The Bolivia crisis: Evaluating Evo
One of the best known international leftist writers
assesses what happened in Bolivia’s last elections,
the achievements and errors of Evo’s three terms,
what happened with his fall, and the Left’s critiques.
He ends by pointing to where we must go from here.
This article is a valuable contribution to the debate
such an event demands, provokes and merits.
Boaventura de Sousa Santos
Bolivia’s dramatic events have followed an imperialist script Latin Americans are starting to know well: arrange for the regime change of a government considered hostile to US interests or, better said, to the interests of US transnationals. Do it by setting up a twofold plan: nullify an “adversary” electoral victory and rapidly consolidate the new regime, which takes measures beyond the remit of a transitional government.
We are surprised by the immediate comments on what happened, most of which were unfavorable to Evo Morales’ government even by allegedly opposing ideological quarters. I’m contributing to this debate because I see in Bolivia’s recent events the seeds of much of what will happen on the continent and world in the coming decades.
I’ll start by recounting how I saw Evo’s emergence on the international stage, then address his government’s main achievements juxtaposed to its failures, some of which I have already duly criticized. With a view to the future, my concluding assessment is not only of the continent’s political processes but also of leftist and feminist sectors, based on their critical comments.
A fragile process, an historic event
On April 12, 2007, more than a decade ago, I wrote in an article titled “Aprender con el Sur” (Learn with the South) that in 1537, when Pope Paul III decreed in the papal bull Sublimis Deus that Indians have souls, he opened a long historical process that culminated in 2005 with Evo Morales’ election as Bolivia’s first indigenous President.
Bolivia, with 62% of its population indigenous, I wrote then, is one of Latin America’s richest countries in terms of natural resources and also one of its poorest. The Bolivian process is fragile and its outcome uncertain. In Santa Cruz de la Sierra, center of agrarian capitalism, I saw indigenous constituents being insulted and attacked by far-right groups. What impressed me in their attitude was that, unlike the hegemonic European Left, they were militants of causes not functionaries of things.
I followed the political process initiated with Evo Morales’ electoral victory over the ensuing years. Thus, on February 3, 2009, I wrote about participating as an international observer in Bolivia’s constitutional referendum on January
25. The consultation consisted of two questions: one, whether the voter did or didn’t approve the new Political Constitution passed in the Constituent Assembly in December 2007 and modified by political negotiation in Congress in October 2008. And the other, the maximum size for land ownership: 5,000 or 10 ,000 hectares.
I had the feeling of witnessing an historic event, I wrote, one of the most consistent exercises of high-intensity democracy in our times. It’s been a long time since I witnessed so participatory an electoral event—with a voter turnout of over 80%, so intensely vivid as a democratic festival, so well prepared in logistical and electoral training aspects…
Independent of its outcome, the referendum was a lesson in democracy by a people who showed an extraordinary vocation to submit transcendental political decisions to the popular will… a vibrant but also contradictory historical process, full of risks.
Democracy or social justice?
I identified two main risks: the first relates to the always tense relationship between democracy and social justice. I predicted that those who, years earlier, had been alarmed by a United Nations Development Programmer (UNDP) enquiry finding Latin Americans prepared to sacrifice democracy for a dictatorship that would guarantee them some kind of welfare would have to revise their position if there were a credible democratic alternative; it would be enthusiastically supported in the expectation that it would generate social justice. I then asked: and if that didn’t happen?
Herein lies the first risk: high expectations lead to great frustrations with unpredictable results. This risk is more serious in Bolivia, in that the two questions in the referendum focused on a strong and multidimensional idea of social justice, including socioeconomic, historical, cultural and ethnic aspects. The results were that 61.47% of Bolivians voted in favor of the new Constitution and 80.66% in favor of 5,000 hectares as the maximum extension of land ownership.
I saw that we were facing a new, transformative, constitutionalism based more on popular initiative than on the initiative of the elites, one that celebrates countries’ cultural, ethnic and racial diversity instead of having an allegedly homogenous and always reductive vision of the countries. But will all this civic energy, while strong enough to produce constitutionally innovative texts, be strong enough to make them a reality? If it isn’t, the risk is great.
