Thursday, July 18, 2013

The MAS government in Bolivia: Are the social movements in power?


This following article is of particular interest for its discussion of the relationship between the Bolivian government leadership, the indigenous and peasant organizations, and the party based on the latter that is led by President Evo Morales and his team.

Some foreign observers have argued that with its election in 2005 the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) diverted from the streets to the ballot boxes the powerful struggles that it had helped to lead against repressive right-wing governments earlier in the decade. In this article Moira Zoazo, a leading Bolivian political scientist, shows that in fact the MAS and the social movements have combined both electoral and mass action throughout the period from the formation of the party in the mid-1990s to today, albeit in changing forms and combinations of tactics.

Among its useful insights, her essay documents and historically situates the development of major tensions between the government and the campesino and indigenous movements that make up the social base of the MAS. Many of these arise from the inevitable conflict between the natural impulse of the movements to defend their particularist corporate interests and the challenges faced by the Morales administration in governing a reconstituted “pluri-national” state that continues to confront the opposition of the old elites and their imperialist backers.

Zuazo’s conclusion, which is of course debatable, is that the role of Evo Morales is akin to that played in much of Latin American history by the caudillo, the chieftan who rules as a charismatic populist leader, balancing between contending social forces — he acts, as she puts it, as a “mediating axis” between the party and the social organizations at its base. By itself, this extension of the term to define Morales’ role may, in my view, obscure more than illuminate the complex interaction involved, the operation of which is nevertheless very usefully described in this article. (For a much earlier, pre-MAS analysis of the “caudillo” in Latin American history, see “Caudillo Politics: A Structural Analysis” by Eric Wolf and Edward Hansen.)

For an informative report on the formal state mechanisms for consultation of indigenous peoples and how they operate, both in law and in practice, see this report (in Spanish only) to the United Nations by the Bolivian government:

My thanks to Federico Fuentes for critically reviewing my draft translation. Fuentes is the co-author with Marta Harnecker of the book MAS-IPSP de Bolivia: Instrumento político que surge de los movimientes sociales (Caracas: Centro Internacional Miranda, 2008).

– Richard Fidler

* * *

The MAS government in Bolivia: Are the social movements in power?

By Moira Zuazo

Nueva Sociedad No. 227, May-June 2010,

The Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) grew out of a decision of the peasant social organizations to have a political instrument. Later, in its leap to the cities, the party’s reach expanded and Evo Morales emerged as the caudillo capable of guaranteeing internal cohesion and operating as a mediator between the MAS and the social organizations. With the accession to government in 2005, the concentration of power in the president’s hands was accentuated and the role of the social movements has faded. While they continue to occupy some space, their place in the leadership of the process is increasingly less relevant.


“What happens when the soviets retreat?” - Álvaro García Linera

In an interview published in Le Monde diplomatique, Bolivia’s vice-president, Álvaro García Linera, when asked about the relation between the social movements and the state, said that Bolivia now confronted the same challenges that Lenin’s Russia did and asked: “What happens when the soviets retreat?”[1]

That is the subject that will be addressed in this essay: What happens in Bolivia today, when the high point of the social empowerment, the establishment of “politics in the streets,” has now passed?[2] What happens when the crisis that extended from 2000 to 2005 is now part of history and we are living under a government that obtained 54% of the votes in 2005 and 64% in 2009? After the big mobilizations, are we now in a time of direct and unmediated participation of the social movements in the state? How does this participation function? And where has this left the rest of society, the “silent mass” that votes but does not mobilize? Or perhaps, in the wake of the mobilized masses has an institutionalization of participation been initiated by way of the democratic political party? Or are we faced with neither of these two options, and on the contrary it is raison d’état that is now imposed while power is being concentrated in the hands of the president and his entourage and both the social movements and the party are left, in varying degrees, outside?

To consider these questions, I will first analyze the relation of the social movements with the political party in the stage of crisis of the state, that is the period of social empowerment. In this section, I suggest that the MAS originated in campesino [peasant] social organizations on the basis of their decision to have a political instrument in order to operate in the democratic arena; that is, the MAS is, by its origin, a peasant party, and the second mass party produced in Bolivia’s republican history.

In the second part of the article, I focus on the period when the MAS becomes established in the cities, the relation of the urban population with the party and, fundamentally, with Evo Morales. What challenges does this leap portend and what are the implications for the new party? Here I argue that the horizontal-rural force that was the MAS, in the leap to the cities, saw the emergence of the caudillo that subsumes the party and reduces its role.

Lastly, in the third part of this article, I will analyze the process experienced by the social movements after 2006, once they had acceded to government. I analyze this stage on the basis of the tense relationship between three simultaneous and conflicting processes: the tendency to concentration of power in the hands of the president; the situation of a party trying to define its role as a party in government; and the presence of social organizations, which by 2010 were dispersed and negotiating their space in the government.

The birth of the MAS

The MAS originated as a product of a paradoxical movement: on the one hand, as part of the process of democratic opening in the period from 1982 to 2000; and on the other, as a consequence of the crisis of that process. The 18 years of democracy allowed the development of a process of political integration through the democratization of access to political space as a result of municipalization and the creation of single-member electoral constituencies. These opened a window for access to politics for the campesino and indigenous population. However, democracy, which in the 1980s was perceived as a promise of inclusion, became in the 1990s an unfulfilled promise. Political integration without economic and social integration proved inconclusive. By the end of the 1990s, the rural and urban popular society felt deceived and excluded.

During the years of stabilization of Bolivian democracy, between 1982 and 2000, the political class did not perceive the importance of the state’s role of social integration or the relevance that institutional strengthening would acquire in the fulfillment of that role.

There are two reasons for this. A crucial one was the role of the left forces, which developed a pragmatic form of action, opposed to the party-based institutionalization, that allowed them to camouflage themselves in the neoliberal consensus, a consensus that closed its eyes and its mouth to the social question. This came at the cost of losing the image of a party of the left and assuming the modest position of a force that turned around a caudillo, as in the case of the Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria (MIR). But the left forces also were quick to be delegitimized by the dreadful experience of state management left by the Unidad Democrática y Popular (UDP), and they therefore continued to exist as marginal forces without any prospect of participating in state office, as was the case of the Partido Comunista de Bolivia (PCB) and the Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario de Izquierda (MNRI). The result of this debacle was that when the crisis stage began there were no left parties credibly defending the interests of the popular sectors.

Secondly, the centre and right forces gambled on being good students of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB), promoting liberalization of the economy and dismantling of the state, and were uninterested in reflecting on the importance of the state’s role in social integration to the consolidation of democracy.

In this context, the emergence of the MAS is a result of the confluence of four factors: the politicized emergence of the cleavage between countryside and city; the crisis of the neoliberal economic model and the increasingly apparent social debt; the crisis of representativity of the political parties, in particular the absence of left parties with any institutional solidity; and the process of political integration that was generated by municipalization and single-member electoral constituencies.

The first factor, the cleavage between countryside and city, can be interpreted as a result of the post-colonial character of the Republic of Bolivia, which created a basic distrust in the relationship between the indigenous/originary peoples and the state as embodied in its institutions. But it is also the result of the feeble state appropriation of the rural territory, which shapes a dual relationship of the campesino-indigenous with the state: an abstract feeling of “Bolivianness” as opposed to the concrete experience of isolation as a campesino.

The second factor, the economic crisis of the late 1990s and the political stagnation of the government of Hugo Banzer, provided material content to the perception of democracy as an unfulfilled promise. Added to this is the third factor noted, the crisis of representativity of the parties, which generated a vacuum that opened space for the process of circulation of elites that Bolivia has been experiencing since 2005.

Lastly, the process of municipalization begun in 1994 with the Law of Popular Participation, opened a stage of political integration that was reinforced and expanded territorially with the definition of single-member electoral constituencies.

This political decentralization of the state allowed for a politicization of the countryside-city cleavage and determined the ruralization of politics on the basis of the state’s arrival in the local sphere, where in the past it had had no presence, and the articulation between the municipal and the forms of anti-institutional protest, rooted in the alienation — or at least distance — between the state and the communitarian-campesino.[3]

In this confluence of factors, the MAS presents three moments that function as constitutive axes. The first is the development of the campesino movement, which is built around the idea of unity: “The parties divide us” is the recurring complaint of the campesinos. In the panorama of crisis of democracy that opened earlier in the 1990s, the campesino movement perceived the need to build a “political instrument” based on a positive appreciation of unity as a weapon for effective defense of those below in the conception of a society of unequal persons. This positive appreciation of unity was to pose, in the future, difficulties in accepting pluralism based on respect for the individual and his or her right to dissent, both in the communities and within the party.

