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Posts tagged ‘Bolivia’

The Roots of Indigenous Governance and Conflict in Bolivia

Guest post by Danny Hirschel-Burns

The Roots of Indigenous Governance and Conflict in Bolivia (edited).docx

Danny Hirschel-Burns is a rising senior at Swarthmore College and blogs at The Widening Lens. He spent last semester studying in Cochabamba, Bolivia. His month-long final project consisted of interviews with Bolivian academics and political figures, and this post condenses his findings. The full paper, in Spanish, is available here.

The MAS party (Movimiento al Socialismo, or Movement toward Socialism), which dominates Bolivia’s current government, originated in a mid-1990s confluence of indigenous organizations. In 2005 MAS won its first presidential election, with candidate Evo Morales elected to the presidency, and has been in power ever since. I started this project with the desire to understand how MAS managed to gain power and form one of the most stable governments in Bolivia’s history in the span of less than twenty years. Despite its position of relative strength MAS’ governing coalition remains fraught with conflicts and contradictions, so I also sought to contextualize these issues within the framework of movement governments produced when social movements win elections. My research found that historically divergent forms of indigenous political organization, combined with perceptions of electoral politics and the collapse of the Bolivian right, set the stage for conflicts within MAS. Finally, the comparative section of my paper highlights the importance of the transition period between a social movement and the government it produces.

Led by workers’ unions, the revolution of 1952 signaled the end of the old order in Bolivian politics and the beginning of the liberal nationalist era. Bolivia’s unions grew stronger in the post-revolutionary era, and the popularity of this model led to the formation of many indigenous peasant (campesino) unions that stressed the importance of individual land ownership. While some of these organizations were quite democratic, verticalism, personalism, and patronage were also common. This new type of indigenous organization conflicted with the older version, the ayllu, which was based around communal land led by community councils rather than a separate hierarchy. Significant diversity has always existed within these two forms of social mobilization, and many of the conflicts within MAS stem from these differing traditions.

Another major pre-election factor responsible for post-electoral conflict was the formation of MAS as a “political instrument”, rather than a political party. During the mid-1990s Bolivian society experienced a crisis of confidence in political parties and the political system, which provided an opportunity for an ambitious indigenous force, spurred on by repression from both the government and the DEA, to gain a political foothold. Bolivians’ distrust of political parties made it unwise — and from MAS founders’ perspective, counterproductive — to style their new coalition as a traditional political party. The political instrument MAS was an attempt to do away with the bureaucracy and verticalism associated with political parties. But its lack of a defined organizational structure meant that as the pressures of victory necessitated the formation of a bureaucracy and a division of labor, MAS’ most powerful coalition partners (who mostly came from the union tradition) took the lead. This ad hoc structure meant that institutional channels for weaker coalition partners to challenge the growing power of Evo Morales and his circle of advisors, the coca growers union, and to a lesser extent other union organizers, were unavailable. Despite concrete attempts by more powerful partners to consolidate power, much of the concentration of power around Evo Morales was the unintended consequences of political success. Today, the flows of political power within MAS are informal, and official titles matter less than the relationship between individual leaders and Evo. While various organizations still have the ability to strongly influence government policy, MAS and the Bolivian government are dominated by Evo and his small circle of middle-class non-indigenous advisors.

A portion of my project was a comparative section in which I used political theory and two movement government case studies — specifically, post-communist Poland and South Africa after Apartheid — to contextualize the Masista experience in Bolivia. My central conclusion was that the transition period is crucial in determining the type of government social movements ultimately produced. Firstly, elite-driven transitions that do little to incorporate the public are likely to produce centralized governments unable or unwilling to respond to the demands of the people. Secondly, the longer the period of transition, the more likely the chances are that a representative government will form. Longer transition periods provide the opposition with more time to organize and include the public, and government repression harms the possibility of this positive organization. Finally, if movements can clearly articulate their post-transition goals before the transition is actually made, there is a lower chance of subsequent intra-coalition conflict.

In these respects, Bolivia was quite lucky. Unlike in Poland and South Africa, the transition took the form of an election (in South Africa, I’m referring to the end of Apartheid rather than the 1994 elections) which allowed for popular participation. The transition period, defined as MAS’ rise between 1995-2005, was also quite long. While coca growers suffered severe repression, previous Bolivian governments made little attempt to repress MAS as an organization. Lastly, though many groups didn’t foresee getting screwed by MAS, there was a publicly-well understood to-do list when MAS was elected. While Bolivia under MAS is not the utopian movement government Vice President Garcia Linera claims it to be (the logic of social movements and governments is contradictory), it arguably has done better than South Africa and Poland in forming a representative democracy partially due to favorable transitional conditions.

The 2009 near-total collapse of Bolivia’s political opposition was the final factor that allowed for MAS’ consolidation of power. While this collapse mostly affected the right, other sectors also suffered. In-fighting, the failure of the Santa Cruz autonomy movement, the lack of a viable opposition leader, MAS’ popularity, and the new government’s political cunning all divided and severely weakened opposing parties. This collapse allowed MAS to further tighten its circle of support, and to dispense with coalition partners that it didn’t have much in common with anyway. The lack of any potential political challenger has put MAS in a position of relative strength for a Bolivian government.

