Pulling the levers of power in Bolivia

Trade unions, ethnic affiliations and regional identities have shaped Bolivian society for decades. The influence of formal organisations and informal movements is strong, and their relationship to political power is ambivalent.
Indigenous organisations can mobilise masses in Bolivia: people in La Paz protested against the  construction of a road through an Amazonian nature reserve in 2011. Martin Alipaz/picture-alliance/dpa Indigenous organisations can mobilise masses in Bolivia: people in La Paz protested against the construction of a road through an Amazonian nature reserve in 2011.

“Our task will be to support him, working together with the social movements,” Evo Morales, Bolivia’s former president, tweeted on 2 November from his exile in Argentina. He was referring to his party colleague Luis Arce Catacora, a former minister of economic affairs, whom a clear majority of voters had just elected president of Bolivia.

The message seemed supportive, but the new president may actually read his predecessor’s words as a threat. By mentioning “social movements”, Morales undoubtedly referred to groups that are loyal to himself as the historical leader of the “Movement for Socialism” (MAS). Luis Arce has since taken office, and Morales has returned to Bolivia.

Political movements and civil-society organisations have had a complex relationship with political power ever since Morales first rose to office. He became president in 2006, but was forced to resign and leave the country in October 2019, following massive irregularities in the election to decide his bid for a fourth term.

Under Morales, political legitimacy was not only based on legislators’ support but also on his ties to movements and organisations, which his government actively engaged in negotiations. Various actors in civil society felt they were changing Bolivian society from the bottom up. For example, they were involved in the Constituent Assembly in 2007. However, such networking was marked by a clear hierarchy. The authority and leadership role of Evo Morales could not be questioned.

Social movements and organisations in Bolivia tend to be based on one of three types of identity: class-based trade-union identity, ethnic-cultural indigenous identity and/or regional identity. Bolivia’s identity-based movements and their formal organisations have evolved over decades. Often, they are just as difficult to categorise neatly as individuals are.

Class struggle and coca

For a long time, organised miners spearheaded protests against those in power. In the large mines that were nationalised after the revolution of 1952, the “mineros” and their wives developed a strong working-class identity. Readiness to fight, including with weapons, was not a mere slogan. It was the historical experience. Miners were often in the front lines of resistance to the dictatorships of the 1970s and early 1980s.

From 1985 on, the mines, which had become unprofitable, were closed or privatised. Many newly unemployed people from mining towns migrated to the lowland province of Chapare north of the city of Cochabamba, where they made a living growing coca. The leader of the organised coca farmers was Evo Morales.

Combat-readiness was also called for in Chapare. The governments of the 1990s worked closely with the USA, supporting Washington’s anti-drugs policy, and Chapare was repeatedly the scene of armed conflict. This permanent state of strife reinforced authoritarian and hierarchical patterns. Identity tended to be based on union membership. The portrayal of Evo Morales as an “indigenous man” came much later, when he was on his way to La Paz to become president. Coca growers remain an important part of MAS-affiliated social groups. A potential future leader of the MAS, 32-year-old Andrónico Rodríguez, comes from their ranks.

Indigenous pride

Since the 1990s, cultural-ethnic identity has become more important in Bolivia. The farmers’ union CSUTCB, founded in 1979, serves as a significant forum for dialogue. Its name “trade union confederation of peasant workers” refers to a class orientation, but the union at the same time sees itself explicitly as representing indigenous peoples.

In 1989, the International Labour Organization (ILO) adopted Convention 169 on the rights and welfare of indigenous peoples. It remains the central political frame of reference to this day and provided international support to social groups that focus on indigenous identity, including financial support in the form of many projects and programmes.

In 1993, the intellectual Víctor Hugo Cárdenas, who belongs to the indigenous Aymara community, was elected vice-president. Radio star Remedios Loza, another Aymara, became a member of parliament. She embodied a new social reality, both as an indígena and as a politically influential woman. The political emancipation of non-white Bolivia took shape. The election of Evo Morales as president in 2005 was another major step in the same direction, but not the starting point.

Some of the newly emerging organisations invoked a pre-colonial past which is sometimes idealised. One example is ­CONAMAQ, an association of village communities in western Bolivia’s mountains. Founded in 1997, it refers to both the colonial regime and the republic after independence as “invaders”. It demands self-determination for indigenous communities and wants the land to be returned to them.

Meanwhile in eastern Bolivia’s lowlands, the umbrella organisation CIDOB has championed the interests of the more than 30 indigenous peoples since 1982. Their situation and demands differ from those of indigenous groups in the highlands. In the lowlands, the indigenous peoples are small in number. They particularly depend on land that is specifically protected. Tensions grew as ever more migrants from the highlands moved in to such areas. The relationship between the highlands’ Aymaras and Quechuas, quite populous ethnic groups, and much smaller indigenous peoples in the lowlands is fraught with conflict.

Nonetheless, both CONAMAQ and CIDOB long belonged to an alliance of indigenous organisations supporting Evo Morales. In 2011, however, there was a rupture between the government and both of indigenous organisations. The government wanted to build a road through an indigenous area. Both the lowlands-based CIDOB and the highlands-based CONAMAQ opposed the project. Subsequently, the government sought to weaken and even internally split CONAMAQ and CIDOB. The MAS would not tolerate any departures from its coalition.

Regional identity

Regional identity plays a role mainly in the eastern lowlands. Santa Cruz de la Sierra is the largest city and commercial hub. The “Comité pro Santa Cruz” is a civic organisation and a platform for local elites to negotiate economic and political issues and would not normally be considered a social movement. However, political careers begin here, including that of Luis Fernando Camacho, who was the right-wing outsider among the strong candidates in the election on 18 October 2020. His share of the vote was 45 % in Santa Cruz, but a mere 0.72 % in La Paz.

Groups such as the “Comité” are by no means just a mutual-support platform for upper classes. They can potentially mobilise masses of citizens. Many residents of Santa Cruz feel they are poorly represented in national politics and have little bearing on Bolivia’s international reputation. This sentiment provides an impetus for mobilising voters across social and economic classes. In view of this mobilisation potential, Evo Morales and his vice president García Linera made a deal with the Santa Cruz entrepreneurs. These would refrain from mobilising people to block the government. In return, the authorities in La Paz provide stability and let the entrepreneurs continue their business in peace. The result: neither expropriations nor class struggle in Santa Cruz.

After one year’s break, the MAS was returned to power in October. It had held government for 14 years previously, tightly embracing civil-society organisations and movements. It strengthened them in many areas, but it also dominated them. It is unlikely that this attitude can persist under President Arce. He lacks the charisma and authority of Evo Morales, whose future role is still unclear.

It is good news that Bolivia’s society does not permit a regime to establish decades-long hegemony by co-opting all relevant civil-society groups. By the way, that is what the MNR, the Party of the Revolution of 1952, had tried to do as well. It failed. Bolivian society is extremely diverse, with many faultlines between identities. More­over, political dynamics differ from place to place very much. This country will certainly never stand still – its society keeps moving.

Ulrich Goedeking is a sociologist and development policy consultant.

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