Stalemate in Bolivia?

Racist Graffiti

What is startling  is the approach many Bolivians use to blame Morales and MAS for the nation’s problems. My colleagues frequently speculate on whether or not their fellow Bolivians are masistasThe term masista is often thrown around as an insult, along with campesino, indio, and Evo, by the few that comprise the middle and upper classes. It is clear that Bolivia continues its battles with racism despite multi-cultural reforms within the past few years that seek to rectify the years of discrimination towards campesinos and indigenous peoples.

On Saturday, March 17, local activists in the pueblo of Huacareta inaugurated the Movimiento al Socialismo office as a part of the official campaign launch for the Prefectura in the Department of Chuquisaca. Returning from a brief visit to the internet café, I decided to briefly listen to the speeches delivered to the several dozen in attendance.

The honesty and the passion in the presentations were humbling, unlike the scripted speeches of professional politicians. The first speaker, a representative of the Guaraní association to the MAS campaign, frequently paused to gather his thoughts and overcome what were apparent jitters. His message, however, resonated with the audience as it was laced with ideas of social justice for the poor campesinos and indigenous peoples. He reflected upon his pride in being Guaraní and in supporting a political party that truly seeks to address the centuries of poverty and injustices inflicted upon his people in Bolivia, rather than being co-opted into a political party filled with false promises. He was most proud of the fact that his president, Evo Morales, the first indigenous president in Bolivia, was swept into office because of the community forces that came together in support of an idea for a better Bolivia.

The event, despite occurring in an isolated town of less than 1,000 people, felt like an extension of a larger movement that is occurring throughout the country and the region. In recognizing that they have come along way since their enslavement under the Spanish conquest, the indigenous peoples frequently pay homage to their historical leaders and ancestors at such events. In the MAS office in Huacareta, a photo of El Che, posted alongside a photo of President Morales and the wiphala flag, scream justice now and forever. With chacarera music blaring, the campesinos, Guaraní, and local residents in attendance had every reason to celebrate their political achievements. But as the speaker himself noted, Bolivia is in crisis and dark days loom ahead.

In the coming weeks, three more departments will vote for autonomy, despite the declaration of illegality of the referendums by the National Electoral Court, the protests of Morales and his administration, and international pressure. Because of the consistent conflicts between Morales and the prefects, Morales, in what could a gamble, quickly agreed to a referendum on his presidency and on the nine prefects, which will take place on August 10. For Morales to maintain office he must match his electoral success in 2005, or he and his Vice-President Alvaro Garcia Linera will have to step down.

The referendum will have critical implications on the future of Bolivia and Morales’s efforts to reconstitute the nation to reflect its true demography and redress centuries of discrimination, poverty, and social injustice. A rejection of Morales may cripple the MAS campaigns, and perhaps the party altogether, shifting the political momentum to the right wing movements based out of Santa Cruz. However, if Morales is successful in the referendum, he will have demonstrated the political will of the people and should benefit from the increased political capital to push his agenda through with widespread support.

What is startling however is the approach many Bolivians use to blame Morales and MAS for the nation’s problems. My colleagues frequently speculate on whether or not their fellow Bolivians are masistas as if they were members of the Soviet KGB. The term masista is often thrown around as an insult, along with campesino, indio, and Evo, by the few that comprise the middle and upper classes. It is clear that Bolivia continues its battles with racism despite multi-cultural reforms within the past few years that seek to rectify the years of discrimination towards campesinos and indigenous peoples.

What is more alarming is that such hatred often penetrates into the workplace, determining the types of relationships that form, while potentially preventing cooperative and collaborative efforts altogether. One non-profit organization in Huacareta, has been working with thirteen Guaraní communities in sustainable agriculture and the formation of an agricultural association. The NGO has been on-site for close to six months, and it recently moved into its new office, through which visitors frequently pass to inquire about micro-credit and for agricultural advice. What is troubling, however, is that after such a period of time, town officials have yet to invite the NGO to present its work for possible collaboration, despite repeated requests by the organization. Only recently did its workers find out that the reason they have not been invited to meet with town officials is because the project they are realizing is strictly for Guaraní communities. Accordingly, the town leaders, who are typically non-campesinos and educated professionals from the middle class, assumed that the NGO officials were either masistas or sympathisers with MAS, or were operating with MAS funds, and therefore they opted not to offer their support, yet.

The decision to prioritize party affiliation and politics over collaboration is dangerous for a country like Bolivia, where the majority of the population continues to experience conditions of poverty. These conditions are rooted in the nation’s political history whereby the indigenous peoples were co-opted as pawns into a political system that allowed a tiny elite to profit while the rest, mainly indigenous, suffered. Politics is about deliberation, decision-making, and the ability to advance an agenda from available political capital and resources with the overall goal of improving the lives of all citizens. The decision by Huacareta officials, and on a larger scale, the vote for autonomy in Santa Cruz, is effectively a by-pass of that political deliberation, a rejection of the proposed changes, an attempt to deny the support for MAS the recognition it deserves as a legitimate political movement, and could be construed as an assault on democracy.

Furthermore, the departmental votes for autonomy in Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando, and Tarija are troublesome. Many Bolivians on the right, including the prefects themselves, argue that decentralization is the key to Bolivia’s future. They believe this will minimize dependence on La Paz, diminish corruption, and ease the redistribution efforts to the poor. These four departments, known as the Media Luna, are the wealthiest departments and are rich in natural resources. There is no doubt that corruption plagues Bolivian institutions, which the Morales administration must also overcome, but there is no reason to believe that autonomy will remedy this. With decentralization, there will instead be a dissemination of corruption, further crippling any potential effectiveness in the state’s institutions. The ability of the individual departments to address conditions of poverty must also be evaluated.

