Political Theatre in Bolivia
Returns of Tiwanaku
In late January 2015, the day before his third formal inauguration as President, Morales “turned up for an indigenous ceremonial inauguration at the pre-Inca ruins of Tiwanaku wearing an outfit engraved with the sun god, worthy of an emperor,” reports Andres Schipani for the Financial Times. “The symbolism was fitting: Bolivia’s longest-serving leader has not only championed indigenous rights but also managed to enrich one of Latin America’s poorest countries” (Schipani, 2015).
With the support of more than 60 percent of the popular vote, the symbolic weight of Evo Morales’s third inauguration was heavy. The ceremonial images in Tiwanaku, and later in the National Congress, conveyed the pride of place occupied, at least symbolically, by indigenous peoples, peasants, miners, and workers in the MAS government. According to Bolivian sociologist Fernanda Wanderley, in recent years the predominance of symbolism has often cast a shadow over any coherent evaluation of the fit between the government’s practice and its ostensible ideals and political commitments: “This is the symbolic and political force of this government. The question of whether it is actually committed to these ideals constitutes another register of analysis. And while the sensation of an economic bonanza and macroeconomic stability are maintained, this question will remain secondary” (Wanderley, 2015).
“Indeed,” Schipani notes elsewhere, “shopping centres and restaurants have sprawled in one of Latin America’s poorest countries, and consumer companies appear happy. Supermarket sales rocketed from $71m, before Morales took office, to $444m last year, while restaurant sales grew 686 percent in the same period…. As a local economist known for his policy critiques says: ‘This is the apex of consumerism. Call this model however you want. But please, do not call it socialism, or anti-capitalism, have some respect for Marx, please!’” (Schipani, 2014).
Immediately following the electoral results vice-president Álvaro García Linera published a communiqué in the major newspapers, drawing the central features of what he called the “new political map”: “What has happened in Bolivia in the last decade, is the emergence and consolidation of a type of logical and moral integration of society, that is, an almost unanimous manner of understanding and acting in the world, characterized by the constitutional tripod of: a plural economy with a state axis, recognition of indigenous nations with a government of social movements, and a regime of territorial autonomies” (García Linera, 2014). The establishment of a plural economy driven by state intervention, and indigenous liberation through territorial and political recognition, are said to have ushered in a democratic and cultural revolution, displacing the corruption and injustice of the preceding orthodox neoliberal order with a government of social movements.
With an average growth rate of 5 percent since 2006, impressive drops in levels of poverty and extreme poverty, massive infrastructural projects like the new gondola linking the sprawling shantytown of El Alto with the capital city of La Paz and the Tupac Katari satellite, and social achievements in areas such as illiteracy reduction, it isn’t difficult to see why Morales is popular (Ergueta, 2015). But in what sense does the new political economy introduced by Morales since 2006 offer a radical alternative to neoliberalism, much less a revolutionary transformation of Bolivian society, economy, and state?
The defining feature of the revolutionary process since 2010, according to Álvaro García Linera, is the emergence of what he calls “creative tensions” or contradictions (García Linera, 2011). In arguably his most important book since he became vice-president, Tensiones creativas de la revolución, he describes five stages of what he sees as the Bolivian revolutionary process that began in 2000 with the Cochabamba Water War. In the fifth stage, beginning in 2010, earlier contradictions between two competing projects for society are resolved with the victory of the national-popular bloc over the autonomist-bourgeois bloc of the eastern lowlands, but tensions remain within the constitutive sectors of the process of change itself. In this optic, the creative tensions, if properly managed, can help push along the course of the revolution. They can positively reinforce one another and mutate into productive subjective and objective forces of the revolution.
Mao is García Linera’s point of reference here, as he outlines what he takes to be the primary and secondary contradictions of the conjuncture. The fissures of the former divide the supporting elements of the national-popular project, on one side, and the array of imperial forces lined up against it, together with the remnants of the recalcitrant domestic Right, on the other. The secondary contradictions are the creative tensions internal to the revolutionary process itself. These creative tensions can be transcended through democratic and revolutionary means by the “government of social movements.”
