Bolivia’s Elections and Evo’s Surprising Political Malaise

By Robert Albro

Previous elections in La Paz. Photo credit: Pablo Andres Rivero / Flicker / CC BY-NC-ND

Previous elections in La Paz. Photo credit: Pablo Andres Rivero / Flicker / CC BY-NC-ND

Departmental and municipal elections in Bolivia last week dealt a significant setback to President Evo Morales’s party, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS).  Benefiting from strong economic growth, broad-based support from among the country’s many social movements, and the absence of major controversy, last October Morales was elected to a third term as Bolivia’s president with an impressive 61 percent of the vote.  He is on track to be in office until 2020, making him the longest-serving leader in Bolivian history.  Last week, however, the party won just four of nine races for departmental governor and two of the races for mayor in Bolivia’s ten largest cities, reversing a trend of sustained MAS dominance since Evo’s election in 2006.  Most alarming for the MAS is that it lost across the board in the previous strongholds of La Paz and El Alto.  This unexpected outcome has touched off speculation that the MAS is running out of steam.

The MAS emerged as a national political force during the sustained social ferment of the early 2000s.  It reaped the benefits of widespread popular disenchantment with government as a movement for change and indigenous enfranchisement, and it built a successful coalition across ethnic, class, rural-urban, and to some extent, regional differences.  The MAS’s rise coincided with the collapse of the country’s established political parties.  As the only remaining national political movement, the MAS has since often identified its approach to governance as a bottom up, participatory, or popular plebiscite – a multiethnic and plurinational vision of local autonomy that it has successfully enshrined in the country’s constitution.  Addressing last week’s upset, Vice President Alvaro García Linera noted the MAS had done a poor job of cultivating new local leaders.  Evo suggested it was a “punishment vote” in response to recent corruption scandals involving MAS candidates.  Nor did Morales do his candidates any favors when he threatened not to work with opposition politicians in El Alto or La Paz if they were elected.

Despite this setback for the MAS, local opposition at the polls does not necessarily lead to national opposition.  The political opposition remains fragmented, and the MAS remains the country’s only truly national political party.  Even where it lost races for governor or mayor, in most cases the MAS enjoys a majority in the state legislatures or city councils.  However, several factors – corruption scandals, continued dependence on the extractive industries, and the party’s habit of co-opting right-wing non-masistas as candidates where it thinks they will win – point to the stubborn persistence of different national and local political realities.  When the MAS has run into problems in recent years, as with recent controversy over a plan to build a highway through the TIPNIS indigenous territory and national park, it is because it misread local political terrain, chose poor candidates, and ran afoul of regional or local autonomies.  The horizontal and plural coalition-building that has been the MAS’s hallmark can be a clunky local political instrument.  Last week highlighted that local electorates are less driven by social movement ferment, ideology, or historical change; are notably distrustful of MAS impositions from above; and are more interested in prosaic matters of good governance and candidates they know and trust. It was certainly not the beginning of the end of the MAS.  But if the national party continues to struggle in the face of diverse local political realities, it could signal for the MAS a gradual death by a thousand cuts.

April 9, 2015

Bolivia: Evo Wins Again

By Fulton Armstrong

Photo credit: Eneas / Foter / CC BY

Photo credit: Eneas / Foter / CC BY

President Evo Morales’s landslide election to a third term – fueled by a combination of moderate policies and fiery leftist rhetoric – portends continued stability in the near term, with still no indication of how his party will continue its project after him.  Although official results have yet to be announced, and some preliminary data show Evo garnering around 54 percent of the vote, exit poll estimates gave Evo a massive lead of 60 to 25 percent over the next closest candidate, a wealthy cement magnate named Samuel Doria Medina.  Regardless, the enormous margin separating Evo from his competitors precludes a runoff race.  Doria, who also ran against Evo in 2005 and 2009, claimed that OAS praise for the elections before the polls closed was “not normal,” but he is not disputing the results and has conceded defeat.  Congratulations to Evo poured in first from his left-leaning allies – Presidents Maduro (Venezuela), Mujica (Uruguay), Fernández de Kirchner (Argentina), and Sánchez Cerén (El Salvador) – but other voices soon followed.  The victory set Evo on track to be the longest-serving president in Bolivian history since national founder Andrés de Santa Cruz lost power in 1839.  His party, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), is also reported to have expanded its control of the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, although vote tallies are not final.