Some with coup temptations
and Evo with negotiating skills
The second risk, I pointed out, lies in whether the constituent process is able to create a new democratic hegemony capable of neutralizing coup impulses so evident in the first half of 2008.
In economic terms, the new Constitution’s redistributive potential affected a dominant social class that didn’t seem willing to lose its privileges. This divided the Bolivian opposition into one sector that saw Evo Morales as an adversary who would beat them at the polls and another who saw him as an enemy, indigenous to boot, to be brought down by any means possible.
Contrary to what the mainstream media publicized, Evo Morales’ government showed enormous openness to negotiation. To give just one example: contrary to the constitutional wording passed by the Constituent Assembly in December 2007, the new Political Constitution, which came out of negotiations with Congress in October 2008, did not retroactively apply the maximum size of land ownership. As long as it was used productively, the owners of large estates would not be affected, as happened in Brazil. Despite this, I saw the second risk—the collapse of democracy—as real and warned that Bolivia needed regional support in order to neutralize it.
Democracy or capitalism?
Then in August 2012 I wrote this: “Who could imagine, a few years ago, that parties and governments considered progressive or leftist would abandon defending the most basic human rights, such as the right to life, work, and freedom of speech and association, in the name of ‘development’ imperatives?
“Didn’t they win grassroots support and come into power by defending these rights? What happens, once that power is attained, for it to be so easily and violently turned against those who struggled for him [Evo] to be in power? Why is the poorest majorities’ power being exercised in favor of the richest minorities?
“In Bolivia, the government of Evo Morales—an indigenous man put into power by the indigenous movement—imposed, without prior consultation and with an unbelievable series of measures and counter-measures, the construction of a highway in indigenous territory—the TIPNIS National Park—to take out natural resources.
“Neoliberalism imposes its insatiable greed for natural resources, whether minerals, oil, natural gas, water or agribusiness. The territories become ¬land and the peoples that inhabit them obstacles to the development that has
to be promoted as soon as possible. The only truly acceptable regulation for extractive capitalism is self-regulation, which almost always includes self-regulation of governmental corruption. When democracy finally assumes it isn’t compatible with this type of capitalism and decides to resist it, it may be too late. Meanwhile, capitalism may have already concluded that democracy isn’t compatible with it.”
Nationalizing oil and gas,
and the new Constitution
Evo Morales’ first government (2006-2010), the most progressive regarding substantial transformations, was noteworthy for fulfilling what was called the October Agenda, with two essential measures.
The first was the nationalizing of the oil and natural gas industry, implemented with great symbolism on May 1, 2006, although some critics argue that it was really just a renegotiation of contracts with the oil companies. The second
was when, after some difficulties, the Constituent Assembly endorsed the approval of the Plurinational State’s referendum (January 2009) for a new Political Constitution.
With the nationalization of hydrocarbons and of strategic companies such as telecommunications (Entel), which coincided with a bonanza period due to an increase in international raw materials prices, Bolivia emerged from being a mendicant State, “with gaps” as a 2007 UNDP report called it, and advanced with Evo Morales towards being a strong State with a territorial presence.
Public investment became the model’s main source of growth, economic stability and redistribution, praised by
all international organizations. Despite difficulties and delays, important steps were taken towards the strongly desired industrialization of oil and natural gas, as well as other large enterprises: electricity generation, iron mining and the exploitation of lithium reserves.
The new Constitution brought with it fundamental advances and achievements in the framework of the new model of a plurinational State and with and different geographic autonomous areas The constitutional recognition of “native indigenous peasants” and their inclusion in the state structure and public-political sphere was a fundamental success. Recognizing Bolivia’s plurinational character is an achievement under construction whose greatest impulse is the work of the Unity Pact which, in its day, unified the parent organizations. Progress was also made on the long-term establishment of autonomy at different territorial levels, including indigenous self-government.