The second constitutive axis of the MAS dates back to 1995, that is, after the municipalization and implementation of single-member election constituencies. During this stage, the role of elections was of central importance for the consolidation of unity under cocalero [coca farmers] leadership. The electoral experiences led to a favourable assessment of democracy, and suffrage came to be seen as an effective mechanism for electing and empowering governments. The cocalero movement, which scored some major electoral triumphs and took power in the municipalities of the Chapare district, appealed to the other campesinos and took the leadership of the new party.

Lastly, the MAS was formed and developed in the cycle of social protest that opened up after 2000 on the basis of a strategy of weaving together a network of organizations and taking the leadership or control of them.

With the accession of the MAS to government, Bolivian society underwent a process of circulation of elites that is here to stay and has involved a structural change. This process was unleashed by the serious crisis of representativity of the old party system, combined with the politicization of the cleavage between countryside and city. Both factors led to a displacement of the old criteria for legitimate access to power. The cleavage between countryside and city reorganizes the values needed for holding political office, in three respects. In the first place, for the first time in the history of the Republic indigenous ethnic affiliation or ascendency, as expressed in family names and ethnic roots, is regarded as an asset. Secondly, educational level and professional merit are no longer criteria for access to political office, and even become obstacles. Thirdly, the “organizing capital” of Bolivian society, expressed in the presence of strong social organizations, is regarded as an asset. This assessment restores a tradition that is both urban and rural.

The positive reassessment of the corporate organizations is a process of reconciliation of Bolivian society with itself. The discursive objective of the MAS, to achieve the occupation of the state by organized society, is an expression of this. Firstly, we will address the question of whether this is possible; later, we will consider whether this is desirable.

The MAS in the cities: birth of the caudillo

In December 2005, the MAS won the national elections with 54% of the votes. Half a year later, in July 2006, the party prevailed in the Assembly elections, with 51%. Two years later, in August 2008, the government won the recall referendum with 67% of the votes.[4] In the general elections of December 2009, the MAS repeated its triumph, with 64%. These numbers demonstrate that what we are dealing with is a process of construction of hegemony expressed in a substantial electoral strength that contrasts with a serious institutional weakness of the party. This paradox is analyzed in the lines that follow.

Between 1995 and 2002, the MAS was a campesino party, with horizontal decision-making processes and spaces for debate, which emerged from the campesino-indigenous social organizations. Beginning in 2002, but more clearly after the 2005 election victory, a transition began from an indirect structure to an “urban party,” which generated tensions and changes.

The MAS originated as a party of indirect structure.[5] This means that affiliation to the party is by social organizations; individual members of the union are indirectly affiliated to the party.[6] This explains why Evo Morales has on various occasions stated that “where the union organizations function well, a parallel party structure is not necessary.”

Beginning in 2002, the party faced the challenge of appealing to the electorate in the urban centers. This gave rise to a dual challenge: on the one hand, the urban social organizations lacked the strength and organizational discipline of the rural organizations. On the other hand, and even more important, the MAS’s appeal to the urban electorate was met by citizens who wanted to affiliate individually to the party. This resulted in an initial tension between a party whose origin assumed an indirect structure but which, in the transition to the cities and in its interest in sinking roots in them, was beginning to be transformed into a party with a direct structure. However, as this matter was not debated internally it remained in fact as a vacuum in the party’s norms, which in turn opened up an area for circulation of power. And it was Evo Morales who occupied this space for circulation of power and became the mediating axis of the party.

But this normative vacuum also encouraged a relationship to the party based on expectations of access to public office (“a job”) and discouraged an approach based on the intention to be part of the party and contribute to political debate among the rank and file.

In this scenario, there arose a differentiation between, on the one hand, “organic members” or “early members,” that is, those from the social organizations with the right to challenge power internally, and, on the other hand, “guests,” a sort of second-level membership of those who have been incorporated in the process of penetration of the cities. The “guests” encounter many difficulties when it comes to disputing legitimacy within the party, but they are key elements in the governmental administration by the MAS. A significant portion of this new urban and middle class membership hold positions of responsibility in the state apparatus. However, without being organic members of the party, they are in a relationship of dependency on the President, both in developing their career within the party and in remaining a member of it.

This has meant that Evo Morales becomes the center for all mediation between the Executive Power, social movements, party and urban members and sympathizers (“guests”). At the same time, it has removed the party’s importance in the process of internal decision-making and has meant that the party is now unable to establish a space for political debate within the party concerning the direction of the process.

Through its origin in protest, struggle and confrontation, the MAS has an accumulated organizing capacity which, in extreme situations of polarization, has provided a high degree of cohesiveness to the ranks and a great capacity for mobilization in confrontations. This energy in protest and questioning of the State was to be renewed after becoming the government, under the coordination of the Executive, with the Pacto de Unidad, and later with the Coordinadora por el Cambio (Conalcam), and, ultimately, with the Mecanismo Nacional de Participación y Control Social, which we discuss in the following section.

In the time of resistance to the State, and of confrontation, the party’s cohesion was achieved by way of identification of the enemy and struggle against it. It was a time of participation; as Ernesto Laclau would put it, a time of the people. With the transition to the urban electorate we move to the time of the leader who acts as a mediator and, in that role, as a binding and cohesive factor in the party. The big dilemma and the big challenge of the MAS is to build a party life capable of generating proposals and cohesion that goes beyond the protest and confrontation of the years when the party was not in government. What the process of the last five years shows us is that the leader, together with a small milieu, has opted for a centralization of power in order to achieve cohesion, while the party is weakened and plays a relatively insignificant role.

When the MAS transitioned to the cities, the cleavage between city and countryide was translated in two ways to the urban centres: through the cultural and identitarian problematic, and through the problems of access to power experienced by the migrants. This context modernizes and politicizes what is urban and popular from a nationalist perspective with a campesino-indigenous face. That is how the recent migrants become the main point of entry for the party to the cities. This urban-rural symbiosis, which reflects and comes to represent the party, expresses one of the biggest challenges in contemporary Bolivia: to be able to expand democracy and convert it into an effective experience for the population as a whole. This also informs the initial promise of the MAS, the promise of integration of the city and the countryside.

The exercise of power: three moments in a complex relationship

Vice-President García Linera, asked how compatible presidential democracy was with participative and direct democracy, stated:

“A government of social movements like this one is going to experience a tension between concentration and socialization of decisions. How is the concept of a government of social movements validated? First, by the type of strategic decisions taken… Second, by the form of selection of the public officials, who go through the filter of the social organizations. Third, by the presence of cadres of the social movements in the state apparatus, who answer to those movements.”[7]

Analyzing the process of transition from the Pacto de Unidad to the Conalcam, and from the latter to the Mecanismo Nacional de Participación y Control Social, we observe the transition from a moment of relative autonomy of the campesino and indigenous social movement, in the Pacto de Unidad, to a re-edition of social empowerment, which is the moment of the Conalcam. In effect, now with Evo Morales in power, the Conalcam represents a form of exercise of violence from the State that goes beyond the monopoly exercise of legitimate violence subject to the rule of law of the Republican order. And finally, the passage to the third moment, the deployment of a strategy of channeling and state control of the participation of the organizations of the society, which is presented parallel to and in negation of the party, and which at least theoretically could be on top of the institutions of the state, but which at the same time is controlled by the government. This is the moment of the Mecanismo Nacional de Participación y Control Social.

We analyze below the three aforementioned moments.

The Pacto de Unidad and the Constituent Assembly. The Pacto de Unidad[8] is a coordinating body of the campesino and indigenous organizations of both the East and West of the country that was established to combine efforts, first, to win a Constituent Assembly, and later, when the Assembly had already begun, to express and promote the interests of the campesinos and indigenous in the conclave.

This was achieved through an internal debate and construction of proposals, and through street protest actions, which at some points pressured the Assembly and at other times protected it from the demands of other social movements. So the Pacto de Unidad was a space for corporate collective deliberation and mobilization of the campesino and indigenous sectors outside of the party.

In this initial stage, the relationship of the social movement with the MAS was one of relative autonomy. Although many of the social leaders were also senior leaders of the MAS, this autonomy in deliberation became evident in a relationship that at some points included challenges to the MAS representatives in the Assembly, as well as in the fact that there was an attempt to avoid an organic link with the party precisely in order to strengthen its capacity to influence the promotion of the corporate interests.

