Keys to Understanding Bolivia: An Interview with Oscar Olivera (8/8/05)

Win the elections and arrive at a Constitutional Assembly that changes the roots of the power structure in Bolivia: such is the proposal of Oscar Olivera, a leader of the country’s social struggles in recent years. He supports, with much criticism, Evo Morales. "It’s important to avoid a transition with deaths," he said, although suggested that the crisis will be defined by force. The conflict with Evo in an assembly that was attended by La Vaca, demonstrated how, in this climate, the present and future is decided.

It is 10 o’clock in the morning and in Cochabamba, Bolivia it is the hour to decide the future. On the second floor of the Federacion de Fabriles (the national fabric workers union) there are some two hundred men and a handful of women listening attentively to the words of Evo Morales. Meanwhile, voices from the streets reach the meeting, repeating this phrase: "the people united…"

Never the less, as always in Bolivia, they deal with three different things, in confused harmony.

In this assembly the future is decided by the fighters. They’re part of the most important force in this department, capable of organizing their comrades, of mobilizing more than 100,000 people to challenge the State and rocked all of Cochabamba with protests during the legendary "Water War." These fighters are campesinos (peasants) who thanks to their ancient culture have an autonomous economy, based fundamentally on their wise use of water. They were, therefore, the first to challenge the privatization of it, and to clearly establish the concepts of the fight against multinational corporations – remembering that natural resources don’t have owners – and sustained one of the most defiant social movements; the Coordinator of the Water. It’s organized in different levels throughout Bolivia: community, region, department and nation. In this way, hundreds of grassroots associations that deliberate their problems locally communicate through a representative in a Federation that meets once a year in a congress. But between the congress meetings, the Federation is able to convoke an unlimited number of "amplified" congresses that are "the privileged place to make practical decisions. Most of those that attend are campesinos and are the most representative and the most effective in their evaluation of problems, initiatives and capacity of mobilization," explained the most important Bolivian sociologist, Alvaro Garcia Linera. (Remember this name, because the future that is decided today make it return with another meaning.)

In this way, the most democratic organ of the most defiant social movement in Cochabamba received the M.A.S. (Movement Toward Socialism) party presidential candidate, Evo Morales, to listen in silence to his proposal: to elect a representative for the upcoming presidential elections.

The second element of the harmony: the reunion is in the headquarters of the national fabric workers and their general secretary, Oscar Oliver, is seated to the left of Evo. Oscar is also one of the spokespeople of the Coordinator of Water, and plays an important role in the NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) that have been created around this issue and one of the most well known leaders of the social revolts that have taken place in Cochabamba in the last five years.

And finally, the third element, the street: those that yell the slogans are part of the hundreds of occupants of a neighborhood in the southern part of the city that demand, in front of the administration, "liberty of mobility". This means: public transportation.

Ignoring the confusion, we listen to Evo:
-We should elect a representative that comes from the people, and who responds only to them.
-Today I suggest we vote for a name and proclaim here a legitimate representative that carries the voice of the fighters to power.

The response is a brief and cold silence.

When it becomes clear that everything has been said, one campesino raises his hand, and speaks in Quechua. The only word that crosses the two cultures is clear: bureaucrat.

Evo left and the secretary of the assembly announced the next point of the reunion: the increase of the electric tax. For the next half hour, he summarized the details of the meetings, figures, kilowatts and offers from the company, and was interrupted by one campesino in the assembly, this time speaking in Spanish:

-The company is trying to confuse us. We will not pay.

Never the less, in between the explanation and the response, there was an unexpected intervention: Oscar Olivera spoke to support the proposal of Evo. Oscar said:

-We believe that it’s the only manner to prevent the right from taking power and confronting this process that we have developed.

Oscar left before the silence responded.

I asked the campesino what had been his response to Evo. He kindly repeated in Spanish what he had said.

-The MAS representative in Cochabamba (Morales) is a bureaucrat. You want us to come here and elect a name, but we already have this distinguished man and we don’t want him. Here we are people with one vote, but in our towns we are everyone and everyone has to elect the candidate if it is, as they say, a candidate of the people. Therefore, we cannot decide today. We have to go to the towns and return with what this voice says.

In a long hallway, Oscar Olivera answered the questions that had been developed in the assembly.

-What is the significance of this support of the candidacy of Evo Morales?

-We believe that there are two spaces that we should intervene and work in today. One of these spaces is imminent, and also unconstitutional: the electoral. We know that it is not something the people have planted and that the right has had to create as a final trick. In recent history we have had mobilizations the likes of which we have never seen before, with a clear definition of the problem: this political system doesn’t work and this State doesn’t answer to the demands of the population. And this is something irreversible that the electoral process can postpone, but not avoid. We know that these elections have the same rules as a game, rules that we don’t follow because they are of the right, where it’s simply a matter of changing people and not structures of power. We know that it is a planned strategy and armed with economic power and the ambassador of the United States to dilute. But we also believe these elections could serve as a bridge for the Constitutional Assembly, which is the space where we can design a new structural model of the organization of power; horizontal, collective, that is effectively a function of the social organizations.

-Do you consider these elections as a way to arrive at a Constitutional Assembly?

-If, in this moment, the right wins the elections, there will not be a Constitutional Assembly.

-Couldn’t a popular mobilization guarantee it?

-Absolutely, because this is something that no one can stop. A mobilization could impose it, and I believe that we will continue mobilizing ourselves to guarantee that things go the way they should.

-Evo Morales is not a guarantee?

-He’s no guarantee. Because the right will do everything possible to stop change and so we need to mobilize ourselves to drive this change.

-Therefore your support is critical.

-The support to Evo comes from an entire social movement that’s set to maintain its independence.

