Bolivian authoritarianism: not just a right-wing charge

  • November 3, 2014

Authority & Abolition

Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president, is widely known as an anti-imperialist. Inside Bolivia, however, there are many progressive critics.

Winning Bolivia’s presidential elections in 2005, 2009 and most recently in October 2014, Evo Morales of the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), or Movement for Socialism, has now entered his third presidential term. Morales is known worldwide as Bolivia’s first indigenous president, an anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, environmentalist, and a beacon of hope for the international left. However, inside Bolivia there are many progressives — including Morales’ former comrades — who accuse him of betraying his own political agenda, unjustly libeling all critics as right-wing conspirators, and abusing state powers to silence them.

The MAS won its third landslide victory in October’s presidential elections. Taking 54 percent of the vote in 2005 and 64 percent in 2009, incumbent president Evo Morales received around 60 percent this year. There were only two choices in the elections, Morales was quoted as saying by Reuters: “This was a debate on two models: nationalization or privatization. Nationalization won with more than 60 percent (support).”

It is not the first time that Morales has simplified Bolivian politics as a binary choice between a left-wing government and a right-wing opposition. In March, the President told a crowd of masistas that “there are only two roads defined by the people. If they are not masistas, they are fascists,” and “if they are not oficialistas [supporters of the ruling party], they are imperialists!” According to the official minutes of this speech, the crowd applauded approvingly. For Morales, all opponents of the MAS belong to the same camp.

Strong measures against political opponents are justified, the MAS says, invoking the right to protect the ‘process of change’ desired by the majority of Bolivians against ‘imperialist’ and domestic ‘right-wing’ forces, which are allegedly penetrating social movements to destabilize the socialist revolution. Well-known progressives from the international left like Federico Fuentes have reiterated this argument.

This line of defense may sound convincing considering Latin American history, in which various democratically chosen left-wing leaders have indeed been overthrown by domestic elites, often with help from the West — Chile’s Salvador Allende is only one example. In fact, there is little doubt that the US has also tried to foment anti-MAS opposition inside Bolivia through its embassy and USAID funds, according to various sources like the US-based Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) and Wikileaks cables.

However, there are more than two sides in Bolivia’s political landscape today.

After nine years in power, the MAS has not only been subjected to the predictable critiques of the right-wing — that they are scaring away investors, are corrupt, and suppress democratic freedoms — but also to the predictable but legitimate critiques from the left-wing that they are not revolutionary enough, are corrupt and suppress democratic freedoms.

Progressives inside Bolivia increasingly question to what extent the MAS still commands a real ‘process of change’, and many denounce the strong measures they often suffer at the hands of the government and its supporters, as if they were all right-wing, imperialist conspirators, enemies of the revolution. The stories of these politically engaged Bolivians — labor leaders, indigenous activists, human rights observers, academics, ex-MAS officials and even current MAS members — deserve the attention of those who sympathize with the struggle of Bolivia’s poor for better living conditions and a better political system, and who wish to move beyond the romanticized simplifications surrounding Latin America’s pink tide.

While we, progressives in the West, often apply the most rigorous scrutiny in our judgments of ruling social democratic parties in our own countries, political realities in Bolivia and other Latin American countries are too often idealized, not only because of a lack of information, but also because we desire beacons of hope. This may lead to false conclusions, wrong strategies and misguided solidarity campaigns among the left, for which the Bolivian poor may indirectly pay the price.

Before we present a list of ‘failed promises’ of the MAS and an in-depth analysis of how the government silences dissent and undermines any attempt to organize an electoral challenge to it, we should start with a short history on the rise of the MAS and its political agenda. After that, we will reflect on October’s elections — Morales’s third landslide victory, which may make him the longest-serving president in Bolivian history.

The Rise of the MAS and its Political Agenda

At the turn of the century, Bolivia was fertile ground for a social uprising. In the 1980s, the country was used as a guinea pig for neoliberal reforms, under the auspices of the IMF, World Bank and economist Jeffrey Sachs. It’s a familiar story in Latin America: to be ‘saved’ from their debt crisis, the Bolivian government was instructed to create a humanitarian crisis by slashing public funding of social services and privatizing state companies, including the mining sector, which left thousands of miners unemployed.

Meanwhile, the liberalization of agricultural trade impoverished the countryside. As sociologist Brent Kaup explains, “large quantities of agricultural imports flooded local markets, making it difficult for campesinos to sell their agricultural surpluses in local markets at competitive rates.” Unemployed miners and poor farmers looked for employment in the coca fields of the tropical Chapare region. Others found a living at 4.000 meters altitude in El Alto, originally a small suburb of Bolivia’s capital, La Paz, which quickly outgrew La Paz itself and which now constitutes Bolivia’s second largest city, with more than one million inhabitants.

