The Revolution on Hold – Departmental Autonomy and the Crisis of the Left in Bolivia
When Evo Morales was elected the first indigenous president of
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
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
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
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
The right-wing in
The Capital Conflict in
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
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
The demand for moving the capital, while wrapped in a long list of historical justifications, was functionally a ploy by the elite of
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
However, bright spots remain. In response to the