Bolivia

Evo Morales: An Indian out of place

2 January by Boaventura de Sousa Santos


The dramatic events in Bolivia in recent months have followed an imperial script that Latin Americans are becoming more and more familiar with, and which consists in paving the way for the replacing of a democratic government deemed hostile to the interests of the United States (or rather, of U.S. multinationals). This is done by orchestrating a two-pronged plan: nullifying an “inimical” election victory while rapidly consolidating the new regime, which in its turn takes measures that go beyond the remit of a transitional government. We have certainly been caught by surprise not only by how the whole situation evolved, but also by the way in which it was promptly followed by comments that were mostly unfavorable to Evo Morales’ government, coming from supposedly opposing ideological camps. I wish tocontribute to the current debate, because I see in these recent developments in Bolivia the seeds of much that is to come throughout the continent and the world in the decades ahead.

 Successes and achievements of Evo’s government

Evo Morales’ first government – the most advanced in terms of substantive change (2006-2010) – was marked by the implementation of the so-called “October Agenda” with its two crucial measures: a) hydrocarbon nationalization, carried out with a lot of symbolism on the 1 st of May, 2006 (with some critics maintaining that it was actually a renegotiation of contracts with the oil companies); and b) the Constituent Assembly, which, despite many obstacles, led to the approval by referendum, in January 2009, of a new Political Constitution of the Plurinational State of Bolivia.

With the nationalization of hydrocarbons and of companies in such strategic areas as telecommunications (Entel), which happened at a balmy period resulting from a rise in international commodity prices, Bolivia ceased being a mendicant State (a “State with holes”) and became, under Evo Morales, a strong democratic State with significant penetration in the whole Bolivian territory. Public investment became a primary source of economic growth, a model of development combining economic stability and redistribution that received praise from all international bodies. Notwithstanding all the difficulties and delays, important steps were taken toward the much sought-after hydrocarbon industrialization and other major projects (electricity generation, mining of iron and lithium reserves).

The new constitution brought progress and crucial achievements in the context of the new, autonomy-based Plurinational State. One key component was the constitutional recognition of the “original peasant indigenous”peoples as a political subject and its inclusion in the State’s structure and in the public sphere. The State’s plurinational nature is an achievement still under construction, its major strength being the outcomes of the Unity Pact, which managed to unify most popular social organizations. Progress was also made with regard to the long-term path toward indigenous self-government.

One cannot emphasize enough what a great achievement it was to significantly reduce the inequality gaps and the poverty levels. According to official data, during Evo’s time in government poverty dropped from 59.9 percent to 34.6 percent and extreme poverty from 38.2 to 15.2 percent. Various cash transfer programs targeting vulnerable groups – Renda Dignidad (“Dignity Income”) for the elderly, Bono Juancito Pinto (“Juancito Pinto allowance”) for school children, Bono Juana Azurduy (“Juana Azurduy allowance”) for expectant mothers – contributed to this outcome.

A number of studies by UNDP UNDP
United Nations Development Programme
The UNDP, founded in 1965 and based in New York, is the UN’s main agency of technical assistance. It helps the DC, without any political restrictions, to set up basic administrative and technical services, trains managerial staff, tries to respond to some of the essential needs of populations, takes the initiative in regional co-operation programmes and co-ordinates, theoretically at least, the local activities of all the UN operations. The UNDP generally relies on Western expertise and techniques, but a third of its contingent of experts come from the Third World. The UNDP publishes an annual Human Development Report which, among other things, classifies countries by their Human Development Rating (HDR).

and other international bodies also stress, among the achievements of Evo Morales’ government, the social inclusion of the new (“emerging”) middle class, as a consequence of the fact that the number of middle-income people went from 3.3 million in 2005 to 7 million in 2018.

Also deserving of mention as part of Morales’ legacy, namely as a result of the new constitutional and legal framework, is the significant progress in gender equity Equity The capital put into an enterprise by the shareholders. Not to be confused with ’hard capital’ or ’unsecured debt’. , equal opportunities for men and women, and most of all women’s equal presence in elected posts across Bolivia’s legislative bodies (the Plurinational Legislative Assembly, departmental – i.e., provincial – assemblies, and municipal councils). This was only possible thanks to the persistent efforts of women’s organizations.