In the 1990s, several social groups found each other on the streets protesting the same neoliberal politics. Coca farmers were rallying against the ‘war on drugs’, the inhabitants of El Alto protested the lack of employment and social services and, to a lesser extent, the indigenous people from Bolivia’s more tropical lowlands claimed self-government. A social movement was born which discovered its strength in several crucial battles, such as the 2000 Water War against the privatization of water in Cochabamba, and the 2003 Gas War over ownership and use of gas resources of the country. This was a “revolutionary epoch”, as Jeffrey Webber calls it in his book From Rebellion to Reform in Bolivia. Neoliberal governments often responded with brutal violence: in the 2003 Gas War around 60 people were shot dead by the military in El Alto.

There was only one political party capable of successfully articulating the general discontent with the neoliberal regime. This was the MAS, and in particular its leader, Evo Morales, himself a longtime militant coca farmer, dark-skinned like most Bolivians, and often dressed in a poncho or simple sweatshirt instead of a suit. When Morales secured his first electoral victory in 2005, La Paz flooded with MAS supporters from all over the country.

The MAS promised to end five hundred years of colonialism, to end the neoliberal policies of the past, to nationalize the country’s gas reserves, to industrialize its raw materials, to redistribute land and income to the poor, to respect indigenous rights, to protect ‘Mother Earth’, to democratize the political system, and to guide a transition towards socialism in the long run. It presented itself as a ‘government of social movements’, always reminding people that the MAS was founded as a ‘political instrument’ by grassroots activists.

Broken Promises

In his first term, Morales survived a militant anti-government uprising from the tropical lowland provinces. This militant right-wing separatist movement, with the backing of big agribusinesses and probably the US embassy, demanded autonomy in a number of lowland provinces, destabilizing the MAS regime for some time. In hindsight, it also increased the bargaining position of the right-wing opposition over political matters such as provincial autonomy and land redistribution. With a dose of pragmatism, Morales brokered a number of deals with the conservative opposition in Parliament over these matters, showing his fiercest opponents that he was willing to negotiate and that they could lay down their arms.

Shortly after, in 2009, Morales was re-elected with 64 percent of the vote — ten percentage points more than in 2005. Yet, as a reconciliation between the MAS and the country’s economic elite emerged, critics began to point out MAS’ broken promises to its original support base, consisting mostly of poor smallholder farmers, indigenous people, miners and the urban working classes.

One such broken promise concerned the question of land redistribution. As Jeffrey Webber has observed, Morales inherited a structure of land ownership in which large landholdings, the so-called haciendas, “dominate 90 percent of Bolivia’s productive land, leaving only 10 percent divided between mostly indigenous peasant communities and smallholding peasants.” So, understandably, land reform was an important demand of Bolivia’s rural poor, supported by the MAS at least rhetorically.

Admittedly, in Morales’s first term, the issue of land reform was taken up seriously, mostly by the MAS vice-minister of land, Alejandro Almaraz, but the allocation of land to the landless slowed down after his re-election in 2009. Critics often blame the aforementioned reconciliation between the MAS and the agribusiness elites of the eastern lowlands. Bolivia analysts Ann Chaplin and John Crabtree express it eloquently in Procesos de Cambio: “a gradual accommodation between the MAS government and the agribusiness elites of the Orient [has trumped the demands of] the ‘agrarian’ revolution (land reform) to which the MAS had given its support in its early days.”

What happened to the popular demand to nationalize Bolivia’s hydrocarbon sector? Morales has hailed his hydrocarbon policy as a radical nationalization of the industry which dramatically increased state revenues. Indeed, Morales increased the tax rates on hydrocarbons, while a boom in foreign demand for Bolivia’s gas improved its terms of trade and thus tax revenues — a commodity price boom which is now slowing down, as an IMF paper from August noted.

Was there a nationalization, though? No, there was not. As Bolivian economist Carlos Arze Vargas of the CEDLA research institute in La Paz pointed out, 80 percent of the hydrocarbon industry remains in the hands of foreign transnationals and only a meager 17.8 percent was redirected under control of the state-owned petrol company YPFB, leaving the exploitation of the country’s most valuable resources just as firmly in the hands of foreign corporations as before.

