Democracy from Below in Bolivia: An Interview with Oscar Olivera

“[W]e don’t believe in a democracy of parties, where just a few leaders make all the decisions.  We want a democracy of participation, a democracy where the people can make decisions about their own future.” – Oscar Olivera

Oscar Olivera is an activist, thinker, and writer based in Cochabamba, Bolivia. He was a leader during the uprising in 2000 in Cochabamba in which the people of the city threw out Bechtel, the multinational corporation that had privatized all the water in the city – even the rain that people collected. (His book on that process is listed in the bibliography at the end of this interview.) This interview was conducted in Cochabamba, Bolivia on January 27, 2012.

Peter Lackowski: People have criticized the government of Evo Morales in two ways. They say that it is neo-liberalism without privatization, and that it is excessively confrontational. Can you provide examples of these?

Oscar Olivera: The government of Evo Morales is a government that did not come from above.  It didn’t come from propaganda or electoral competition.  It has risen from the base, from a process of popular struggles of indigenous people.  It took its legal form through a popular vote.  Evo Morales came to the government with two mandates.  One is a substantial change in the economic model, the model of development that has been imposed for many years.  The historical model was established in Potosi, development that was simply looting, without benefiting our people.  This history of plunder and expropriation of our natural resources was forcefully rejected by our people in the water war of 2000 and the gas war of 2003. So the mandate is clear:  we want another model and we want a model fundamentally based on respect and complete harmony with nature.  This is a clear mandate of the people, simple but very profound.  We are going from a model where everything–trees, animals, water–is converted into merchandise or commodities to another model of where these things belong to everyone.

The other clear mandate is that we don’t believe in a democracy of parties, where just a few leaders make all the decisions.  We want a democracy of participation, a democracy where the people can make decisions about their own future.  In 2005 the government of Morales came to power with those two main ideas.  I believe that these two mandates have not been accomplished by the government.  We have an economic model that is continuing with the extractivist model that hands over our territory to transnationals, a model of plunder–a model that has absolutely not changed.  We cannot deny that the government has been able to negotiate better terms, especially with the oil companies; the Bolivian state gets better royalties.  But what happened on May first of 2006 was in no way a real nationalization or taking over by the state of our hydrocarbons.  And it is the same with the government’s discourse about respecting the rights of mother earth and and harmony with nature.  A clear example is the giving away of extensive tracts of land for oil and mining exploration.  A pathetic example of the process of plundering and destruction of the natural environment of Bolivia is San Cristobal mine near the salt flats of Uyuni.  The Japanese enterprise running that mine is taking out over a billion dollars per year, and it just pays a few million in taxes–it’s nothing.  That mine consumes as much water as all of Cochabamba.  They mine silver and lead–the biggest open face mine in the world.  And more recently there is the highway through the TIPNIS national park, destroying a natural area and an indigenous territory simply because Brazilian transnationals want it.  We could go on with many more examples.

As to the other subject, a more participatory democracy, an institutional model that would allow us to have real participation in making decisions in this country, that doesn’t exist either.  Even though a new constitution was put in place three years ago, this constitution was not made in the way people wanted to write it.  What people wanted was a new form for living together in this country for the next fifty years without political parties, without the monopoly of the political parties.  But that is what happened.  The convocation for the constituent assembly that wrote the constitution was decided upon by four people, and the final result was determined by the chiefs of the four parliamentary parties.

There are two other things.  One is an attitude of the MAS toward structure of the state, an attitude that goes from the president down to the last functionary of the state, an arrogant attitude of defamation, criminalization, of any criticism from civil society.

The other issue is the narcotraffic.  At this time in Bolivia we are living with a tremendous level of narcotrafficking.  It is observed and tolerated by the state structure, the government knows about this expansive activity, the production as well as the traffic.  I think that this force of narcotraffic will exert a lot of pressure distorting not just the economy of the country but also it will be felt in the content of the government’s decisions.

So, the conditions of life for the people, particularly in the city, have not changed much, they have gotten worse in many sectors.  However, in rural areas the situation has changed.  Government policies have led in improvements in peoples’ lives.  But from the perspective of promoting productive communitarian processes that have long term sustainability? There have been services–water systems, schools, hospitals.  But there has been little done to promote productivity in rural areas.

Thus, people feel disenchanted, they expected things from the government, but they see that the situation doesn’t change.  I think that a year ago people were afraid to talk about what they were feeling about what was happening, but now there are more sectors of Bolivian society that are speaking up more bravely and firmly.  There is in Bolivia a very vigorous and hopeful process of articulation to recapture those two agendas that were so important in 2000 and 2003.

TIPNIS–the march for TIPNIS has been a key point, for two reasons.  People went after what they wanted with absolute certainty.  They did not want the development model that the government was planning, or that it was continuing.  They did not want a political model substantially based on decisions made by a few without the participation of the population.  And the other is that people were going to change things and not depend on a caudillo; the people themselves like in 2000, 2003, 2010 and then in 2011, that only a process of mobilization of the people is what will change things, not the will or the power of any political party.

