by Eugene Gogol
This society has not renounced its right, its memory, its autonomy, and the fact that the Indian is in each one of us. We will not give up or go back to the past… We will not give up or go back to 17 years ago.
–Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui
Bolivian thinker, feminist and activist
Silvia Rivera Cusucanqui’s words captured the thoughts of millions of Indigenous Bolivians who had protested, marched, fought and won their struggle in 2003 against a neoliberal oligarchy that sought to continue a racist, colonial, and then neocolonial way of life.
After a questionable election was voided and President Evo Morales and his Vice-President García Linera went into exile; after the bible-thumping, flag-burning (the Wiphala flag of the Amarya and Quecha people) Jeanine Áñez imposed herself as “president”; after the proclamation that never again shall the Pachamama be allowed in the National Palace; after the police and army were used on the streets of and then again with arms at the funerals of those murdered by order of the government—after all this and more, we need to ask “How Did We Arrive at This Moment?”
2000-2005, BOLIVIA IN REVOLUTIONARY TRANSFORMATION
During 2000 to 2005 Bolivia experienced revolutionary transformation: the Water War in Cochabamba, 2000; the vast mobilizations of the Aymara in the altíplano in 2000, 2001 and 2003; the actions of the coca growers in Chapare, 2001-2003; the First Gas War of 2003; the powerful protests of Aymara in El Alto; and the Second Gas War of 2005. A presidential election was held at the end of 2005, with the unprecedented election by an overwhelming vote of an Indigenous president, Evo Morales. His election was an important moment, but as I wrote: “The electoral road fundamentally changed the trajectory of the profoundly revolutionary half decade (2000-2005).” The explosive events in the years immediately before the presidential election are why Cusucanqui chooses to single out 17 years, and not only the 14 years of the Morales presidency.
THE MORALES YEARS—ADVANCES AND CONTRADICTIONS
The years of the Morales-García Linera administration meant important changes in Bolivia: an end to the open racism of previous Bolivian governments, the writing of a new Constitution, improvements in the lives of millions. However, these did not occur without serious contradictions.
The first was between the Morales-García-MAS administration and the principles of the revolutionary transformation that had opened the door for Morales’s election. It was the manner by which a new Constitution would be created. Out of the crucial Cochabamba Water War there had emerged a call for Constituent Assembly to write a new constitution:
A constituent assembly was conceived as an example of a political organization of civil society in which working men and women would be able to regain the ability to deliberate and intervene in common affairs. …such an assembly would not be understood as a way to reorganize the relations of the State, but as an effective way to break the relationship to the State, and build the capacity to make decisions on the part of the public, based on its own practices. (Utopia and the Dialectic in Latin American Liberation)
What emerged, however, was far from the demand of social movements for a Constituent Assembly. It was the beginning of channeling popular demands into party politics, where the writing of the constitution became a tool of Party-ism led by MAS. It ended in commitments that gave the neoliberal right a critical voice and the opportunity to weaken the demand for a transformative Constituent Assembly.
A second contradiction emerged when Morales and García Linera, without a word of warning, issued a decree on Dec. 23, 2011, raising the price of gasoline 73% and diesel fuel 82%. The economic shock was immediate: bus and taxi fares doubled and food prices soared. García Linera proclaimed the increase a patriotic action needed to protect the economy. The response was immediate: the Gasolinazo: a mass protest that stretched from the Aymara altíplano to the coca zones of Chapare, with highway blockages and other collective protest actions. In the Aymara city of El Alto, where people had strongly supported Morales’s election and had been the shock troops to bring down an earlier government, powerful protests erupted. Morales had to cancel the decree. Oscar Olivera, a key figure in the Cochabamba Water War, noted “With the December uprising, people regained their voice and fighting memory.”
A third contradiction was a sharp separation between the government and the social organizations from below centered on the TIPNIS (the Isiboro-Secure Indigenous Territory and National Park) conflict. This well-known struggle over a proposed road to be built through the Amazonian region revealed two fundamental characteristics of the Morales-García administration: 1) Its willingness to use violence against social protest movements, and to manipulate “consultas” as well as take over organizations to impose its will. 2) Developmental-ism and State-ism as the economic foundation of those in charge.
DEVELOPMENTAL-ISM UNDERLIES ANTI-HUMANISM
Developmental-ism under the direction of a strong state has been the defining mark of the government since its inception. It became state-capitalism in partnership with neoliberalism. Its ideological base has been provided by the a statist Marxism put forth by García Linera—“Andean-Amazonian capitalism” with a strong state presence. (See “The State-ist Marxism of García Linera” in Utopía and the Dialectic in Latin American Liberation.)
Morales did receive majority support for the first dozen years of his administration. But the seeds of the quick collapse of his support were planted in those years, and not just as “political mistakes,” but as the questionable direction the administration wished to take Bolivia politically, economically, and socially.
Having ignored the warning from a number of organizations that had historically supported him that he should not seek a new term in office, Morales met the October 2019 election results with manipulations. The election showed a substantial drop in support for Morales. When the counting was stopped and later resumed with a changed result, the dissatisfaction moved to the street. Was there a coup? A headline on an article by Raúl Zibechi catches what occurred: “Bolivia: a popular uprising leveraged by the extreme right” (“Bolivia: un levantamiento popular aprovechado por la ultraderecha”) The Right, as well as imperialism took advantage of the population’s growing dissatisfaction for their own purposes.
The consolidation of power, the racism and authoritarianism of those now in control needs to be opposed. But if we concentrate only on the “facts” of October-November we will find ourselves in the “pseudo-concrete,” and not grasp the reality of the 17 years in Bolivia: the reality of the great movements from below and yet the grave contradictions imposed by leadership with a certain attitude/ideology. In their analyses of Bolivia, much of the Left has fallen into the trap of the immediate, of the pseudo-concrete.
In sharp contrast, there are important human forces in Bolivia who, while strongly opposing the threat of a developing fascism, have not shied away from criticizing Morales’ rule. Among them are significant groups of women—such as the Women’s Parliament which took place during and after the most recent events. They pointed to the machismo and the vanguardism of the Morales administration. Those voices and others need to be taken note of.
At the same time we need to ask: What is needed for the construction of an authentic movement for socialism, and not a dead-end road to state-ism? For this, serious theoretical-philosophical labor on the re-creation of Marx’s Marxism, his revolution in permanence for our day is needed.