A second cause for MAS’s near-hegemonic political position is the historical exclusion of indigenous people in the Bolivian political scene. While many indigenous people are frustrated with MAS’ policies, they realize that they are in the best position they’ve ever been in, the alternatives are worse, and working for change within the system is the best policy (MAS has opened up more institutional channels for indigenous social organization participation than any previous administration). An anecdote that best conveys this reality was relayed to me by a Bolivian sociologist, who in an interview quoted an older indigenous woman in El Alto: “Evo can screw up for 500 years and we will continue to support him.” Despite the frequent civil conflicts between MAS and indigenous organizations (a massive series of strikes and roadblocks ground the western half of Bolivia to a near halt a month ago), indigenous civil society mostly works in a way that does not directly challenge MAS’s claims to power, and MAS has become quite adept at knowing its own limits. It is difficult to forecast where a challenge strong enough to topple MAS will come from.

Many leftists academics, including some I interviewed, argue that despite MAS’ indigenous roots, its policies (for example, the marginalization of lowland indigenous groups) are anti-indigenous. However, this critique essentializes indigenous identity by assuming that (monolithic) indigenous people have a destiny fundamentally different from the rest of society. They are anti-modern, and in the case of Bolivia, inhabit rural spaces and practice more “traditional” forms of living. The reality is more complicated. Lowlanders’ loss of power under the MAS government stems from nationwide political dynamics and differing political history between lowlanders and highlanders; the latter form the base of MAS. Another issue many harp on as an example of Evo’s faulty indigenous credentials is his neoliberal and extractive economic policies. The first is the result of the needs of his base: the coca growers (Evo is a former coca grower himself) need a market to sell their product, and therefore neoliberalism, combined with limited government welfare, suits them nicely. The second is a result of pressure from indigenous groups who see environmental damage from mining and hydrocarbon extraction as less harmful than failing to exploit these resources. In and of itself, neoliberal economics policies are not incompatible with an indigenous identity. While some of MAS’ discourse does essentialize what it means to be indigenous for its own political gain, accusing it of being anti-indigenous is hardly valid.

Ultimately, MAS’ social movement origins, Bolivia’s indigenous political tradition, the 1990s political collapse, pressures of electoral victory, and the disintegration of the opposition are the five main factors that have brought MAS to where it is today. While its position at the top is remarkably stable, it will need to find a way to better incorporate indigenous social organizations in the future to retain its grip on power.

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A Framework for Military Xenophobic Cultures

By Taylor Marvin

Last week a video showing Chilean sailors chanting “I will kill Argentines, I will shoot Bolivians, I will behead Peruvians” surfaced and immediately drew international condemnation. Chilean leaders denounced the chant and promised that the sailors involved would be punished, but the nature of the video — which shows a public training run — and reports that the particular chant has been around for decades suggests that it, and the military culture of violent xenophobia it embodies, enjoys some level of semi-official approval in the Chilean Navy. Chilean Congressman Gonzalo Arenas Hödar criticized the Navy’s reaction, remarking the chants “have always existed in all the armed forces,” and defensibly noted that anti-Chilean marching chants are common in the Argentine military as well.

Colin M. Snider has an excellent post (hat tip to Robert Farley) that places the violent chant within the context of Chile’s past wars and current rivalries with its neighbors  concluding that “such declarations are unsurprising, as they tap into nationalist sentiment and regional antagonisms that go back well over a century.” This is certainly true, as Chile’s historical wars with its neighbors is a source of frequent contemporary conflict. As Snider notes, Chile’s annexation of southern Peru and costal Bolivia during the 1890s War of the Pacific is still resented in both countries; notably, the Bolivian coat of arms retains a star for its lost Litoral province conquered over a century ago. More recently, Chile’s privileged position among its neighbors draws some degree of resentment: Chileans enjoy much higher standards of living than their northern counterparts, and, as David R. Mares nots in Violent Peace: Militarized Interstate Bargaining in Latin AmericaChile has been the dominant military force in the region for a century. While the likelihood of interstate armed conflict has dramatically decreased since the demise of the region’s military governments, Chile still enjoys a substantial qualitative military edge over its neighbors. Conversely, bigotry towards Peruvians and Bolivians is common in Chilean society, as is nationalistic hostility towards Chile’s poorer neighbors. Perhaps relatedly, the threat of renewed conflict is judged high enough to justify comparably high military spending (at 3.2 percent of 2012 GDP, higher than Argentine, Bolivian, and Peruvian percentage-of-GDP defense spending).