The Bolivian “people” were thus united around plurinationality, indigenous territorial autonomy, and a plural economy – involving public, private, and social-communitarian forms of property, with the state presence in the economy subordinating the other forms of property. The process is in motion toward an integral state, understood as the state’s ultimate dissolution into society, while the economy is moving – even with setbacks – to one dominated by the logic of use-value over exchange-value.
Hunting for Heretics
Viaña tells a somewhat different story about the character of the process from 2010 forward. The defeat of the organized oppositional bloc allowed for the hardening of the most conservative layers within the government, while simultaneously providing a space for the internal divisions within the popular bloc to deepen and expand. Internal dissidents in the ruling party were increasingly depicted as enemies of the process itself, particularly the lowland indigenous organizations, which continued to struggle for meaningful territorial self-determination of indigenous peoples in the parts of the country under their domain.
An initial indication of the new divisions was the government’s conflict with Confederación de Pueblos Indígenas de Bolivia (Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia, CIDOB) in June 2010. In late June, an indigenous march led by CIDOB departed Trinidad, the capital of the department of Beni, in protest against the Organic Plurinational Electoral Law and the Framework Law for Autonomies which the government had just introduced as a means of implementing different components of the new constitution.
The marchers were supported by seven indigenous MAS members of congress from the lowlands, who went on hunger strike in solidarity. The protesters saw the new laws as falling short of historic demands for designated seats in congress for indigenous self-representation; they also argued that the new legislation did not sufficiently encompass respect for consultation with indigenous communities before any development projects are initiated in their territories, and minimized the integrity of indigenous territorial autonomy and therefore self-determination in the lowlands. Specifically, they wanted the immediate approval of mechanisms that would better protect the recognition of Communitarian Lands of Origin (TCOs) (Viaña, 2012: 378).
The CIDOB activists were dismissed by government officials as “dividers” (fraccionalistas) of the national-popular bloc, playing into the hands of imperialism and the domestic Right. The government proved increasingly incapable of distinguishing between indigenous lowland activists and the right-wing governors of the media luna departments that had attempted the civic-coup in 2008. Even if it was true that conservative political forces and liberal NGOs were attempting to steer the dynamics within lowland indigenous protests – as they inevitably were, and as they have done throughout the recent past – the rejection of CIDOB’s basic claims in the protest was an extraordinary miscalculation on the part of the government. The political error, as Viaña points out, was to deny the fundamental legitimacy of the lowland indigenous struggle, and to therefore move from negotiation toward directing all of the resources of the state against the movement. If the government is actually committed to plurinationality, Viaña contends, a fundamental requisite in the lowlands is respect for the territorial integrity of the 26 million hectares of TCOs such that the lowland indigenous peoples can, in material and cultural terms, continue to reproduce themselves (Viaña, 2012:380, 386).
The tensions with CIDOB were followed by the disastrous “gasolinazo” of December 2010, whereby the government attempted to slash subsidies to gasoline, raising prices by 80 percent. Jaime Paz Zamora was the last Bolivian President to have attempted this kind of thing – in his case a 35 percent increase in 1991, at the height of the neoliberal experiment – and it almost led to the downfall of his administration. Predictably, major protests erupted in December 2010 and forced the Morales government to retreat, but the initiative signalled a growing arrogance on the part of the ruling party. The near total evaporation of the oppositional bloc between 2008 and 2010 had allowed for the consolidation of the most conservative layers within the MAS and a shift in their focus toward policing dissident sectors within the national-popular bloc that had repeatedly defended the process against the Right since 2006 (Viaña, 2012: 379-380).
