Revolution against “Progress”: The TIPNIS’s Struggle and Class Contradictions in Bolivia

Source: International Socialism 

Marx says that revolutions are the locomotive of world history. But perhaps it is quite otherwise. Perhaps revolutions are an attempt by the passengers on this train—namely, the human race—to activate the emergency brake.1

In the two and a half months that passed between mid-August and late October of this year, the Bolivian government of Evo Morales entered into its worst crisis to date.2 From a high of 70 percent popularity in January 2010, Morales had plunged by mid-October 2011 to an average 35 percent approval rating across the major cities of La Paz, El Alto, Cochabamba and Santa Cruz.3 The president’s green light to a decades-old project to build a highway connecting Villa Tunari (in the department of Cochabamba) north to San Ignacio de Moxos (in the department of Beni), through the indigenous territory and national park known as TIPNIS (Territorio Indígena del Parque Nacional Isiboro-Sécure), was the catalyst of crisis in this instance.

Beginning on 15 August, lowland indigenous movements—in alliance with fractions of the highland indigenous movement, and later with the support of the urban labour movement—launched a 600-kilometre, 65-day march of protest from Beni to La Paz to prevent the construction of the highway. The march, after having been denounced by state managers as an imperialist conspiracy, and violently repressed en route by police forces on 25 September, eventually forced the Morales government to capitulate to its demands, at least temporarily. There would be no road through TIPNIS.

The bureaucratic leader of the principal highland indigenous peasant confederation (CSUTCB), Roberto Coraite, a prototypical steward of the ruling party’s interests embedded in a popular organisation, embarrassed the government by calling the lowland indigenous protesters “savages”.4 But the political fallout would run deeper still. The minister of defence, Cecilia Chacón, resigned in disgust at the police repression of unarmed protesters on 25 September. The highest echelons of the regime, Evo Morales and vice-president Álvaro García Linera, sought to distance themselves from the police raid once it proved unpopular, allowing chief of staff and minister of the interior Sacha Llorenti to take the hit for the team.

Encapsulating the tenor of the times, the so-called Pact of Unity, an eclectic coalition of various urban and rural social movements and trade unions that had lent support to the ruling Movimiento al Socialismo (Movement Towards Socialism, MAS) at different junctures since 2006, has imploded.5 It was reduced from 11 pillar organisations to merely three at its last national assembly this November, as a consequence of key lowland indigenous groups and urban labour confederations leaving en masse after having been denounced as traitors by government officials.6 The TIPNIS conflict is the most recent, and in some ways most intense, expression of the class contradictions—or “creative tensions”, as government functionaries prefer7—underlying the development model introduced by the Morales government after its assumption of power in January 2006. How did we get here?

Revolutionary moments and bureaucratic stagnation

Evo Morales was elected as Bolivia’s first indigenous president in December 2005 on the heels of a revolutionary epoch. Left-indigenous insurrection shook the city streets and countryside over the first five years of this century. Two neoliberal presidents were overthrown through mass extra-parliamentary mobilisation in under two years—Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada in 2003, and Carlos Mesa in 2005. A counter-power from below emerged in opposition to the capitalist state, in which the popular classes “practised that democracy that we have always wanted: direct, participatory, without intermediaries, in assemblies and councils, in the plazas, the streets, the unions, the communities, the families and the territories, deliberating, deciding and executing what we had decided”.8 The cycle of left-indigenous revolt was a combined liberation struggle for emancipation from the endemic and systematised racial oppression of the indigenous majority as well as their intricately intertwined class exploitation and subordination to imperialism through the racialised form that capitalism assumed in the Bolivian context.9

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