Another fundamental achievement that must be mentioned is the significant reduction of inequality gaps and, especially, of poverty. According to official data, poverty fell from 59.9% to 34.6% during the Evo government’s terms in office, while extreme poverty fell from 38.2% to 15.2%. Different benefits to the vulnerable sectors contributed to this: the Dignity Pension for senior citizens, the Juancito Pinto bonus for school-age children and the Juana Azurduy bonus for pregnant women.
Different studies by international organizations such as UNDP also point to the Morales government’s achievement in the social inclusion of the “emerging” middle class, as a result of which the number of people with average incomes rose from 3.3 million in 2005 to 7 million in 2018. There is debate, however, about the sustainability of this important broadening of Bolivia’s middle class.
As a result of the new constitutional and regulatory framework, Morales’ government was also notable for important advances in gender equality, equal opportunities between men and women and, especially, the equal presence of women elected to legislative bodies at all levels: the Plurinational Legislative Assembly, departmental assemblies and municipal councils. This has been possible through the constant resolve of women’s organizations. Other obvious achievements include the reduction of inequalities, social inclusion and a drastic reduction in illiteracy.
There are also favorable macroeconomic indicators: in recent years Bolivia led South America in economic growth; the reduction of unemployment by half (from 8.1 to 4.2%); a sustained increase in the minimum wage, increased life expectancy, notable public investment in infrastructure, especially in highways and thousands of construction works in the provinces and rural areas, to mention only some.
Moreover, there has been a substantial achievement that can’t be measured with indicators: the reaffirmation of Bolivia’s dignity and sovereignty in the international context.
Errors, failures and breaking
points in Evo’s government
Just as Evo Morales’ government had undeniable achievements, there were also serious failures and errors.
It was an unquestionably a major error to have bureaucratized the process of change with the alienation, cooptation and division of social organizations and movements that entailed. When strong and autonomous organizations were most needed to monitor and safeguard the achievements gained, they were weakened by the State awarding positions and perks to their leaders.
One failure I have pointed out in previous articles is the early de-constitutionalization, the non-application of the letter of the Constitution. In the post-constituent process the government was weak in implementing some of the Constitution’s major principles, especially regarding the application—not just recognition—of rights.
Governmental mismanagement must also be mentioned, such as the failed gasolinazo (the gas price hike of 2010), the rupture with the lowlands’ indigenous peoples through the government’s aforementioned zeal to build a highway across the TIPNIS (2011), the persistent opting for a development model based on mega-projects and extractivist enterprises without respecting prior consultation, and other policies benefitting the government’s alliance with the Santa Cruz agribusiness sector.
Undoubtedly, a breaking point in democratic terms was the calling of and subsequent lack of recognition of the binding referendum result on reelection (February 2016), in which just over 51% of the population rejected amending Article 168 of the Constitution, thus theoretically preventing the Movement for Socialism (MAS) from running the same ticket again. On the other hand, the transformation process had trouble renewing leaders and became “Evo-dependent.”
The State also imposed limits on the plurinational and autonomous characteristic recognized by the Political Constitution. Despite the initial impulse, the creation of autonomous native indigenous and peasant areas, which
the government apparently didn’t believe in, found itself up against multiple obstacles and requirements. The same thing happened with the autonomous process in general, where progress was slow for various reasons.
Finally, it has to be said that subordinating indigenous justice to ordinary justice, despite the clear constitutional recognition of juridical pluralism, was a mistake. Also the fundamental principle of Good Living, adopted from the indigenous nations and peoples as an alternative to development, was diluted in the aforementioned gamble of Evo’s government on a grassroots national agenda expressed in the Patriotic Bicentennial Agenda 2025, a text that needs special evaluation.
Evo’s downfall: a coup planned
by imperialism and the local elites
If errors exceed achievements in a democracy, the most “natural” result is that Evo Morales would lose the elections. That wasn’t what happened. Evo’s downfall was the result of a coup d’état.
The national Right, some national leftists, and the international Right questioned the coup idea, arguing that there wasn’t a coup but rather “monumental fraud.” They focused their attention on the protest, basically by the traditional urban middle class, which went on a 21-day civic strike against the election results, won again by Evo.