Crisis in TIPNIS
By mid-2011, the emergent divisions within the national-popular bloc escalated when Morales gave a green light to a decades-old plan to build a highway connecting Villa Tunari (in the department of Cochabamba), north to San Ignacio de Moxos (in the department of Beni) through Isiboro-Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park (TIPNIS) (Webber, 2015). The TIPNIS highway conflict set off indigenous marches by those lowland indigenous groups asserting their right to self-government and prior consultation before any development project is planned and executed. The government in turn sponsored counter-demonstrations and sent in police to repress the marches. The indigenous protests were, the government argued, manipulated, even led, by foreign NGOs and the domestic Right. While there is evidence that American interests and the Bolivian Right have sought to intervene in the TIPNIS crisis to their own ends – as they will always do, given the opportunity – the organic character of the movement’s core is difficult to dismiss even by the most blinkered government loyalists. It is worthwhile to note, too, the presence of voices within the TIPNIS indigenous marches that have been critical of their organizations’ leaderships for being insufficiently attuned to the Right’s attempts to coopt their struggle.
The TIPNIS crisis led to the first major formal ruptures within the rural bases of the national-popular bloc that had until then lent critical support to the government. In late-2011, CIDOB, together with the Consejo Nacional de Ayllus and Markas of Qullasuyu (National Council of Ayllus and Markas of Qullasuyu, CONAMAQ), split from the Unity Pact, a coalition of indigenous-peasant forces that had wed together these two organizations alongside the Confederación Sindical Única de Trabajadores Campesinos de Bolivia (Unified Syndical Confederatoin of Rural Workers of Bolivia, CSUTCB), Confederación Nacional de Mujeres Campesinas Indígenas Originarias de Bolivia “Bartolina Sisa” (Bartolina Sisa National Confederation of Peasant, Indigenous, and Aboriginal Women of Bolivia, CNMCIOB-BS), and the Confederación Sindical de Comunidades Interculturales de Bolivia (Syndicalist Confederation of Intercultural Communities of Bolivia, CSCIB). The Unity Pact had been the most important left-indigenous organization in the context of the Constituent Assembly process, oftentimes explicitly advocating proposals to the left of the executive representatives of the MAS (Viaña, 2012:382).
Once CIDOB and CONAMAQ had formally left the Unity Pact, the MAS initiated a concerted effort to undermine their capacities to independently represent lowland indigenous groups – in 2012, dissident supporters of the government within CIDOB disclaimed the elected authorities and called for “an extended commission” through which new ones would be elected. More dramatically, in December 2013, minority affiliates of the MAS within CONAMAQ occupied the organization’s headquarters in La Paz, beating and expelling the legitimate authorities. They did so with the support of the police, who guarded the headquarters and prevented the return of CONAMAQ’s elected representatives (Zibechi, 2014). In sum, the CIDOB conflict of June 2010, the gasolinazo of December 2010, the TIPNIS conflict of 2011, and the splits in the Unity Pact later that year, represented a new consolidation of the most conservative layers of the governing party, and the identification of internal dissidents as enemies of the “process of change.”
The notion of a plural economy advanced by García Linera and others within the Morales administration cannot account for the tendencies of concentration and centralization within capitalist accumulation. As economists Carlos Arze and Javier Gómez have pointed out, the contradictory dynamic between large scale capitalist enterprises in the extractive industries and forms of smaller scale production-for-the-market which are subsumed into capitalist accumulation, causes an array of unstable developments across intermediary class sections in Bolivian society. Street vendors, petty extractivists, small-scale industrial producers, and medium-scale producers involved in commercial agriculture for export, all at incipient levels of accumulation, are increasingly making political demands on the Bolivian state to improve their competitive prospects on the market (Arze and Gómez, 2013:164).
In the absence of structural changes to social property relations under the Morales administrations, these kinds of demands have lead the state toward policies of improving the profit margins of these petty sectors at the expense of waged labour: depression of salaries, further precarity in labour relations, flexibilization of territorial rights to self-determination of rural indigenous communities, relaxation of environmental regulations, and loose implementation of the law vis-à-vis contraband import-export activities and the narcotics industry (Arze and Gómez, 2013:165).