As for Morales’ promise to industrialize Bolivia’s raw materials, instead of handing them over to the wealthy nations of the world to profit from, Vargas presents some disappointing data: while in 2001-’05, the export of raw materials constituted 47.2 percent of Bolivia’s total exports, in 2010 this percentage mounted to a staggering 69.6 percent. Meanwhile, indigenous organizations lament the fact that Morales’s economic strategy of focusing on fast money by boosting and prioritizing the foreign dominated extractive sectors has conflicted with the MAS’ stated objective of defending indigenous people and ‘Mother Earth’.

The conflict over the state-planned highway through the TIPNIS park is one emblematic example of this process. In 2010, Morales announced a multi-million dollar highway construction through the protected Amazonian forest of the TIPNIS park. According to the President, the construction of the highway would help develop the impoverished region, providing employment and improved access to basic services, while boosting Bolivian industry in general. Indeed, the project would ask of Mother Earth to sacrifice some of her scarce resources, but this was implicitly considered necessary and the benefits for all would, undoubtedly, outweigh these losses.

The indigenous communities living in the TIPNIS park argued that the project was unconstitutional as they had not been granted their right to prior consultation, denouncing the consultation process carried out as fraudulent. They claimed the MAS regime tried to push through the highway project to ensure the commercial interests of the MAS-allied coca farmers in the TIPNIS park who would profoundly gain from the construction of the highway. They also pointed to Morales’ conflict of interests, relating to the fact that the President was also the only official national representative of the Bolivian coca farmer union.

The proposed highway construction is far from a neutral force of development, as Webber, who presents an in-depth discussion of the plans, concludes that the highway project would allow for the destruction of the anti-capitalist norms and modes of living of the indigenous communities while serving a set of capitalist interests, including those of the hydrocarbon industry, the agricultural sector and coca farmers. In 2011, an indigenous protest march backed by various domestic and international groups forced Morales to cancel the project, but MAS-officials have frequently stated that they are still exploring plans for a politically acceptable version of the highway.

A similar political battle is taking place over a mining law that was adopted this year and which, according to several well-known Bolivian research centers (CEJIS and CEDLA), favors commercial mining interests over indigenous rights and ecological concerns, and which de facto abolishes the constitutional right to prior consultation over mining projects.

When it comes to the redistribution of wealth, admittedly, there has been an impressive decline in income inequality under the MAS, as the country’s Gini index declined from 0.56 in 2004 to 0.47 in 2011. In the Bolivian press, the MAS has attributed this decline to the state’s redistributive policies — cash transfers to the poor and higher taxes on the rich — but the causality is questionable. Firstly, as a CEPAL study shows, since the start of the century income inequality declined in the whole of Latin America, even under the conservative regimes of Mexico and Peru. Part of the explanation lies in several labor market trends, like an increased demand of low-skilled labor as a result of a construction boom, according to this study.

Of course, there are also redistributive policies in Bolivia, but an economic study by Commitment to Equity (a research project of Tulane University) concluded that, “compared to other countries in the region, the tax-benefit system in Bolivia is meager in its redistributive effects,” partly because the celebrated cash transfers only represent “a low share of GDP,” namely 2 percent. Note that Bolivia’s celebrated ‘universal pension system’ — the bulk of all cash-transfer projects — amounts to around USD $29 a month per pensioner, which, even in Bolivia, only covers a small part of pensioners’ expenses.

As for social spending on health and education, Vargas noted that its share has surprisingly declined since the MAS took office, from 22 percent in 2005 to 17 percent in 2010.

When it comes to Morales’ sometimes radical anti-imperialist rhetoric, targeting institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, it is worth pointing out that the MAS regime has received praise from both these institutions for its “prudent” macroeconomic policies. Although Morales has accused social leaders of being bribed by imperialist forces, he himself publicly declared that “previously the World Bank was our enemy, now it is our friend.”

Indigenous leader Nilda Rojas sums up the balance: “The process of change has been lost, because it is only a process for the transnationals and landowners. The powerful and the privileged continue to benefit and the original indigenous people are left excluded as always.” With a progressive support base increasingly waking up from a left-wing fairy tale and finding a reality that does not comply with what had been promised, Morales should be rightfully worried about dissent in his own ranks and future challenges from the left.

Indeed, recent years have been overshadowed by claims of progressives about the course of the revolution and the lack of more fundamental changes — or, in the TIPNIS case, of the destructive changes to the Amazon forest. How does the MAS respond?