Other obvious achievements include the drastic reduction in illiteracy, strong macroeconomic indicators (in recent years Bolivia has been at the forefront of economic growth in South America), the halving of unemployment (from 8.1 to 4.2 percent), steady minimum wage increases, rising life expectancy, and remarkable public investments in infrastructure (notably road construction and thousands of works in the provinces and rural areas). In any event, there is one substantive achievement that no indicator is able to measure. It has to do with the reaffirmation of Bolivia’s dignity and sovereignty in the international scene.

 Mistakes and Failures of Evo’s government

Just as there were undeniable successes during Evo Morales’ rule, there were also failures and mistakes. In the post-Constituent Assembly process, the government proved weak when it came to implementing some of the Constitution’s main principles, especially as regards the exercise of rights. Mention should equally be made of the misconceptions of government management, as was the case with the rupture with the indigenous peoples of the Amazon due to the government´s zeal in building a highway through the Isiboro Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park (TIPNIS, 2011), the insistence on a developmental model based on extractive ventures and megaprojects, the disregard for prior consultation of indigenous peoples concerning such projects, and other measures favoring the official alliance with Bolivia’s agroindustry.

The most egregious mistake of all was perhaps Morales’ calling and then ignoring the binding outcome of a public referendum on his reelection (February 2016), according to which just over 51 percent of the population voted against amending Article 168 of the Constitution so that he would be given the possibility of running for a new term. In the meantime, the whole “process of change” (proceso de cambio) ran into difficulties as far as finding new leaders was concerned, which made it more and more “Evo-dependent”. Despite the initial momentum, a series of obstacles got in the way of the original peasant indigenous autonomies, in which the government itself seemed to put little faith. It was also a mistake to subordinate indigenous justice to ordinary courts, given that legal pluralism is forcefully enshrined in the country’s constitution. Finally, the Buen Vivir principle, claimed by the indigenous nations and peoples as their own alternative to development, was gradually diluted in the move, by Evo’s government, toward a national-popular agenda articulated in the 2025 Bicentennial Patriotic Agenda.

 Evo’s fall: a coup staged by the empire and the local elites

Had mistakes outweighed successes, the most natural thing, in a democracy, would have been for Evo Morales to lose the election. But that is not what happened. Evo’s fall was the result of a coup d’état. The right, as well as part of the domestic left and the international right, challenged the notion of a coup. Their claim was that there was no coup, but rather a “monumental fraud”. They focused on the mostly urban protests led by the traditional white and mestiza middle-class. Their questioning, in 2019, of Evo’s candidacy in light of the outcome of the February 2016 constitutional referendum proved that their participation in the elections was not based on good faith. By preparing themselves exclusively for a (fabricated) electoral fraud scenario, they’ve undercut democracy itself. Their objective was to show that Evo Morales stepped down solely as a result of the “peaceful mobilization” of citizens, out of respect for universal franchise and rejection of “fraudulent” elections.

That was simply not the case. The facts show that some time before the elections a coup plan was set in motion in Bolivia. It comprises several well-synchronized components involving both the local elites and US imperialism. As a matter of fact, the “fraud” motif crystallized weeks before the election and became widespread in several regional governments that called for ignoring the election results in case Evo won. Thus, the protests of the opposition forces shifted from demanding new elections to an ultimatum demanding that the president step down within 48 hours. A police mutiny soon followed, with the police forces refusing to perform their duty as the guarantor of security and public order. Then there was the insidious “preliminary report” of the OAS audit, with its talk of “irregularities”. The coup staged by the empire and the political elites constituted an abrupt interruption of a constitutional mandate and reached its peak with the direct intervention of the Armed Forces, which “suggested” that the president resign. There followed violent actions against officials and leaders of MAS (the Movimiento al Socialismo party), forcing them to resign. Despite all this, Evo’s resignation and his asylum in Mexico and later in Argentina did not lead to a military government. Instead, a democratic façade was fabricated, with the second vice president of the Bolivian Senate (whose party won a mere 4 percent of the vote in the election) appointing herself president, allegedly to secure the constitutional succession of power. With the backing of the police and the armed forces, she assumed a mandate steeped in conservative religious symbols and racist vindictiveness.