Evo has achieved things his domestic and foreign detractors said were impossible.  While his rhetoric has been stridently leftist and anti-U.S. – he even dedicated his “anti-imperialist triumph” to Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro – his policies have been decidedly pragmatic and disciplined, and the results have curried favor for him among foes.  His economic czar has emphasized Bolivia’s commitment to “have socialist policies with macroeconomic equilibrium … applying economic science.”  The economy grew 6.8 percent last year and is on course to grow another 5 percent this year.  Foreign reserves have skyrocketed; Bolivia’s are proportionately the largest in the world.  Poverty has declined; one in five Bolivians now lives in extreme poverty, as compared to one in three eight years ago.  IMF and World Bank officials, whose policies Evo largely rejected, have grudgingly conceded he has managed the economy well.  Some of his projects, such as a teleférico cable car system linking La Paz with the sprawling city of El Alto, have garnered praise for their economic and political vision.  He even won in the province of Santa Cruz, a cradle of anti-Evo conspiracy several years ago.  In foreign policy, he has good ties across the continent, but strains with Washington continue.  The two countries have been without ambassadors in each other’s capital since 2008, and talks to resolve differences over the activities of DEA and USAID failed and led to their expulsion from Bolivia.

Sixty-plus percent in a clean election for a third term – rare if your initials aren’t FDR – signals that Evo, like Roosevelt, is a transformative figure.  No matter how brilliantly Evo has led the country, however, the big gap between his MAS party and the opposition suggests political imbalances that could threaten progress over time if he doesn’t move to spread out the power.  Evo has given the MAS power to implement his agenda, but he has not given space to rising potential successors.  He has said he will “respect the Constitution” regarding a now-disallowed fourth term, but it would take great discipline not to encourage his two-thirds majority in the Senate to go ahead with an amendment allowing him yet another term.  It would be naïve, moreover, to dismiss out of hand the opposition’s allegations of corruption by Evo’s government, but his ability to grow his base above the poor and well into the middle class suggests that, for now, the fraud and abuse do not appear to be very debilitating … yet.  Washington, for its part, seems content with a relationship lacking substance rather than joining the rest of the hemisphere in cooperating with Bolivia where it can.

Other AULABLOG posts on this and related topics:  ALBA Governments and Presidential Succession; Lessons from the MAS; and Will Bolivia’s Half Moon Rise Again?

October 14, 2014

Bolivia: Lessons from the MAS

By Santiago Anria*

Joaquín Eguren / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Joaquín Eguren / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

As Bolivian President Evo Morales’s Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) prepares for the October 12 general election – which opinion polls indicate it will win by wide margins – the MAS appears to be a remarkably diverse organization capable of adapting operations to different regions of the country.  It fits neither the typical journalistic portrayal of Latin American social and political movements as clashing with political parties and elected governments, nor political scientists’ characterization of parties as unitary actors under the control of a unified leadership.  Founded by coca growers in the mid-1990s as their “political instrument” to contest power, the MAS has become the collective political expression of grassroots organizations now in power – to this day having diffuse boundaries and multiple faces, combining features of a grassroots movement and a party, and being a remarkably successful instrument for exercising rule.

The MAS’s regional diversity is one of its greatest strengths.  As an organizational actor, it looks and operates differently in different contexts depending on how the political space is structured.  In the Bolivian central region of the Chapare, where strong peasant unions are aligned with the MAS and control the territory, civil society and party are fused.  Grassroots organizations monopolize the political space, and local decision-making structures are embedded in the union structure.  Their success is rooted in “agrarian union democracy,” which emphasizes that “bases” exert control on the leadership – that the rank and file should lead and leaders should follow.  In the eastern city of Santa Cruz, on the other hand, the MAS has made inroads in traditionally hostile territory by developing an unusually strong local party organization with remarkable mobilization capacity, and that capacity gives it a central role in local governance.  As in other cities with large informal economies, the local structure draws support from two powerful urban sectors – transportation workers and street venders – and is organized territorially in districts that operate both during and between elections.  Rather than having the features of a movement, in Santa Cruz the MAS looks and works more like a conventional political party.  In the Chapare, Santa Cruz and elsewhere, the MAS organization has considerable latitude to operate locally within alliances and policies usually defined at the national level.  As a result, the MAS and its governmental counterparts are not often, or by necessity, in tension.