How the MAS Deals with its Critics

At a rhetorical level, the regime claims that criticism is welcome. After all, Bolivia’s social movements are now supposed to be in full control of the government, with the MAS as their ‘political instrument’. As Leonilda Zurita, a high-ranking MAS official told us, “they [the movements] make proposals and say what’s wrong and the President listens, because the President is one of us, a leader who comes from the people.” Zurita is the MAS Secretary of International Relations, and has a personal history in grassroots struggles as a leader of the female ‘Bartolina Sisa’ coca farmers. “A party without a base doesn’t have a life,” she adds.

However, many government critics we met denounced the increasingly authoritarian stance of the MAS regime towards critics from its own support base. Outspoken social leaders, activists, NGOs and dissident party members told us that the MAS regime and its supporters abuse state powers to suppress criticism, often violating fundamental democratic freedoms. Below, we present a number of cases that illustrate this tendency. There were other cases which we could have chosen, but we selected those we found most illustrative and that could be confirmed through personal interviews with those involved, or via press reports and other literature.

1) MAS-COB: A Peculiar Alliance

This year, on May 1, International Workers’ Day, Evo Morales and the President of Bolivia’s national trade union (COB), Juan Carlos Trujillo, marched shoulder to shoulder through La Paz, demonstrating their alliance for MAS’s electoral campaign. The MAS-COB alliance was controversial and denounced by several labor leaders. Jaime Onofre, a renowned union leader from Cochabamba, denounced the pact as a “top-down decision” that did not reflect the sentiments of the rank and file.

Indeed, the COB’s support for Morales seemed rather unlikely a year ago. In March 2013, a national COB congress had even announced the formation of its own political party, the Workers’ Party (PT), to challenge the MAS in October’s presidential elections. COB leader Jaime Solares said it would be “a labor party of the poor and dispossessed, the hope for those excluded by this neoliberal government,” expressing the critique of many inside the COB that the MAS has continued a neoliberal policy line despite its anti-capitalist rhetoric.

Anti-MAS sentiments reached a climax two months later in May when COB protests against the MAS over pensions and wages were met with police violence. Vice-president Linera legitimized the regime’s response by accusing the COB of preparing the ground for a right-wing coup. Only eight months later, in November 2013, a national COB congress decided to withdraw its support for the Workers’ Party and support the MAS’ electoral campaign instead. Several union leaders agree with Onofre and denounced this pact as a betrayal by the COB leadership. Some claim its MAS-allied president Trujillo has done everything in his power to neutralize dissent inside the trade union’s ranks by installing pro-MAS leaders in all of its chapters.

A recent controversy involves an intervention in the COB chapter of the northern tropical province of Beni (COD Beni). Juan Acosta, the elected President of COD Beni, had been a thorn in the side of the MAS ever since he took office in 2012. He accused the MAS of nepotism, joined the TIPNIS protest, endorsed the founding of the Workers’ Party, and criticized the COB-MAS alliance.

On May 29, a group of MAS supporters and local policemen took over the headquarter of the COD Beni, accompanied by police as video footage shows, and installed a new pro-MAS board during an illicit electoral union congress called for by the national COB leaders. Attempts to reconquer the union’s headquarter by Acosta and his followers left three policemen injured, the Bolivian press reported, but failed to re-install Acosta.

In a personal interview with Acosta (during a meagerly attended press conference in La Paz about the incident, which may tell us something about the priorities of the Bolivian press), he referred to the take-over as an “institutional coup d’état, organized by the governmental palace, instructing the COB to carry it out.” The motive, Acosta asserted, was to silence “the last independent bastion” still calling for the formation of the Workers’ Party.

“At the heads of the other departmental trade unions they have already installed leaders who obey the MAS,” Acosta said. “The last one remaining was the COD Beni, so they had to take it. It’s a simple fact.”

2) Crackdown on Indigenous Dissent

Trade union leaders like Onofre and Acosta are not the only ones accusing the MAS of authoritarianism. In the past years many well-known indigenous leaders have become Morales’s most vocal opponents, demonstrating that grassroots support among the indigenous is not as indisputable as the MAS claims it to be.

The lowland indigenous organization CIDOB and highland indigenous organization CONAMAQ used to be important pillars of support for the MAS, being two of the five core member organizations of the ‘Pact of Unity’ — a national alliance between key grassroots organizations and the MAS. Both organizations repeatedly mobilized their bases in favor of the MAS and have been key to its electoral successes. The fact that this year their official leaders publicly pledged their support to President Morales suggests that the MAS still enjoys the loyalty of indigenous communities.