Once the Constituent Assembly had concluded and the new Constitution was approved, the Pacto de Unidad did not return to active or visible participation in Bolivian politics.

The CONALCAM and the defeat of the opposition. The CONALCAM was formed on January 22, 2007. Its creation was announced by Evo Morales, in a ceremony marking the first year of the MAS government, as a coordinating body “formed by unions, Executive and Legislative.”[9]

The creation of the CONALCAM was part of a dual strategy of the government. On the one hand, it aimed at confronting the opposition since it established the possibility of recreating the peak moments in the process of social ascent and empowerment in Bolivia (2000-2003), but this time under government leadership. On the other hand, it was also a strategy to put some content in the idea of a “government of social movements” since it established the form of action of the social organizations as part of the government.

Initially, in 2007, the CONALCAM was formed by the organizations that were part of the Pacto de Unidad, plus a few urban organizations.[10] Subsequently, in 2008, the CONALCAM was broadened to include various urban social organizations.[11] The transition from the Pacto de Unidad to the CONALCAM is the transition from the MAS’s coordination with the rural organizations to the government’s leadership in the direction of the rural and urban organizations with the challenge of leading the process of change from the streets. But the governmental leadership in the management of the CONALCAM is only one facet of the process; the other is the strengthening of its mobilizing capacity in the most serious moments of the conflict, which reflects to what degree the social organizations feel they are part of the government and see the MAS government as “their” government.

During 2008, the polarization and political conflict became more acute as a result of the confluence of two factors: the action of the civic-departmental government opposition[12] and the show of force in the streets, that is, over and above the legitimate monopoly of force relied upon by any state. The regional opposition radically resisted the process of change and opted to block the Constituent Assembly, thereby helping to unleash the events of “La Calancha.”[13] After the adoption of the constitutional text as a whole in Chuquisaca, without the presence of the opposition, and faced with the foreseeable result of the referendum to recall the President, Vice-President and governors,[14] the regional opposition violently seized institutions in the departments of the Media Luna — the “Half Moon” (Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija). This signified the political suicide of the civic-regional opposition.

The show of force of the social organizations developed with a siege of the Congress,[15] the march on Santa Cruz and the threat of an encirclement of the city. At the time of the march in Santa Cruz, between September and October 2008, Evo Morales, in his capacity as President and leader of the party, personally chaired some crucial meetings of the CONALCAM. The presidential leadership of the social organizations united in the CONALCAM helped to put content in the phrase that Morales constantly cites — mandar obedeciendo, or lead by obeying — even if the result of these deliberations was the imposition of the president’s decision.[16] On the other hand, this action emptied of its content the republican democratic principle of the president as representative of the nation as a whole.

The culminating moment of the CONALCAM was also the beginning of its decline, since after the march on Santa Cruz it carried out no other major public intervention in the national process. Asked about this situation, García Linera explained:

“The point of bifurcation is the exceptional moment, of short duration, basic but decisive, in which ‘the Prince’ abandons the language of seduction and imposes himself through his warlike tactics of coercion… It was a warlike or potentially warlike moment. The pro-coup right carried out its consultations and gradually initiated the formation of small regional powers that did not recognize the government. We understood that signal and we deployed in an encirclement strategy as the military calls it. Both through the coercive mechanisms of the state and through the social mobilization…. The forcefulness and firmness of the political-military response of the government to the coup, along with the strategy of social mobilization in and towards Santa Cruz, created a virtuous ‘state-society’ articulation seldom seen in the political history of Bolivia.”[17]

The national mechanism of participation and social control. The new Constitution institutionalizes corporate participation in decision-making by a part of society.[18] To that effect, it establishes a supra-state organ that assumes the supervisory functions in an undefined — and accordingly arbitrary — juridical framework. From another perspective, which pays more attention to the process than to the norm, what we observe is a domestication of the social organizations on the basis of a strategy of fragmentation and appropriation of political and organizational initiative.

To incorporate the social movements in the state following the approval of the Constitution, the government created the Mecanismo Nacional de Participación y Control Social, under the Ministry of Transparency and the Fight Against Corruption, as the governmental authority responsible for carrying forward the process of participation of “organized society.”

Thus, the right to participation is restricted to the organized sectors, which in order to be such must be recognized by the state.[19] How does participation operate? Each ministry or state division convenes the social organizations that it considers relevant to a meeting with an established agenda. This institutionalization of participation of civil society can be viewed from two perspectives. From the perspective of the state, what we now have is organized, calibrated participation in which the government defines the agenda. From the perspective of society, the social organizations are convened at state initiative and when they participate they do so in a fragmented form.

In the 1990s, the Law of Popular Participation signified the territorial decentralization of power and posed the challenge of decentralization of political action, in the context of a heavily corporate society that was accustomed to negotiating with the state in a centralized scenario. It was in this setting that the second mass party in Bolivia’s republican history arose, in tune with the municipal decentralization and single-seat electoral constituencies. The emerging party, the MAS, was a peasant party that today confronts the challenge of the exercise of power and must fight against a corporativismo that emerged with great momentum as a result of the decisive role it played at the high point of the social empowerment. Once the moment when the social movement held the political initiative had passed, it was followed by the moment of its symbolic incorporation in the Constitution. When the symbol is translated into governmental practice, in the Mecanismo Nacional de Participación y Control Social, we find that it promises little in terms of social control but even less in terms of democratic participation.

Returning to the question posed at the beginning: What happens when the soviets retreat? The Bolivian reality shows that it is replaced with the time of the caudillo and a state that is uncomfortable with republican limits.

Moira Zuazo is a Bolivian political scientist, author of various books and articles published in Bolivia, Argentina and Germany. She is a professor at the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés and project coordinator for the Fundación Friedrich Ebert in Bolivia. Among her major publications are ¿Cómo nació el MAS? La ruralización de la política en Bolivia (Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, La Paz, 2009) and, with Luis Verdesoto, Instituciones en boca de la gente. Percepciones de la ciudadanía boliviana sobre política y territorio (Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung / Ildis, La Paz, 2006).

[1] Pablo Stefanoni, Franklin Ramírez and Maristella Svampa, Las vías de la emancipación. Conversaciones con Álvaro García Linera, Ocean Sur, México, DF, 2009, p. 92.

[2] Fernando Calderón and Alicia Szmukler, La política en las calles: política, urbanización y desarrollo, Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar, Quito, 2000.

[3] M. Zuazo, ¿Cómo nació el MAS? La ruralización de la política en Bolivia, 2nd edition, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung / Ildis, La Paz, 2009.

[4] The recall referendum differed from a general election in a multiparty system like Bolivia’s. In the recall referendum the voter has only two options, to approve or reject the authority subject to recall, while in multiparty systems there are three or more options, which tends to disperse the vote.

[5] Maurice Duverger, Los partidos políticos, FCE, México, DF, 1994.

[6] The Organic Statute of the MAS, in article 9, provides that “members and sympathizers participate in the organic life of the Party through their natural organizations.” Source: Corte Nacional Electoral.

[7] P. Stefanoni, F. Ramírez and M. Svampa, op. cit., p. 90.

[8] Participating in this agreement were all the campesino and indigenous sectors: the Confederación Sindical Única de Trabajadores Campesinos de Bolivia (CSUTCB), the Confederación de Pueblos Indígenas de Bolivia (CIDOB), the Confederación Sindical de Colonizadores de Bolivia (CSCB), the Federación Nacional de Mujeres Indígenas, Originarias y Campesinas de Bolivia Bartolina Sisa (FNMCB-BS), el Consejo Nacional de Markas y Ayllus del Qullasuyu (CONAMAQ), the Coordinadora de Pueblos Étnicos de Santa Cruz (CPESC), the Movimiento de Trabajadores Campesinos Sin Tierra de Bolivia (MST-B), the Asamblea del Pueblo Guaraní (APG), the Central de Pueblos Étnicos Mojeños del Beni (CPEMB) and the Asociación Nacional de Regantes y Sistemas Comunitarios de Agua Potable y Saneamiento (ANARESCAPYS). Source: Centro de Comunicación y Desarrollo Andino (CENDA), Centro de Estudios Jurídicos e Investigación Social (CEJIS) and the Centro de Documentación e Información Bolivia (CEDIB), <>.

[9] La Razón, 23/01/2007.

