Bolivian Vice President García Linera vs. NGOs: A Look at the Debate

Bolivia’s vice president Alvaro Garcia Linera has unleashed an intense debate of international proportions by uttering harsh criticism of four non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) that operate in his country.

Bolivia’s vice president Alvaro Garcia Linera has unleashed an intense debate of international proportions by uttering harsh criticism of four non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) that operate in his country. The statements of the vice president, the number two man in the government of president Evo Morales, motivated intellectuals and activists of several countries to sign on to an open letter vouching for the prestige and integrity of the organizations in question. García Linera responded to them with an open letter of his own, and the controversy continues.

The Bolivian government’s conflict with NGO’s is not new. President Morales has frequently accused activist groups of serving imperialist agendas. But in his government, vice president García Linera has been the most outspoken critic of NGO’s. Other progressive governments in the region, particularly that of Ecuador, have also joined in the diatribe against these organizations.

The Bolivian press reported on August 10 that the Bolivian VP specifically singled out four NGO’s, Milenio, Tierra Foundation, the Bolivian Center for Documentation and Information (CEDIB), and the Center for Labor Studies and Development (CEDLA) during a visit to the city of Santa Cruz (1). “Milenio is dependent on Gonzalo Sánchez de Losada and the MNR, Gonista to the death. Tierra Foundation has been run by a former Sánchez de Losada minister (Miguel Urioste) that receives funding from foreign sources, and the CEDIB and CEDLA foundations are run by green trotskyists.” (Gonzalo “Goni” Sánchez de Losada was Bolivia’s neoliberal president right before Morales. His followers are known as “Gonistas”.) According to Gonzalo Colque of Fundacion Tierra, Urioste worked as a minister under the Hernán Siles Suazo administration in the early 1980s during the recuperation of democracy, not under Sanchez de Lozada in the 1990s.

García Linera “declared that these NGO’s met with leaders of social organizations to whom they provided data to generate controversy regarding government policy for the exploitation of natural resources. He assured that if they keep up their political work they are liable to be expelled”, according to an article published in the Oxígeno online publication.

“We are telling these transnationals to fund other countries, they have no reason to meddle in our country”, advised the vice president. “Our relations with foreign governments and foreign corporations are clear: services in function of our policy and usefulness in function of a sovereign state; but not in this function of covert political action.”

Perusing through the documentation produced by these groups, one can understand García Linera’s irritation. A good example of this is a book-length document of over 240 pages by CEDIB, titled Extractivismos: Nuevos contextos de dominación y resistencias (2), which strongly condemns the natural resource extraction and raw material export policies of Latin American governments, including the ones that fancy themselves as progressive, like Bolivia and Argentina.

In the first chapter, which is dedicated to the tense relations between the region’s social movements and progressive governments, researcher Pablo Villegas establishes the book’s thrust:

“Bolivia and Ecuador stood out worldwide with their constitutions which proclaimed the rights of Mother Earth. This ended in Ecuador with (president Rafael) Correa’s infatuation with strip mining, the fall of the Yasuní, and the repression against opponents of extractivism and, in Bolivia’s case, among abundant examples, with a new mining law that punishes with years of prison anyone who opposes its expansion; which shows that the constitutions of these countries were not the most advanced but rather simply a cultural manipulation.” (p. 30)

As for the much celebrated social welfare policies of these left-leaning governments, Villegas says that:

“Social security was displaced by assistentialism; charity substituted the institution of social security with an arbitrary regime dependent on the mercy of incumbent politicians, and therefore conditioned to the electoral fidelity of the beneficiaries without tackling the roots of poverty… this ‘social’ policy is timid so far: its weight on public expenditures is very small when compared to debt service, which enriches the richest.” (p. 46)

According to another contributing writer, CEDIB executive director Marco Antonio Gandarillas, the government of Evo Morales has actually moved Bolivia backwards:

“It is possible to note a marked backwards movement in which, together with the revitalization of traditional political practices, one can verify the exacerbation of dependence on the massive export of natural resources. In a way that is inversely proportional to the deepening of extractivism, there is a marked erosion of democracy and grave attacks against the most basic rights.” (p. 103)

“The transnational oil corporations did not leave. They remain in the country and in control of the reserves, the production, and from that position they condition and define the sector’s policies… The nationalization of hydrocarbons trumpeted by the government of Evo Morales deepened this export-led orientation, passing the costs of maintenance and investment in the ducts from private enterprise to the state.” (p. 109)

As for human rights, Villegas denounces an ongoing deterioration and a worrying tendency towards criminalization of protest in Ecuador and Bolivia:

“The criminalization is so grave in Ecuador that in the year 2008 the National Constituent Assembly determined that the justice system had been used to intimidate leaders, and this is demonstrated by the subsequent amnesty for over 350 people prosecuted for crimes committed in protests against the exploitation of natural resources. In spite of all this, those responsible for this judicial abuse were not sanctioned and the criminalization continues. In July 2010 president Correa presented a legislative proposal that included an increase in sanctions for crimes such as the closure of roads, the accumulation of sentences of up to 15 years in case more than one felony has been committed. The state’s discretionary prerogative to disband an NGO has been broadened through various decrees or the dissolution of social organizations. Among the possible causes (for disbanding an NGO) are meddling with public policies, attempting against the country’s internal or external security, and deviation from the ends for which they were founded. Additionally, there is no effective way to contest the dissolution of an organization.” (p. 55)