However, various indigenous leaders we interviewed paint a familiar story as to how the MAS gained the support of their organizations this year. Like the trade union COB, the indigenous CIDOB and CONAMAQ had also revoked their support to the MAS not too long ago. They had criticized the MAS regime for years, especially during the Constitutional Assembly of 2006-07. This often revealed fundamental ideological differences over the role of indigenous political entities in national politics, as research from the Latin American Council of Social Sciences (CLACSO) shows.

However, they maintained their critical support for the MAS and hoped the party would respect their demands. In a personal interview with Angélica Sarzuri Gutiérrez, a CONAMAQ representative, she recalled the hopes she cherished when the MAS took office. “We all dreamed about the current government. We all hoped for a change, knowing that the change isn’t coming from one day to the next, but will be a process.”

In December 2011, their patience ran out and both CONAMAQ and CIDOB withdrew from the Pact of Unity. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the government’s violent crackdown on the indigenous TIPNIS protest of 2011, with three hundred peaceful protesters detained and over sixty injured, including a 6-month-old child, even prompting Bolivia’s Defense Minister Cecilia Chacon to resign in protest. Adolfo Chávez, CIDOB’s President at the time, announced to have lost faith in Morales as a “defender of indigenous people and Mother Earth.” As a sign of solidarity, the highland indigenous of CONAMAQ also withdrew from the Pact. Both organizations became vocal opponents of the MAS.

This newly acquired opposition wasn’t taken lightly by the MAS, and both organizations subsequently suffered various takeover attempts by masistas. CIDOB was the first to undergo MAS’ determination to reaffirm their support. When in July 2012 Chávez and his followers were attending a TIPNIS protest in La Paz, a MAS-allied faction lead by Melva Hurtado seized the opportunity to organize an electoral congress in a city at the other side of the country, Santa Cruz. At the congress, Hurtado was was inaugurated as CIDOB’s new President, subsequently taking over the organization’s headquarters — accompanied by riot police, as pictures show. “We will be with you, brother President Evo Morales,” Hurtado told the Bolivian press, publicly reaffirming the organization’s support for the MAS.

Around the same time, CONAMAQ too experienced several attempted takeovers. In our interview, Gutiérrez explained how, ever since they left the Pact of Unity, masistas impaired the organization’s autonomy by using “fabricated leaders” and “breaking the organization’s structure and norms which clearly stipulate how authorities should be elected.” Gutiérrez and her colleagues could defend their headquarters until December 2013, when their masista adversaries led by Hilarion Mamani arrived in the company of police, she explains.

President Morales now enjoys the loyalty of the ‘official’ CIDOB and CONAMAQ presidents Hurtado and Mamani. Yet, to the dismay of the MAS, the dispossessed ‘original’ leaderships and their followers continue their political work up to this day and refuse to recognize the MAS-allied presidents. They now call themselves CIDOB ‘organica’ and CONAMAQ ‘organica’, to differentiate themselves from the oficialistas, or regime supporters.

3) Human Rights Observers Targeted

Another incident shows that not only critical social organization but also their supportive pillars fell victim to the MAS’s divisive politics. The National Assembly of Human Rights (APDHB) is a democratically-run human rights organization, founded in 1976 with branches in all nine departments of Bolivia. It had publicly denounced the government’s violations of the rights of association and protest of CONAMAQ and CIDOB, especially the violent repression of the TIPNIS protests. Not too surprisingly, on January 17 of this year, a pro-government faction led by Teresa Zubieta took over the office of the La Paz branch of the APDHB — again, assisted by police.

The political motive was crystal clear to the organization’s national president, Yolanda Herrera, she told us in a personal interview. Zubieta wanted “to take over the APDHB in order to stop us from talking about human rights in Bolivia and instead support the government.” In fact, the motive was given by Zubieta herself, who told the press present at the incident that she had to “defend brother Evo” and “defend the process of change” against right-wing forces inside the APDHB. As the elected representatives of the La Paz chapter refused to resign, the La Paz office now consists of two rival leaderships, an all too familiar situation for a growing number of social organizations in Bolivia.

4) Red Tape

The concentration of power in the hands of the MAS may also work through less violent, more bureaucratic methods, critics say. For example through Law 351, requiring the re-registration of all civil society organizations.

Human rights organizations from the APDHB to the United Nations Human Rights Office (OHCHR) assert that Law 351 may obstruct the free functioning of NGOs and social organizations in general. APDHB’s president Herrera says that “this law has several points that infringe on the freedom of association” because it obliges “all organizations of civil society to have an affiliation with national politics.” As the law “takes away the legal personality of those who don’t,” it provides the state with an arbitrary criterion to revoke the legal status of social organizations. Herrera fears this law will create a lot of red tape for organizations that have been critical of the MAS.