By questioning the qualification of the MAS ticket, despite the binding result of the constitutional referendum of February 2016, they demonstrated that they didn’t participate in the elections in good faith. They defrauded democracy by preparing exclusively for an electoral fraud scenario. In this way they sought to show that Evo’s resignation was due only to the public’s “peaceful mobilization” out of respect for the vote and rejection of “fraudulent” elections.
It wasn’t so. Facts show that a coup plan was activated in Bolivia a lot earlier, with various well-synchronized components between the local elites and US imperialism. In fact, the “fraud” speech was consolidated weeks before the elections and established in several departmental town halls that anticipated not recognizing the vote if Evo won.
The fraud discourse was strengthened by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal’s gross errors. Thus the opponents’ protest went from demanding new elections to demanding the President’s resignation, with a 24-hour ultimatum. It was soon followed by a police rebellion, which abdicated its role of safeguarding security and public order. A “preliminary report” from the OAS audit services also participated, awkwardly talking about “irregularities.” The coup by US imperialism and the political elites, as well as suddenly terminating a constitutional mandate, reached the point of direct intervention by the Armed Forces “suggesting” that the President resign. This was then followed by violent actions against MAS authorities and leaders, forcing his resignation.
Although Evo wasn’t replaced by a military government after his resignation and exile in Mexico, the deed was consolidated by the Senate’s second vice president proclaiming herself President, alleging constitutional succession, even though her party only won 4% of the vote in the elections. Backed by the Police and the Armed Forces, she assumed a mandate full of conservative religious symbols and racist vindictiveness.
in Evo’s downfall
The first moment was when the coup-mongers took advantage of the legitimate, democratic, citizen mobilization to promote violence, such as burning five departmental electoral tribunals. It was an explicitly coup moment: the forcible termination of the presidential mandate by foreign agents—the United States acting through Almagro’s OAS—and by internal actors—civil-political operatives, Police, Armed Forces and local elites. The second was a still fragile and uncertain moment of democratic process with the unanimous decision in the MAS-dominated Plurinational Legislative Assembly to call for new elections.
Also weighing in the evaluation are the two massacres (Sacaba and Senkata), caused by military-police repression and certified by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), acts of vandalism, the action of groups connected to Evo “laying siege to the cities” and the constant operations of political and judicial persecution in the name of “sedition” and “terrorism.”
In summary, Evo’s downfall wasn’t the result of a democratic act validated in citizens’ “punitive vote” as a consequence of the President’s zeal to be reelected: it worked with the implementation of a planned coup. And now it is seeking a difficult, precarious and barely credible channel to return to democratic “normality” at the polls, while continuing to violate human rights.
That return is by disqualifying Evo Morales and his Vice President, Álvaro García Linera, and permitting a transitional government that proposes cancelling international commitments (the withdrawal from ALBA and UNASUR); privatizing strategic companies; further expanding the agricultural frontier; liberalizing the economy with the handing over of natural resources according to the neoliberal recipe; massively changing the diplomatic corps’ ambassadors; replacing the Supreme Electoral Tribunal’s officials, fairly accused of being subordinate to the ruling party, with officials close to the new administration; and, above all, removing the indigenous grassroots national collective from the political horizon, as well as all the demands from the indigenous peoples’ struggles: Good Living, the plurinational character of the State, collective rights, communitarian democracy and respect for Mother Earth.
Bolivia is a laboratory
of what’s coming
The imperialist intervention took advantage of internal errors to neutralize China’s influence in yet another Latin American country, after Brazil and Ecuador.
The rivalry between the two empires—one in decline and the other in ascendance—doesn’t recognize democratic rules. What’s at stake is control of the new globalization wave based on artificial intelligence and 5G technology. At the moment China seems better positioned to control it, which is why it’s advancing internationally with positive incentive measures: the new Silk Road. Meanwhile, the US is intervening with punitive measures: embargos, economic sanctions, regime changes and counteri¬nsurgency.
The multilateral facade is provided by the OAS, which operates in the region as the US internal affairs ministry. Just months before the elections, Evo Morales’ government signed a contract with China for the formation of a company to manufacture metallic lithium based on Bolivia’s enormous lithium deposits, a strategic mineral for the new technological order. It was thus necessary to neutralize this defiance of the always-applicable Munroe Doctrine, which views the subcontinent as the United States’ backyard. So, US imperialism applied the well-known script of regime change in order to guarantee access to the strategic natural resources of a country in its area of influence.
