Crisis Up Close

“In the United Status, you have a very different conception of crisis than we do in Bolivia. For you, it is something bad that comes along every couple years, gets resolved, finished and forgotten about. For us, crisis is permanent. Crisis is our way of life. We breathe it and we feed from it. It is part of our consciousness.”

To knowing smiles around the room, sociologist Alberto Rivera provided me this introduction to Bolivian politics. After spending just over a month and a half in the country, this perception of a nation unable to define itself, tottering on the precipice between revolution and disintegration, seems accurate to me. For the first time in its history, the overwhelmingly indigenous majority in Bolivia elected an indigenous president with strong backing by popular social movements. Evo Morales sought to recover Bolivia’s natural resources—privatized under prior years of neoliberal governance—and proposed a Constituent Assembly to rewrite the country’s constitution to reflect its indigenous composition.

The response of the right-wing opposition party, PODEMOS, has been to boycott these proceedings and then declare the new Constitution the dictatorial product of a left-wing ruling clique dominated by Morales’s Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party. The final document produced by an assembly dominated overwhelmingly by MAS, would provide indigenous groups with unprecedented levels of control over natural resources and self-governance and calls for an agrarian reform on large estates concentrated in the eastern region of the country. The opposition has rallied behind a parallel project that would allow resource-wealthy eastern provinces to exercise regional autonomy which would seriously challenge the redistributive capacity of the central government.

Both the government and the opposition were slated to put their proposals to a popular vote on May 4th, until the National Electoral Court declared the processes to be illegal. While the government abided by this decision and delayed voting, the autonomist movement based in Santa Cruz has defied the ruling and carried on with the referendum. Although all signs point to an overwhelming victory for the regional referendum, the government has called the referendum anti-democratic and has pledged to ignore the results of the voting. Attempts by the church, the OAS, and various regional actors to mediate have fallen on deaf ears, and militants on both sides have started to beat the drums of confrontation.

But in a situation where nobody can identify an exit from the political crisis that does not risk triggering civil war, civil society is remarkably mobilized, and—to risk repeating an aphorism that has grown trite in our days—is moved by hope, not fear. The students, union leaders, movement activists, NGO workers and government politicians may bicker endlessly amongst themselves; but they share a profound belief that they live in historic times in which Bolivia has the chance to emancipate itself from an outdated colonial structure that has made the country the poorest in South America. To understand why, one must understand the dramatic shifts of Bolivian political life in the last eight years.

Jim Schultz, the founder and director of the Cochabamba-based NGO Democracy Center, is part of a small army of progressive foreign professionals who have affiliated themselves with the process of change in Bolivia. Schultz was in the streets of Cochabamba during the so-called “Water War”, in which the population of the city rose up to expel Aguas de Tunari, a private consortium dominated by the US energy giant Bechtel. A massive wave of protests lasting from January to April of that year functionally shut down the city, and forced the government to renationalize what was viewed as a key public resource. According to Schultz, what was perhaps a parochial battle in the overall scheme of Bolivia’s economy resulted in a tremendous symbolic victory against policies that had been proclaimed to be the natural and inevitable evolution of the free market. This interruption in the grand narrative of market-oriented reform pushed by international financial institutions led to the events that would definitively rupture the old system of governance.

After barely edging out Evo Morales for the presidency in the 2002 elections, right-wing politician Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada found himself in charge of a country that had become virtually ungovernable. During his first presidency in the early 1990s, Sanchez de Lozada had been the architect of the package of privatization, trade liberalization and price deregulation that characterized structural adjustment policies in Latin America. His policies met with broad public support. In his second term, an IMF-sponsored attempt to raise taxes to lower the state deficit resulted in a prolonged gun battle between rioting police officers and the army in the streets of the capital La Paz. 34 died. In October 2003, Sanchez de Lozada’s proposal to export gas through a Chilean port in a manner which would allow multinational corporations to earn tremendous profits resulted in a full-scale blockade of the capital based in its indigenous sister-city, El Alto. The president ordered troops to break the siege by force, and more than 60 perished in the bloodshed. In less than one year in office, a democratically elected presidential administration managed to kill more people than seven years of military dictatorship in the 1970s. The glory days of globalization were over in Bolivia. The long-marginalized but highly organized social movements of the country were set to go from protesta to propuesta—that is, from a purely oppositional stance to the governance of the country.