Furthermore, the favourable evolution of own-account workers over the last several years – through access to credit and subsidies, among other measures – has allowed some segments of this layer of the population to transform themselves into small-scale capitalists, who then accumulate profits through the exploitation of waged labour. Such phenomena is observable in mining, contraband trade, commercial agriculture, and urban transport sectors, among many others areas of the Bolivian economy (Arze and Gómez, 2013:166).
In such an environment, as Arze and Gómez point out, it is difficult to discern any movement toward communitarian socialism or vivir bien (living well). Instead, what is notable is a typical configuration of dependent capitalism, in which foreign capital dominates an extractive sector destined for export markets, while a layer of smaller domestic capitalists assumes a structurally subordinate position; both of these sectors, meanwhile, live off the exploitation of Bolivian laboring classes. The state is not “integral” here, at least in the manner envisioned by García Linera. Rather it is a typical capitalist state which ensures, as best it can, the reproduction of capitalist accumulation.
The emergent layers of petty capitalists have been drawn in large part from Bolivia’s indigenous population. And it is precisely these emergent social sectors, in alliance with older dominant sectors in Bolivian society – agroindustrialists, mining capital, and foreign oil corporations – that have consolidated themselves and articulated their interests in the influential circles of the government, as left-oppositionists and indigenous plurinationalists have been pushed out (Paz, 2014). The logic of big capital runs alongside the legitimating function of indigenous bourgeois class formation.
As anthropologist Sarela Paz points out, there have always been contradictions within the national-popular bloc, but these have risen decisively to the foreground since 2010. Cooperative miners (with links to transnational mining capital), coca growers (with interests in commercializing land and legalizing holdings as individual rather than collective titles), and commercial traders of El Alto and the western highlands (with links to Chinese capital) are among the most powerful players within the MAS today (Paz, 2014).
Any demands from popular sectors that might move the process of change in a more radical direction – defence of collective property of land, territorial indigenous autonomies in the lowlands, socialized control of agro-industry, limits on the growth of genetically modified products, development of a state mining sector, trade policies that seek limits on trade liberalization and to strengthen national agricultural and manufacturing – do not sit comfortably with the aspirations of these new emergent sectors and their geometries of power (Paz, 2014).
At the epicentre of the governance formula underpinning the MAS administration today is an alliance between agro-industrial capital of the eastern lowlands and transnational capital in the hydrocarbon and mining sectors, on the one hand, and the incipient indigenous bourgeoisie in cooperative mining, commercial trading, contraband, and narcotics. Large capitals operating in Bolivia understand politically that older forms of exercising domination over society through explicit racism and conservative political parties is no longer tenable, and they are willing to share power with upwardly mobile indigenous capitalists. Meanwhile, these emergent indigenous layers are threatened by the objective interests of those indigenous workers and peasants below them in socializing wealth, natural resources, land, and the productive bases of the Bolivian economy, and are therefore willing to tactically align themselves with the most reactionary elements of the media luna business sectors (Paz, 2014).
The inherent class contradictions within the model of accumulation adopted by the MAS since 2006 have been partially concealed in the context of an external environment characterized by an extraordinary commodities boom. Natural gas exports to Brazil and Argentina accounted for 54.7 percent of total exports in 2013, while mining exports were 25.4 percent of the total. Just over 80 percent of total exports that year were of primary materials, a fact which obviously makes the country’s economy vulnerable to volatility on international markets in the medium to long term, but which brought in bountiful revenue during the height of the commodities super-cycle (2003-2011) (CEPB, 2014:33-34).
