amendment that would remove obstacles to his continued presidential candidacy.
The Bolivian constitution adopted in 2009 allows two successive presidencies. Morales had been elected president before the constitutional change, but also twice since: 2009 and 2014. In the referendum, the majority of Bolivians opposed Morales’ candidacy and voted against the proposal.
At this point, Morales had the opportunity to step down and look for other key political figures within his own political party, but he chose not to do this. Instead, Morales declared that the NO-vote in the referendum violated his human rights. In 2017, the Supreme Court ruled that Morales can run for presidency.
Thus, the protests in Bolivia are not only about possible recent electoral fraud, but also about the increasing feeling amongst large segments of people, including the urban middle class, youth, many Indigenous movements and others that democracy had been violated during Morales’ government for years. Contempt of the constitution; the politicization of the Supreme Court; contempt of popular will of the referendum; violent repression of Indigenous movements; co-option of social movements into governmental structures through clientelism; and the increasing personification of political power to Evo Morales are some of the components that explain the political explosion of last October.
When I am talking about democracy here, I am not necessarily referring to US-style liberal or representative democracy. We all know that its importation to the Global South has had many colonial undertones. My critique refers to the democratic ideals of vivir bien; of Indigenous governance through rotation. In Indigenous communities, authority rotates amongst community members, thus posing limits to individual power and rather emphasizing the importance of collectivity. I had a possibly romanticized hope that this kind of Indigenous traditions could bring something new and interesting to progressive Left-wing politics and to the restructuring of the Bolivian state; a possibility to make it more democratic and decolonized. Instead, it seems apparent that the MAS was swallowed by the colonial and authoritarian Bolivian state, as I already argued in my 2014 PhD dissertation.
What is the situation in Bolivia now and in the future?
Evo Morales and parts of his cabinet are now in Mexico. According to some analysts, Morales has been leading violent protests from exile and he has portrayed himself as the only person who can pacify Bolivia. With the rhetoric of military coup, he has been trying to gain international support for his return.
In the meanwhile, the interim presidency is led by Jeanine Añez, the vice-president of the senate, who is a religious, right-wing landowner from the Beni region. The military was given an impunity, when attacking protesters. She also recognized Guaidó as Venezuela’s president instead of Maduro, and started to deport Cubans from Bolivia. The ideological change is really striking.
However, currently many of MAS’ senators and parliamentarians have returned to work with the leadership of Eva Copa, a 34-year old Aymara-descendant from the Aymara town of El Alto, who has taken over the role of leading the pacification of the country. An agreement has been made over new elections for the next spring with the participation of MAS but without Morales and García Linera.
One of the most serious failures of Morales was that he did not allow the new generation of political leaders to grow.
Progressive segments of the Bolivian society, Indigenous movements, feminists, environmentalists should now find new representatives among themselves. One of the most serious failures of Morales was that he did not allow the new generation of political leaders to grow; new Indigenous women, new Indigenous men, new youth, new popular movements, new collectivities. But it does not mean that they would not exist; they just were not given political arenas.
The far-right, landowners, business sectors; they are well organized, they have lots of capital, land, and industries; they own communications; and they have already presented various presidential candidates. Their rise would most probably lead into the return of the Washington consensus dictates and to the dismissal of all alternative thinking and potentials that existed in such notions as vivir bien, Mother Earth and so worth. Maybe to take these concepts to the sphere of the colonial and authoritarian state was a mistake from the start. It remains to be seen whether grassroots collectivities, Indigenous communities and other subaltern actors find new inspiration and strength to mobilize and to recover their meanings.