“… the (Bolivian) government has criminalized political opponents and social leaders with numerous legal processes; leaders of a recent movement within the armed forces who requested the decolonization established by the state’s political constitution have been prosecuted for sedition, and have been detained in inhuman conditions for several months.” (p.56)

A number of internationally recognized intellectuals and activists from several countries have called out García Linera, expressing their disapproval of his declarations and their support and solidarity with the four organizations:

“Such threats, were they to be carried out, would imply a grave deterioration with respect to the restriction of civil liberties, among them freedom of expression and of association, and subsequently an enormous retreat for Bolivian democracy. The affected NGO’s, some of which- like CEDIB and CEDLA- have intellectuals with a well-known trajectory in the left and in the field of critical thinking, who have been producing reports and research on different issues of Bolivian reality (economic, environmental, socio-territorial, among others), whose only problem is antagonizing government expectations with respect to progress in certain areas, or of simply turning out to be uncomfortable to the ruling party.

… We also regret that the person that issues these accusations and threats is a prestigious intellectual and sociologist, author of important works and research on Bolivia.” (3)

The letter has been signed by well known personalities from the worlds of activism and academic research, like Brazil’s Boaventura de Sousa Santos, Uruguay’s Eduardo Gudynas and Raul Zibechi, Ecuador’s Alberto Acosta and Esperanza Martínez, Catalan professor Joan Martínez-Alier, Ben Dangl of the US, the Canadian Maude Barlow, and Bolivians Oscar Olivera and Pablo Solón, among more than 200 signatories.

The Bolivian vice president responded to the letter, denying any validity to its contents, repeating his verbal attacks on the four organizations and on NGO’s in general, and alleging that the signatories had been duped and manipulated (4).

“… I have pointed out that four NGO’s lie and disguise their reactionary political activism under the mantle on ‘non-governmental’ activity. Do they not have the right to lie? Of course, yes. But I do too have the right to denounce it, to indicate the falsehoods written in their so-called research, which seems more like decalogues of political faith or primitive study drafts. In the same measure that functionaries of these NGO’s have the constitutional right to do partisan para-politics from these organizations, I have the right to uncover that they are playing the role of substitutes for right-wing political parties, and that their functionaries recruit followers through the disguise of hypocritical ‘non-profit’ activities after their repeated failure in the open political arena.”

García Linera used the opportunity to repeat his “environmentalism + NGO’s = imperialist geopolitics” thesis:

“We all agree that we need a socio-productive order that substitutes the predatory logic that defines nature by its exchange value. But over here there at least two positions. The first, corresponding to the imperial discourse, proposes that the environmental added value that sustains the development of the Northern countries be paid by the Southern countries, freezing thus the improvement of its living standards and petrifying colonial relationships of poverty and submission built over centuries and still in effect today. This position is clearly expressed in USAID’s environmental proposal with respect to the Amazon, and Tony Blair’s cabinet’s suggestion of implementing transnational administration in that region. In contrast to that position, for the sovereign indigenous nations, a new environmental society will only be possible by breaking the colonial condition of fragmentation and poverty that prevails in the peoples and nations of the South. It’s about creating an ecological civilization through the combination of ancestral and contemporary knowledge capable of restoring a creative metabolism between nature and nature turned into society. However, this cannot be achieved simply by imitating what happens in the North (developmentalist illusion) much less freezing the living conditions of the peoples of the South (petrified colonialism). This civilization can only come into existence if we are capable of providing the minimal material conditions of existence, of satisfaction of basic needs, that permit the liberation of the peoples’ creative and cognitive capabilities for the creation of the fundamentals of an ecological society, which can only be of a communitarian and universal character.” (Parenthesis in original)

He also restated his position that NGO activism threatens Latin America’s sovereignty and promotes neoliberalism and colonialism:

“The reestablishment of the principles of national sovereignty, that is self-determination, is one of the pillars for the dismantlement of the neoliberal order in Bolivia. We are referring to self-determination as state to define its management of resources and its mode of relating to other states, and also social self determination to define its horizon as a political community in history.”

“That is the main reason why we decided- as a sovereign state- to expel the IMF from the private offices it had in the Bolivia Central Bank; the CIA, which had offices in the Government Palace; the North American military corps, which had an extraterritorial base in an airport in the Bolivian Amazon; USAID and the US ambassador, which conspired along with separatist far right groups, supporting the country’s division into micro-republics under foreign tutelage.”

“National self-determination is a dimension of social self-determination, and no revolution will be able to advance in the deepening of society’s democratic rights without the consolidation of the conditions of state sovereignty. It’s impossible to define the internal horizon of a society (post-neoliberalism, right livelihood, socialism, etc.), without defining its external horizon, without being sovereign. For this reason, we cannot permit any foreign government, enterprise or para-governmental organization to define the public policies of the plurinational state of Bolivia. Otherwise we would be submitting to a neocolonialism.”

Already some intellectuals and academics have responded to García Linera’s open letter. As the contradictions of the Latin American progressive extractivist model accumulate, exacerbated by the drop in international commodity prices, an increase in social and environmental conflict looms ahead. While critical voices point out that the cycle of protest and repression is inevitable in extractivism, the officialist spokespersons of Bolivarian progresismo attribute the expressions of discontent to imperialist manipulations.

This article was originally published in Spanish by the Latin American Information Agency (ALAI) on August 27 2015.

Carmelo Ruiz is a Puerto Rican author and journalist. He directs the Latin America Energy and Environment Monitor, and is a research associate of the Institute for Social Ecology and a senior fellow of the Environmental Leadership Program. His Twitter ID is @carmeloruiz. He currently lives in Ecuador.