Significant spending on public infrastructure in the boom years contributed to a spike in domestic demand, and together with rising incomes, remittances from abroad, and targeted cash transfer programs, helped reduce poverty from 62.4 to 36.3 percent between 2002 and 2011, and extreme poverty from 37.1 to 18.7 percent over the same period (CEPAL, 2013:95). This is undoubtedly one of the most important factors in explaining Morales’s ongoing popularity, despite the fact that these figures are mirrored elsewhere in the region, which has seen overall declines in poverty rates during the commodities boom. Neighbouring Peru, for instance, a paragon of market liberalism, has also witnessed falls in poverty from 48.7 percent in 2001 to 21.1 percent in 2013 (CEPAL, 2013:96).
Skimming from the rent generated, many progressive South American governments have established what Uruguayan sociologist Eduardo Gudynas terms “compensatory states,” whose legitimacy rests on the modest redistribution achieved through the priming of often pre-existing cash-transfer programs to the extremely poor, without touching the underlying class structure of society. Indeed, the reproduction of these political economies depends on states prioritizing the maintenance and security of private property rights and juridical environments in which multinationals can profit (Gudynas, 2012).
Austere Times Ahead?
In 2014, the world economy picked up slightly from 2013, with aggregate growth moving from 2.4 to 2.6 percent (CEPAL, 2013b:7). The growth of “developing countries” continued to decelerate, however, even if growth levels in the developing world continue to be superior to growth of the developed world. On average, developing countries grew at 4.4 percent in 2014.
In this worsening global context, the overall GDP of Latin America and the Caribbean reached only 1.1 percent in 2014, the lowest since 2009. But there were important differences in the rhythm of growth in different countries. Most significantly, there was a lack of dynamism and even contraction in some of the region’s major economies: Argentina (-0.2%), Brazil (0.2%), Mexico (2.1%), and Venezuela (-3.1%) (CEPAL, 2013b:8). By contrast, the fastest growing countries were Panama and the Dominican Republic (both 6.0%), followed by Bolivia (5.2%), Colombia (4.8%), and Guyana and Nicaragua (both at 4.5%) (CEPAL, 2013b:9).
The fragility of the current regime of accumulation in Bolivia is precisely related to deteriorating external conditions and the deepening of the primary export model within the country over the Morales period (CEPB, 2014:14). Household spending continues to be the key driver of growth in Bolivia in an immediate sense, but household demand itself has been contingent on the spin-off dynamism of wider sectors of the economy as a result of natural gas and mining mineral extraction, allowing for bigger incomes and cash-transfers as well as significant spikes in public spending on infrastructure and construction (CEPB, 2014:38). In 2013, 40 percent of public spending was targeted in infrastructure – in transport, especially, followed by energy and communications. After infrastructure, 27 percent of public investment was directed toward the productive sector (first hydrocarbons, followed by mining and agriculture). Social investment in a broad sense amounted to 29 percent of public spending that year, which was 46 percent more than it had been in 2012 – not least because of the approaching general elections. Spending on health and social security was still quite minimal as a proportion of the overall spending, at only 4 percent, while education and healthcare received 8.7 percent, basic sanitation 5.4 percent, and urbanization and housing projects 10.8 percent (CEPB, 2014:22-23).
The Economy Minister, Luis Arce, insists that the Bolivian economy can continue to grow in 2015 at rate of 5 percent, even if the price of oil drops to $US 30 per barrel, because of the $15 billion in international reserves which can be drawn on if it proves necessary to re-prime domestic activity (Página Siete, January 28, 2015). However, Gonzalo Chávez, an economist at the Catholic University in La Paz, estimates that export earnings from gas will plummet by at least $US 1.3 billion in 2015, equivalent to 4 percent of GDP, assuming an average oil barrel at $US 60. For Chávez, 5 percent growth is achievable with oil at between $US 90 and 100 a barrel, whereas the maximum rate of growth at $50 to $60 a barrel would be between 3.4 and 4 percent (Schipani, 2015).