Indeed the poorest Bolivians reside in the departments of La Paz, Oruro, and Potosi and not in those departments that promise fruits of autonomy. Perhaps the push for autonomy is merely a new manifestation of neo-liberal economic hegemony, which has failed to deliver any of the promised benefits to the majority of Bolivians. Bolivia went through “shock therapy” in the 1980’s whereby much of the nationalized mining and gas industry was privatized in order to reduce inflation which had reached several thousand percent. This was hailed as an economic miracle as it did achieve a reduction in the inflation rate and stabilized the economy, but it did so at the expense of the employment of many campesinos and indigenous peoples who were the primary labor force in these sectors. Indeed, following the neo-liberal economic restructuring, which was designed by former President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, many campesinos turned to other areas of employment, including coca cultivation, and others to the streets of the urban areas, to meet their economic needs. The neo-liberal model was hailed by economists and the elite, as well as wealthy politicians in both the industrialized nations and the developing world as a way of reducing “bloated states” plagued by vast public expenses on social programs and national industries. However, what has often resulted from such reforms is an increased concentration of wealth and power instead of creating better opportunities for the poor. The movement under the leadership of Morales, MAS, and the campesinos and the indigenous peoples seeks rectify the injustices perpetuated by this neo-liberal model.

The polarization in Bolivia leaves MAS and Morales, and a majority of the campesinos and indigenous peoples who comprise much of the MAS constituency and and majority of the country, at one end and the right-wing elites out of Santa Cruz at the other, with the future of the country on the line. Santa Cruz is relentlessly pushing on with its move towards autonomy. Last week, it symbolically unveiled the new Casa de Gobierno, which was formerly the Prefectura. Its new legislative assembly also met for the first time, which included several Indigenous representatives and is comprised of representatives nominated by the individual municipalities within the department. While the May 4 referendum did demonstrate 85 percent were in favor of autonomy, 4o percent of the population abstained from voting. Further, the legislative assembly may not be truly representative of the department of Santa Cruz because it is plausible that opponents of the autonomy movement would not recognize, let alone participate in, an institution they perceive as being illegitimate. There are also parallel efforts being made to portray Morales and MAS officials as ignorant and incapable. Attacks against Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera have even extended to speculation about his sexuality, which is a crude attack in a society in which sexism and homophobia are rampant. One cannot help but wonder if Morales would receive the same reaction if he had an education from an elite institution in the United States. Morales has committed mistakes, but that is to be expected of any politician.

While Morales has clearly advocated indigenous interests in his efforts to reconstitute Bolivia, MAS is not just an indigenous political party. MAS is a movement that has managed to unify the labor movement, anti-capitalists, activists, indigenous peoples, academics, and politicians in order to take back Bolivia from the elite control that has dominated the country for so long. After receiving 54 percent of the vote in 2005, Morales had a strong mandate and every reason to be confident in his efforts. The opposition movements since his election however indicate that the new guy in town only gets one shot.

What Bolivia needs is dialogue. The debate over dialogue, however, has shifted back and forth in the recent months. The pro-autonomy prefects recently placed six conditions on negotiations with Morales, two of which included the suspension of the campaign for the new constitution and the legal recognition of the autonomy referendum in Santa Cruz. Their refusal to engage in dialogue with the Morales administration could be construed as a hijacking of the country towards a path of self-destruction. Assuming that the autonomy referendums in Beni, Pando, and Tarija will pass, Bolivia will have four autonomous departments. Where will that leave Bolivia if the central government does not recognize the legality of the autonomous votes and the media luna continue concentrating their power and wealth? Bolivia as a state cannot function with this internal push for autonomy, and while valuable resources are expended on the political campaigns for autonomy, inflation and food prices continue to rise, diminishing food security for many Bolivians. Naturally, those affected most are the historically voiceless and mostly poor campesinos and indigenous peoples, not the wealthy elites in the gas-rich media luna.

The conflicts in Bolivia are difficult to understand. It is a country with a deep demographic and socio-economic divide that often coincides with departmental boundaries. Thus, perhaps what is needed is a reinterpretation of the movement towards autonomy. Kent Eaton offers interesting insight in his article "Backlash in Bolivia: Regional Autonomy as a Reaction Against Indigenous Mobilization," noting that, historically, when right wing movements in Latin America faced crises, they often turned to the military in order to preserve their power. With the military being an effectively nullified force in the politics of Latin American states, however, the conservative movements have been forced to look elsewhere for power preservation. In Bolivia, the conservative political parties have experienced a decline in their ability to control and manipulate legislation with Evo Morales and Movimiento al Socialismo in power. As such, the elites, the business class, and conservative politicians within the departments of Santa Cruz, Tarija, Beni, and Pando, and recently to some extent Chuquisaca and Cochabamba, have unified behind an anti-MAS, anti-Morales, and perhaps an anti-indigenous movement that they have thinly veiled as a movement for autonomy and so-called progress.

I suppose it is daring to imagine a unified Bolivia, but one must maintain hope that the conflicts subside so that the fight for social justice can continue. The failed dialogues over these critical issues have left the country in a stalemate that makes it difficult to address the real issues of poverty, inflation, and food security. While respect must be demonstrated by both sides, the concessions must not be a one-sided compromise by Morales and MAS.

Basil Mahayni is a volunteer in Bolivia working with Guaraní Indians.  He has completed his BA and MA in Political Science and Geographic Information Systems at Iowa State University and will pursue his PhD in Geography at the University of Minnesota this fall.