Whatever romance the election of Evo Morales may hold for Western activists, it is too tempting to paint it as a cheap morality tale, that of a humble, indigenous, leftist David triumphing over the voracious Goliath of multinational capital. It is clear that the Morales administration is well aware of the appeal it holds with progressives outside, and is eager to promote that image abroad. Evo is frequently quoted as saying that his government is based in the principles of the simple Quechua saying from Incan times: ama suwa, ama qhella, ama llulla, or “don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t be lazy.” Evo’s public image is suprapolitical and humble, An indigenous government based on moral principles over profit.

Such a simplistic representation of the situation is accepted by nobody on the ground in Bolivia. This includes the people of the social movements who gave years of their life for this moment and claim they would rather die than see his government overthrown. Nearly everyone in this sector is extremely supportive of the political project of the MAS government, but it is a support tempered by fierce criticism. According to Schultz, the Morales administration has made two grave mistakes. First, it has governed incompetently, utilizing a combination of indigenous leaders and union leaders with strong political beliefs but insufficient educational training to administer government ministries, and non-indigenous economists that were trained in and still believe in the old neoliberal model. This has led to a sometimes incoherent policy. Second, the Morales administration’s incendiary rhetoric and lack of political tact has alienated a great part of the middle-class electorate. The broad class alliance supporting many of his policy proposals—such as the renegotiation of natural gas contracts, reasonable land reform, and a re-evaluation of the Constitution—has been shattered by pronouncements in which Morales seems only concerned with his Quechua- and Aymara-speaking indigenous base in the nation’s western highlands. The right-wing opposition has exploited these rhetorical excesses by dividing the country on regional lines. In addition to the autonomy referenda, it has successfully slashed Morales’s power base in the mostly indigenous department of Chuquisaca by proposing the movement of the government apparatus from La Paz to the historic capital city of Sucre and sparking violent antigovernment demonstrations in what was once a MAS stronghold. According to Schultz, the government’s clumsy and sometimes heavy-handed response to these provocations has cost it significant support.

However, in a country where class contradictions are so strong and are ethnically marked by indigenous or white identity, it may be naïve to believe that a broad-based reform project in the name of the dispossessed majority can be carried out without alienating certain middle-class sectors, or without explicitly appealing to the indigenous identities that are still fundamental for a majority of Bolivians. The necessary rhetorical emphasis on Bolivia’s indigenous majority as the motor of the country’s history can come as a dramatic blow to the psyche of a society that has had its white and mestizo ruling class glorified for its entire history, and can be easily exploited by an opposition eager to encourage rifts in the government’s support. Furthermore, a self-described “government of the social movements” is under considerable obligation to respond to the demands of its backers.

Aside from Evo Morales, Oscar Olivera is perhaps the best-known figure of the Bolivian left internationally. Rising to prominence as the leader of resistance to the water privatization scheme in Cochabamba, Olivera has obtained a permanent place in the transnational activist pantheon for directing one of the few campaigns against a major corporation that actually proved successful. Standing with Oscar on the same balcony over the main plaza where he declared victory to an adulatory crowd eight years ago, I received a very different portrayal of the current situation.

Contrary to Schultz’s assertion that the Morales government’s problem was polarization at the expense of solidifying his base, Olivera claimed that Morales was systematically distancing himself from the demands of the social movements that elected him and which form his praetorian guard against the opposition. Comparing Evo to Tabaré Vasquez of Uruguay and Lula Ignacio da Silva of Brazil—leaders elected on the back of popular and even radical organizations but who have since been perceived as aligning themselves with more moderate policies consonant with the exigencies of global capital – Olivera believes that the Morales administration fears unleashing a genuinely transformative process.

The two cardinal sins of the Morales administration are the rejection of the social movement demand for the nationalization of Bolivia’s hydrocarbons, and the lack of a national dialogue on the redistribution of resources. “Where in the new constitution does it touch the interests of the rich?” Olivera demanded. “Where are the proposals for worker co-government in our factories? As long as the new constitution is based on the sanctity of private property as a foundation, we have not fully freed ourselves from neoliberalism. The line of the government against the oligarchic interests of this country is weak.” Paradoxically, Olivera says that the election of the Morales government has dramatically weakened and demobilized the country’s social movements. Whereas the movements were fully able to survive the stick of repression, they are having many more problems with the carrot of cooptation. Locally-rooted leaders have become party bureaucrats in the governing palaces of La Paz and organizations once fully independent and oriented towards the interests of their members have become incorporated as political tools of the state. When mobilizations do occur, they tend to be in support of existing government policies. The current juncture, when the social movements are supposedly “in power,” is a most difficult point in their historical development, for an autonomy lost can rarely be recovered. Of his personal relationship with the government, Olivera commented, “When we go to union meetings, some of our compañeros still call Evo their brother. I do not think he is my brother anymore. He is something else now.”