Running out of Steam
The social landscape of contemporary Bolivia is perhaps more privy to misunderstanding than any other country in Latin America. Amidst the revelry of the first indigenous President in republican history assuming office, a bonanza of consumerism unparalleled in recent Bolivian history, and enormous public modernization projects of highways and satellites, all introduced under the rubrics of indigenous liberation and communitarian socialism, disquieting new forms of class rule and domination have been easy to downplay or ignore altogether.
With the autonomist Right of the eastern lowlands put to rest by 2009, conservative layers within the MAS have quietly consolidated their power in novel ways. The demonization of indigenous lowland organizations has advanced alongside the incorporation of the Santa Cruz bourgeoisie into the inner circles of state power. In the midst of a world-historic commodities boom, with the pace of capital accumulation reaching new heights by Bolivian standards, emergent indigenous bourgeois sectors in the western highlands, whose interests are rooted in cooperative mining and commercial trading, have consolidated their influence in the government, and aligned themselves politically against any deepening of the process of change toward socialization of land, property, and natural resources. This new matrix of economic rule has been legitimated politically through the distributive mechanisms of a compensatory state in times of abundance. Now that South America is being pulled into the Age of Austerity, however, with contracting economies in Bolivia’s key trading partners, Brazil and Argentina, it is increasingly difficult to take the self-assured pronouncements of the Economy Minister at face value.
Arze, Carlos, and Gómez, Javier, “Bolivia: ¿El ‘proceso de cambio’ nos conduce al vivir bien?”. En: C. Arze, J. Gómez, Pablo Ospina, and Víctor Álvarez, eds., Promesas en su laberinto. Cambios y continuidades en los gobiernos progresistas de América Latina. La Paz: CEDLA, 2013
CEPAL, Panorama Social de América Latina 2014. Santiago: CEPAL, 2013. [2013a]
–, Balance Preliminar de las Economías de América Latina y el Caribe 2014. Santiago: CEPAL, 2013. [2013b]
CEPB, Bolivia en el contexto económico mundial – 2013. La Paz: Confederación de Empresarios Privados de Bolivia, 2014.
Ergueta, Drina “La revolución pendiente”. In: Página Siete, January 27, 2015.
García Linera, Álvaro, Tensiones creativas de la revolución. La Quinta fase del Proceso del Cambio. La Paz: Vicepresidencia del Estado Plurinacional, 2011.
–, El Vicepresidente describe el nuevo campo político en Bolivia. La Paz: Vicepresidencia del Estado Plurinacional de Bolivia, 2014.
Gudynas, Eduardo, “Estado compensador y nuevos extractivismos: Las ambivalencias del progresismo sudamericano”. In: Nueva Sociedad 237, 2012.
Paz, Sarela, “Elecciones providenciales en Bolivia y los rumbos del ‘Proceso de Cambio’”. In: Pueblos en Camino, October 11, 2014.
Schipani, Andrés, “Wealth Redistribution and Bolivia’s Boom”. In: Financial Times, October 10, 2014.
–, “Bolivia: Lower Gas Prices and Andean Deities”. In: Financial Times, January 22, 2015.
Viaña, Jorge, “Estado plurinacional y nueva fase del proceso boliviano”. In: Mabel Thwaites Rey, ed., El Estado en América Latina: Continuidades y rupturas. Buenos Aires: CLACSO, 2012.
Wanderley, Fernanda, “La dimensión simbólica del Gobierno de Evo Morales”. In: Página Siete, February 11, 2015.
Webber, Jeffery R., “Revolution against ‘Progress’: Neo-Extractivism, the Compensatory State, and the TIPNIS Conflict in Bolivia”. In: Susan Spronk y Jeffery R. Webber, eds., Crisis and Contradiction. Marxist Perspectives on Latin America in the Global Political Economy. Leiden: Brill, 2015.
Zibechi, Raúl, “Developmentalism and Social Movements in Bolivia”. In: Americas Program, December 9, 2014.