Latin American history offers many examples of political movements becoming personalistic vehicles for charismatic leaders.  More than 10 years since it became a credible electoral vehicle, the MAS may offer a more promising organizational alternative.  Morales is certainly a charismatic leader, with significant popular legitimacy and authority within the MAS.  His leadership cannot be overstated, and he is the dominant figure binding a wide array of grassroots movements and organizations.  Yet, the MAS has remained permeable to popular input in areas where civil society is strong and has mechanisms to arrive at collective decisions.  In the last general elections in 2009, grassroots influence was consequential: it led to the massive entrance of individuals and members of allied grassroots organizations into the highest level of political representation.  Their participation in Congress (the Plurinational Legislative Assembly) has pushed to diversify the legislative agenda still largely subordinated to the executive.  New MAS leaders willing or able to challenge Morales’s leadership have not emerged but, as the candidacies for the upcoming elections are defined, the strong regional dynamics could alter the composition of the new parliamentary group.  Whether the MAS will remain open, and whether it will manage to outgrow its dominant leader figure, will depend on the continuing strength of allied groups in civil society.

*Santiago Anria is a Ph.D candidate in political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Will Bolivia’s Half Moon Rise Again?

By Robert Albro

Embed from Getty Images

In early 2014 Bolivian President Evo Morales’s main nemesis, the Media Luna (or Half Moon), composing the eastern departments of Tarija, Pando, and Beni, and led by the economically powerful department of Santa Cruz, has all but vanished politically. Morales is a prohibitive favorite to win a third term, while the opposition Social Democratic Movement built on the vestiges of the Media Luna is not a serious electoral contender. In 2008 this seemed highly improbable. Evo Morales was in a battle for control of Bolivia’s future. The Media Luna was in open revolt. The conflict had begun with Morales’s election in 2005 and was exacerbated by the acrimonious constituent assembly of 2006-2007. It came to a head over the MAS government’s intention to nationalize the country’s natural gas industry and use royalties from Tarija’s vast reserves to fund a new national pension plan. The Media Luna wanted greater regional autonomy and control over revenues. Its August 2008 revolt, which raged for several months, included a region-wide strike, widespread road blocks, takeover of natural gas facilities, government offices, and airports, and violent skirmishes between youth brigades and the police and army, culminating in the killing or wounding of dozens of pro-MAS indigenous marchers in Pando.

Then what happened? The Media Luna, led by elites who had dominated Bolivia’s economic and political fortunes at least up through the second Banzer regime (1997-2001), discovered the limits of its diminishing influence. Throughout the conflict in 2008, Morales maintained control of the machinery of state, including the police and the military, while opposition leaders lacked a political party, critical presence in government, or the international leverage to oust the MAS government. Nor did they have a clear agenda beyond opposition to Morales. Their at times racist attacks fueled national outrage, mobilized defenders of the government, and elicited international condemnation. Accused of conspiring with the Media Luna, the U.S. ambassador was expelled. Media Luna overtures to the OAS were rejected. Most tellingly, UNASUR issued an unequivocal statement supporting Morales’s “constitutional government” and comparing Media Luna tactics to the ousting of Chilean President Salvador Allende in 1973.

Morales’s 67% victory total in the 2008 recall vote, convened as a concession to the opposition, hastened its fragmentation. Moreover, the MAS has made steady electoral inroads in the East, in part capitalizing upon a demographic shift. Santa Cruz is now far from “wealthy and white,” and the MAS enjoys sizable support among indigenous groups, highland in-migrants, urban and rural poor, and small business owners. Support for the MAS led to popular rejection of autonomy initiatives in these departments. The MAS has also successfully recruited candidates among former elite enemies, a strategy of cooptation that has enabled it to gain six of nine governorships (including in Pando). Even in the once reactionary bastion of Santa Cruz, the MAS won nine of fifteen provinces in the most recent elections. At the same time, the MAS has promoted its model of state capitalism with the private sector, promising to respect private property, and pledging economic development, even as it has begun to expropriate the agricultural holdings of many lowland opposition leaders.