Factually, Olivera’s critique rings true. Aside from a clause in the new constitution that would limit the maximum size of land ownership in the eastern provinces, the new constitution and the general policies of the Morales government are more indigenist than socialist. However, the policies that Olivera calls for would more closely approximate a revolutionary platform than the reform process to which the government has committed itself. This would aggravate the already explosive regional and class tensions to the breaking point, quite possibly sparking a low-intensity civil war. While one can argue that it is necessary to break the power of the eastern elite to restructure the country justly, even at the cost of bloodshed and potential national disintegration, that is not a step the Morales government is willing to take at this time.

But coming down from the balcony into the main plaza itself, yet a different perspective emerges. “Oscar Olivera is a bureaucrat,” mutters Ramiro Saravia. “If you want to know what the Bolivian people think, just ask them. They are here in the plaza.” Saravia heads the Red Tinku Juvenil, a small but boisterous youth movement that also came out of the 2000 Water War. The organization sets up panels of news stories with left-wing commentary in the plaza with an intent to stimulate discussion of the nation’s trajectory. The result is rather impressive – at any given moment during the day, there tend to be around fifty people standing in a circle, engaging in sometimes confrontational but always peaceful debate.

Saravia claims that Olivera has exploited his status as an internationally renowned activist and has abandoned any claim to authentically represent Bolivian social movements. Interestingly, Saravia accuses Olivera of gutting the Coordinadora de Agua, the grassroots committee in charge of leading the opposition to the privatization scheme, and restructuring it under a far less accountable but more financially lucrative NGO model. “This new NGO culture is nothing more than a petit-bourgeois revolutionary game,” Saravia says. “These people sit in coffee shops and discuss social change and revolution. They are not rooted in the masses and have nothing to do with them.” The Red Tinku once shared an office with Olivera’s union apparatus, but apparently were evicted unceremoniously several years ago. “Evo Morales may make mistakes, but he has the support of the base of the population. When is the last time you have seen Oscar Olivera leading a major street demonstration? Eight years ago?”

Although Olivera can still rouse a crowd with his oratory and still has standing among social movement leadership, it is clear that his prominence has slipped. Several days after hearing this critique, I attended a demonstration of the Central Obrera Departamental, called to protest against perceived speculation in basic necessities by eastern business interests politically designed to destabilize the Morales government. Like most political phenomena in Bolivia, it was a rowdy occasion, culminating with the burning of the provincial governor in effigy and the beating of the flaming carcass with leather belts. However, there was clear disaffection with the union establishment voiced by the crowd, which constantly heckled the union representatives and urged them to take more drastic actions. The march was a response to one organized by the right wing the day before, which had blamed the rise in the price of commodities on the central government and burned Evo in effigy. While the mood was positive, there were some murmurings about the union’s inability to mobilize as many people as it had in the past.

Though doubts and contradictions plague any process of social change, and the viability of Bolivian social movements is being thrown into question, the participants in these movements remain determined to make sure that the country does not slip back into the hands of the neoliberal technocrats that form the opposition. While there may be disagreement as to what the new structure will look like, the ideological hegemony of the neoliberal model has been definitively ruptured. Current activism is an experiment in combining an indigenist worldview with vestiges of the old redistributive state apparatus in new ways. But in the meantime, Bolivia is in crisis, and both government allies and the right-wing opposition have begun digging in their trenches. A student leader who had participated in the 2003 street battles in La Paz and El Alto told me that El Alto had served as the vanguard of the nation at the cost of the lives of tens of students, and would not hesitate to do so again if the gains of the government were threatened. But perhaps the most evocative statement came from a fisherman from Achacachi, a small Aymara town near Lake Titicaca with a fighting tradition of resistance to prior Bolivian states. “It is nice to meet you, young man. Yes, for us this is a battle. It is a battle to the death.”

As such, perhaps it is improper to speak of Bolivia leaving the intractable situation it will find itself in when the referenda of May reveal the future of the nation. The contradictions of the country may be too grave to be resolved hygienically as we like crises to be resolved in the United States: in a grand compromise that is acceptable to all parties. Crisis is not always a state of exception – it can also be a state of being. But in this crisis there is an opening, a potentiality for something better that compels people forward into an inevitable confrontation from which they can detect no exit. Divided they may stand now, but the ranks will close when the bonfires of springtime beckon.