Several NGOs that have sided with the TIPNIS protests — which seems to have become an important criterion for the MAS regime to differentiate between allies and foes — have already declared to suffer from Law 351. CONAMAQ ‘organica’ has also suffered from it, according to Nilda Rojas, one of its representatives. Although Rojas’ group submitted all the required paperwork, the Ministry of Autonomy denied them their legal status, instead conferring it to the MAS-allied faction of Hilarion Mamani, Rojas told the Bolivian press.

5) Judicialization of Politics

Critics also speak of a judicialización de la política, a ‘judicialization of politics’. In other words, the use of judiciary measures against political opponents. Admittedly, this may have been a common practice among previous regimes as well. “There has never been an independent justice system in Bolivia,” says Alejandro Almaraz, lawyer and ex-vice minister of land under the MAS, in a personal interview. Still, he concludes that the judiciary “has never before been so subjected [to the executive power] as now, except during periods of military dictatorships.” He based this conclusion on his collaboration with social movements and his insider’s view as a high MAS official.

“The government wants soldiers [in the judiciary], that’s the exact word I heard them use,” Almaraz says.

In the MAS’s first terms, it was mostly the right-wing which denounced the judicialización de la política, but progressives now seem to suffer from it as well. “It’s common that social leaders who have stood up to the government are sued,” Almaraz says. “Those lawsuits rarely lead to imprisonment, they are more like a means of pressure and dissuasion, but their repressive sense is evident.”

From her personal experience, Verónica Sánchez Barrera, vice-president of the ‘organic’ APDHB La Paz branch, confirms Almaraz’s claim. Barrera told us her work is now severely hindered by “fabricated criminal trials” against her and her colleagues. Barrera sums up the remarkable charges, including drug dealing and even pandering, “supposedly because we had put naked photos of ourselves online.”

Elections and Beyond

As for October’s presidential elections, most of our interviewees already expected Morales to win because they saw no viable left-wing alternative to the MAS, and Morales is still preferred over the traditional right-wing, which made itself permanently unpopular during the previous neoliberal era. However, we should not interpret the lack of a serious left-wing electoral challenge, or massive anti-MAS movement on the streets, as a lack of left-wing grievances with Morales.

Those who have tried to establish a left-wing electoral challenge to the MAS in October’s elections faced numerous obstacles. Any attempt at this was undoubtedly impeded by the authoritarian response of the MAS regime towards critics from its own support base. In the end, if we are to believe Juan Acosta, the foundation of the Workers’ Party was undermined by top-down trade union politics on the orders of the MAS.

Another obstacle for left-wing alternatives may be the widespread concern, shared with us even by the fiercest left-wing critics, of playing into the hands of the right-wing by splitting the progressives’ votes over more than one left-wing party. Note, for instance, that the left-wing environmental Green Party (PVB), recently founded by some well-known MAS dissidents and social leaders including Alejandro Almaraz, only got one out of 130 seats in parliament, with 2.7 percent of the votes.

Some see a renewed mobilization of the masses as the only way to return to the original goals of the process of change, like the massive mobilizations at the turn of the century which brought the MAS to power in the first place. However, the fuel that sparked these previous mobilizations seems absent today. “During military dictatorships it was very clear who the enemy was — the military,” says Oscar Olivera, internationally known for his role in the Cochabamba Water War against the privatization of water in 2000. “Today, the government turns you into an enemy of your brothers,” Olivera laments. “That base that had the capacity to expel transnationals, expel governments and install Evo Morales… today, that social force doesn’t exist anymore.”

For now, Morales is likely to become Bolivia’s longest-serving President as he sits out his third term. Previous Presidents with long-term aspirations have learned that Bolivia’s rebellious and independent social movements can pose a bigger challenge than rival political parties. Perhaps more than any previous President, Morales, as a product of these movements, knows how to pacify them.

But social movements in Bolivia have lost and reclaimed their autonomy before.

Alexander Beunder

Alexander Beunder is an independent journalist with a Master’s degree in Economics from Utrecht University and a background in student movements. He blogs on politics and economics for Economielinks.

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Loes de Kleijn

Loes de Kleijn is an independent journalist with a Master’s degree in Medical Anthropology from the University of Amsterdam and a background in trade union organizing in the Dutch healthcare sector.

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