[10] The Federación de Trabajadoras del Hogar, the Confederación de Jubilados and an organization of unemployed in Tarija. Source: La Razón, 24/01/2007.

[11] Added to it were the Central Obrera Boliviana (COB); neighborhood councils; guilds; students and members of cooperatives. Source: La Razón, 17/09/2008.

[12] This was a regional opposition with its geographic center in Santa Cruz de la Sierra. It differed from the political opposition of national scope expressed in the major opposition parties, Podemos and Unidad Nacional (UN). A part of the political opposition — the UN and some Podemos members of the Assembly — tried to promote an agreement in the Assembly, and later reached a parliamentary agreement to adjust the text of the draft constitution and to call for a consultative referendum for approval of the new Constitution.

[13] Faced with the inability of the Constituent Assembly to meet in the city of Sucre, owing to the opposition of the local social movement supported by the civic-regional opposition, which was demanding that the seat of all state powers be transferred to Sucre (making it the sole capital), the Constituent Assembly moved to a military school on the outskirts of Sucre and on November 23-24, 2007 approved the new Constitution as a whole without the presence of the opposition. This final session of the Assembly in Chuquisaca met amidst fierce confrontations between police and military forces and the social movement of Sucre, resulting in the death of three civilians in the area around the military school where the Assembly was meeting, which is called “La Calancha.”

[14] In the recall referendum of August 10, 2008, the MAS was supported by 64% of the voters.

[15] The most important siege of the Congress was carried out on February 28, 2008 to prevent the opposition from entering the Parliament and to force approval of three decisive laws, including the law calling a referendum to approve the [final version of the] Constitution. Source: La Razón, 29/02/2008.

[16] Fernando Mayorga, “Evo: ¿liderazgo sin fronteras?” in Umbrales vol. 1, No. 19, 9/2009, pp. 119-133.

[17] P. Stefanoni, F. Ramírez and M. Svampa, op. cit., pp. 95-96, 98.

[18] Section 241, sub-section II, states: “The organized civil society shall exercise social control over the public administration at all levels of the State and the private, mixed and public enterprises and institutions that administer fiscal resources.” Sub-section VI provides that “the state entities shall create spaces for participation and social control.”

[19] Any social organization, to be recognized as that, must have a certificate of origin, which is the legal status granted by the departmental government.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Tar Sands come to Ottawa

The report in the June 24 Ottawa Citizen was alarming:

“TransCanada Corp.’s proposal for its massive $5-billion Energy East pipeline project could send as many as 850,000 barrels of crude oil a day through rural areas in the south end of Ottawa and across the Rideau River.”

The Citizen outlined the proposed route, which would transport diluted bitumen (“dilbit”) from Alberta’s Tar Sands “through environmentally sensitive lands around the Rideau River before passing through the waterway” and on to neighbouring communities.

“TransCanada plans to retrofit the underused 3,000-kilometre Canadian Mainline natural gas pipeline, which already runs through the region,” wrote reporter Vito Pilieci. “A 1,400-kilometre extension has also been proposed to carry oil as far as Saint John, N.B., where Irving Oil has a refinery.

“The project is intended to help reduce Eastern Canada’s dependence on imported oil, while offering Alberta oil companies better access to shipping ports where crude can be loaded onto oil tankers and sent overseas. TransCanada has said it would like to see the crude oil flowing east as early as 2017.”

TransCanada is already secretly lobbying senior officials at Ottawa’s City Hall and in nearby municipalities to bring them onside, the newspaper reported.

As a resident of Ottawa, I felt an immediate threat. I live along the bank of the Rideau River in the downtown area, just 1.5 kilometres from the scenic Rideau Falls where the river empties into the much larger Ottawa River, navigable for small vessels through Quebec and the St. Lawrence River to the Atlantic Ocean. The Rideau is relatively healthy as urban waterways go,[1] and like many others in my neighbourhood I have long treasured the adjoining parklands and pathways, and the variety of local wildlife — big snapping turtles, great blue herons, bullfrogs, and fish, including some very impressive muskellunge (“muskies”) occasionally landed by recreational fishers.

I also recalled that one of my first political activities, as an adolescent in the 1950s, was in relation to the construction of this very pipeline, which was a matter of great controversy in its day. The story is vividly told by one of my then schoolmates, John Riddell, who also relates our involvement in the issue: see “Canada’s pipeline wars of the 1950s: a memoir.”

So I was pleased that Ecology Ottawa, the major environmental group in this city, was quick to take up the challenge. It moved quickly to set up an on-line petition and hired a full-time organizer, well-known indigenous activist Ben Powless, to head up a public campaign against the “Tar Sands pipeline.” Powless was an initiator of Occupy Ottawa in 2011.

The campaign held its first public meeting last night, at the main branch of the Ottawa Public Library. I joined the well over 100 people who attended. It was a diverse and predominantly youthful audience. I recognized a few people known to me as activists in the antiwar and other political and social movements. But most seemed to be concerned citizens without an activist profile. A few attended from Gatineau, our Quebec sister city across the river, although the meeting was conducted entirely in English (Ecology Ottawa’s website is bilingual). And there were a few militants who attended from a Montréal group already campaigning against another tar sands pipeline project, the Enbridge Line 9 reversal project.

Among those who introduced themselves from the floor was a group of young people who have recently organized in Ottawa as “Decline9” to fight the Enbridge project. Some of them had participated in the recent occupation of the Enbridge pumping station in Westover, near Hamilton, Ont., they reported.

The meeting was addressed by Powless and Ecology Ottawa’s executive director, Graham Saul. They outlined the hazards of the TransCanada plans and explained the relation between Tar Sands development and the climate crisis. A two-page Fact Sheet on the “Tar Sands Pipeline,” distributed at the meeting, made the case that “the pipeline is all risk and no reward for the residents of Ottawa.” It noted that “the risks of shipping oil near people’s houses and sensitive ecosystems has become a central issue for many” in the wake of the recent disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, where a runaway train with more than 70 tanker cars filled with shale oil products from North Dakota crashed, exploded and burned, killing 50 people and destroying the entire centre of the town.[2]

“While many argue pipelines are safer than trains,” said the Fact Sheet, “that doesn’t mean they are safe. In the US alone, there were an average of 250 pipeline spills per year over the last 20 years. Canada counts over 100 spills on average per year, some of them major spills…. And when they spill, because of the extra chemicals required to dilute and ship the heavy Tar Sands crude, the spills are harder to clean up, and also cause more damage, as this kind of oil is known to sink and not float.”

The ensuing discussion from the floor ranged far and wide. An issue raised by several speakers was how to engage with the numerous indigenous and farming communities in the surrounding area whose lands are crossed by the pipeline. Notorious incidents were cited, such as the Enbridge spill of 3.8 million litres of Tar Sands oil in Michigan’s Kalamazoo River that cost nearly $800 million to partially clean up, although the river still lies polluted years later. There were references to the growing protests across North America against pipeline expansion, such as TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline project in the United States. 

Some asked whether it was technically possible to ensure the safety of pipelines. But the overwhelming consensus of the meeting was that this pipeline was a threat to our health and environment, and that action to stop it was urgently needed. At the end of this initial information meeting, more than half the participants stayed behind for a brief discussion of the next steps to take.

Ecology Ottawa had already produced 10,000 copies of a bilingual “door-knocker” leaflet for distribution at neighbourhood households. “Are you prepared for an oil spill in Ottawa?,” it asks, citing the risks and asking readers to “Learn more and sign the petition to call on our elected leaders to oppose the pipeline,” with a link to the campaign web site.

It was agreed to distribute these (many more will be printed) in the coming weeks, in three priority areas of the city: the Ottawa South provincial constituency, where a by-election is scheduled for August 1 to replace retiring Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty; communities in the direct path of the TransCanada pipeline; and communities like mine along the Rideau River.

Other projected actions include:

  • A Day of Action on July 27, the anniversary of the Kalamazoo spill;
  • An August 24 action in solidarity with an indigenous peoples’ march on the Alberta Tar Sands, where it is hoped to block Highway 63, the main road used by the oil companies;
  • Attendance on October 10 at a TransCanada public briefing on its plans in Stittsville, an Ottawa suburb.

Participants at the meeting noted that the pipeline projects are now arousing opposition in hundreds of communities across Canada. And this is only the beginning. We face a huge challenge, as none of the major political parties — not even the Greens — oppose the Tar Sands. Federal Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair of the New Democratic Party does not oppose the Harper government’s support for piping Alberta oil eastwards. And almost without exception organized labour is on record in support of continued Tar Sands exploitation.