So, given the history of conflict between Chile and its neighbors and the nationalistic prejudice present in Chilean society, the chant is arguably — though perhaps depressingly — unsurprising. However, what is notable is its context. The public nature of the sailors’ chant suggests that this is not, strictly speaking, a discipline issue. If these xenophobic chants have persisted over decades of personnel turnover within the Chilean armed forces it strains credibility to argue that they are not tolerated by the military establishment. Instead, xenophobic chants are likely encouraged within the officer corp, a possibility supported by a Twitter user’s claim, directed at Chilean Admiral Edmundo Gonzalez, that the marching chants are “not improvisations”. This is striking. Of course, xenophobia and cultures of violence targeted at outsiders classified as enemies are not uncommon within militaries. However, their public expression is rarely tolerated in modern, democratic armed forces like Chile’s. That’s not saying these expressions never occur, but are rarely seen in the quasi-official context of the Chilean video.

Acknowledging the chant as semi-official implies some level of cost-benefit analysis within the military establishment. As noted above, this is not a discipline issue — violent xenophobia expressed as obviously as public chants would not be present if officers consciously decided not to tolerate it. Given that violent xenophobia appears tolerated, if not encouraged, within the Chilean military, the military establishment must judge that this culture’s benefits exceed its costs; this suggests that a cost-benefit framework determines when militaries foster cultures of violent xenophobia and when they do not. Of course, it is difficult to draw firm conclusions from the specific Chilean case — it is not clear if Chile’s apparent xenophobic military culture is due solely to endogenous determinants, or a broad framework that can be extended to other cultural contexts. But it does suggest interesting speculation.

Indoctrinating, or at least tolerating, violent xenophobia within armed forces brings both benefits and costs. In the eyes of officers that allow it, peacetime xenophobia helps build martial vigor and an esprit de corps by self-defining a military group in opposition to its perceived enemies. Indoctrinating soldiers with the idea that war is possible also presumably raises morale and commitment in countries where servicemembers are unlikely to actually fight. However, xenophobic military cultures also impose external reputation costs — risking that soldiers will be perceived as bloodthirsty and the society they represent bigoted. These interacting benefits and costs suggest that militaries will foster xenophobia when they face conditions that maximize the benefits and minimize the costs of these cultures. Chile appears a clear case of maximizing these benefits, for three reasons.

First, Chile has standing rivalries with neighboring countries the Chilean population perceives as enemies. In addition to Chile’s history of conflict with its neighbors, this public perception is partially due to the Pinochet dictatorship’s practice of stressing external, as well as internal, threats in a bid to legitimize military rule. A society-identified external enemy is a requirement for military xenophobia, for obvious reasons: to motivate, xenophobia needs an obvious target. While military establishments are certainly capable of indoctrinating their members with violent hatreds, this xenophobia must be based on an existing social bias — modern French officers attempting to motivate their soldiers by indoctrinating them with a hatred of Germans would be met by laughter, despite the two countries’ history of conflict. Importantly, the channel between social perceptions of external enemies and deliberately indoctrinated military xenophobia works both ways: soldiers indoctrinated with xenophobic hatreds will take bigotry with them into society, and as the historical Chilean military dictatorship demonstrates governments will often build public perceptions of external threats in the service of regime legitimacy. Together, these popularly-perceived external enemies likely maximize the beneficial motivating effects of fostering military xenophobia.

Secondly, Chile has little prospect of going to war. Chile has not engaged in an interstate war for over a century, and despite outstanding disputes with Bolivia and Peru there has been little prospect of armed conflict since the end of the Pinochet regime. It is reasonable to suspect that servicemembers will be less committed to training and discipline in peacetime forces, as low commitment is less likely to result in fatal consequences. Constant repetition of the idea that combat is coming — “I will kill Argentines,” and so on — presumably is a device to increase individual servicemembers’ personal commitment. Even if servicemembers can rationally judge war to be unlikely, immersion in an environment where the opposite is stressed presumably has an effect; again, adding to the benefit side of the calculus.

Finally, Chile’s peacetime status reduces the potential costs of xenophobic military culture. For militaries in combat, unconstrained xenophobia has potentially greater costs. Soldiers socially indoctrinated with ethnic hatred are much more likely to commit highly-visible atrocities, if they have the opportunity. Chilean servicemembers may chant about “beheading Peruvians”, but thankfully have no opportunity to actually do so. For forces in combat, this is not the case. In the US military, endemic hatred of Muslims would create an environment where servicemembers judged war crimes to be tolerated. Consequently, in the last decade the US military establishment has vigorously worked to prevent a culture of broad hatred from arising within its ranks. While xenophobic hatreds have persisted at the lower-level of the US military — and have arguably directly resulted in atrocities — these hatreds are clearly not approved by military’s leadership and exist in spite of, rather than due to, desired institutional culture.

These two Chile-specific cultural factors — popularly-defined external enemies, and a low likelihood of facing combat — support the idea that military xenophobia grows from a deliberate cost/benefits framework. But in modern times the costs of fostering xenophobic military cultures have grown, as the furious international reaction to the video — and Chilean naval commanders’ promise that those involved will be punished — demonstrates. In past decades barracks hatreds were mostly just that: confined to barracks. But when a sailors’ chant can be quickly disseminated around the world and instantly embarrass the government, the reputation costs of xenophobic military cultures have grown, even for peacetime forces. Chile’s military establishment appears to be learning this the hard way.