So these are things that provoke conflicts with the people.  There is the discourse of the government and a reality that is very different.  There is an external image, but it does not correspond to the concrete reality.

PL: The gasolinazo (massive demonstrations in response to a big increase in fuel prices in December 2010) was a spontaneous reaction to a government action.  Since then has any coherent organization emerged that can systematically confront the government?

OO:  That’s a good question, because Bolivia and the world in general is in a very profound process of questioning all that is going on.  In the United States, in Spain, in Egypt a year ago, generally in Arab countries, in Europe, in Greece.  It is series of popular uprisings that is not so spontaneous but rather organized, the product of a kind of suffering of the population from economic policies of the authoritarian governments all over.  Here it happened in 2000 and 2003.  The policies of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, authoritarian governments, privatization–exactly like what is happening now in Europe.  People want to construct something different.  What we were proposing in 2000 and 2003, a new kind of economy, a way to recover politics for the people.  I think that people in Europe and the United States and here in 2000 and 2003 did not fight for a political party.  They fought to get back politics not understood as a form in which someone rules over other people, but politics as a form to establish a type of relationship, a way of living together.  A new way of living together not based on competition, individualism, but rather on solidarity, equality, complementarity.

Political parties or caudillos like Morales, like Correa, like the Peronists in Argentina, that are governments that are the result of an upsurge of a social movement, like in Egypt today, for example, these caudillos and the system they are part of have the remarkable ability to expropriate that social force, that constructive energy, they are very good at taking up this new discourse while the people are once again left waiting with just their hope.  Curiously, in every society after any big change there are two institutions that survive no matter what: political parties and religions.  So in Egypt the Muslims have taken 75 per cent of the state apparatus, of the Egyptian congress and the other quarter are from Mubarak’s party.

So here people don’t want to make any party. I think that in Egypt and in Europe and in the United States it’s the same: the same people who don’t want to form a party they don’t want to be part of a church either.  So I think people are looking for what we want that form to be. So we won’t be a political party that doesn’t last long, followed by the comeback, and so they go on cheating the people and all that. Nor do people want a religion, a church like in the old days. I think that people are looking for a form of political organization that provides a way to effectively change their lives.

So I think the great challenge today is what form of political organization gives us the means to change our conditions of life. Parties don’t work and neither do religions. Now what?

So getting back to your question: I think that in Bolivia the interesting thing is that Bolivia is an extensive territory in permanent deliberation, I would say. In other words, people are always waiting to see what’s going on, and I think that’s a big problem for any government. This is not subordinate, submissive people; it’s not a people who are indifferent to what is going on. It’s a people who are always…you go to a beauty shop, stand in line at the market, people are talking politics, about what’s going on. So I think the good thing is that people are searching here in Bolivia, and in the world, I would say: what do we want to be? I think that the great challenge is, as the companeros here say, to be in the opposition. I think it is a process of structuring a social base that is looking for what to do in the long term. Not only for elections. Elections can be a step, but I think people have gone beyond this kind of democracy that doesn’t work.

PL It’s clear that you have decided not to take part in the machinery or the political circling. But government is a daily reality. So if you won’t decide to get involved in the politics of the state, who should it be?

OO: Look, I believe that in the whole world there is a kind of breakdown of the connection between the social base–the population–and the state apparatus. In other words, the parties don’t work, religions aren’t working…and why? I would say that it’s a question whether here or in the United States with Obama, in Egypt with Mubarak, in the Arab countries, in Spain, in Greece… Why don’t people see a response from their state, from their government, from state organizations in general? Because the states have given up acting as such. How shall we say this? It is no longer a struggle as in the past, that perhaps very simple analysis that was made between the workers and the bosses, between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, as we say. These are not the contradictions in themselves. I would say that the contradictions are hardly between the peoples and the governments. Like here, with Evo, no? It’s not a problem between the people and Evo because Evo wants to construct a highway though the TIPNIS [the Isiboro-Secure Indigenous Territory and National Park]. I would say rather that in the whole world a conglomeration of social organizations, a social framework stands against the policies of a group of transnationals that use the states as vehicles to continue plundering.

So it is not a struggle between parties or leaders. That is, who defines the economic policies of Greece? Not the Greek government. It’s the bankers, the transnationals. And here, who defines where the highway goes through the TIPNIS? Evo Morales? The government? No, it is the Brazilian transnationals who are interested in having a route for exporting iron to China. So the states have left off being nation states as such.

