In Bolivia, Morales Faces a Challenge from Below


The quasi-socialist government of Evo Morales in Bolivia is facing a popular challenge from below. Since May 6, tens of thousands of striking miners, teachers and health workers have been marching through the streets of major Bolivian cities, clashing with riot police, paralyzing traffic, and confronting government officials in front of ministry buildings. A group of miners even set off dynamite in the streets of La Paz during violent clashes last week, while another tried to occupy the national airport to force the state into concessions.

The general strike and mass protests are part of an attempt by workers organized through the Bolivian Workers’ Central (Central Obrera Boliviana) to secure higher pensions so poor Bolivians can retire in dignity. Despite running a surplus, however, Morales’ government has so far insisted that a rise in public pensions would deplete government revenues, and has in turn cracked down on the protests and called on its main popular support base — the indigenous Aymara people from the highlands — to contest the striking workers in the streets.

Morales claims that the striking workers are aiding the bourgeois right in its attempt to overthrow him through a coup d’étãt. The truth, however, is a bit more complex and a lot less favorable to Morales. As a leader of the indigenous cocalero movement, Morales once rode the wave of a broad-based social movement to take power as Bolivia’s first indigenous President in 2006. His government immediately set out to guarantee the basic constitutional rights of Bolivia’s large indigenous population, engaging in land reforms and nationalizing a number of key industries. In recent years, however, as his government has sought to cater to the structural dependence of the Bolivian state on foreign capital, Morales has increasingly alienated the same grassroots movements that once brought him to power.

The miners, teachers and other workers currently on strike once formed part of the national-popular coalition that built up its momentum in the wake of the Cochabamba Water Wars and the Bolivian Gas Conflict, and that eventually led to Morales’ historical election victory following the ouster of Carlos Mesa in 2005. Many of these workers now feel that Morales’ ruling party, the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), is not going nearly far enough in its social reforms. In a way, the increasingly confrontational stance of workers, lowlands peasants and other grassroots movements highlights the inherent contradiction of the state-power road pursued by the MAS, where the latter increasingly finds itself reproducing the pattern of repressive, pro-capitalist policies that defined previous governments of the right.

Upon coming to power, Morales himself lamented that “the worst enemy of humanity is capitalism,” and claimed that “this is what provokes uprisings like our own, a rebellion against a system, against a neo-liberal model, which is the representation of a savage capitalism.” But rather than making a concerted move towards the abolition of the system that had spawned his rebellion — by supporting the devolution of power to the movements, peasant communities and working places — Morales has sought to centralize power within the state apparatus and the presidency in an attempt to strengthen the “developmental state” and support a process of “endogenous” capitalist development.

Former Vice-President Álvaro García referred to this approach as “Andean and Amazonian capitalism”, and confirmed that “the MAS is in no sense seeking to form a socialist government.” When asked what the Bolivian model is truly about then, García simply answered: “A strong state, and that is capitalism … It isn’t even a mixed system.” The greatest irony, perhaps, is that García is a renowned Marxist intellectual who defends this capitalist route precisely on the basis of the teleological argument that a pre-industrial society like Bolivia’s could never move beyond the capitalist mode of production and should therefore embrace capital to stimulate domestic development.

This Andean and Amazonian capitalism, replete with its shrouds of socialist rhetoric, has in recent years begun to bare its own internal contradictions, culminating in a series of increasingly dramatic popular demonstrations. In late 2010, after Morales issued an IMF-style Supreme Decree cutting fuel subsidies, he faced nation-wide social unrest. Protesters attacked government offices and burned photos of the president, and even his most loyal support base — the coca-growers — mobilized by blocking a major highway. As one tailor from El Alto put it, “We gave Evo a taste of his own medicine. We sent him a message: ‘remember those who put you in power in the first place’.”.

Several months later, in August 2011, the country witnessed another major wave of demonstrations, this time by lowlands indigenous peoples — including the Chimane, the Yuracaré, and the Moreño-Trinitario — who opposed the construction of a new highway straight through an important natural reserve and indigenous territory. The highway was necessary, Morales argued, to facilitate resource extraction in the Amazon and thereby promote national economic development. But the irony of the “defender of indigenous rights” and “World Hero of Mother Earth” cracking down on indigenous movements, killing at least four protesters, was not lost on his own popular base.

In both cases, to his credit, Morales eventually stood down and obeyed the wishes of the movements. But the ongoing workers’ strike shows that the dynamic of contradiction developing at the heart of his Andean and Amazonian capitalism is deepening in a dramatic way. After just having the Constitutional Court approve his bid for a third term in office — even though both the old and the new Bolivian Constitution stipulate that a President may only seek one additional term — Morales does not only seem bent on perpetuating power within his own hands, but also appears to be gradually losing touch with the very people upon whom this power ultimately rests.

Perhaps, then, the “Pink Tide” that has swept leftist leaders into office across Latin America over the past decade is precisely that: a diluted form of red, watered down to the point of degrading into a caudillo-run project of nationalist-populist state capitalism — where the only hope for truly revolutionary social change resides with those who made it all possible to begin with: the people of Latin America, and the grassroots social movements that unite them in all their beautiful diversity.