In short, Evo’s fall was not the result of a democratic act whereby citizens voted to “punish” the president’s reelectionist zeal, but was rather orchestrated as part of a coup. As a consequence, we are now faced with the search for a path – certainly a difficult, delicate and unconvincing one – back to democratic “normalcy” at the polls, amid persistent human rights violations. The “return to normalcy” means making Evo Morales and Álvaro García Linera ineligible and establishing a transitional government bent on annulling existing international agreements (for example, leaving ALBA and UNASUR); privatizing strategic companies; expanding the agricultural frontier even further; liberalizing the economy by handing over the country’s natural resources, as per the neoliberal recipe; massively replacing the diplomatic corps; replacing the members of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal – which has been rightly accused of bowing to “officialism” – with members close to the new officialism; and above all, eradicating from the political scene the indigenous, national-popular collective subject, along with every claim born out of the struggles of the indigenous peoples (Buen Vivir, plurinationality, collective rights, communitarian democracy, and respect for Mother Earth).

With its intervention, the empire took advantage of domestic mistakes to add Bolivia (after Brazil and Ecuador) to the number of countries where it has been seeking to neutralize China’s influence throughout the continent. The rivalry between the two empires (one on the rise, the other in decline) knows no democratic rules. At stake is the control over the new wave of globalization based on artificial intelligence and 5G technology. For the time being, China appears to be better positioned to take that control, and toward that end it has proposed positive incentive measures on the international stage (such as the New Silk Road: the Road and Belt Initiative), whereas U.S. intervention has mostly taken the form of punitive measures (embargoes, economic sanctions, regime change, counterinsurgency). The multilateral façade is provided by the Organization of the American States (OAS), which acts in the region as the chargé d’affaires of the U.S. Department of State. Only recently, Evo Morales’s government signed a contract with China to build a company to produce lithium metal. Lithium, of which Bolivia possesses huge deposits, is a strategic mineral of the new technological order. Such an act of rebellion against the ever-present Monroe Doctrine (the subcontinent as the U. S. backyard) just had to be stopped.

In this way, U.S. imperialism applied a well-known script for regime change, in order to gain access to the strategic natural resources of a country that is part of its zone of influence. Like Brazil before it, Bolivia functioned as a laboratory of what is to come. In the case of Bolivia, it can be said that no anti-imperialist government has ever surrendered this quickly (in sharp contrast to Venezuela). But imperialism and the elites know that there are leaders who, despite their many mistakes, have touched the heart of the poorest, humblest and most abandoned classes, and that despite all those mistakes, there is a danger that they may come back. Hence the enlisting of the repressive apparatus and the judicial system, to accuse those leaders of crimes that may render them politically ineligible forever. Such has been the case with Rafael Correa (Ecuador), Lula da Silva (Brazil) and Cristina Kirchner (Argentina, in the latter case, unsuccessfully thus far). The same will happen with Evo.

 Critical evaluations

After Evo fell, the harshest criticism of his government came not just from the right, as was to be expected, but also from a part of the left and from Latin American feminists, both white and mestizas. This was puzzling and cause for outrage among other left-wing and feminist sectors, especially the indigenous women’s movements. To think, in the heated aftermath of recent events, that after 32 dead and 700 injured; after the creole-mestizo-version proclamation of the triumph of white supremacy and of the evangelical bible over Pachamama’s “satanic paganism”; after the burning of the wiphala (the indigenous flag) and the sending of the Indians back to their remote areas of invisibility (just like the Bantustans in apartheid South Africa); to think that after all this there will still be a better ground on which to build indigenous grassroots democracy, strikes me as delusional.

Whether explicitly feminist or not, the criticism coming from some left-wing sectors certainly deserves serious consideration. I have often said that women’s struggles provide one of the most solid foundations of a true renewal of the struggle for social justice and liberation in the new century. Argentina, Venezuela and Chile are dramatic proof of this fact. But it is unquestionable that after the fall of Evo Morales’ government the controversy has become more acute and there seems to exist a deep divide in today’s Latin American feminism. It should be noted that in the past decade many indigenous feminist activists have voiced criticism of their government, and always in a constructive manner. To name just a few of the great women leaders with whom I have worked, I could mention Nina Pacari, Blanca Chancoso, and María Eugenia Choque, who is now seriously ill in prison for having presided over the Electoral Tribunal and in that capacity charged with the alleged election fraud. Many of them have kept a distance from the various feminisms and even refused to call themselves feminists, believing that the description was better suited to white and mestiza women.