I was reminded of these obstacles as I left the Library. While unlocking my bicycle to return home, I noticed someone pasting up stickers on lampposts: “STOP Harper’s Crimes,” listing “climate, militarism, mining, Palestine.” I recognized him as a friend who is employed by what is now the biggest union in the country, one that represents many oil workers. I told him about the meeting we had just held, which he had not known about. He was sympathetic (and a little contrite about his absence), and then he told me that his union’s official position on the pipelines, which are favoured by their refinery locals, is to support the pipelines — but not to make representations at the public hearings of the National Energy Board, the federal regulatory agency.

It will fall to others to make that case, not only with the Board (if we can), but more importantly with the mass of our fellow Canadians and Québécois. Graham Saul made the point well, in his concluding remarks to our meeting (I paraphrase):

“We represent the majority. But you here are abnormal, because you are already attending a meeting like this. Our task is to reach out to all those who want an ecological environment, and to get them active.”

[1] This is partly because most industry in the 19th and early 20th centuries was located along the Rideau Canal, a related but separate waterway built by the British in the 1820s to create an alternative navigable route between Montréal and York, now Toronto. The cities were connected by Lake Ontario and its outlet, the St. Lawrence River, access to which the Americans had threatened to close during the war of 1812.

[2] For an excellent discussion of the causes of this disaster, see “Why are Canada's Trains Vulnerable?

Monday, July 15, 2013

Open Letter to Edward Snowden

This wonderful letter was published today on the Marxmail list.

I cannot resist sharing it.

Ten Reasons Why You Should Beat It to Venezuela

From Roger Burbach

It is understandable that you are requesting temporary asylum in Russia, given the determination of President Obama to mount an international crusade to apprehend you and throw you in prison. But here are ten reasons why it is in your interest, and the world's, to find a route to Venezuela as soon as possible.

1. President Nicolas Maduro is a man you can rely on to assist you in your odyssey. He is one of your earliest champions on the international scene and understands the principles that drive you to challenge the US national security state. On June 26 he declared: “What has this young man done? He divulged documents that the United States spies on the entire world; they listen to anyone's telephone, they over see the Internet around the globe, and they monitor all electronic mail....” The United States “violates international laws of self-determination and sovereignty,” … Snowden “hasn't planted any bombs, hasn't assassinated anyone, hasn't robbed anyone, he simply one day looked in the mirror and said: 'What am I doing to the world, this should not be.' … He is part of the rebellion of North American youth that is moving forward in a rebellion of consciousness, of ethics.”

2. Maduro and Venezuela are facing the same hostile forces that you are. Aside from the US government led by President Obama (who appears to have developed a personal vendetta against you) the US main stream media, including much of the liberal press, have maligned and lied about you and Maduro. Innumerable distortions about both of you have been carried in the New York Times, the newspaper that carries “all the news that's fit to print.” Even National Public Radio has joined in the fray. On the day of your conference in the Moscow airport, an NPR news commentator asserted that you had “lauded Russia's human rights record,” which is not true as we hear on the videos that came out of the conference. The New York Review of Books has yet to weigh in on you, but we should be prepared for the worst as one of it authors did a hack job on Maduro in early May.

3. You will encounter an outpouring of support in Latin America. Newspapers and journals up and down the Americas, from Santiago, Chile and Buenos Aires, Argentina to San Jose, Costa Rica and Mexico City have taken up your cause and excoriated the Obama administration. On July 12, the day of your conference at the Moscow airport, Mercosur, the largest economic bloc of nations in Latin America met in Montevideo, Uruguay and issued a statement defending your right to asylum in their countries: “We repudiate any activity that could undermine the authority of States to grant and fully implement the right of asylum,” the statement said. “We reject any attempt in pressuring, harassment or criminalization of a State over a country's sovereign right to grant asylum.” Outraged by the documents you released revealing massive spying and intelligence gathering by the National Security Agency in Latin America, Mercosur's final declaration stated: "We emphatically reject the interception of telecommunications and espionage actions in our nations, as they constitute a violation of human rights, of the right of our citizens to privacy and information. It's unacceptable behavior that breaches our sovereignty and harms relations between nations."

4. In Venezuela you would witness a popular struggle to construct a socialist society, and would be able to visit Bolivia and Ecuador, where similar and yet different paths are being taken in pursuit of a 21st-century utopia. In Caracas you will experience shortages (from toilet paper to electricity) because the Venezuelan economy is in transition. I witnessed similar difficulties during the last democratic transition to socialism in the hemisphere, that of Salvador Allende and the Popular Unity government in Chile from 1970 to 1973. As is now well documented, the CIA and the local bourgeoisie conspired to destabilize the economy, overthrew Allende and imposed the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet for seventeen long dark years. Hopefully your generation's engagement around the Americas can help prevent a similar tragedy in Venezuela or elsewhere in Latin America.

5. Although you and Maduro are of distinct class backgrounds—he is working class and you are middle class--did you know that you and Maduro are both interested in eastern philosophies? According to Wikipedia you practice the martial arts and are a self-declared Buddhist, interests you apparently nurtured while you worked as an undercover CIA agent as a State Department officer at the US embassy in Japan. Maduro is interested in eastern teachings as well, following the thoughts and practices of eastern leaders particularly those of Satya Sai Baba who is renown for having supported a variety of free educational institutions, hospitals and charitable works in over 166 countries. Maduro and his wife, Cilia Flores, visited him in Puttaparthi, India in 2005. You might even discover some mutual interests in music, given that Maduro in his youth played guitar in a rock band called Enigma. To add to his complexity, Maduro's paternal grandparents are Sephardic Jews who converted to Catholicism.

6. In Caracas you would have access to one of the better Internet grids in the global south and this would facilitate the use of your talents to set up an international non-profit center. You might want to host open seminars or workshops, inviting university educators, business executives and government ministers to learn about how to deal with US surveillance as well as other predators on the Internet. Others like me, might want to know your thoughts about how we can use the Internet to our advantage and stop the incipient emergence of an Orwellian world.

7. Last year an oceanic fiber optic cable was completed that links Venezuela to Santiago de Cuba. I am sure that your skills would be useful in advising both countries on how to best use the cable and the Internet for the benefit of their peoples, given that Cuba has dramatically changed its Internet policy, throwing it open to public access. I suspect you would concur with Vice-president Miguel Diaz-Canal, the probable successor to Raul Castro, who pointed out in May the challenges presented by the Internet:

"Today, with the development of information technologies; today, with the development of social networks; today, with the development of computers and the Internet, to prohibit something is nearly an impossible chimera. It makes no sense. Today, news from all sources, from good ones and from bad ones, those that are manipulated, and those that are true, and those that are half-truths, all circulate on the web and reach people and those people are aware of them.”

8. Caracas is only three and a quarter hours from Miami via commercial air carrier. As you have probably heard many times, “Cuba is only ninety miles from the United States.” Your relative proximity, much like that of Fidel Castro, would drive the National Security Agency nuts for years and perhaps decades, albeit on a lesser scale, given that you don't aspire to state power.

9. You could be in touch with your family and friends. Perhaps your last girl friend in Hawaii would come to visit. You might have to set up a personal housing compound to entertain and house all of them. Many from the US would make a pilgrimage to shake your hand and talk to you. I might even be one of those who appear at your doorstep.

10. Lastly you should enjoy the great geographic vistas Venezuela offers its peoples and tourists alike. It has crystal clear beaches, rain-forests, breathtaking mountains and plains, and the tallest waterfall in the world, Angel Falls.

I will not recommend any tour guides, but in lieu of posting my by-line at the end of this letter, and to introduce you to the political terrain of Latin America, I humbly suggest you ask your favorite book store in the Moscow airport if it can order a book I co-authored with Michael Fox and Federico Fuentes, Latin America's Turbulent Transitions: The Future of Twenty-First Century Socialism. Hopefully it won't be intercepted by air or land as it is transported from Zed Books in London to Moscow.

Sincerely, Roger Burbach July 15, 2013

* * *

My own review of Latin America’s Turbulent Transitions:

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Why is Evo Morales still popular?


Bolivia’s achievements in recent years have inspired interest and solidarity among many on the left outside that country, and not just in Latin America. Conversely, the government of Evo Morales and his Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) has produced corresponding hostility from Washington and its allies.

But some of the harshest criticism has also come from some left critics, including a few foreign academics and Bolivia-based NGO activists. Readers of their accounts might wonder how it is that the Morales government still gets the popular support it clearly does in Bolivia.

