New Politics in Old Bolivia: Public Opinion and Evo Morales
Nearly two years into the presidency of Evo Morales, government officials and leftist social organizations are determined to break with the past and transform the nation. The opposition calls it a civil war. The government calls it a revolution. Other Bolivian activists and analysts call it business as usual. A look at public opinion and recent conflicts in
Bolivia expose the hopes and challenges facing 's first indigenous president. Bolivia
During the weekend of November 24-25, opposition protestors clashed with police. Protesters were demanding that the capital of
According to Evo Morales, the draft that was passed guarantees autonomy for departments and indigenous groups, nationalization of natural resources, greater access to water, land, electricity, education and healthcare. Morales explained that the constitution respects private property, but also public and communal property. The assembly has until December 14th to approve the final constitution. This final constitution requires the support of 2/3 of the entire assembly, meaning these articles won't be passed without the participation of opposition groups. Any articles in the constitution that do not receive 2/3 approval will go to a national referendum for citizens to vote on.
The Landscape of Public Opinion in
To gain an unofficial understanding of the general public opinion regarding the Evo Morales administration, I recently spoke with a number of Bolivians from diverse economic, geographical and political backgrounds. These informal discussions took place on buses, in parks, bars, farms and living rooms. They offered insights into the current crises and political landscapes in the country. It was these opinions and popular sentiments that erupted into violence recently, and will likely decide the fate of the government.
In general, I found that poorer, working class and rural people tend to support the MAS primarily because Morales is the first indigenous president of
I have also met a number of people that in spite of the criticisms they have, recognize the historic importance of the first indigenous president, and the fact that the MAS is a political instrument developed by grassroots movements. These people acknowledge the challenges facing the administration, yet are not contented with the changes that have taken place under the MAS government. They say more private land and corporations should be expropriated, that the gas should be fully nationalized, and that the MAS is depending on the old structure of the corrupt state, rather than transforming the state. Criticisms are growing within this group, particularly after the violence and problems at the constituent assembly. Though this group may weaken the overall support for the government, they currently lack a coherent political strategy or major party outside the MAS.
Others cited the government's lack of expertise, management and technical skills as reasons to be critical. They contend that instead of picking people with technical and political experience, the MAS chose to hire people that are close political allies, and indigenous people with union organizing experience. These critics say such choices have contributed to poor management within the government. It's important to point out that in the past it has been the technically experienced politicians that have used their skills to loot the country. In this government, there has been a concerted effort to include workers, indigenous people and leaders from excluded sectors that understand the suffering and needs of the population which the government was elected to work for.
I have also met a handful of people that are against the indigenous president for racist reasons. Others oppose the government for ideological reasons, and advocate continued neoliberal policies. Within this oppositional group is the occasional critique that Evo Morales isn't governing for Bolivians, he is just following orders from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, and Fidel Castro of
Finally, there is a large and vocal political opposition to the Evo Morales administration. This opposition is organized primarily through right wing political parties and civic organizations in the eastern parts of the country. These groups have led the charge against the MAS in the assembly, the media and the streets. A recent strike was called by prefects for six of the nine departments in
A common critique that crossed these lines of support and opposition to the government was the tension and violence in the country. The recent deaths and injuries in
"With or Without Evo"
Another group of intellectuals and journalists offered their analysis of the current government and the role of society outside the government palace.
In the worn down Bolivian Workers' Center office in El Alto, I met with Julio Mamani, a journalist who has for years reported on his city, its politics and social movements. Mamani lamented the lack of space for critique within the MAS: "If you critique the government, they say you are an instrument of neoliberalism." Others in the government shared this criticism, complaining about a "with us or against us" mentality within the MAS that stifles open discussion and critiques.
Mamani explained another challenge is the lack of political alternatives on the Bolivian left. Most groups have gathered under the umbrella of the MAS. "What will happen to them after Evo is gone?" Mamani asked.
Felipe Quispe, a long time indigenist/leftist leader, and Felix Patzi, a radical sociologist and former minister of education in the MAS government, had answers to that question.
In a hotel lobby near the central Plaza Murillo in
The academic Patzi spoke of the social and indigenous movements that were very active in recent years and helped pave the way to the election of Evo Morales. "The MAS is a part of the momentum of these social movements… If this movement is to go forward, it's up to us. We'll have to continue this process with or without Evo."
Others on the left are planning for a
On the other hand, the MAS contends that it is a government made of social movements, and is working to transform the state so that it can better serve the needs of the poorest sectors of the population. As Morales recently explained: "It is the experience and the effort of the social movements that is causing democracy to address the issues that really concern poor and needy people… Democracy is much more than a routine election every four years." Indeed, many of the ministers and party members within the MAS are from union and indigenous movements. In many ways, and with limited results, the MAS initiatives and policies have reflected the demands of these excluded sectors.
The hope and enthusiasm of the first year of the Morales administration has dissipated. The initial plans and announcements of 2006 have largely unraveled in 2007. Instead of an instrument of transformation, the constituent assembly has been turned into a political swamp which the MAS may not be able to pull itself out of. Though the gas has been partially nationalized, some land has been re-distributed, and access to basic services increased, much still needs to be done. There may a strong presence of social movement leaders within the government, but until the MAS can transform the state into something which reflects the diversity of
Benjamin Dangl is the author of "The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia," (AK Press, 2007). Email Bendangl(at)gmail.com