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Posts tagged ‘Evo Morales’

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.

Chávez and Leadership of the South American Left

By Taylor Marvin

Agencia Brasil image by Ricardo Stuckert, via Wikimedia

Agencia Brasil image by Ricardo Stuckert, via Wikimedia

Does Hugo Chávez’s death herald the end of Latin America’s resurgent left? Recently Alvaro Vargas Llosa argued in Foreign Policy that Chávez’s passing indeed did — in his de facto leadership role as the dominant personality among South America’s leftist national leaders Chávez was irreplaceable. In Vargas’ telling Chávez’s unique personal charisma and access to Venezuela’s vast oil wealth allowed him to assume this leadership position, leaving “a power vacuum that will be difficult for Chávez’s political heirs across the hemisphere to fill.”

But claims that Chávez’s death represents a major blow to left-leaning politics through the continent both overestimate Chávez’s personal influence and the unity of these leftist governments. It is certainly true that Hugo Chávez was the public face of Latin America’s modern leftist governments, much more than Chávez’s longtime partner Fidel Castro. Castro was the venerable elder, politely respected, but largely irrelevant; Chávez the ambitiously energetic younger with the deep pockets to grease the patronage channels Castro could not. But it’s a mistake to understand Chávez’s leadership position as a practical one, rather than the symbolic role it actually was. As Colin M. Snider recently noted, Latin America’s left-leaning leaders are a disparate group that share between them as many distinctions as similarities, and certainly aren’t a unified bloc existentially dependent on Chávez’s continued leadership. Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff leads a government perceived as significantly more technocratic than Chávez’s populist regime, and enjoys growing international clout largely unavailable to Venezuela. Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa are populists and were strong Chávez allies, but it’s difficult to argue that either’s domestic appeal will be somehow less politically viable now that Chávez is gone.

But despite Chávez’s undeniable regional influence, there’s no reason to think that his absence leaves an unsustainable vacuum. This symbolic leadership position was forged by Chávez’s narcissism, and there’s no reason for it to necessarily exist now that he is gone. Hugo Chávez aspired to a position of international leadership, and when one wasn’t available  he rhetorically co-opted otherwise disparate left-leaning Latin American governments into a nominal “movement”. Certainly various leaders, Morales and Correa especially, both supported and politically gained from this co-option, their electoral successes weren’t dependent on it, primarily because the narrative of South America’s leftist resurgence has always been stronger than it’s actual significance. This perception gap is driven by politics — both supporters and detractors of this so-called resugence have an incentive to rhetorically paint it as either more revolutionary or more threatening than it actually is. South American politics are becoming more open and competitive, and the United States’ influence over the region is certainly diminishing. But contrary to the claims of leftists and their opponents, the successes of left-leaning leaders in Venezuela, Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina is more likely a cyclical trend than a long-term revolution. Chávez may have taken advantage of this swing, but despite his self-congratulating rhetoric he did not create or sustain it.

But while South America’s recent leftist electoral successes doesn’t comprise any unified movement that will suffer terribly at Chávez’s absence, it’s also unlikely that his outsized figurehead position will be filled anytime soon. Chávez wasn’t able to position himself as one of the most influential leaders in Latin America simply because of Venezuela’s oil wealth. While the largess oil revenue made possibile certainly bolstered his influence, Chávez became the symbolic figure that he was because he wanted it, and had the personal charisma and combative style to back up this ambition. Even among successful populist politicians Chávez’s ability to draw — and polarize — international attention is rare. The global importance of Venezuela’s oil certainly gave Chávez a platform, and he would not have been as internationally visible if he was the leader of another country. But there is no reason to think that another left-leaning Latin American leader will soon have the capability or ambition to replicate the Chávez brand.