The following article by a leading Bolivian journalist sheds considerable light on the matter. He focuses on the domestic scene — more particularly, the government’s economic and social reforms — and astutely explains both the accomplishments of the administration and the reasons for discontent on both the left and the right within the country.

His account pays less attention to another reason for the government’s popularity: the “refounding” of Bolivia as a plurinational state that for the first time in its 200-year history constitutionally recognizes the languages and cultures of the indigenous peoples, the majority of its population, as well as the self-governing autonomy of its leading ethnic communities. He does indicate, however, some of the ways in which this “political revolution” has resulted in a profound “substitution of political elites” that has shifted the hegemonic balance of forces in Bolivia more to the side of the subaltern classes.

I am inclined to think the government’s popularity is also reinforced by its international policy, especially in Morales’ campaign to get the major world powers to assume their responsibility in facing up to the challenge of global climate change. Most recently, as well, the government has been one of the few to uphold the right to asylum of Edward Snowden, the NSA whistle blower, in retaliation for which Evo Morales was singled out by Washington earlier this month when it got no less than four European governments to refuse landing rights to Morales while he was returning home from Moscow, thus jeopardizing the life of the Bolivian president.

At this point I am not convinced by the author’s claim that the revolutionary potential of Bolivia’s “process of change” has largely dissipated. However, we can leave it to future events to determine the accuracy of this observation. The article is a valuable summary of the government’s legacy to date.

This article appears in the May-June issue of Nueva Sociedad, a bimonthly journal published by the social-democratic Friedrich Ebert Foundation and now edited by Pablo Stefanoni, an Argentine journalist and former editor of the Bolivian edition of Le Monde Diplomatique.

Once again, my thanks to Federico Fuentes and Cristina Rojas for reviewing my draft translation.

– Richard Fidler

* * *

Why is Evo Morales still popular?

The strengths of the MAS in the construction of a new order

By Fernando Molina

Nueva Sociedad, No. 245, May-June 2013

Last January Evo Morales celebrated seven years in power, which already puts him on the short list of governments with the longest mandates in a history characterized by political and social instability. Notwithstanding the wear and tear of his administration, the Bolivian president maintains an approval rating of at least 50%. Why this strong standing, which shields him for the time being against any of his potential electoral rivals? This article, citing statistics and socio-political analysis, explains the economic, political and social strengths of the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) in an economic context that was unimaginable a decade ago.

Last March 28, while celebrating yet another anniversary since the founding of the government party, the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), Evo Morales and Álvaro García Linera launched the effort to be re-elected for a second time as President and Vice-President of Bolivia in 2014. Given the legal restrictions that might preclude this hope, special authorization allowing their candidacies had been granted by the Tribunal Constitucional.[1] It is certain, however, not only that the MAS and its two candidates will be present in the elections but that they will be the axis around which all the election campaigns will turn.

After six [sic] years of government, the governing party lacks the exciting aura of novelty that surrounded it at the beginning of the so-called “process of change.” Broadly speaking, the change has already occurred and changing has ceased to be the driving force that it was between 2002 and 2009. The major contribution of the MAS to innovation in Bolivia has already been made: the future of this party now depends on its potential to represent the continuity of the laws, institutions and policies that it devised and applied during those years.

However, this statement is problematic. Today the ideological struggle in Bolivia continues to revolve around the question of change. Was it a promise fulfilled, and to what extent? What is the real nature of the transformation of the country, and how should it be defined — socialist, nationalist, state capitalist? That is what drives the political debate, because how these questions are answered depends on the position that each party occupies in relation to the government, whether an ally, a critical follower, an adversary or an enemy.

An indication that Bolivia is entering a new stage is that the discussion is now a projection not toward the future, as it was for so long, but toward the past. Since its revolutionary potential has largely dissipated, the Bolivian process has entered a “retrospective stage” focused on making a balance sheet and drawing on the “heroic years.”

What remains is the capital accumulated by the MAS during and thanks to its administration of government. This article will describe this legacy — on which the new MAS election campaign will be erected — in order to demonstrate that it is not a house of cards, as most of the opposition argues. Our hope is to make an objective evaluation of what has occurred from a very specific standpoint: the construction of a new order. That is why such measures as the creation of relatively unsustainable state enterprises, debatable decisions in terms of achieving national development, are praised for their ability to insert particular population groups in the state apparatus, avoid civil conflicts, and secure the presence of the state in the territory and markets with the goal of promoting local producers. And so on….

For those to the left and the right of the MAS, the transformations of these years have been more rhetorical than real, more symbolic than material, more a work of chance than of will, and have produced more errors than successes. The various oppositions coincide in this diagnosis, although they argue it differently.

For the left opposition, the achievements of this regime do not correspond to the initial dreams. It has fallen back on the extractivist developmentalism and populist nationalism of the 1950s. The progress that has been made in the fight against social inequality is much less than what could have been achieved in some other way.[2] The means employed have ultimately converted the MAS into a “traditional” party, that is, vertical, demagogic, caudillista.[3]

For the right opposition, on the other hand, the problem began with the dreams: statism is a means for changing the model of redistribution, to favour those sectors close to the government (the process hampering private activity), but not to confront the country’s structural problems. The empowerment of the indigenous has been symbolic, and has been restricted to groups close to the governing party, since the flesh-and-blood indigenous continue to confront a lack of economic opportunities, which are ultimately the ones that count.[4] The economy is doing well as a result of the boom in international prices of petroleum and other minerals, which has boosted domestic consumption of imported goods and of those that can only be produced in the country (“non-tradables”), but Bolivia still gets most of its income from exports of two or three varieties of raw materials. And the government is squandering the extraordinary income it receives in projects devoid of economic rationality.[5]

These criticisms have the same defect. They emphasize what the government is not doing or has not become, but they do not faithfully observe what it has done and what it represents. Hence the motive and the need to write these lines.

Economic strengths

The Evo Morales government coincides with the best economic moment in Bolivian history. The existence of a causal relation between the two is doubtful, since the principal dynamo of the national bonanza is the high revenues from exports, which in a decade have increased from about $2 billion to around $10 billion. Those revenues, in turn, are due to the high international prices. However, the government must be credited with having prevented this income flow from being lost through a flight of capital, having nationalized the main export chain — gas, along with some mines and key foundries.

Also, owing to the policy of strengthening the national currency, and the fragility of international finances, investments in Bolivianos are the norm, as shown in the record holdings of deposits and credits (equivalent to $7.7 billion and $6.4 billion, respectively) with which the banking sector finished 2012. Bolivia has never before had such a high amount of international reserves, more than $14 billion, about 60% of its GDP.

With the flight of capital under control, capital has remained in the country and stimulated a strong growth in demand, which in some years largely (and in other years entirely) explains the growth in production, averaging 4.8% annually.[6]

Demand has grown thanks to the expansion in public spending, from about $6 billion in 2005 to more than $20 billion. The State now has 50,000 more employees than it had in 2006 (an increase from 75,000 to 125,000). Public investment has increased six-fold in five years and now accounts for 11% of the GDP, while private foreign and national investments each account for 4%. This total investment of 19% of GDP is higher than what Bolivia has normally received (in the mid-1990s, at the height of the privatizations, the rate went to 16%).[7]

Another major source of demand was the rise in domestic incomes as a result of the almost full employment enjoyed today by the population (above all owing to construction, which is expanding at a rate of 10% per year), the social policy budget, and wage increases, which generally cover the official rate of inflation at about 5%. The minimum wage has risen 127%, a powerful boost to the most vulnerable sectors of the employed labour force: construction workers and maids.[8]

Is this the actual inflation? People complain about the rise in the prices of food and transportation, which no doubt is higher than what is indicated by government figures. However, this discontent is counteracted by the increase in the number of employed persons in each family and the controls on prices of some products (flour, chicken, sugar, rice, bread and milk), which so far have been relatively successful. The government has allocated $395 million to stabilizing the wholesale prices of flour, sugar, rice, hard yellow corn and wheat.[9]

The “bonos,” or conditional cash grants that the government gives to seniors, pregnant women and some groups of students cover 33% of the population, that is, 3.3 million people, with amounts from $28 to $340 per person per year. Up to now the MAS government has allocated $1.2 billion alone on the “Renta Dignidad,” the universal government pension granted to all those over the age of 60, about 900,000 persons.[10]

The increase in the internal market has offered new opportunities to the informal market entrepreneurs, very numerous in a country with a very small formal economy. Many of them engage in smuggling, which is increasing along with the size of the economy notwithstanding the efforts of some bureaucratic (but so far known to be honest) customs officers. One study estimates that the merchandise that illegally crosses the border amounts to a fifth of the amount of legal imports.[11] Applying this percentage to imports in 2012, the figure would be $1.85 billion or 7.4% of the GDP. As a result of this business, and of the drug trade (which is not discussed in the cited study), a lot of jobs have been established.