-Does this mean that you won’t be a candidate?

-Up to now I am firm that no, although I don’t throw out the possibility.


-Because these elections aren’t like any other. They are the ones that will define the future of the country. We have arrived at a moment where there is a line drawn between two conflicting forces. On one hand, the people with their great power of mobilizations and proposals and, and on the other, the right which, although it’s a minority, has great economic power that can be used to stop every possibility for change.

-So, if there is a need to cross this line, will you become a candidate?

-Perhaps I would. But also because I have the conviction that the next government will not last long, no matter who wins.

-Could the formula be Evo-Oscar?

-The formula that we propose, from an autonomous, social movement space, is Evo-Alvaro Garcia Linera.

-Quispe also offered the vice presidency to Garcia Lindera. He is his old comrade and companion from prison…

-But there is a big difference between Evo’s platform and the platform of Quispe. In this offer Quispe encounters the only possibility that his name doesn’t disappear…

-…and Evo has a possibility of coming into power. Therefore, what happens with this idea that you propose of changing the world without taking power?

-Look, in this moment we are in a situation where we believe we need to propose a broad front. These are not normal elections, and we can’t give this space away to the right. We have to continue constructing this electoral space and guarantee the Constitutional Assembly, which strategically is a more important space to us than the electoral.

-What expectations do you have for the Constitutional Assembly? What form of power could emerge there?

-The Constitutional Assembly for us is a medium where different social sectors can converge to construct a different option of power. I think that people are demanding spaces like this to gather, where they construct brick by brick, little by little, a new country. This is the work. Because of this the social organizations, no matter who becomes president, cannot lose this capacity to mobilize.

-Now, the unity with Evo is more important than the divisions?

-The subject of unity for me is very, very important. But it is also evident that there are great differences. There are many leaders that are still thinking of their own project and it’s very difficult to agree with them because they are leaders, without a doubt, but have lost their capacity to listen to the people. I also consider, without fear of being mistaken, that some social movement leaders have been subordinated by the right in order to divide. And also surrounding Evo, as well as Quispe, are people that only want a position in order to win a salary.

-And still you support Evo?

-I also see people that want something else.

-How do you perceive him?

-I think that Evo lacks humility and needs to listen to the people. Listen in a good sense, for example – know who to listen to. He needs to speak more with people from the constituency. He is surrounded by an environment which puts a barrier between him and the true voice of the people. I’ve known Evo for almost ten years and he used to feel as though he was a part of the people. He needs to return to this, to feel the heart of the people, their voices. Evo lacks the capacity to take in signals and give them back to the people in their own language.

-Speaking clearly, it seems like you’re swallowing a toad when you say you support him…

-No (smiles). It’s that many people today say: What comes after Evo? We don’t want to happen to us what has already happened, when leaders died and nothing was left but the system. What we demand with this support is the construction of a political project that permits us to establish a true power of the people. Many are afraid of this kind of power, including Evo. Many are afraid of power from the people and because of this create political parties and systems that don’t face the people or pay any attention to them.

-Isn’t this social support giving the candidacy of Evo the guarantee he needs?

-Personally, I feel as though I am crossing a river and leaving the people on the other bank. The challenge is to get them to cross with me. What we are trying to rescue is a political process. It’s evident that the people have leaders, but it’s also evident that they don’t want bosses. In this assembly which you just watched, they have very strongly questioned, for example, the chief of this MAS department, and this is someone who should work with much humility…

-Did they accept these criticisms?

-No: they tried to make any one who expressed what everyone thinks look like a liar. This is a practice that is totally harmful and should be done away with, and given a new type of content…which MAS has evidently constructed from social organizations in rural areas. It’s important to give content to this structure, because today it’s been lost.

-And how do you plan to do this?

-The first thing to do is talk with Evo and tell him to stop being a leader.

-In a certain way, you are also a leader…

-In a certain way, yes, but we try to establish an absolutely horizontal relationship with the people. And to listen to them, because if we don’t listen to them…

-But today I’ve already heard: they don’t want bureaucrats. What do you plan to do in this respect?

-For example, we want all of the candidates to have revocable terms in office, just as those in state positions. Today there aren’t any instances of auditing, inspecting, transparency. We have spoken about this with Evo: revocable terms, transparency, and put a limit to the congress about salaries, because we can’t give every candidate these privileges. All together, we can implement these things with a minimum number of agreements.

-What would this involve?

-A Constitutional Assembly, nationalization of the gas, and justice [for the deaths in previous social conflicts].

-Many are asking, what comes after Evo?

-Beyond Evo there needs to be a clear political project. People have to see that beyond Evo there is a possibility to construct an organized form that doesn’t depend on a leader. With people like Álvaro (García Linera) or Abel Mamami and others, it’s possible to establish this idea that the power is in the people.

-Today it appears to be clearly established that the power is in the streets.

-But the people can’t continue indefinitely with road blockades to stop everything they want. We have to go further. I think that we are afraid to take in our hands the decision to auto-govern ourselves. There is a cultural question that impedes this, and we have to break [this barrier].

-What will happen if the government accedes?

If it gets to the government, all of these economic resources and this capacity the state apparatus has…should be given to the social organizations. During these last few years, we’ve been wasting the possibilities to establish these forms of power. Although, I think the next government – whoever wins – won’t last long, because the Constitutional Assembly is what will define the future. And this is something that won’t happen if the right wins.

-What will the scenario be in this case?

-It will involve a definition of strength. I believe that for this country the solution will finally come about through force. But I also think that it’s necessary to do everything possible…so that there can be a transition without deaths.

This interview first appeared in the Argentine publication,, an excellent resource in Spanish on the politics and social movements in South America. The piece is translated and reprinted here with permission from the author.