As happened before with Brazil, Bolivia acted as a laboratory of what’s coming. In Bolivia’s case it’s possible to say that never has an anti-imperialist government offered so many opportunities to imperial interference and surrendered so rapidly, in clear contrast to what’s happening in Venezuela.
But imperialism and its Bolivian elites know there are leaders who, despite all their mistakes, are managing to touch the hearts of the most impoverished, humiliated and forgotten classes. Furthermore, despite all those mistakes, there’s the danger they may come back. That’s why it’s necessary to mobilize the repressive apparatus and the judicial system to accuse them of crimes that disqualify them politically, forever, just as happened with Rafael Correa, Lula da Silva and Cristina Kirchner—unsuccessfully in her case, so far. The same will happen with Evo.
The critique of extractivism
Throughout the last decade, many voices on the continent criticized the development model of governments they called progressive so as not to describe them as leftist.
Alberto Acosta, Eduardo Gudynas, Maristella Svampa and many others criticized neo-extractivism and its whole impact on peoples’ lives as a contradiction with what was established in those progressive governments’ own Constitutions.
Raúl Prada and Luis Tapia are notable in Bolivia, as is Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, who was a constant critic, speaking out in favor of government from below, from the indigenous peoples’ ancestral political structures. It is a position that could be considered anarchist from a Eurocentric perspective. Cusicanqui was accurate in criticizing certain aspects of Evo’s government, but her global evaluations often seemed exaggerated to me.
The critique by
feminism and the Left
After the fall of his government, Evo’s strongest critics didn’t come only from the Right, as would be expected, but also from sectors of the Left and from white and mestiza Latin American feminists. This has caused some perplexity and also revolt in other sectors of the Left and of feminism, especially from indigenous women’s movements.
In the heat of recent events, after 32 deaths and 700 wounded, after the proclaimed triumph of a creole-mestiza version of white supremacy and of the Evangelical Bible against the “satanic paganism” of Pachamama, after the burning of the wiphala (a flag representing the Andes’ original peoples) and the ordering of the Indians to go back into their corners and invisibility—just like the South African Bantustans under apartheid—it seems delusional to me to believe there are good or even better conditions in which to build grassroots indigenous democracy. I hope I’m wrong.
Certainly, the criticisms of some leftist sectors, whether explicitly feminist or not, deserve deeper reflection. I have stated many times that one of the most consistent bases for the true renovation of the struggle for a more just society and a liberation policy for the new century is in the women’s struggle. Argentina, Venezuela and Chile offer overwhelming evidence.
Other evidence can be found outside of Latin America. For example, I have written that the current leftist governmental solution in Portugal—the only country in Europe consistently ruled by a leftist or center-left government—is largely due to three young leaders from the Left Bloc, three women of between 39 and 42 years of age, for whom making alliances with other leftist parties in order to take care of the welfare of families affected by the neoliberal and austerity wave (2011-2015) was more important than maintaining the sectarianism and dogmatism that has dominated the Left almost everywhere in the world.
After the fall of Evo Morales’ government, the controversy turned up the volume and Latin American feminism seems deeply divided today. It should be noted that throughout the last decade many indigenous activists criticized their governments and always from a constructive perspective. To limit myself to the great leaders with whom I have worked, I remember Nina Pacari, Blanca Chancoso and María Eugenia Choque. Many of them kept a certain distance from the feminisms, and even refused to consider themselves feminists, thinking it a designation unique to white and mestiza women. The important thing is that they were together in many struggles.
I have argued that the three great dominances of our time, and in fact since the 17th century, are capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy. All three are today very virulently present and act in coordination because the free labor intrinsic to capitalism is not sustained without highly undervalued or unpaid slave labor. The latter are supplied by populations considered subhuman: populations of African descent, indigenous peoples, women, lower casts…
The drama of our time is that while dominance acts in coordination, resistance acts in a fragmented way. How many anti-capitalist movements and organizations were not also racist and sexist? How many anti-racial movements and organizations were not also sexist and pro-capitalist? And how many feminist movements and organizations were not also racist and pro-capitalist?