Other subsidies provided by the government to the population are:

  • the freezing of electricity rates, which are set especially low for the poorer consumers (Tarifa Dignidad). The subsidy benefits 890,000 persons and costs more than $8.5 million in revenues to the electricity companies.[12] These measures have kept Bolivian rates the lowest in Latin America, which they already were before the present government came into office.[13]
  • the application of the Tarifa Dignidad to the potable water service;
  • the freezing of fuel prices at a cost of about $1 billion annually, or $100 per capita. This policy helps to control the level of transport fares, a major expenditure for the poorer population which spends 80% to 90% of its income on transportation and food purchases. At the end of 2011, in what many consider was its worst error, the government moved to suspend the fuel subsidy and the mass reaction was so overwhelming that it quickly had to retreat. Since that time a complex system of controls has operated to prevent the subsidy from stimulating gasoline smuggling across the borders and bleeding the public treasury.[14]
  • controlling the level of air travel fares and telecommunications rates through the presence in those markets of state-owned companies with decision-making powers (Boliviana de Aviación and Entel), which have performed this task among others.
  • the elimination of the cost of documents citizens request from various state and private authorities such as birth certificates, high school completion certificates, occupational records, etc.
  • a credit of $100 million to transport workers’ unions to import 2,000 Chinese buses.
  • the direct recruitment of 130,000 unemployed women (former beneficiaries of the Plan Nacional de Empleo de Emergencia – PLANE, the National emergency employment plan) to work on state projects such as reforestation in the Amazon jungle.

These measures and processes have managed to lower urban extreme poverty from 24% to 14%, and rural extreme poverty from 63% to 43%.[15] At the same time, Bolivia has benefited from the phenomenon of an increase in the size of the Latin American middle class (those who receive incomes of more than $10 a day) by about 50 million in recent years.[16]

Since this new middle class results not from an improvement in productivity but rather from a better distribution of income, it has a precarious existence and there is no assurance that it will not disappear later. However, its sudden appearance has changed the usual correspondence between class and ethnicity; in other words, there are increasingly more and more indigenous (and mestizos with a strongly indigenous physiognomy) who are experiencing a certain prosperity, altering the relationship of forces between the old “white” elite and the rest of the population, making unviable the racism of the elite and tending to psychologically empower all of the indigenous, including the poor.

The government has created a set of small state enterprises that do not appear to be very sustainable, such as a plant for manufacturing cardboard, or milk and fruit processors, etc. These initiatives have been criticized as inefficient and in some cases corrupt.[17] However, these companies have the advantage of having been established in remote locations which gives them symbolic value, although it undermines their efficiency. With them, the state goes where it never went before and, in some cases, as in the companies that purchase gold, almonds, honey, etc. from small producers, tends to improve their situation. While these firms are not completely ruinous and the public treasury is in a position to sustain them, they support the idea that the government is winning the country’s economic sovereignty.

For the first time in history, Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales Bolivianos (YPFB, the state hydrocarbons development company) is making extremely important investments with the national currency. Experts are sceptical about what will happen, for example, with the construction of a petrochemicals plant in Cochabamba that will cost $800 million and still has no secure market. However, until this negative prognosis has been verified in reality, this plant, and especially the domestic gas networks YPFB is installing in the major cities, satisfy the nationalist economic sentiment of the majority of the population (judging by opinion polls).[18]

Other investments in infrastructure are also being made. Between 2001 and 2005, 887 kilometres of highways were built, but between 2006 and 2012 this figure doubled. Highway investment during this period rose to $2 billion, the highest level in the country’s history.[19]

Social strengths

The Bolivian social substratum is a tightly woven set of indigenous and corporate organizations that express the demands of the population and, in part, substitute for the state institutions that are lacking in the rural areas and small towns.

This is a complex and diverse system that absorbs and channels most of the grassroots movements around public issues. Controlling it is fundamental in order to lead the country’s political mobilization, including electorally, and for ensuring governability.

As is well known,[20] the MAS is part of this structure. If we look at the rise of this party and the ideology it defends, it can be viewed as the return of corporativismo (that is, of a flexible type of collectivism [literally, the corporate spirit –Tr.]) to the political scene, after a decade — the 1990s — in which the liberal predominance purported to remove it in order to make way for a contractual model of society. For historical reasons, corporativismo is the “natural” form of Bolivian organization, and that is why the principal strength of the MAS lies in its ideological and organizational coincidence with it.

The corporations serve to stimulate and channel disputes between groups with different interests. A political system based on them suffers from the factionalism and conflict that is intrinsic to them. However, the Bolivian corporations have encountered in the MAS a lasting and effective way of ensuring that their disputes do not compromise their strategic unity.

The success of the MAS in this sense is due to the historical and political dimension of what has been achieved up to now, to the ethnic solidarity that unites its ranks, to the practical need it has to align in opposition to the “enemy,” etc. However, the most profound reason for this success is the general loyalty to Evo Morales, one of the most effective caudillos in Bolivian political history, which is full of eminent caudillos.

The MAS represents the simultaneous unity of corporativismo and of the Bolivian left behind an ideology and a leader. Thus, while there is constant conflict between its factions, it has not to this point gone beyond the framework constituted by the movement. Also, from its position in governmental office, the MAS carries on an active “management of unity” in various ways:

(a) The condemnation of disagreement, which can lead to the expulsion and isolation of dissidents in order to preclude their acting in an independent way. Early this year, Vice-President García Linera deprived of their authority the members of the MAS who were criticizing the party line, in particular the then chair of the Chamber of Deputies, Rebeca Delgado. The MASistas, he argued, are not freethinkers but revolutionaries and hence must adhere to the rules of “democratic centralism.” And if they don’t like this, they should leave.

Of course the MAS, as an organization of social organizations, is far from applying “democratic centralism”… except against dissidents. So in the ceremony marking the anniversary of the MAS, referred to at the beginning of this article, Evo Morales said “We must win back some compañeros who have gone astray. We must unite.”

(b) At the same time, the government gives different treatment to the social movements that confront it depending on whether they are considered allies or adversaries. If they are allies, the conflict is framed by the government as “creative tensions within the revolution”[21] and it seeks to avoid an escalation of the protests by relying on the government’s relationship with the leaders, the popularity of government leaders among the potential mobilizing forces, etc. And various concessions are made, provided that the government considers them acceptable.

When the conflict cannot be prevented in this way, the mobilized sector can become in the government’s perception an adversary, not an ally, and be treated differently. It will be publicly ridiculed, questions will be raised as to whether its intentions are simply to make demands or to raise a political challenge. And concessions will be made if and only when they are unavoidable. In many cases appeals are made to allied sectors to confront (and dissuade) the adversaries.

(c) As soon as it came to power, the MAS instituted the program “Bolivia cambia, Evo cumple” [Bolivia is changing, Evo delivers] that to date has spent $480 million (most of it funded by Venezuela) on 3,900 small projects that are quickly executed with a visible result (e.g. construction) and accordingly a strong political impact in selected rural municipalities that meet a diversity of criteria: in some cases, because a mayor or social organization makes a request and manages to persuade the President, in other cases because electoral support is sought in an adverse zone, or finally, because the distribution of projects is used to construct the political equilibrium that is needed precisely to guarantee unity.

This program is a direct tool of the “permanent campaign” in which Morales is engaged, visiting daily the most remote parts of the country to inaugurate football grounds with artificial grass, classrooms, union headquarters, markets, etc., to establish contact with the local leaders of the MAS, and to address the audience that has not yet been convinced. The program is clearly oriented to the maintenance and reproduction of power. It improves the image of the President, benefits allies, helps attract former opponents and coopt them and attract “clienteles” dazzled by the possibility of obtaining a tangible return in exchange for their political commitment.

At least $20 million of this program will be used in the construction of infrastructure and the purchase of assets for the unions, indigenous centrals and other corporate organizations. And although in some cases the projects were not finished or presented economic and technical irregularities, this has not necessarily affected the President’s reputation, since final responsibility lies in the hands of the local leaders who have in fact received the money for the projects.