And this is leading to extremes, as in the case of Greece, which to me is emblematic. Greece at this moment [January 2012] has a president who was chosen not by the electoral route, he was appointed, I don’t know by whom, but he is a banker. in other words, Greece doesn’t exist anymore. So I think that this new world-wide reality is showing us that the battles now are not in each nation, between parties, between caudillos, between social sectors, between rich and poor. It is this group of transnationals who already have everything and their plan of plunder and destruction versus the people who are organizing a platform to confront these powers. So there are the movements of the “indignados” [indignant ones], like here in 2000 when the people came out against the sale of gas to Chile. It is these policies of the transnationals that start a rapid process of articulation of society to confront these policies of plunder and destruction and of ignoring that people exist. Because for these guys people don’t exist, that is, we don’t exist. That fact, that attitude of considering that you don’t exist, and making all the decisions–“Here is where the highway will go, or we’ll construct a tunnel or build a dam,” as if the people didn’t exist– it’s this that produces, I would say, a process of articulation of indignation. That is what is happening in the world, facing the destruction.

Sharyl Green:  I’m wondering about any initiatives you are working on now. Are you watching what is going on in the world in order to take action, or are you involved in things that respond to this situation?

OO:  I think that one of the particularities of this government, the major crime that it has committed is that a government that rose up out of a series a popular rebellions, this social base that was strong, autonomous, vigorous, very horizontal, very participative, a really strong social base that succeeded in throwing out transnationals, succeeded in throwing out presidents, and brought to this government that came afterwards its strength and its autonomy–that was destroyed by this government.  It cut down those important, fundamentally rural social movements.  Cut them down–bought them off, we say. Afterwards they discredited those social movements who said, “We will maintain our autonomy in relation to any government.

I think that the social fabric, the social base that was so strong and autonomous, and that brought Evo Morales into the government does not exist today. Rather, they are following a process of confrontation, they have policies that are totally discriminatory between sectors.  In other words, there is a disintegration, I would say, of the social fabric that we constructed so laboriously starting in 2000, here in Bolivia. So I think that many people are starting over what we started twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years ago.  We’re doing it again. We are in a process of organization, gaining space from meeting, analysis, proposals, so as to see farther than the parties, farther than the state. That is to say, we are gathering our forces. We are informing people about what is happening–confronting the discourse of the government with what is really going on.

For example, we have got together a group of people, some of whom were in the MAS government, people who supported the MAS electoral process, people who have maintained their autonomy. We have worked in different ways. We’ve written articles that sometimes turn into books, in magazines of every type, answering the false policies of the government and also informing the population about what is really happening.

These are two books that have come out in recent months. [See bibliography below.] This [book is by] a group of writers from Mexico to Argentina who are journalists, activists, social scientists, sociologists…Some are well known, like Raul Zibechi and Raquel Gutierrez. And this one that we have recently published is more about internal problems. Its title is very suggestive, isn’t it? [Shows us a mask resembling the face of Evo Morales, the same mask which is used as an illustration on the cover of the book La MAScarada del Poder.] It’s a mask of Evo’s indigenous face, but behind it is a government that has neatly accommodated itself all over again to these neo-liberal economic policies, and a kind of democracy that we call authoritarian, exclusionary, and discriminatory. That’s the process we are in.

PL: Is there a risk that things might get worse, like a strong uprising of the right against the government, a coup d’etat, or a military coup? In other words, how real is the possibility that things could get worse?

OO: I don’t think there would be any such regressive process. I have an absolute confidence in the people who paid for this process with so much sacrifice and without knowing how to do it. I believe that it would be very difficult for the rightists to return, or a military coup. I think that the people are not going to defend Evo Morales, either.

The important thing is to think beyond Evo Morales, beyond an electoral process. That is, how are we going to maintain this process that cost the people so much, and how will we press on? What a big thing it is to do!

PL: Is another constitutional constituent assembly needed?

OO: I think so. But a constituent assembly without the involvement of parties. Without parties. That’s what I said in the beginning [before the assembly that wrote the current constitution.]

SG: Are women very involved in this social framework? Are they active?

OO: I think that at the social base, yes, there is a participative process that is very ascendant. In the state, even though there is an important presence of women, I think their presence is decorative, but quite subordinate.

SG: At this level, not at the level of the government, but rather in the social base, is there gender equity?

OO: Yes.

[At this point Olivera had other commitments and the interview ended.]


Cochabamba: Water War in Bolivia , by Oscar Olivera in Colaboration with Tom Lewis, South End Press, 2004

La MAScarada del Poder, by Alejandro Almaraz, Omar Fernandez, Roberto Fernandez, Jorge Komadina, Pablo Mamani, Oscar Olivera, Pablo Regalski, and Gustavo Soto, Textos Rebeldes, Cochabamba, 2012

Palabras para tejernos, resistir y transformar en la epoca que estamos viviendo , by Raquel Gutierrez, Raul Zibechi, Natalia Sierra, Pablo Davalos, Pablo Mamani, Oscar Olivera, Hector Mondragon, Vilma Almendra and Emmanuel Rozental, Textos Rebeldes, Cochabamba, 2011