What seemed an existential threat to Morales and the MAS in 2008 has been reduced to a disjointed cadre of right-wing ideologues in 2014. The fate of the Media Luna is a lesson about the sometimes rapidly changing political and economic circumstances around elites in Bolivia and Latin America. The MAS firmly controls the Bolivian state and enjoys broadly distributed electoral support. Despite occasional tensions, neighboring states have also backed the Morales administration. With major agribusiness and hydrocarbons investments in Bolivia, Brazil energetically pressured Media Luna leaders to negotiate with the MAS government. Internationally isolated, lacking a credible electoral instrument, with less economic clout than in the past, Media Luna elites also have lost their historical monopoly brokering access to the global economy. Perhaps hardest to recapture: they no longer appear able to offer a compelling national project or vision for the future.

Ben Kohl: The Loss of a Scholar-Activist who Taught About Bolivia

By Eric Hershberg

This AULA blog post does not follow our standard format, but it is one that I hope will motivate readers to seek out some singularly insightful analyses of contemporary Bolivia.

Los marchistas del TIPNIS llegan a La Paz (19/10/2011) Photo credit: Szymon Kochanski / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Los marchistas del TIPNIS llegan a La Paz (19/10/2011) Photo credit: Szymon Kochanski / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

I was terribly distressed to learn that Temple University Professor Ben Kohl, a noted expert on Bolivia, passed away suddenly in late July, at the age of 59. I had the privilege of meeting Ben briefly on two occasions, on both of which he struck me as charming and intellectually lively. But I already knew of Kohl through his writings, which had taught me, and many of my students, a great deal about how and why Bolivian politics and society have evolved in such remarkable ways in recent years.  Faculty, students and non-academic audiences in Washington and beyond would be well served by surveying his writings, in part because of how effectively they make sense of a country with which the U.S. government has often related unproductively.

Most of Kohl’s work was co-authored with his journalist wife, Linda Farthing (he also collaborated with my CLALS colleague Rob Albro on a fine collection of articles on Bolivia that was published by Latin American Perspectives). Among their prolific writings on Bolivia, two books stand out as especially significant. Impasse in Bolivia and From the Mines to the Streets: an Activist’s Life in Bolivia established Kohl and Farthing as pivotal voices in shaping understanding of that Andean country’s politics and society.  Their work is unusual in the effectiveness with which it speaks simultaneously to advanced scholarly readers and to students and people in advocacy and policy circles who are engaged sympathetically with that country’s remarkable social movements and transformations.

What stands out for me about Impasse, aside from its deep and nuanced understanding of the fault lines dividing Bolivian society, is that it successfully blends attention to social dynamics and political mobilization at the micro-level with an appreciation for how those phenomena interact and reflect larger scale, deeply embedded social structures.  Written on the eve of Evo Morales’ rise to the Presidency, in the wake of several years of social and political “impasse,” the study combines ethnographic insight with sophisticated interpretation of macro-level historical and sociological processes.  Impasse in particular highlights how and why Bolivia took a decisively “indigenous turn” in its national politics beginning around 2000, and ably portrays the resistance that this elicited from long dominant elites. The book was an especially novel and eloquent contribution to the literature on Bolivia at a crucial juncture in the country’s history, a juncture that ushered in fundamental changes in the political system.