No doubt, the Bolivian government does not belong “to the social movements,” as the official propaganda states. The major decisions are taken by the President, the cabinet and a small political leadership in which no more than two or three of the founders of the party participate. And there are few indigenous. However, the process has empowered the social movements, which have representatives in the three organs (powers) of the state, have a right of veto over some policies and certain appointments, provide state services (like entitlement to rights, processing of documents, etc.) in the rural areas, and have intimidated the old elites in the contention for land, which the indigenous and campesinos are beginning to win (as in the Chaco, for example).

The government’s role in producing this outcome has been considerable. If between 1996 and 2005 property titles were ratified and 9.3 million hectares registered, benefiting 174,000 persons, since 2005 this has been done on 55 million hectares to the benefit of 982,000 persons. The agrarian titles granted in 2012 alone are four times the total number granted in 1996-2005.[22]

A fundamental mechanism in this empowerment is the coming into force of a law against racism, which has “denaturalized” racial discrimination, confining it to the private sphere.

Political strengths

During the last decade Bolivia has been going through what Marxists would characterize as a “political revolution,” that is, a substitution of political elites that has been quite thoroughgoing. Groups of different ethnic, class and political-ideological origins have replaced the dominant political strata of the past. It has been a peaceful substitution but aimed at the elimination and not the coexistence of the opposing side, and it has unfolded using both political and judicial methods. The members of the old political elite have lost the right to work in the public arena, in a sort of symbolic banishment. Businessmen have been told “not to interfere in politics.”[23] Some leaders have had to go into exile as a preventive measure, others have ended up in jail.[24]

All of this, of course, has contributed to the transformation of the MAS into a sort of “state party” (outside of which political survival is very difficult), albeit lacking in the institutional density that this type of parties has had in other revolutionary experiences and while the opposition manages to retain local governments.

In addition to having the most powerful candidate, with an approval rating of over 50%[25] (based on three things: awarding of projects, roads and cash, concern for the poorest, and socio-economic transformation of the country), the governing party benefits from the new rules of political and election organizing like the strict oversight by the Tribunal Electoral or the possibility of re-election, which in the last half-century was prohibited because — in a country without accountability — the government tended to become electorally unbeatable, which is what already happened in the 2009 elections. Or like the suspension of state funding to the parties, which ends up giving the lead over a competitor who relies on state assistance as opposed to others who hardly ever have to “pay out of their own pockets” the funds needed to conduct an election campaign.

However, the purpose of this article has been to show that the strength of the MAS does not derive solely from these political advantages, although the party has already taken advantage of them in the past and will surely do so again in 2014.

Fernando Molina is a Bolivian journalist and writer. He received the King of Spain Prize for Iberian-American Journalism in 2012. He is the author of El pensamiento boliviano sobre los recursos naturales (Pulso, 2009) and other essays. His most recent book is La trayectoria teórica de Antonio Negri. De Marx al radicalismo posmoderno (Pazos Kanki, La Paz, 2012).

[1] The Constitution of 2009 authorizes only one re-election. One of its provisions states that Morales’ first term, prior to the approval of the new Constitution, counts as such, and accordingly his triumph in 2009 should be considered as a re-election. However, the government’s interpretation is that since Evo Morales called early presidential elections in 2009, his first full term is the present one. The Court also held that since the country had been “refounded” the first term is the present one (2010-2014).

[2] See, for example, Movimiento Sin Miedo, Tesis ideológicas, La Paz, 2012.

[3] Statement by Oscar Olivera, leader of the “water war” in 2000: “The MAS has existed for 18 years without becoming a political leadership,” Aquí, 30/03/13.

[4] Pedro Portugal, intervention in the international seminar “Los rostros de la democracía,” Tribunal Electoral Plurinacional/ UNDP/ Fundación Boliviana para la Democracía Multipartidaria, La Paz, 26 July 2011.

[5] Juan Antonio Morales, “La economía bajo Evo Morales,” roundtable, Fundación Pazos Kanki, La Paz, February 2013.

[6] Luis Arce, “Perspectivas de la economía boliviana,” paper presented at the Foro de Dirección en Banca y Microfinanzas: Nuevas Tendencias Regulatorias y Buen Gobierno Corporativo en el Sector Financiero, organized

by the Asociación de Instituciones Especializadas en Microfinanzas, La Paz, 21 March 2013.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Miram Telma Jemio, “Gastaron Bs 2.769,9 millones en subvención de 5 alimentos,” Página Siete, 2/4/2013.

[10] “La Renta Dignidad tiene menos beneficiarios,” La Prensa, 7/1/2013.

[11] Confederación de Empresarios Privados de Bolivia, “Comercio exterior ilegal en Bolivia, estimaciones

2000-2008,” n.p., La Paz, 2009.

[12] Autoridad de Fiscalización y Control Social en Electricidad, quoted in “Tarifa Dignidad permitió ahorrar Bs. 59 millones,” Página Siete, 25/3/2013.

[13] The average residential rate in 2006 was 0.0614 dollars per kWh, while the weighted average in Latin America and the Caribbean was 0.115 dollars per kWh, according to the World Bank: “Benchmarking Data of the Electricity Distribution Sector in Latin America and Caribbean Region 1995-2005.” Six years later, the average Bolivian rate is 1.166 dollars. Source: Lidia Mamani, “Las tarifas eléctricas en tres regiones son las más costosas,” Página Siete, 25/3/2013.

[14] To gauge the political importance of prices in Bolivia, it must be kept in mind that the defeat of the left between 1985 and 2005, that is, for 20 years, was provoked by the hyperinflation that a “left” government proved unable to control in the early 1980s. Or that the political process that led the MAS to power began in 2000 with the famous “water war” in Cochabamba, which was triggered by a sharp rise in the rates charged for basic sanitary services.

[15] Luis Arce, op. cit.

[16] World Bank (WB), “Economic Mobility and the Rise of the Latin American Middle Class,” Washington, D.C., November 2012.

[17] Fundación Milenio, El estado de las empresas del Estado, Coloquio Económico No 23, Fundación Milenio, La Paz, November 2011.

[18] Proyecto de Análisis Político y Escenarios Prospectivos (Papep), 2010, cited in F. Molina, “El MAS en el centro de la política boliviana,” Mutaciones del campo político en Bolivia, UNDP, La Paz, 2010.

[19] Gobierno del Estado Plurinacional de Bolivia, Informe de gestión del Presidente Evo Morales, La Paz, 2012.

[20] See Pablo Stefanoni and Hervé Do Alto, “El MAS: las ambivalencias de la democracia corporativa,” in

Mutaciones del campo político en Bolivia, supra note 18.

[21] Álvaro García Linera, Las tensiones creativas de la revolución, La Paz, La Razón, 2012.

[22] Gobierno del Estado Plurinacional de Bolivia, Informe de gestión del Presidente Evo Morales, La Paz, 2012.

[23] According to the opposition leader Samuel Doria Medina, “the government entourage is constantly sending the message that businessmen are welcome if they don’t interfere in politics.” Interview in El Día, 24/9/2012.

[24] On 9 September 2012, an AFP dispatch reported that Yoriko Yakusawa, the United Nations representative in Bolivia, expressed his concern at the “accumulation of cases” involving critics of the government. “This is not a good message about democracy,” he stated. On 18 September of that year, according to a dispatch of the Agencia Nacional Fides, the Permanent Episcopal Council of the Catholic Church noted that “many people, inmates, exiles, political refugees are suffering because there is no guarantee of a fair trial, and because of delays in the hearing of cases. It is urgent that the exercise of justice not be subject to conditions of an economic, social or political type —not in the interest of impunity but in order to guarantee impartial trials that establish the truth of the facts.” The Episcopal Council called for amnesty for those accused or exiled on political grounds. We present those indicators because there is no study of Bolivian exile as a result of the political revolution. There are only records of the most notorious cases, that is, of politicians who have fled prosecutions of a distinct nature (who were tried for the repression in October 2003, or investigated for the formation of an armed militia in Santa Cruz in 2008, or tried for corruption and expelled from intermediate state institutions: the mayoralty in Potosí, the governorship in La Paz, Cochabamba and Tarija). On the other hand, there has been no systematic study of the hundreds of former officials and members of the old party system who have quietly left the country in a self-exile with economic undertones, to try to find a better life abroad.

[25] Captura Consulting polls in Poder y Placer, 3/2013.