As long as this asymmetry between dominance and resistance is maintained it won’t be possible to leave the capitalist, colonialist and hetero-patriarchal hell in which we find ourselves. In this asymmetry we will perhaps find clues to explain the discomfort caused by some criticism. The central question will be to assess whether the critique, as formulated, contributes or not to increasing the fragmentation of the resistance to capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy.
There are important
and urgent struggles
Two other factors are equally important. On the one hand we have to distinguish between important struggles and urgent ones. Anti-capitalist, anti-colonial and anti-patriarchal struggles are all equally important but, depending on the context, some may be more urgent than others.
Before imperialism’s brutal coup against Evo in Bolivia, what is the most urgent struggle? Is it to defend the democratic solutions he proposed—even if they are hopeless—or to demonize him as if he were the only one to blame for his political disgrace? In a context of great imperial aggressiveness, wouldn’t it be more urgent to show that leftist alternatives must be found democratically within the country itself and under no circumstances be functional to imperialism?
On the other hand, we have to distinguish the kairós, the opportune time for action. It isn’t a question of silencing the critics, but rather of finding the tone that doesn’t offer reasons for the national and international Right to increase its aggressiveness. For example, couldn’t the just criticisms of Evo’s neo-extractivism be made at a time and in a way that doesn’t favor a yet more neo-extractivist solution, with less national sovereignty and much less concern about social redistribution?
The criterion isn’t whether or not to whitewash the serious errors of potential allies but to analyze the moment and context, and be clear that criticism strengthens or, at least, doesn’t weaken, anti-capitalist, anti-colonial and anti-patriarchal resistance. Do the men and women from below, who today mourn the deaths of their people in the Sacaba and Senkata massacres—after the military hadn’t fired on the public for 13 years, unprecedented in Bolivia—feel more alone or more accompanied with the criticisms about the process in which, perhaps exaggeratedly, they trusted?
Four long-term challenges
Among many other possible challenges, I select four that transcend the Bolivian and even Latin American context: they have to do with the State, the long transition, coordination between resistances, and democracy.
First, the State of which Evo Morales was President did not become plurinational. It was certainly a much more benevolent State with the welfare of peoples scourged by violations, discrimination, neglect and humiliation, but it operated within a colonial, centralist and authoritarian matrix. The inertia of history weighs equally on those who suffer most with it, even when they seek to fight it. But indigenous patience and resistance is centuries old. A country like Bolivia will only be fully democratic when it’s governed by indigenous people according to their world view.
Second, seizing state power only makes sense if it’s oriented to transforming it. State power must be used to start a long transition towards a truly plurinational, anti-capitalist, anti-colonialist and anti-patriarchal State. The learning began with Evo and doesn’t end with him. On the contrary, it’s just a beginning. After 500 years of political absence, a beginning of just 13 years had to be confusing and even contradictory.
Third, anti-capitalist, anti-colonial and anti-patriarchal resistance must always be coordinated so they can strengthen each other reciprocally. On a theoretical level, many movements, and very especially the large majority of feminist movements, know this. The problem is to find the right balance and political criteria in each historical context to formulate it. We have to learn to walk together more and be more humble, recognizing the burden of our limitations and our reciprocal mistakes.
Fourth, liberal democracy has no future and runs the risk of democratically dying by repeatedly electing anti-democratic governments or those that quickly separate themselves from their social bases. In this way, liberal democracy
will increasingly blend into new forms of dictatorship. The real tragedy of the last century wasn’t legitimizing a democracy that easily surrendered or blended into a dictatorship, it was to separate democracy from revolution. Democracy has to be revolutionized and revolution democratized.
Boaventura de Sousa Santos has a doctorate in sociology from Yale University, and is a professor of sociology at Coimbra University (Portugal) and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This article appeared under the title El indio fuera de lugar (The Indian out of place) in www.publico.es on December 31, 2019m and was subtitled by envío.