Mines, like Impasse, was written for more than a strictly scholarly audience, but it is a very different sort of monograph.  The autobiographical story told to Kohl and Farthing by labor activist Félix Muruchi Poma, and very intelligently framed for a foreign audience, brings to life aspects of contemporary Bolivia (and other parts of Latin America) that are rarely presented in such a compelling and readable form.  As noted in the brief bibliographic note at the conclusion of the book, several previous books provide historical accounts of issues and events covered in Muruchi’s story, but none of the English language literature does so in this “testimonial” genre.  That genre is difficult to pull off well, as Kohl acknowledged in an insightful article for the Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology, but this work is up to the task, and points to the activist side of Kohl and Farthing’s scholarship.  One is reminded, inevitably, of the classic I, Rigoberta Menchu, which focused on the life and politicization of an indigenous Guatemalan woman during a period that overlaps in part with that covered by Muruchi’s chronicle.  The many university faculty who assign the Menchu book for introductory Latin American Studies courses would do well to consider assigning this one alongside of it.

A number of Kohl’s recent articles and book chapters were aimed more strictly at scholarly audiences than were either Impasse or Mines. A 2012 essay published in Political Geography is the most insightful analysis I have encountered of the contradictions between what Kohl and Farthing label “resource nationalist imaginaries,” articulated in practice by strong social movements in Bolivia and more disparate actors in neighboring countries, and the circumstances of economies that remain as dependent as ever on revenues derived from natural resources. The study’s use of the theoretical concepts of “imaginaries” and “framing” strikes me as an especially valuable lens through which to understand the roots of social movement resistance to an economic model that has persisted despite the rise to power of Bolivia’s first indigenous President. Re-reading that piece as I was drafting this blog post, I am reminded of how Kohl’s passing is a great loss to those of us for whom innovative scholarship motivated by concerns about fairness and justice in Latin America is to be treasured, not unlike tin or gas or water for many Bolivians, as a precious commodity.

High Time for a U.S.-Bolivia Reset

By Rob Albro, CLALS Faculty Affiliate

President Evo Morales in a climate meeting at the University of Oslo | by Utenriksdept | Flickr | Creative Commons

President Evo Morales in a climate meeting at the University of Oslo | by Utenriksdept | Flickr | Creative Commons

Little has changed in the U.S-Bolivia relationship since each expelled the other’s ambassador and suspended full diplomatic ties in 2008.  Last month a Bolivian official accused the United States of trying to sabotage the administration of President Evo Morales, and Morales has not dropped his pugnacious anti-U.S. rhetoric.  Washington, for its part, has persistently criticized Bolivian anti-drug policies, while not acknowledging the failures of its own decades-long “war on drugs.”  As discussions surrounding Secretary of State Kerry’s January 24 confirmation hearing suggested, U.S. policy toward several Latin American countries – including Bolivia – is still on Cold War autopilot, continuing to use code-words like “socialism,” implicitly and incorrectly viewing the recent and historic changes in that country largely through the prisms of Venezuela and Cuba.

Along with many observers outside of Washington, the Bolivian government understands itself to be addressing long-standing demands to correct a historical lack of social inclusion, to institute a more participatory (and “plurinational”) democratic process, and to pursue economic sovereignty.  In notable contrast to Venezuela, with which Bolivia is often lumped together, the country’s long-marginalized indigenous majority is in the national political driver’s seat for the first time.  Despite Morales’s rhetoric to the contrary, Bolivia is far from rejecting the free market. It recently applied for full participation in MERCOSUR, and has welcomed foreign investment in its sizable petroleum and lithium deposits. Along with Peru and Ecuador, Bolivia has also sought ways to maintain economic growth while protecting the environment and avoiding unsustainable extractivist policies.  Bolivia’s is a hybrid approach: mixing an alternative democratic tradition domestically with the promotion of Bolivia Inc. globally.

It is past time for Washington to move on from its one-size-fits-all approach toward Andean countries, and to take more seriously the perspectives and priorities of their peoples and governments.  And Bolivia’s recent history provides ample opportunity for the U.S. to identify common – if not identical – ground.  Morales’s frequent statement that Bolivia is looking for “partners, not bosses” echoes President Obama’s own 2009 speech about “partnership” in our hemispheric “neighborhood.” Obama’s recent inaugural call for more effective “collective action” resonates with the spirit of Bolivia’s ongoing plurinational democratic experiment.  And if climate change is back on the U.S. political agenda, Bolivia continues to be a global catalyst for this important multilateral discussion. Emphasizing these shared problems, experiences, and aspirations, can provide a foundation for closer relations.