I have argued that capitalism, colonialism, and patriarchy are (and have been, since the seventeenth century) the three major forms of domination of our time. All three are fiercely present nowadays and always act in concert, because free labor – a hallmark of capitalism – is not sustainable without slave labor or greatly undervalued or even unpaid labor. These latter types of labor are supplied by racialized and sexualized populations who are viewed as subhuman: people of African descent, indigenous populations, women, Roma peoples, lower castes, etc. The disturbing thing about our present situation is that while domination acts in concert, resistance to it is fragmented. How many anti-capitalist movements and organizations have been racist and sexist? How many anti-racist movements and organizations have been sexist and pro-capitalist? And how many feminist movements and organizations have been racist and pro-capitalist? As long as the asymmetry between domination and resistance persists, it will be impossible to get out of the capitalist, colonialist and heteropatriarchal hell in which we find ourselves. But the asymmetry can also provide us with clues to explain the discomfort caused by some of the criticisms. The very way in which many of the critical comments were articulated contributed to further exacerbate the fragmentation of the resistance to capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy on the continent.

Two other relevant factors should be taken into consideration. On the one hand, a distinction needs to be made between important and urgent struggles. Anti-capitalist, anti-colonialist and anti-patriarchal struggles are all equally important, but some may be more urgent than others, depending on the context. In view of the vicious imperialist strike against Evo in Bolivia, which struggle seemed more urgent? to defend the democratic solutions proposed by Evo, or to demonize him as if he were the sole culprit in his political fall? Given today’s climate of aggressive imperial belligerence, it would be more urgent to show that the alternatives on the part of the left have to be democratically found within Bolivia and under no circumstances play into the hands of imperialism.

On the other hand, a distinction must also be made between kairos, or timing, and opportunity. This is not about silencing criticism, but about finding the right tone so as not to provide the national and international right with grounds for increasing its anti-democratic belligerence. Thus, for example, fair criticism of Evo’s neo-extractivism could be made at a time and in a style that would not be conducive to the current situation: an even worse neo-extractivist solution, one far more detrimental to national sovereignty and social redistribution. The issue here is not whether to whitewash the grave mistakes of potential allies or not, but rather to ponder timing and context, and then make sure that one’s criticism helps reinforce, or at least does not cripple, anti-capitalist, anti-colonialist and anti-patriarchal resistance. The downtrodden men and women who now mourn the death of their own in the Sacaba and Senkata massacres (a full thirteen years – something unheard-of in Bolivia – since the military had last fired on the people) felt further abandoned because of the left-wing and feminist criticism directed against the political process in which they had put their faith.

 Challenges

Evo Morales was never the president of a plurinational State. The State over which he presided was certainly unparalleled in its benevolent treatment of the popular communities that for such a long time have endured all sorts of violations, discrimination, abandonment and humiliation. But the institutional and cultural framework within which it operated was colonial, centralist and authoritarian in nature. History’s inertia does not fail to weigh on those who take the brunt of it, even as they seek to fight it. But indigenous patience and resistance are as old as the ages. A country like Bolivia (a country in which the majority of the population is indigenous) will not be fully democratic until it is ruled by indigenous people and in accordance with indigenous cosmovisions. State power makes no sense unless governance is geared toward transforming it. The power of the State has to be used to set in motion a long transition toward a truly plurinational, anti-capitalist, anti-colonial, and anti-patriarchal State. Like Benito Juárez (Mexico) before him, Evo Morales was an Indian out of place. The learning process began with them and does not end with them. On the contrary, it is but a beginning. In Evo Morales’ case, a 13-year-long beginning that was necessarily messy and even contradictory, after 500 years of political non-existence. History will absolve Evo Morales.



Boaventura de Sousa Santos

Doutor em Sociologia do Direito pela Universidade de Yale (1973) e Professor Catedrático Jubilado da Faculdade de Economia da Universidade de Coimbra e Distinguished Legal Scholar da Universidade de Wisconsin-Madison. Foi também Global Legal Scholar da Universidade de Warwick e Professor Visitante do Birkbeck College da Universidade de Londres.

É Director Emérito do Centro de Estudos Sociais da Universidade de Coimbra e Coordenador Científico do Observatório Permanente da Justiça Portuguesa.

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